Adventures in Ethics and Science

Last week, I blogged about my own path from chemist to philosopher. Not only did this prompt an interesting post from John Lynch about his trajectory, but it prompted the following comment:

Dear Dr. Free-Ride. Your mechanistic steps to changing from hard science to philosophy of it were more what I would expect from a hard technically-oriented methodical bench scientist rather than a philosopher of science.

Philosophically speaking (or is this bordering on sociology), what motivated you to forsake the rigor, the demands, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the infrequent joy of the eureka as a player of the game to become an onlooker from the security of stadium seats or the armchair. What conflicts did you face, if any, and with what rationalizations/motivations did you manage them?

Still playing the game and, yes, still yours truly a—

Polly Anna

It is true, my earlier post focused almost entirely on the external part of my journey — the particular tasks involved in my transformation — rather than on the internal process of deciding to throw myself in a different direction. At Polly Anna’s request, let’s delve deeper.

First, just a comment in passing about the “mechanistic” account I gave that seemed more appropriate from a “hard technically-orientated methodological bench scientist” than a philosopher: Analytic philosophy strives toward methodological and technically-oriented. There are philosophers out there who speak in upside-down-As and backwards-Es. Had I wanted to find myself a niche in the philosophy of science where most of the papers I read were full of equations, I could have.

But, that’s an issue of style more than substance.

In the initial post, I said a little about my motivation for forsaking chemistry:

  • Decide that actually being a chemist for a living — for the rest of your life — is more likely to make you unhappy than happy. Reflect upon what sort of career is likely to make you happy.
  • When reflection yields “philosophy” as career likely to make you happy, go back and repeat reflection (at least 10 times) to make sure you’re doing it right.

Here’s a longer version of what happened:

I was trying to write an NSF proposal to get funding for a post-doc I had lined up. I was very interested in the research in the lab in which I was planning to work. Indeed, I had been pretty enthuisiastic about the whole thing while I put together an NIH proposal to fund postdoctoral research in that lab. I could definitely imagine three years worth of learning about systems and measurment techniques that were new to me, and I could see it building on (and drawing upon) the things I had learned in my doctoral program in interesting ways.

But the NSF proposal is set up so that you are not describing the research project you plan to undertake as a post-doc. Rather, the task is to describe the first project you envision undertaking as a principle investigator. In other words, tell us what you’ll contribute when you are officially a grown up scientist.

Now, I could think of lots of projects I would be qualified to pursue. I could even work out interesting projects in my general area of expertise that would be fundable. But, I was having trouble putting my heart into any of them. Imagining myself setting up a lab of my own to pursue any of these lines of research made me … sad.

I tried to ignore the sad feeling. I tried to put it down to slothful avoidance of the thinking and writing involved in the NSF proposal. But then, every time I’d try to make myself think past the few years of the impending post-doc, I got the same sad, empty feeling.

I knew I was still fascinated by science and its workings, still moved by the elegant model or the clever experiment. But it was becoming clear to me that in my heart I didn’t want to do science for the rest of my life. Serious reflection got me to the reasons: Doing science (i.e., being able to get funding to do science) would require that I focus my attention on the minutiae of a particular system or a particular problem; this is the approach that seems most effective in yielding the data and insight that solves scientific problems. But, the questions that kept me up at night were much broader questions about how, more generally, experiments tell us anything about the deep structure of the universe, how different methodological assumptions make the same phenomena tractable in different ways, what balance of hard-headed skepticism and willingness to entertain speculative hypotheses scientists needed to get the job done …

These were questions, clearly, that I would get into trouble for making the focus of my research were I working in a chemistry department. They had the smell of philosophy all over them. So I had to choose between being kept up at night by questions I couldn’t pursue professionally and pursuing questions I was not so interested in for a living, or admitting that my interest in science was primarily driven by an interest in philosophical questions and get myself the necessary training as a philosopher to pursue them. In some ways living a lie would have been the path of least resistance, but given how little I enjoyed being with me as I contemplated a loveless marriage to a scientific career, I figured I’d probably me cutting myself off from fellowship with other humans as well. So, I made the entirely selfish decision to do what I thought would make me happy.

While I don’t do bench chemistry any more, and thus have forsaken “the rigor, the demands, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the infrequent joy of the eureka as a player” in that particular game — the game of doing science — I have embraced “the rigor, the demands, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the infrequent joy of the eureka” as a player in the philosophical game. I sometimes miss the more collaborative nature of science (do a quick scan of the philosophical literature and count the number of papers with three or more authors). I don’t miss fixing broken pumps. While I don’t spend lots of time writing grant proposals to purchase equipment, I do spend a fair bit of time writing grant proposals.

As far as science goes, though, I don’t see myself as “an onlooker from the security of stadium seats or the armchair”. My professional life is tied up with understanding how science, and the community that does science, works. If anything, I feel more connected to the intellectual enterprise as a whole, and its connection to other aspects of human flourishing, than I did when I was in the trenches working as a chemist. As an educator, I have an opportunity I might not have had (teaching primarily chemistry majors) to help folks who fear science understand it better. Since I’m tickled to be payed to think about the questions that keep me up at night, I have enthusiasm and energy I might not be able to muster otherwise to call shenanigans on misrepresentations of the scientific enterprise, whether by policy makers or science teachers.

I may have left the lab bench, but I haven’t left the conversation. Science has my devotion as a philosopher; as a chemist, chances are I would have just been going through the motions.


  1. #1 Bryan
    February 9, 2006

    As a Physics/Math/Philosophy major headed towards a doctorate in Phil of Sci, this is inspirational and facinating. The aura around my decisions for future plans are so negative i look for any light of hope. Your posts are always enlighting and serve as a lamp. This post paticularly cheers me up in response to the field. It is rare that i can truly have contact with the world of philosophy of sci, and you of all of these contacts seem the most accessible to me. I think it stems from the fact that you were truly immersed in chemistry even before philosophy, since my drive is physics oriented but from a philosophical perspective. I would just like to thank you for your wonderful posts.

    -and avid fan

  2. #2 Abi
    February 14, 2006

    Thanks for this post.

    Frankly, I was irritated by the framing implicit in your commenter’s reference to the “security of stadium seats”, and wanted to say something rude. But you handled it better …

    I am curious about something else, though. Given the oft-repeated assertion that philosophy and the job market occupy parallel universes, did you have any worries at all when you started out (or, while doing your second Ph.D.)?

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  6. #7 SteveG
    June 9, 2006

    Thank you, sister. As a fellow philosopher of science, the motivation for me to become a philosopher was remarkably similar. I fell in love with physics when I was young and that love has never left me. But in training to become a physicist, I realized that I would never approach the sorts of questions that lay at the foundation of my love of science. I was doomed to be a technician in a corner of a corner of a corner of a sub-sub-sub-field. In pursuing philosophy of physics in grad school, I was able to take grad level physics courses, but also study primary texts in the history of science, think interesting thoughts about the foundations of theories, and address the sorts of questions that led me to fall in love with physics in the first place. I now team-teach with astronomers and physicists (as well as mathemticians, chemists, and anyone else…I’m kind of an academic slut that way) to give them an excuse to get back to their old crush. Far from lacking rigor, demands, difficulties, and especially not lacking frustration, thinking about science can be every bit as rewarding as doing science.

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