Philosophers of Science: the Gym Teachers of Academe?

Probably not. But hey, what if they were. You have a problem with that? (Still at from New Line Cinema's "Mr. Woodcock")

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” This is the reported judgment, by the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, on my lifelong profession. It is a sentiment shared by other scientists, most recently the physicist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss. Taking extreme umbrage at a severely critical review of his most recent book by a philosopher of physics at Columbia University, he described his tormentor as “moronic” and lit into the whole area from which the negative judgment had come.

Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics whatsoever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Even some of his chums thought that Krauss had gone a bit too far and so he then modified his criticisms, although not by too much.

I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field. Even in several areas associated with what one can rightfully call the philosophy of science I have found the reflections of physicists to be more useful. For example, on the nature of science and the scientific method, I have found the insights offered by scientists who have chosen to write concretely about their experience and reflections, from Jacob Bronowski, to Richard Feynman, to Francis Crick, to Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Sir James Jeans, to have provided me with a better practical guide than the work of even the most significant philosophical writers of whom I am aware, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I admit that this could primarily reflect of my own philosophical limitations, but I suspect this experience is more common than not among my scientific colleagues.

I should say that Larry (if I may so presume to call him) and I were last weekend at a conference on human origins at Arizona State University (his home), and we were the alpha and omega of the talks. I got in a couple of one-liners about physicists and he did the same about philosophers. But that is really neither here nor there. The real question is about his charge and whether it is well taken.

In a recent piece, I tackled the question of progress generally in philosophy – there is progress but not the kind one finds in science – and now I want to take up the matter of the philosophy of science – history of science too, if one reflects how indebted Kuhn was to that subject and how much influence he had on my field.

Basically my reaction is that of Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With the Wind. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Actually, this is from the movie. The novel doesn’t have the “frankly.”) I am a philosopher, not a scientist, and if scientists don’t care for what I do, or don’t gain from what I do, then tant pis. My interests and my questions are not those of the scientist and that is an end to it.

Actually, of course, that is really not an end to it. I would indeed be worried if no scientist ever took interest in what I do or ever found what I do of at least some importance to them as scientists. And the nice thing is that obviously I do sometimes hit on topics or ideas that scientists find interesting. I was not invited out to Arizona just because I have got a pretty face, but because workers in the field of human evolution are very much aware of the kinds of cultural and metaphysical assumptions that surround their work, and they were glad to have me address some of these issues.  (I would mention my new book on the subject, but then there would be cries that I am self-promoting.)

Thomas Kuhn is quite interesting and informative on these matters. He suggests that at times of normal science, which is most of the time, by and large scientists don’t really need philosophy. But when things start to break down, and one is open to moving from one paradigm to another, philosophy is often needed and welcomed.

There is certainly some truth in this. At the time of the Darwinian Revolution, when the Origin of Species was published, there was intense debate about proper scientific methodology and the like. Philosophers like William Whewell and John Stuart Mill were involved, as also were the scientists – Darwin himself, Thomas Henry Huxley, Harvard botanist Asa Gray, and others. The same can be said about lesser changes, for instance the coming of the taxonomic methodology of cladism or phylogenetic taxonomy. Names like Popper and Kuhn were more common than Linnaeus or Darwin.

I am not saying that the study of human origins is in the same state of crisis – in fact, the opposite in a way. There is so much new empirical information and so many powerful new techniques the difficulty is more one of keeping up. At the end of the month, I am off to another conference in Kenya where we will be addressing precisely this problem – a problem that is exciting rather than worrying. Immodestly, I think I can play a role – if only that of Socrates saying “I’m not convinced”!

I could go on, but the Unmoved Movers of Brainstorm – endlessly contemplating their own perfection – will get cross if I go over suggested word limits. So let me conclude by saying what I have said before. I love philosophy and I can think of no higher calling than being a student of the subject. Science is wonderful and philosophy of science takes off from there.

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