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What is philosophy of science (and should scientists care)?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Just about 20 years ago, I abandoned a career as a physical chemist to become a philosopher of science. For most of those 20 years, people (especially scientists) have been asking me what the heck the philosophy of science is, and whether scientists have any need of it.

There are lots of things philosophers of science study, but one central set of concerns is what is distinctive about science — how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc. This means philosophers of science have spent a good bit of time trying to find the line between science and non-science, trying to figure out the logic with which scientific claims are grounded, working to understand the relation between theory and empirical data, and working out the common thread that unites many disparate scientific fields — assuming such a common thread exists. *

If you like, you can think of this set of philosophical projects as trying to give an account of what science is trying to do — how science attempts to construct a picture of the world that is accountable to the world in a particular way, how that picture of the world develops and changes in response to further empirical information (among other factors), and what kind of explanations can be given for the success of scientific accounts (insofar as they have been successful). Frequently, the philosopher is concerned with “Science” rather than a particular field of science. As well, some philosophers are more concerned with an idealized picture of science as an optimally rational knowledge building activity — something they will emphasize is quite different from science as actually practiced.**

Practicing scientists pretty much want to know how to attack questions in their particular field of science. If your goal is to understand the digestive system of some exotic bug, you may have no use at all for a subtle account of scientific theory change, let alone for a firm stand on the question of scientific anti-realism. You have much more use for information about how to catch the bug, how to get to its digestive system, what sorts of things you could observe measure or manipulate that could give you useful information about its digestive system, how to collect good data, how to tell when you’ve collected enough data to draw useful conclusions, appropriate methods for processing the data and drawing conclusions, and so forth.

A philosophy of science course doesn’t hand the entomologist any of those practical tools for studying the scientific problems around the bug’s digestive system. But philosophy of science is aimed at answering different questions than the working scientist is trying to answer. The goal of philosophy of science is not to answer scientific questions, but to answer questions about science.***

Does a working scientist need to have learned philosophy of science in order to get the scientific job done? Probably not. Neither does a scientist need to have studied Shakespeare or history to be a good scientist — but these still might be worthwhile endeavors for the scientist as a person. Every now and then it’s nice to be able to think about something besides your day job. (Recreational thinking can be fun!)

Now, there are some folks who will argue that studying philosophy of science could be detrimental to the practicing scientist. Reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions with its claim that shifts in scientific paradigm have an inescapable subjective component, or even Popper’s view of the scientific method that’s meant to get around the problem of induction, might blow the young scientist’s mind and convince him that the goal of objective knowledge is unattainable. This would probably undermine his efforts to build objective knowledge in the lab.

(However, I’d argue that reading Helen Longino’s account of how we build objective knowledge — another philosophical account — might answer some of the worries raised by Popper, Kuhn, and that crowd, making the young scientist’s knowledge-building endeavors seem more promising.)

My graduate advisor in chemistry had a little story he told that was supposed to illustrate the dangers for scientists of falling in with the philosophers and historians and sociologists of science: A centipede is doing a beautiful and complicated dance. An ant walks up to the centipede and says, “That dance is lovely! How do you coordinate all your feet so perfectly to do it?” The centipede pauses to think about this and eventually replies, “I don’t know.” Then the centipede watches his feet and tries to do the dance again — and can’t!

The centipede could do the dance without knowing precisely how each foot was supposed to move relative to the others. A scientist can do science while taking the methodology of her field for granted. But having to give a philosophical account of or a justification for that methodology deeper than “this is what we do and it works pretty well for the problems we want to solve” may render that methodology strange looking and hard to keep using.

Then again, I’m told what Einstein did for physics had as much to do with proposing a (philosophical) reorganization of the theoretical territory as it did with new empirical data. So perhaps the odd scientist can put some philosophical training to good scientific use.

This post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog, and was prompted by the Pub-Style Science discussion of epistemology scheduled for Tuesday, April 8, 2014 (starting 9 PM EDT/6 PM PDT). Watch the hashtag #pubscience for more details.

*I take it that one can identify “science” by enumerating the fields included in the category (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, …) and then pose the question of what commonalities (if any) these examples of scientific fields have with no risk of circularity. Especially since we’re leaving it to the scientists to tell us what the sciences are. It’s quite possible that the sciences won’t end up having a common core — that there won’t be any there there.

**For the record, I find science-as-actually-practiced — in particular scientific fields, rather than generalized as ‘Science” — more philosophically interesting than the idealized stuff. But, as one of my labmates in graduate school used to put it, “One person’s ‘whoop-de-doo’ is another person’s life’s work.”

***Really, to answer philosophical questions about science, since historians and sociologists and anthropologist also try to answer questions about science.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. griccio 11:15 am 04/8/2014

    Very nice piece, Janet, on a complicated subject: the uncomfortable relations between philosophy and science.

    I agree that the philosophy and sociology of science generally will undo a young scientist, certainly a graduate student, as with the parable of the centipede. A good start in graduate school, however, is to become conversant with the history of one’s own discipline, preferably reflecting on centuries of progress.

    I believe the deeper a scientist gets into her career, it is increasingly important to incorporate philosophy into her self development and to understand its practical implications for the sociology of peer interactions with a community of science.

    Philosophy, as an aid to meta-cognitive reflection, can help us understand our own biases and, without eliminating them, it can help us utilize these biases productively in the collective intelligence of a diverse community of practice.

    Moreover, philosophy is indispensable in the trans-disciplinary science that is almost always necessary in translation of science into practice, in the connections between the laboratory and the broader world of scientific influence and demand.

    We need philosophers like you to be as visible as scientists who work on exotic problems that capture the imagination of the public. This will pave the way to a broader understanding of science by the public, to a real understanding of science as an engagement with the quotidian and discovery of the wonder in it.

    Science educates the attention. It is a way of life, a way of being present in the world, that is at least partially accessible to everyone. We need help from articulate philosophers with an interest in science communication to help us bring the reality of science to the public, to bring science to life.

    We are exploring these issues at “Science in the Wild” radio and blog.

    See also a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that echoes your point about “recreational thinking.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. billlee42 3:07 pm 04/13/2014

    Thank you very much, I got a lot out of this!

    (FWIW, the 1st sentence may be missing an “of”. :-) )

    Link to this
  3. 3. CamelCaseTruth 6:48 pm 05/22/2014

    Very good article, I’m always happy to see philosophy of science creep up in science (but I’m biased since philosophy was my degree). When I was in college, I took a Philosophy of Biology course that focused on metaphysical and ontological implications of the theory of evolution. While there were philosphy students present, the vast majority were Premed, Chemistry, and Biology students and I was impressed by how much they wound up liking the course. While I agree scientists don’t need to know philosophy of science to do good science, I think it doesn’t hurt and can better prepare scientists for thinking critically about the science they’re reading and doing. In addition, a good understanding of the broad questions of philosophy of science is useful when defending science in the public sphere.

    Link to this

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