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What is Philosophy of Science Good For?

The first of occasional columns on science and philosophy by Massimo Pigliucci.

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”
(Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995)

I venture to say that few philosophers seriously question the usefulness of their own pursuit, and philosophers of science are probably as self-confident as any. But the question rightly asked by the public at large (when it actually pays attention to such matters), and in particular by scientists, is: what is philosophy of science good for? I think there are at least three, somewhat interrelated, areas of inquiry for a philosopher interested in science. These are: firstly, investigations into the very nature of science; secondly, the analysis of key scientific concepts as used by scientists; and lastly what could be called ‘science criticism’ – despite the obvious and often unwelcome smell of postmodernism-gone-bad that such a label may carry.

I will eventually devote more than one column to each of these three branches of philosophy of science, but let’s take a brief tour of the whole subject first, beginning with the study of the nature of science. This is probably the activity most people would identify if asked what philosophers of science do. Names like Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and even Paul Feyerabend readily come to mind. Should scientists set out to reject hypotheses rather than to attempt to confirm them? Does science proceed by a process of ‘punctuated equilibrium’, alternating long periods of puzzle-solving with brief bursts of radical revolution? These two questions themselves point to there being two different kinds of philosophical investigation into the nature of science. On the one hand, the work of Popper is characterized by a prescriptive attitude: falsification isn’t necessarily the way scientists actually work, but (according to that Austrian sage at any rate) it is the way they should work. Kuhn’s investigation, on the other hand, is more descriptive: the philosopher here plays a role close to that of a critical historian, describing how science works, but abstaining as much as possible from value judgments about the efficacy or lack thereof of particular scientific practices.

Of course, scientists are entitled to their own opinions about how they do their work and how effective they are. However, curiously, given the general aura of skepticism that professional scientists assume when one talks about philosophy (more on this in a future column), they seem to have absorbed with little recalcitrance the teachings of both Popper and Kuhn. In fact, it is rather common for introductory textbooks in the sciences to explain the scientific method in a rather naive Popperian fashion, and it isn’t rare to find scientists at meetings or in print who talk or write about ‘paradigm shifts’ á la Kuhn.

Be that as it may, figures like Popper and Kuhn come along only every once in a while, and so do such sweeping analyses of science. Most practicing philosophers of science, on the other hand, tend to publish in the remaining two areas of endeavour. Critical analysis of key scientific concepts is an interesting field at the boundary between philosophy and science, since such analyses can be carried out in the spirit of pure philosophical understanding, but can also at least in principle influence the practice of science. Of course, this can only happen when scientists bother to read the philosophical literature or frequent philosophy meetings – but some of them do! At the end of the spectrum closer to pure philosophical inquiry than to scientific practice, we find for example investigations into the nature of causation. While the concept of a cause is obviously fundamental to science, most scientists (with the possible exception of a few physicists working on quantum mechanics) never give it more than a passing thought. Closer to what can be directly useful for scientists are studies of the nature of natural selection in biology, for example the question of whether it can in some meaningful sense be considered a ‘force’ analogous to those studied by physics. The answers to both of these questions, by the way, are still very much up for grabs, in true philosophical fashion (which is one of the things that really irritates scientists about philosophy).

The third branch of philosophy of science is perhaps the least glamorous from a philosophical perspective, and yet possibly the most useful to science: science criticism. I don’t mean here the cheap and silly literature claiming that science is mostly a social construction, or that DNA is an invention of white males bent on domination of other races and of the opposite sex, or that creationism has the same status of the theory of evolution because they are both ‘stories’ produced by a given culture. What I am referring to instead is serious criticism of specific scientific claims. Perhaps the chief example of this is the philosophical literature analyzing scientific research on the genetic basis of human behavior, especially the disciplines called sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

The philosopher here again plays two roles: on the one hand, science can obviously benefit from serious critical investigation of its specific methodologies and of how well scientists’ claims match the evidence they bring forth to back them up. But perhaps more importantly, it is society at large that stands to gain the most from an external check on the too often unquestioned (and unquestionable, for lack of technical knowledge) assertions of professional scientists. Here, however, philosophical practice easily melts into science itself, and philosophers are required to really understand the science they pretend to criticize, or they will only damage society and the reputation of the very practice of philosophizing.


Massimo Pigliucci has a PhD in Evolutionary Biology and one in Philosophy. He is a professor of biology at the University of Tennessee, and his ramblings can be found at www.rationallyspeaking.org

Further reading:
• T. Schick Jr., Readings in the Philosophy of Science: from Positivism to Postmodernism. (2000) Mayfield: Mountain View, CA.

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