fredag 5. september 2014

Philosophy in Science.

Lately we have seen many heated debates between philosophers and scientists about the relationship between science and philosophy, very often framed as the question what, if anything, philosophy has to offer science. Some prominent scientists take an extreme stance when declaring all philosophical questions as little more than “pointless delay in our progress,” to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson. Massimo Pigliucci does a good job unmasking the naïve philosophical (!) presumptions such views rest on. Other scientists reject philosophy, believing philosophers to cook up pseudo-scientific alternatives to scientific methods. But this is clearly at odds with what most philosophers are actually doing, and a profound misconception of the relationship between philosophy and scientific methods. A while back Peter Hacker published an essay (on which I commented here), where he addressed some of these issues. Far from offering competing explanations of natural phenomena, Hacker wrote, philosophy is rather:
…a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence, and for examining the explanatory methods of the different sciences – natural, social and human. The sciences are no more immune to conceptual confusion than is any other branch of human thought. Scientists themselves are for the most part ill-equipped to deal with conceptual confusions.
Scientists, of course, don't deny the importance of conceptual clarity. We need to know what we mean by our words in order to speak rationally. However, some don't see what philosophy has to do with it. Some argue, as Julia Galef did in an episode of Rationally Speaking, that scientists are quite capable to manage on their own:
There is an irritation on behalf of scientists or science enthusiasts, that philosophy is defending its relevance by defining as philosophy things that would have happened even without the discipline of philosophy; that there is a certain level of built-in and developed common sense and critical thinking that scientists would have even if they hadn't read any philosophers or come into contact with the field of philosophy, and to say that philosophy therefore is relevant is unfair.
This irritation is understandable. Claiming that scientists are unequal to their tasks, or even that it is the task of philosophers to tell scientists what they can and cannot do, is unlikely to find much support in the scientific community (which hardly was Hacker's aim either). Of course, describing philosophy as a nuisance isn't exactly an invitation to a calm discussion either. My aim here is not to take sides. I am rather suggesting that if we all take one step back, we will perhaps see this trench war as misguided.

Often the question is: What, if anything, can scientists gain from reading or listening to philosophers? Philosophers sometimes reply with a history lesson. A few hundred years ago all scientists were philosophers. So, until quite recently it would have been literally senseless to ask why scientists should bother with philosophers. And in recent years many great scientists have been philosophically inclined. During the twentieth century, some of the towering figures in physics and biology (Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, and Ernst Mayr and Richard Lewontin, for example) were well-versed in the philosophical literature of the day and thought this crucial to their own research. Even today scientists from various fields collaborate with philosophers. Hence: If nothing else, it is at least not a universally shared opinion among scientists that talking to philosophers is a "pointless delay in [their] progress". But for argument’s sake, let us assume, contrary to the facts, that this was what most scientists thought. What then? What if scientists entirely quit reading and listening to philosophers? Some philosophers seem to believe that this would result in science becoming a vessel without its pilot, forever doomed to sail round in circles in confused and muddled thinking. That seems a wild assumption. What then about the opposite assumption? Say that science were unaffected by this radical division between "the two cultures". Would this support the conclusion that philosophy is indeed irrelevant to science, as Julia Galef suggested?

That's not simply a questionable inference. Not only does the conclusion not follow, the conclusion is itself curiously incoherent. The reason, I think, is that Galef confuses two separate questions. Suggesting that philosophers are irrelevant to scientists is one thing. Suggesting that philosophy (i.e. philosophical thinking or philosophizing) is irrelevant is quite another. The first is a question of who should (or could) do the work. The second question is about what kind of work needs to be done. Galef may be right in assessing that scientists for the most part are capable of doing the conceptual and critical thinking their research requires even if they don’t read philosophical journals. This is an empirical question. But suggesting that altered reading habits among scientists could possibly make philosophical reflection irrelevant in science doesn’t even make sense. (Galef does in fact take this very distinction for granted herself when she claims that scientists can solve these puzzles without any knowledge of the field of philosophy.)

Settling the largely empirical question (around which much of the debate revolves) regarding who's best equipped to deal with conceptual confusions seems to me both trivial and unimportant – so long as they who end up doing the philosophically needed work (whatever their profession might be) do so properly.

Here I am of course doing exactly what Galef accuses philosophers of doing, namely defining as philosophy things that even people outside the field of philosophy are capable of doing (more or less successfully). But there is no need for irritation any more. Calling certain difficulties scientists inevitably are faced with in their daily work “philosophical difficulties” is not a strategy to lay claims on these difficulties on behalf of trained philosophers. The subtext is not: Amateurs aside! Such union disputes don’t interest me. (If someone objects to my using the word "philosophy" here -- why not stick with "critical thinking" if that is what you are talking about? -- my answer is that "philosophy" allows for distinctions to be drawn: Not all forms of 
critical thinking or conceptual self-reflection are philosophical. Criticizing concepts for being used in unfamiliar ways aren't, for instance. When that is said, though, I do concede that what word we use is relatively unimportant, as long as we are clear on what we are talking about. (As "philosophy" often denotes more than critical thinking too, I guess that that label might cause confusion too.)) My point is simply that all good and honest scientific research involves different modes of thinking, including (sometimes) what is commonly called philosophical reflection.