Adventures in Ethics and Science

In my last post, I allowed as how the questions which occupy philosophers of science might be of limited interest or practical use to the working scientist.* At least one commenter was of the opinion that this is a good reason to dismantle the whole discipline:

[T]he question becomes: what are the philosophers good for? And if they don’t practice science, why should we care what they think?

And, I pretty much said in the post that scientists don’t need to care about what the philosophers of science think.

Then why should anyone else?

Scientists don’t need to care what historians, economists, politicians, psychologists, and so on think. Does this mean no one else should care?

If those fields of study had no implications for people taking part in the endeavors being studied, then no, I don’t think anyone should care about them. Not the people endeavoring, nor anyone else. The process of study wouldn’t lead to practical applications or even a better understanding of what was being studied – it would be completely worthless.

Let me take a quick pass at the “why care?” question.

There are a number of claims Caledonian put forward in the comments which bear on what we ought to care about. My own experience with humans suggests that normative claims in these matters do very little to change what people actually care about. Still, let’s assume you have complete control over your volitional structure and consider whether you’d accept the baggage that comes with Caledonian’s exhortations.

Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications.
Of course, this means basic research is off the table. It’s true that basic research has led to practical applications in the past, but you can’t count on that happening every time.

Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications or at least a better understanding of what is being studied.
If we broaden the picture of what we should care about this way, you can have your basic research back. And, I would claim, you can care about philosophy of science as well, since it does provide a better understanding of what it is studying — including how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc.

Only care about what people who practice X have to say about X.
As Caledonian framed it X = science, but surely we can plug in other values for X, like socialism, Christianity, chelation therapy, cannibalism, psychic surgery, criminal law, or landscaping. Heck, we could even let X = philosophy here.

The exercise of evaluating whether this would be a good or useful stance is left to the reader.

Only care about the questions scientists care about answering.
If we were all scientists, this stance would be just fine (and vacuous). Since we are not all scientists, there is a worthwhile question as to why what the scientists care about should matter to anyone else.

And you know, that might be the sort of question that some philosophy of science could help to answer. The existence of non-scientists may even make it convenient for scientists to have philosophers of science around.

We can grant (as I already have) that to do science, scientists may not need to know whether there is a common methodological core uniting the various scientific disciplines, nor what that common core consists in if it exists, nor what sorts of justifications can be offered for “scientific methodology” beyond, “This is how we do things and so far it works pretty well.”

But, if a scientist wants to be able to call something out as pseudo-science, or as bad science — especially if it’s something from outside the little disciplinary tribe to which that particular scientist belongs — jumping up and down and saying, “That’s just not how we do things!” is not necessarily satisfying or persuasive. You stand a much better chance of making the point if you have an account of the methodology scientific fields use (or aspire to), of the reason this methodology makes for accurate and reliable knowledge claims, of the particular connection between theory and reality the activity of science sets out to build.

If you want to be able to respond to the claim that science is, at bottom, no different from religion, it won’t do to say, “We scientists were taught by the scientists who trained us to apply these procedures to construct our picture of the world, and we have faith in this way of doing things.” The precise grounding of scientific claims — and how this differs from the grounding of religious claims — is a subject within the philosophy of science.

In short, in some of the big discussions in which scientists seem to be engaged with non-scientists, scientists may be hampered if they have no broader account of science and its workings. Perhaps I can’t make a working scientist care about the questions that keep the philosophers of science up at night, but I daresay many working scientists who are trying to defend their own disciplines from various attacks already do care about philosophy of science.
_____
* I should point out that a number of commenters pointed out ways that philosophy of science might turn out to be useful to the working scientist.

Comments

  1. #1 matt
    July 16, 2007

    Well said. A sound rebuttal of some really annoying pseudo-pragmatic tosh; alas there always seems to be more where that came from.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    July 16, 2007

    Perhaps the field of evoultionary biology is different in relevant ways from other scientific disciplines, but EB has most definitely “learned” from the analyses of concepts and methods proffered by philosophers of biology. I could even name a few prominent figures (from both “camps”) who believe that theoretical biology and philosophy of biology are the same thing, practiced by people who took their degrees in different departments.

  3. #3 RPM
    July 16, 2007

    For what it’s worth, I think philosophers and historians of science tend to have a better understanding of the history of their area of expertise than do scientists actively doing research in that area. For that reason alone, you guys are worth keeping around.

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    July 16, 2007

    For the most part, lots of science is too complicated, and the data too messy for the application of much philosophy of science to be immediatlyl useful in the day-to-day work of scientists.

    The “problems” don’t have to do with philosophy of science type issues, but rather how do I get funding, how do I get person X to do thing Y, how do I do 30 hours of work in a 24 hour day.

    The disputes over non-scientific claims are not going to go away by applying philosophy of science stuff to them, the proponants of creationism, global warming denial, and such will simply lie and make stuff up.

    I agree that there are some areas that would be helped, but there is much that many scientists believe to be correct which simply is not so. For example homeostasis. An empty hypothesis which has no basis in data, or theory, but which just about every bioligist subscribes to. This myth of homeostasis has very large implications in how disease is perceived, or not perceived. For example, in the metabolic syndrome there is hyperglycemia. Is blood sugar dysregulated, that is has the regulation “gone bad”, or is blood sugar regulated but about a “bad setpoint”?

    If physiology is raising blood sugar for a reason, lowering it with drugs may cause worse health than leaving it alone.

    Abandoning the paradigm of homeostasis would be helpful to the field of biology and medicine, but that isn’t going to be something easy to get workers in the field to do.

  5. #5 PhysioProf
    July 16, 2007

    I can’t believe you allowed Caledonian to troll you into an entire blog post.

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 16, 2007

    In part, I think I wrote the post because philosophers have to spend an inordinate amount of time defending their own existence.

    Where is Caledonian?

  7. #7 Nat
    July 16, 2007

    Scientists have to spend an inordinate amount of time defending their own existance too.

  8. #8 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications.

    No, no, no. You’ve completely missed the point.

    Basic research is capable of increasing our understanding. That is a very practical result. The emphasis is on results, not applications.

    Striving for general results is the only way to produce applications – striving for applications without reaching for results is sterile and futile. The applications follow naturally from generating a better model of reality – at the very least we can direct our actions in more effective ways due to our increased understanding. There may even be technological consequences.

    *If* philosophy of science can’t produce results at all, why would we care about it? In that hypothetical, it would be totally useless and fruitless.

    Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications or at least a better understanding of what is being studied.

    Another mangled position, but this one is saved by grammar. The ‘or’ redeems it.

    If studying doesn’t lead to a better understanding of what is being studied, what’s the point? It has to at least provide a better understanding of something in order to be worth doing. It’s a fundamental and basic principle that the way to understand a thing is to study that thing, not something else. If you study something else, you learn about that thing, not what it’s supposed to represent.

    Only care about what people who practice X have to say about X.

    That isn’t one of my positions. That’s absurd. The statement doesn’t represent a plausible claim about generalities at all.

    When X is the method for inquiring about things, though, the statement becomes true in the particular case that isn’t in the general. Why care about what people say about a thing if they’re not going to study it?

    I can’t tell if you’re genuinely confused in your thinking about what you think my positions are, or if you’re deliberately crafting straw men. I’m not even sure that it matters at this point.

    And, I would claim, you can care about philosophy of science as well, since it does provide a better understanding of what it is studying — including how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc.

    A third-grade science class can teach us how science differs from other human activities. I have yet to come across any claims by philosophers of science that were both 1) correct and 2) more informative than simply thinking about the principles of science that we teach to children, despite quite a bit of time spent looking.

    It is of course possible that they’re there, but I simply haven’t come across them. You could, say, produce a few examples – any professional scientist could easily produce examples of results stemming from their field. Can you do the same?

  9. #9 Alan Kellogg
    July 16, 2007

    Because knowing why things work the way to do, and why things are done the way they are helps you do you work better, and makes it easier for you to devise ways of doing it better.

  10. #10 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    Let’s cut through all the misdirection and misrepresentation you’ve been putting out and go right to the core issue, shall we?

    The genuinely fruitful accomplishments of philosophers of the past have tended to come from philosophers who were deeply engaged in a field of science. Wittgenstein studied language, Turing studied mathematics, Schr√∂dinger was a physicist who made what we would call ‘philosophical’ progress in biology. Galileo reinvented the scientific method while studying all sorts of things, Newton established important principles while experimenting with mathematics and physics – and so on, and so on.

    What makes science valuable are its self-correction processes. Philosophy, as a field distinct from science, lacks these processes, lacks strong methods of self-correction, and as a result it has a tendency to be choked by nonsense, rare bits of gold trapped in a sea of dross.

    If the philosophy of science is truly capable of forwarding our understanding, then it’s already part of science. To the degree that your field is distinct from scientific inquiry, it’s useless. To the degree that it’s part of scientific inquiry, it’s not needed – because we already have science.

    I’ve known a moderately large number of professional scientists, and none of them seemed much concerned about ‘philosophy of science'; in fact, none of them seemed concerned with philosophy as a distinct field at all. With principles of science, yes; as ‘philosophy’, no. The few that bothered to have any particular feelings on the subject held philosophers in amused contempt.

    We have to be concerned with science – it’s demonstrated effectiveness at producing understanding forces us to. The reason you spend so much time trying to make scientists concerned with philosophy of science is that it’s completely ineffective.

  11. #11 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    Because knowing why things work the way to do, and why things are done the way they are helps you do you work better, and makes it easier for you to devise ways of doing it better.

    Has philosophy of science actually done any of these things?

    The best way to accomplish those goals is to apply science to science – which has already been done, many times before.

  12. #12 Janne
    July 16, 2007

    Philosophy of science is valuable as a subject in its own right, the same way art history is, or classic Greek, or astronomy. A subject doesn’t have to be useful for some other discipline to have value.

    If philosophy of science is useful to scientists or not is completely beside the point; besides, as Janet points out, how much science is useful to anybody outside science?

  13. #13 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    besides, as Janet points out, how much science is useful to anybody outside science?

    It’s mind-boggling that people will express sentiments like that one on computer-driven message boards.

    It’s as though they totally lack not only common sense, but rudimentary self-awareness. *Most of our civilization* is built around scientific findings – it’s fundamental to your very existence.

  14. #14 Janne
    July 16, 2007

    You inverted my question. I did not say “how useful to the society at large has some science been”. I said, somewhat clearer phrased than above, “how much of science has been useful to the society at large”. And the answer is that quite a lot of all science that is being done has no more general utility than philospohy of science.

    Cosmology is amazingly cool, for instance, but the actual usefulness outside its own domain is rather limited. A lot of mathematics is not, and will never be, useful in any other discipline than mathematics itself. Knowing about the mating habits of the three-toed sloth is fun and all (though not all that eventful to study, apparently), but its impact on anything outside sloth research is just about nil.

    So should we not try to find out about the early universe; or about just how complex a structure you can dream up before your average math PhD candidate goes quietly insane; or what is and is not a turn-on for the sloth in your life; or whether Kuhn was insightful, a contemptible blow-hard or both? Nope. We should study all these things – and more – simply because there are smart people out there with a passionate interest in finding out these things, and there’s more people still that want to learn about it from those people in turn.

    If there are people that are excited about philosophy of science (or excited about effective lingerie for upside-down living leaf-eating mammals); if there are students willing to learn about these things from these people; and if there are people willing and able to pay enough for this to take place, then that is plenty good enough. No outside reason for doing it is necessary.

  15. #15 Graham
    July 16, 2007

    Caledonian:

    I once had a Quantum Physicist tell me that quantum mechanics was 99 per cent philosophy – you could do all the fancy maths you liked but if you couldn’t get a grasp of what was actually occurring and why then it was useless.

    You seem to think the field of science itself does not need analysis or questioning. Don’t you think that’s a rather dogmatic and blinkered approach?

  16. #16 Caledonian
    July 16, 2007

    Oh, that *would* be a very dogmatic approach, yes.

    The problem (to the degree that it’s a problem) is that the only way of analyzing science that would be acceptable by its standards is science, itself.

    That doesn’t seem to be the method being applied by Dr. Stemwedel and her colleagues. So, why should scientific rationalists care about her work? If she can’t demonstrate useful results of the philosophy of science, why should anyone care?

    I said, somewhat clearer phrased than above, “how much of science has been useful to the society at large”.

    Quite a lot, actually. More accurately, most of the results of science have been useful to society at large. Not always in immediately obvious ways.

  17. #17 bob koepp
    July 16, 2007

    I’ve already mentioned the close relation between philosophy of biology and theoretical biology. Philsophical inquiries into the nature of selection, the environment, units of selection, taxonomy, etc., etc., have all influenced modelers and experimentalists. I’m less current in the cognitive sciences, but when I was working in that area, philosophers, experimental psychologists and computer scientists were conducting joint seminars. Philosophy seems to have some contribution to make when scientific inquiry generates conceptual problems. (And that doesn’t even touch on the contributions philosophy has made to more general methodological issues.)

  18. #18 Socrates' Dog
    July 17, 2007

    Just to add a few bits in favor of Janet’s thoughtful text, and in response to some of Caledonian’s points. (Caledonian apparently enjoys playing the role of the gadfly. And although well-informed and non-dogmatic gadflys are more helpful than those less informed, I suppose we should still always welcome the gadfly.)

    Apparently Caledonian does not realize just how utterly interested Caledonian is in philosophy of science. (Every other sentence uttered by Caledonian hints at a philosophical theory about science, albeit often an uninformed one.)

    Descriptively, of course, there may well be many scientists uninterested and annoyed by philosophy of science (we all have our flaws, don’t we) — but, as I’m sure Caledonian is aware, the fact of their indifference has only minor pertinence to the question of whether taking an interest in philosophy of science is valuable.

    A few additional comments regarding the relevance of philosophy of science are clearly in order:

    For centuries people believed that Newton had attained his laws the way he’d claimed to have attained them. Turns out, it’s logically impossible to attain them that way. (One quick version of this point: it’s logically impossible for any strict induction to ever get you to Newtonian theory, etc. (see, for instance, Duhem/Popper on this)). Good lesson for scientists, no point in trying imitate what Newton claimed to have done in his theorizing. (Not an insult to Newton here: I may be able to ski quite well but I would likely err in my attempt to tell you how I did it.) And if we can figure out how Newton and others did achieve what they achieved, the lessons learned might well be embraced by scientists and thereby play a role in bringing about new and important scientific theories.

    Many (physicists included) still think the history of science is linear, purely additive/cumulative, more and more truths being piled upon earlier truths, etc. (As we’ve now come to realize, the history of science taught in science textbooks is purely pedagogical, and often quite false.) Again, a potentially valuable lesson. Learning that a characterization of the history of science does not hold up (against the empirical evidence), might very well inspire a scientist to break from the confines of our contemporary theories.

    The quest for a demarcation criterion between science and non-science has increasingly significant relevance — in the courtroom, the hospital, and with regard to medical insurance public policy, education. (Regarding the courtroom, any number of Judge’s have employed demarcation criteria that had already proven to be wholly untenable.) For that matter, the demarcation criterion has tremendous bearing on cosmology (Hawking); psychology, sociology. Read some Hawking, see how often he explicitly or implicitly refers to Popper when trying to justify his own theory. (See also how confused he is about Popper’s position, calling Popper a positivist (leaving Popper rolling in his grave!)) Or consider the contemporary debates by scientists about the acceptability/non-acceptability of string theory given its present inability to offer empirical tests. (On each side, these scientists are (knowingly or unknowingly) espousing philosophical theories about science. And those who embrace refined philosophical theories (refined in light of the weaknesses of earlier versions of those philosophical theories), stand on more solid foundations as they argue for their own positions.) Moreover, while it has proven very difficult to come to a tenable demarcation criterion, we’ve learned that the simplistic accounts to which most scientists and non-scientists would appeal are untenable. That’s progress: learning that one theory doesn’t hold up, as it stands, and formulating new theories that we hope will survive those problems. Should we deny that as progress, would we not also have to deem as non-progressive, say, the lesson that the geocentric world view is untenable? (And, of course, we have to concede the latter lesson to be progressive — notably this is so even if most of the tenets of it’s competitor, Copernicanism, now also turn out to be false!)

    Finally, learning that we often don’t really know/understand what we so confidently think we know/understand is, in itself, an exceptionally valuable lesson. And insofar as scientists go, such a lesson can be, not merely practical, but altogether fruitful. (To bring all this back to an earlier point: well read and philosophically minded Einstein, for instance, did not espouse, and very explicitly defied Newton’s account of method. And we should be thankful that he did.)

  19. #19 Bill
    July 17, 2007

    If she can’t demonstrate useful results of the philosophy of science, why should anyone care?

    I ask again: why do you?

  20. #20 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    I think you’re going to have to do better than suggest that concern for concepts is “philosophical interest”. Judging from behavior, some of you seem to think it means “love of sophistry”.

    As for Newton’s production of laws: I don’t think you’re qualified to even speculate on what the mind of one of the greatest geniuses of all time was and was not capable of, and the difference between ‘impossible’ and ‘nearly impossible’ doesn’t seem to be something you appreciate.

  21. #21 matt
    July 17, 2007

    Caledonian: since you explicitly define science as the only thing of any use, and philosophy as not-science, your conclusion follows right enough. That doesn’t stop it from being utter bollocks, though.

  22. #22 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    That’s progress: learning that one theory doesn’t hold up, as it stands, and formulating new theories that we hope will survive those problems.

    The standards that show us the old theories don’t hold up – that define what “not holding up” means – remain a constant throughout the process you describe.

    As for the “demarcation criteria” you’re so concerned with, there’s simply no need to search for them. They’re inherent in the definition of science – define what science is, and you automatically define what non-science is.

    Don’t have a conceptual definition of science? Then you look at the things people refer to as ‘science’ and try to understand what, if anything, unites them into a set, performing tests to see whether your speculations match the reality – in other words, you perform a cycle of observation, speculation based on observation, testing, and observation again.

    Gee, if only we had a name for that process of inquiry and analysis. It would be so useful to be able to distinguish that process from other human endeavors…

  23. #23 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 17, 2007

    As for Newton’s production of laws: I don’t think you’re qualified to even speculate on what the mind of one of the greatest geniuses of all time was and was not capable of …

    Are we going to talk about Newton? Oh goody!

    Should we start with the way the development of his understanding of gravity was influenced by his peculiar (some would say heretical) commitments about the nature of the Holy Trinity? Or shall we jump right in to his numerous researches in alchemy — alchemy of a much more spiritual than scientific stripe?

    At least the great genius didn’t blow it all by knocking boots with Lady Philosophy …

  24. #24 Bill
    July 17, 2007

    Hey Caledonian, you jackass, here’s another question for you to ignore: what do you do for a living?

  25. #25 bob koepp
    July 17, 2007

    Caledonian – You say, “I think you’re going to have to do better than suggest that concern for concepts is “philosophical interest”. Judging from behavior, some of you seem to think it means “love of sophistry”.”

    Since, in the present thread, the character string ‘concept’ only occurs in the two comments I offered before showing up in your remark quoted above, I’ll take that remark as directed to me. However, since I didn’t make any reference to “philosophical interest,” it’s not clear what point, if any, you are trying to make. Can you clarify?

  26. #26 JSinger
    July 17, 2007

    Apparently Caledonian does not realize just how utterly interested Caledonian is in philosophy of science. (Every other sentence uttered by Caledonian hints at a philosophical theory about science, albeit often an uninformed one.)

    Not to speak for him, but I think my views on this are similar: I’m deeply interested in the enterprise of scientific research, its organization, its practices, its culture and prejudices. That’s how I wound up here.

    But when I think of “philosophy of science”, I think of the modern professional practitioners of it. And I’d say that they’ve contributed essentially nothing to me, and certainly nothing to the vast majority of researchers who are completely oblivious to them.

    Now, someone asserted that “philosophy of science” scholarship is an end in itself, and that they should be no more concerned about what I think than I am about what my reagents think. I guess I can’t dispute that.

  27. #27 Tim Quinlan
    July 17, 2007

    Wow, what an interesting site. I am bowled over one by your straddling the two areas of Philosophy and Science and in obviously being both a scientist and a philosopher of science, both at Doctoral level. As well as that, you manage to raise a family. I’m a secondary teacher in Dublin Ireland (and single and haven’t enough time to do anything I want. What is your secret?) with an interest in philosophy, language, literature, a little general science. I have just recently subscribed to Google alerts on philosophy and your wonderful site was one which came up. I have a Master’s degree in probably a rather arcane area – philosophical theology – and wrote my Master’s thesis on John Henry’s Newman’s defence of religious belief against his friend and scientist John Huxley. Actually Huxley was to give the world the term “agnosticism” to describe his beliefs. However, that was many years ago. I now teach mostly the Gaelic language and a little mathematics, both of which I am qualified in at primary degree level.

    But back to the philosophy of science. I find that area marvellously interesting. I don’t know if I can add anything of substance as to whether scientists should care what philosophers of science say. Anyway, here goes.

    (i) I have always believed in the principles of liberal education in John Henry Newman’s sense of that term, i.e., every university should seek to teach the whole gamut of disciplines and that not any one discipline could as it were generalise on the basis of its own specific fundamental principles of axioms. In a true liberal system of education there is a dialogue between all “sciences” in the more general, rather than specific, sense of this word.

    (ii) Having studied philosophy since I was 18 – I am now 49 – I would define philosophy more as a method of good sharp intelligent questioning of all disciplines. There must be a philosophy of history, a philosophy of mathematics, a philosophy of sociology and so on and so forth. Philosophy allows us to question our own basic assumptions. When I was studying theology I also studied the arguments of agnostics and atheists. The great twentieth century philosopher Russell has never ceased since to be one of my favourite philosophers as a result of my reading. Indeed I started out as Roman Catholic, then became Christian in a rather general sense, then agnostic, and now a sort of humanist-Buddhist with an open mind to the findings of all sciences and religions. But this only by questioning radically my own assumptions. A science, even a pure science, which does not question its own axioms is the poorer, because it must defend itself in the court of everyday experience. Surely any science worth its salt must be critically able to defend itself.

    (iii)Then after all there is ethics to be considered. What scientist wants to go the way of Hitler’s scientists who experimented on twins etc in Nazi concentration camps? Science uncoupled from ethics can be a lethal weapon. We can ask Just war questions. We can ask questions about genetic engineering etc. etc. No science exists in a “chemically pure” environment. It exists in a human environment which is open to all the vagaries and vicissitudes that humanity is prone to. To ask ethic questions is immediately to eneter onto the philosopher’s ground of expertise.

    (v)Then there are questions like “Who am I?” I am surely more than a collocation of atoms ans molecules? Or maybe not? (Russell) What picture or image of reality is the correct one? Which science – chemistry, biology, physics, microbiology, psychology, psychiatry, sociology and the hundreds more of them describes man the best or the most accurately? Or is anyone at all accurate completely? Or do they all have something to contribute to an overall picture of what may be what a human being truly is. What is “reality” anyway? I always loved the quotation from the Talmud, often attribed to Carl Gustave Jung among others, that “we see reality not as it is in itself, but as we are!” Likewise with any specific science (in the more general sense to include all systematised areas of knowledge) it sees reality from its viewpoint, as it is in itself, from its accepted axioms. I feel that “reality”, whatever the hell this word could possible mean, has to be what is the common accepted ground found by all the sciences working in harmony.

    These are just some of the thoughts that strike me. Don’t know if they are helpful or not. Thank you for your site and for the intersting topics you pose here. Well done. I’ll finish with my favourite quote from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”; “O brave new world that has such people in it!”

    Regards,
    Tim Quinlan,
    Dublin,
    Ireland.

  28. #28 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    Should we start with the way the development of his understanding of gravity was influenced by his peculiar (some would say heretical) commitments about the nature of the Holy Trinity? Or shall we jump right in to his numerous researches in alchemy — alchemy of a much more spiritual than scientific stripe?

    At least the great genius didn’t blow it all by knocking boots with Lady Philosophy …

    Actually, that IS how he blew it. Newton was one of the very first of what we would call modern scientists – in his day, his works in physics and mathematics were part of what was referred to as “natural philosophy” or “the philosophy of nature”.

    Of all his great discoveries, all his insights, all of the things he’s widely reknown for – how many of them happened after he abandoned ‘natural philosophy’ and took up your kind of philosophy? He wrote something like a hundred thousand pages on alchemy, theology, and esoteric philosophy. What came of them, hmmm?

  29. #29 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    Additionally:

    You can’t analyze the most basic tools of analysis – there’s nothing to analyze them with.

    Which is why the philosophy of science doesn’t even attempt to analyze the most basic aspects of reasoning. Instead, it talks about them. And talks about talking about them. And talks about talking about talking about them, ad absurdum.

    The fool looks at the finger that points at the Moon. What about the people who analyze the film review of the documentary of the making of the painting inspired by the photographs taken of the finger that points at the Moon? Those are the philosophers.

  30. #30 bob koepp
    July 17, 2007

    Though Caledonian hasn’t seen fit to respond to a polite request for clarification, I’ll still offer an olive branch, and a friendly challenge.

    First, the olive branch. Since you mention the tradition of natural philosophy, I’ll come clean about not recognizing any clear distinction between philosophy and science. In fact, I view the special sciences as the offspring of philosophy, birthed and nurtured by their mother. To the extent that they are distinctive, it is in their reliance on empirical methods. But any good philosopher knows that there are truths that are neither discoverable nor confirmable by empirical methods. Those methods are only one part, albeit very important, of the toolkit of critical rationality.

    Now the friendly challenge. You speak of “the most basic aspects of reasoning,” and claim that philosophy “doesn’t even attempt to analyze them.” I think this is bunk, pure and simple, and I challenge you to articulate even one “basic aspect of reasoning” that philosophers have neglected. To be sure, I think it a virtual certainty that there are such — but I also think it a virtual certainty that our friend Caledonian can’t provide an example.

  31. #31 Francois Ouellette
    July 17, 2007

    May I contribute my own somewhat confused views to this debate?

    I am (was?) a professional scientist by training, though I have at one point moved on to other things, and for that have been punished by my peers who won’t let me re-enter their little community. As a result, being without a job, I’ve spent the last year and a half working on a book that would be my own account of what science is, and isn’t. I’ve read or re-read a lot of the philosophy of science of the last 50 years, but also a lot of the history, and sociology of it (many, including their practitioners, and some of the posters here, seem to confuse the three. Clarifying this simple point would certainly help).

    I have to agree with Caledonian that the philosophy of science hasn’t really shown much “progress”, in the sense of giving some really useful answers to the questions it has been asking, especially about epistemology. Philosophers have been more or less going around in circles, battling the “relativist” ideas only to fall back on relatively benign views, like those of John Ziman or David Hull. We still don’t know what makes a scientific claim “true”, or “truer” than another one, in an absolute sense. Sure, it “works”, but what does that tell us? The fact is, the questions that philosophy of science asks are really difficult ones, so it may be no wonder that no truly satisfying answers have been found.

    I’ve come to believe that more “satisfying” answers will indeed come from science itself, and I’m talking here about progress in cognitive neuroscience, combined with evolutionary psychology. Doing science may seem like a “natural” thing to do, but it has a lot to do with how our brains actually function, and how they have evolved. And, er, philosophers know zilch about that, unless they are ALSO cognitive scientists or evolutionary psychologists.

    In my own endeavour, I have found that what was much more fascinating is the progress in the sociology of science. Of course even that discipline somehow got lost trying to discredit scientists by attempting to deconstruct epistemology, but in the process some very valuable and, yes, even “useful” insights have been made into how “scientists” work and interact with their peers and the rest of society.

    I would ask Caledonian: what IS a scientist? Or even WHO is a scientist? Do you need special training? Do you need a Ph.D.? Do you have to publish in peer-reviewed journals to be called a scientist? Are peer-reviewed results “true” because they’re peer-reviewed? And if not, why? And how are we to know? If a “scientific” result is published, say, on a blog, is it “scientific”?

    Science, as we like to call it, is now not only a way to investigate the natural world, but it’s also, and maybe mostly, a social institution. So it gets confusing when we talk about science: are we talking about the “method” or the “institution”? Are the two equivalent? How is the institution ensuring that its members are using the method correctly? Caledonian talks about the “self-correcting” mechanisms of science, but how is this achieved?

    Someone here has mentioned “global warming denial”. But this is the uttermost example of how the mixture of science, politics, and ideology can lead to a lot of confusion. Are there “good” scientific results, and “bad” ones? Should one be pro-environment to do research on climate? If so, does one’s bias affect the results one will find, or publish?

    The whole “creationism” debate also shows how hard it is to define science. And unfortunately philosophers haven’t been much help here. The fact is that you can’t stop someone from believing what one wants to believe. If the United States is to become a Fundamentalist Christian Republic, because that’s what the people there want, what can be done? That in itself shows the failure of philosophy.

  32. #32 Caledonian
    July 17, 2007

    what IS a scientist? Or even WHO is a scientist?

    One who practices science. You can be a PhD, or a young child. What matters is the method.

  33. #33 Graham
    July 18, 2007

    Francois:

    Based on the scientific method, wouldn’t it have been easy to argue that slavery was GOOD for blacks, and that freeing them would mean they would be financially worse off and would therefore experience a lower quality of life without affluent whites to take care of them? Isn’t this where philosophy can make a contribution, and a rather important one?

  34. #34 Socrates' Dog
    July 18, 2007

    Hello, this is Socrates’ Dog here, responding to Caledonian (and JSinger).

    Caledonian wrote: “What matters is the method.” My question, which method is that Caledonian? The following one(?): “Make many observations, without bias; generalize from those observations to obtain theories; test those theories by observations. If the theories pass their tests, they are verified; if the theories fail their tests, those theories are proven to be false.”

    (While I’d like to point out that, as Lakatos so nicely put it, this “method is taken seriously only by the most provincial and illiterate,” I think we can do better than slinging ad hominem’s here.)

    This quest for a method brings me to Caledonian’s attempted ad hominem against my post above, where I wrote, “For centuries people believed that Newton had attained his laws the way he’d claimed to have attained them. Turns out, it’s logically impossible to attain them that way. (One quick version of this point: it’s logically impossible for any strict induction to ever get you to Newtonian theory, etc. (see, for instance, Duhem/Popper on this)).”

    Caledonian responded: “As for Newton’s production of laws: I don’t think you’re qualified to even speculate on what the mind of one of the greatest geniuses of all time was and was not capable of, and the difference between ‘impossible’ and ‘nearly impossible’ doesn’t seem to be something you appreciate.”

    Had you read with more care, you’d see that no *speculation* on Newton’s capabilities is involved. Newton very explicitly gave an account of his reasoning process (Newton’s speculation about his reasoning process, not mine) (see below). And it turns out (shown by Duhem and Popper, not me, obviously) that it is logically impossible for *that reasoning process* to lead to Newton’s laws.

    How did Duhem and Popper prove this? (And no, I’m not misusing “proof” as so many do; it IS a genuine proof.) They put the process Newton proposes in conjunction with the laws themselves and revealed a (number of) contradiction(s) (hence the phrase, “logically impossible”). I gave a general hint above at what they’d shown, but there are three general arguments, my favorite being just below.

    But first, let’s see how Newton described his method (in his 1687 Principia), essentially the method proposed above: “the phenomena” are “rendered general by induction.” The propositions of science are “inferred by general induction from phenomena.” More specifically, “The qualities of bodies . . . within the reach of our experiments are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.” “Thus it was that . . . the laws of motion and of gravitation, were discovered.”

    Onto the proof that Newton could not have done as he claimed, that he could not have discovered his laws in this way:

    Newton’s laws dictate themselves that generalizing from observations could never get one to Newton’s first law. It’s logically impossible. Why? (“Allow me to bewitch your mind”) Newton’s law of universal gravitation (UG) says every object is acted on by every other. According to that law itself, then, no one could ever observe a single object traveling at a constant velocity that is *not* acted on by some external force. Given UG, it would be impossible to observe even one instant of Newton’s first law. QED. (Contrary to Newton then, his laws capture NO qualities “within the reach of our experiments.”)

    In fact, the fact that every object is acted on by every other, coupled with the fact that there are more than two objects in the world, entails that you could never *observe* that two objects attracted by a force that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Never. So you can’t even observe one instant of either Newton’s first law or of UG, let alone the infinitely many instances to which those laws pertain. Note bene: Newton’s own speculation as to how he obtained his laws is, by the very nature of those laws, demonstrably false. And no speculation is required to show this. (Nice try at an ad hominem against me though, one of the many informal and formal fallacies you, Caledonian, are flailing around on this blog.)

    Again, Caledonian wrote, “what matters is the scientific method.” What is that? Apparently even Newton didn’t know. We find ourselves in need of new proposals for answering just what the proverbial scientific method is. And with this need, well, welcome to philosophy of science, Caledonian.

    Caledonian wrote, “As for the “demarcation criteria” you’re so concerned with, there’s simply no need to search for them. They’re inherent in the definition of science – define what science is, and you automatically define what non-science is.”

    That’s exactly the issue, what is science? “Science is the method” you say, but what is that? (What Newton said it was?) Again, welcome.

    Caledonian continues, “Don’t have a conceptual definition of science? Then you look at the things people refer to as ‘science’ and try to understand what, if anything, unites them into a set, performing tests to see whether your speculations match the reality – in other words, you perform a cycle of observation, speculation based on observation, testing, and observation again.”

    Again, welcome to philosophy of science! This was Popper’s primary concern and (an overly simple version of) his approach, once he recognized the problems with the account of method proposed by Bacon/Newton. And here Caledonian is again, invoking philosophy of science to try to show it’s uselessness. Caledonian wants to suggest that such inquiry should be called “science” rather than “philosophy of science” — except of course, observing planets move, and tracks in a bubble chamber, and amoebas under a microscope won’t qualify as the appropriate observations here. (Hence, one would only rarely, if ever, find scientific journals publishing these discussions as scientific papers.) Nonetheless, yes, methodological naturalism of the sort Caledonian is only arriving at now has been a huge movement in philosophy of science for decades. (So again, criticizing philosophy of science in general, Caledonian, you automatically criticize your own view.) And strategies like the refutation of Newton’s methodological claims above work perfectly.

    Caledonian, to give you the benefit of the doubt and to (wrongly but) kindly pretend you are not just spouting off whatever nonsense comes to mind, allow me to ask three more questions for you to ignore (as bill so wonderfully put it above!):

    1) which philosophers of science (contemporary or otherwise) have you read? (Richenbach? Popper? Hempel? Lakatos? Laudan? van Fraassen? Sober? Worrall? Earman? Lipton? Putnam?)

    2) Which are you criticizing as providing useless theories?

    3) Does not answering “all” to the second question *require* answering “all” to the first? Especially for one who pays as much *lip service* to a the need for evidence as you do!

    While J Singer certainly does not deserve to be clumped in with Caledonian, a related point goes out to JSinger. JSinger wrote, “But when I think of “philosophy of science”, I think of the modern professional practitioners of it. And I’d say that they’ve contributed essentially nothing to me,”

    While I’m sure these professional practitioners would be flattered to hear that you’re “thinking of” them, their texts are not meant to be magical. You need to read them!

    Socrates’ Dog, over and out.

  35. #35 Caledonian
    July 18, 2007

    I can’t help but notice the resounding silence of our host.

    Where IS Janet D. Stemwedel?

    The whole “creationism” debate also shows how hard it is to define science.

    On the contrary, it is extremely simple. What’s hard is convincing people who made decisions based on social status and credulity in authority figures that a given set of arguments is composed of lies. The arguments posed by creationists are pathetically flimsy to even rudimentary analysis. But most people can’t manage even rudimentary analysis.

  36. #36 Oliver
    July 18, 2007

    “what matters is the scientific method.”

    What IS the scientific method? Answer: the product of the philosophy of science.

    When it comes to generating knowledge on a specific field of scientific interest, scientists are experts. When it comes to describing how such knowledge is generated, they are not. This is the realm of expertise of the philosopher. And unfortunately, far too little of this is actually taught to scientists, with the results being not only deliberate fraud (which can always happen with enough energy) but sloppiness in conclusion-drawing and fragility of position. What seems to be the case here is that some people simply take the results of the philosophy of science for granted. This is really ignoring the, in part, heated debates that we’ve seen over the last century, and it is sad if someone carrying the banner of science can’t make heads or tails of the likes of Karl Popper.

  37. #37 Francois Ouellette
    July 18, 2007

    Caledonian, you say “What’s hard is convincing people who made decisions based on social status and credulity in authority figures that a given set of arguments is composed of lies.”

    What lies? If you accept the fact that there is a God almighty, then that god can do whatever pleases him, including “arranging” the evidence so that it may look like the Earth is billions of years old when it’s only 9600 yrs old. Since you and I weren’t there, there is no way you can logically prove them wrong, given that axiom. If you do not take “god exists” as an axiom, then, of course, evolution etc. may provide you with a more consistent logical system to explain the world. But you would still be without an answer as to how the Universe came to be (unless you believe the answer is 42…).

    But when you talk about “decisions based on social status and credulity in authority figures”, you’re really into the crux of the question, sociologically speaking. Do you believe everything that is published in scientific journals, because it is written by scientists (social status – authority figures)? Do you believe in global warming, for example, because Al Gore said it’s true? Or because there is a scientific “consensus”? Isn’t that a decision based on social status and credulity in authority figures?

    If you reply that the published scientific results have been obtained using the scientific method, and therefore are true, then I can show you a zillion examples disproving this. You know full well that scientists don’t always agree. They don’t always agree on the conclusions to be drawn from the facts, but they also don’t always agree on the facts themselves. And while debating this, they use the “authority figure-social status” argument over and over again, just like they use the “my opponent’s work is not scientific” argument over and over again. Therefore, even though you make it sound like everything is clear cut and simple, in practice it’s really not that clear cut and simple. Where we agree is on the fact that philosophy of science has really not been of much help so far. It has shown that many of the answers are wrong, but still cannot give us what the “right” answer is. And all the while, science does progress, without knowing the answer to the ultimate question…

    Graham: deciding what is good or not for someone is not a question of philosophy of science, it is a question of philosophy, period. But I agree that science is used and abused to promote social policies. For example, see the history of the eugenics movement in the first half of the 20th century, and, again, the global warming issue now. But part of the question is, of course, a “philosophy of science” issue, when the “truth status” of the scientific claims are questioned. Many of the eugenicists’ arguments were “scientific”, based on the (limited) knowledge of genetics at the time. But what seems like limited knowledge nowadays, was the new hot stuff then, and eugenics was promoted by many of the eminent biologists of the time (social status-authority figures). Much of it was later on proven wrong.

  38. #38 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 18, 2007

    I have not been in the throes of this conversation because I’ve been (as they say in the biz) doing stuff.

    But while doing that stuff, I randomly recalled a bit of philosophy of science that scientists actually found useful: the clarification of the concept of “fitness” in evolutionary biology (which, before the philosophers of biology got into it to ask, “What precisely could you mean by that?” was apparently kind of fuzzy).

    Don’t let my being occupied with other things keep y’all from hashing this out.

  39. #39 Caledonian
    July 18, 2007

    What IS the scientific method? Answer: the product of the philosophy of science.

    Make up your mind: is the philosophy of science descriptive, or proscriptive?

    When it comes to generating knowledge on a specific field of scientific interest, scientists are experts. When it comes to describing how such knowledge is generated, they are not.

    “How such knowledge is generated” isn’t a specific field of scientific interest? I think you have some consistency problems.

    This is really ignoring the, in part, heated debates that we’ve seen over the last century, and it is sad if someone carrying the banner of science can’t make heads or tails of the likes of Karl Popper.

    Has the scientific method been revolutionized in the last century?

    What, exactly, has Karl Popper done for the understanding of the scientific method that lacking knowledge of him is limiting? Be specific.

  40. #40 Caledonian
    July 18, 2007

    What lies? If you accept the fact that there is a God almighty, then that god can do whatever pleases him, including “arranging” the evidence so that it may look like the Earth is billions of years old when it’s only 9600 yrs old.

    ‘Almighty’ gods are logically self-contradictory. Why am I not surprised that you wouldn’t have noticed that?

    Do you believe everything that is published in scientific journals, because it is written by scientists (social status – authority figures)? Do you believe in global warming, for example, because Al Gore said it’s true? Or because there is a scientific “consensus”?

    Or because that’s what the existing data strongly shows to be the case?

    “Consensus” is how scientists convince people who aren’t scientists. It’s a side-effect of the scientific process, not a part of it.

    Isn’t that a decision based on social status and credulity in authority figures?

    No.

    Who was practicing science: the philosophers whose consensus was that Aristotle was the ultimate authority on how the world operated and that heavier objects fell faster as he dictated, or Galileo Galli, whose rolling balls down inclined planes experimentally demonstrated that objects of different weights fell at the same rate?

    If ‘consensus’ were a critical part of the scientific method, the claims of individuals or small groups would have to be discounted if they went against the general understanding. That is exactly the opposite of how science operates.

    Why do you suppose that the people defending the idea that philosophy has something to offer science are the ones least familiar with what science is?

  41. #41 Oliver
    July 18, 2007

    Make up your mind: is the philosophy of science descriptive, or proscriptive?

    I don’t need to make up my mind. There’s nothing impeding it from being both: describing current practice at a time X and describing what would be better.

    “How such knowledge is generated” isn’t a specific field of scientific interest? I think you have some consistency problems.

    Not at all. It’s a field of philosophical interest. “When can I claim I know something?” is a basic question of philosophy. Chemistry, on the other hand, is wholly unconcerned with it in its everyday doings.

    Has the scientific method been revolutionized in the last century?

    Um, yes? Maybe you should catch up with the world a bit?

    What, exactly, has Karl Popper done for the understanding of the scientific method that lacking knowledge of him is limiting? Be specific.

    Developed critical rationalism and the concept of falsification, among others.

  42. #42 Caledonian
    July 18, 2007

    I don’t need to make up my mind. There’s nothing impeding it from being both: describing current practice at a time X and describing what would be better.

    You seem to be unaware of how those terms are used in this context. For the record: given that you think philosophy is responsible for setting standards for evaluation and judgement of science, you believe it to be proscriptive.

    Not at all. It’s a field of philosophical interest. “When can I claim I know something?” is a basic question of philosophy. Chemistry, on the other hand, is wholly unconcerned with it in its everyday doings.

    Chemistry is a science, not science. “When can I claim I know something” is a scientific concern – and unlike philosophy, science has a system to produce answers to that question.

    Um, yes? Maybe you should catch up with the world a bit?

    Um, no. Maybe you should learn to distinguish between “philosophy of science”, and science.

    Developed critical rationalism and the concept of falsification, among others.

    Irrelevant and wrong, respectively.

    I think we’re about done here.

  43. #43 Graham
    July 18, 2007

    Francois:

    Very true. Apologies, I thought you were straying into a general “all philosophy is useless” debate.

  44. #44 The Argonaut
    July 18, 2007

    Quite a lengthy discussion thread, and full of interesting comments. I was particularly impressed with the points brought up Socrates’ Dog – and waiting to read some responses. That’s the great thing about forums, you can pick and choose to respond (or not respond) to whatever points you want. Anyway, to get back to the original question posed by Dr. Free-Ride in this post, “Does writing off philosophy of science cost the scientists anything?” My answer is a resounding yes. My proof: Lazlo Hollyfeld. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But, he thought that the answers were the answers for everything. Wrong. All Science, no Philosophy… One day he found out that the stuff he was making was killing people… he cracked severely.

    Without some sort of philosophy about what you’re doing and why, or how it fits into a broader context of human endeavors, it would seem to reduce your activities to a succession of meaningless busy-work. I think that, whether or not you’ve taken the time to write it out, all scientists have and need a philosophy about the science they do … but to willfully disavow the instrumentality of philosophy in science is counterproductive. Without a philosophy of science we lose the purpose and context of science – we lose the signal against the noise of human existence.

  45. #45 Caledonian
    July 18, 2007

    I’m sorry, but are you citing Real Genius as a defense for the importance of PoS?

  46. #46 Oliver
    July 19, 2007

    @Caledonian

    Chemistry is a science, not science. “When can I claim I know something” is a scientific concern – and unlike philosophy, science has a system to produce answers to that question.

    Chemistry is an example for science. The same that can be said for every single other science, and thus for science as a whole. No, science has no “system” to produce answers to that question that would originate from within science. “What is knowledge?” and “When can I claim I have knowledge?” are fundamental philosophical questions. Science is concerned with generating knowledge, not with analyzing the process of doing so.

    Um, no. Maybe you should learn to distinguish between “philosophy of science”, and science.

    Um, no. Maybe you should read up a bit more?

    Irrelevant and wrong, respectively.

    I think we’re about done here.

    Probably. Given that you simply deny reality whenever it comes in the way of your ideology, talking science with you is rather futile.

  47. #47 Caledonian
    July 19, 2007

    Let’s recap:

    We’ve had a great many assertions about what the philosophy of science may do, few demonstrations that these things are genuinely possible or that they have been accomplished, and a large number of contradictory claims about science, philosophy, and inquiry.

    Our host, Dr. Stemwedel, offered various counterarguments against what I will generously assume were genuine misunderstandings of the positions she opposes, and a weak appeal to authority by citing Newton’s interest in traditional ‘philosophical’ subjects.

    Do you have anything further to say, Dr. Stemwedel? Or are you too busy dealing with ‘stuff’?

  48. #48 Francois Ouellette
    July 19, 2007

    Caledonian, Ok let me rise to your challenge. You say:

    Or because that’s what the existing data strongly shows to be the case?

    Have you seen the data? Have you performed all the experiments and measurements yourself? Of course not, so you must rely on “believing” what you’re being told. So who will you believe? You will believe the person or the “institution” that you think has most credibility. For you, it is “science”. For others, it is “religion”. See, the process is the same. Let’s take a concrete example: are you going to believe what you read on the blog RealClimate , or on the blog Climateaudit ? One is written by scientists, the other one by a “former mining executive”. Of course, the scientists are more credible, aren’t they? Or maybe you’ll just believe what you’ve read in the IPCC assessment report, since it is said to represent the “consensus” of so many hundred scientists. But then you say:

    If ‘consensus’ were a critical part of the scientific method, the claims of individuals or small groups would have to be discounted if they went against the general understanding. That is exactly the opposite of how science operates.

    But why are we told repeatedly that the consensus is the proof? If it’s just a side effect, it’s quite a strong one, like a medicine whose side effect can kill you!… So if science does not work by consensus, how does it work?

    Let’s go back in time again, say around 1935. The “conssensus” then amongst geologists is that continents are fixed. The “evidence” showing that some plant species are common to the western coast of Africa and the eastern coast of South America can be explained by the “fact” that there was an isthmus joining the two continents. But, as you might say, this is “self-contradictory”, because according to isostasy, such isthmus could not have sunk into the ocean. That was well known at the time. Nevertheless, the isthmus explanation was the “accepted” one. Not that there were no competing explanations. One was that the two continents were previously joined but that they had drifted apart. “Nonsense!” said the most prominent geologists. And prominent geophysicists demonstrated that no known force could drive that process. Of course, they were all “wrong”! But then it took another 30 years before the “consensus” was that they were wrong. The consensus is not only “how scientists convince people who aren’t scientists”, it’s also what you find in textbooks, it’s how new scientists are trained, it’s what they come to “believe”. So for 30 years, students in geology were told that continental drift was nonsense, when they were told about it at all. Yet, it was the “isthmus” explanation that was nonsense, even by the standards of the day. How could that happen?

    Now I’m really with you in that I believe that somewhere in the process, science is “self-correcting”. Remember, I’m a scientist, I’ve got quite a few publications, I’ve made some modest discoveries, etc., not to mention reviewing hundreds of papers, sitting on grant committees, and so on and so on ad nauseam! But what I’m saying is that that process is a sociological process. You just can’t ignore that. And as such, the “scientific process” has flaws and failures. As I’ve said, I’ve come to believe that knowing more about those flaws and failures is more “useful” than trying to work out who, between Popper and Lakatos, is right about the scientifc method.

    Oliver, you say:

    (How knowledge is generated) a field of philosophical interest. “When can I claim I know something?” is a basic question of philosophy. Chemistry, on the other hand, is wholly unconcerned with it in its everyday doings.

    I think you ought to read more on cognitive neuroscience. I’d say in another 10-20 years, it will be able to tell you more about how knowledge is generated than philosophy could do over the last 100 years. Even Quine thought so. I’m not saying that all of philosophy of science is useless (that would be admitting I’ve wasted my time reading so much of it!). When came the time to enroll for a degree, I hesitated between philosophy and physics. My problem with philosophy is that it’s not “grounded” on anything, except pure logic. But you can build beautiful logical systems that are complete houses of cards. Take away one assumption and it crumbles to nothing. And philosophers just enjoy doing that to each other. Keeps the profession going, I guess! With physics, I knew that the knowledge I would find would be strictly bounded, constrained by its confrontation with the natural world. Whatever flaws may exist within the scientific institution, being a scientist is still a wonderful job. I know of no stronger thrill than to make a genuine scientific discovery, especially alone in the lab at night, and get to know, as Jacques Testard once said, “the scent of nascent truth”.

    Janet: can you be more specific on how philosophers contributed to the notion of fitness? I’d be interested in having a couple of references.

  49. #49 Janet D. Stemwedel
    July 19, 2007

    Francois: I’ll need to dig into my files, but I shall try, in the not too distant future, to post something on the clarification of the concept of fitness. (With references, of course.)

    Caledonian, you and I seem to be operating with very different views of the philosophy of science. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what your view of the discipline is (beyond pointless, wrongheaded, smoke-and-mirrors). And, as someone working in that discipline, I tend to favor my own first-hand knowledge of the sorts of questions being asked, methodologies being employed to make progress in answering these questions, and interest and engagement that working scientists occasionally show in what we’re doing.

    The extent to which “the scientific method” implies a thoroughgoing unity in methodological commitments across scientific subfields is a live question (one that I work on in my day job). Caledonian seems to take such unity as obvious. That’s fine — but examining the assumption grounding scientific work is one of the things philosophers of science do. The things we turn up when we examine assumptions that scientists treat as unquestioned, or the challenges we raise to various accounts of why science is a successful method of producing knowledge, may not fit in a pleasing way with your existing commitments about the primacy and awesomeness of Science. However, we don’t take your existing commitments as constraints on our philosophical accounts.

    I think there’s been some interesting and useful discussion here. However, it’s starting to feel like Caledonian is following a Dave Matthews Band tour for the sole purpose of crowding near the stage to berate the concert-goers for liking the Dave Matthews Band. This is not to say that there’s not a principled argument to offer that DMB sucks, just that turning up at the concerts and refusing to take seriously the views of the concert-goers is a little … strange.

    Put another way:
    Caledonian, given that you’re not serious about engaging me here, I’ve moved on. It’s time for you to move on, too.

  50. #50 Melinda Barton
    July 19, 2007

    I’ve only had time to skim, so I may have missed someone else mentioning this. But… No system (including science) can evaluate itself. Let’s say you want to know if the methods of science produce reliable data. How would you do this scientifically? You’d use the methods of science! So, you’d use the thing you’re evaluating to evaluate the thing you’re evaluating. A bit of a vicious cycle, don’t you think? Let me manipulate Einstein a bit here:

    Philosophy without science is blind. Science without philosophy is lame.

  51. #51 JSinger
    July 19, 2007

    JSinger wrote, “But when I think of “philosophy of science”, I think of the modern professional practitioners of it. And I’d say that they’ve contributed essentially nothing to me,”

    While I’m sure these professional practitioners would be flattered to hear that you’re “thinking of” them, their texts are not meant to be magical. You need to read them!

    While that’s a rather bizarre interpretation of what I said, it’s not even correct anyway! Scientists benefit from all sorts of work even if the overwhelming majority of them have never read the original scholarship. If anything, the idea that one can only benefit by reading them oneself is “magical”.

  52. #52 Caledonian
    July 19, 2007

    Caledonian, you and I seem to be operating with very different views of the philosophy of science. Indeed, it’s not entirely clear what your view of the discipline is (beyond pointless, wrongheaded, smoke-and-mirrors). And, as someone working in that discipline, I tend to favor my own first-hand knowledge of the sorts of questions being asked, methodologies being employed to make progress in answering these questions, and interest and engagement that working scientists occasionally show in what we’re doing.

    I would suggest that scientists are likely to feel likewise – which would be why they characteristically favor their own first-hand knowledge of the scientific process to the claims of non-scientists such as yourself.

    Which takes us back to the question: why should anyone care about what non-scientists say about the scientific process? They’re not the primary source on the matter.

    ‘ve only had time to skim, so I may have missed someone else mentioning this. But… No system (including science) can evaluate itself. Let’s say you want to know if the methods of science produce reliable data. How would you do this scientifically?

    Let’s say you want to know how we judge something to be true. How would you do this at all? If you try to evaluate claims about how we judge or recognize truth, we cannot take what we’re trying to evaluate for granted. But without a system for judging what is true, we cannot evaluate the claims.

    What we *could* do would be to give up trying to generate a prescriptive understanding through analysis, and instead observe the process of truth-evaluation, attempting to generate a model of our own criteria. We could test the model against our own evaluations of what is true and what is false, discarding aspects of the model that contradicted our innate standards that are not subject to analysis.

    Hmmm… that sounds suspiciously like a method we all know and love.

  53. #53 Francois Ouellette
    July 19, 2007

    Melinda,

    It’s your choice: vicious cycle or infinite regress…

    If science can’t evaluate itself, and must resort to philosophy, then philosophy also can’t evaluate itself and must resort to… ? (if science: then the vicious cycle is here again, or else it’s some meta-philosophy which must be evaluated by some meta-meta-philosophy, which leads to infinite regress). Gee, I hate philosophy!…

    FWIW scientists spend most of their time “evaluating themselves”! ; >

  54. #54 Caledonian
    July 19, 2007

    If anything, the idea that one can only benefit by reading them oneself is “magical”.

    It is, if you’re concerned about the concepts.

    Most of what is called ‘philosophy’ is really a canonical tradition founded upon written works of past philosophers. Rather like some forms of theology, the coherence, consistency, and correctness of what is said is considered irrelevant – what matters is that arguments refer back to previous canon. People sufficiently skilled at referring to canon become well-known, influential, and eventually their works are accepted into the canon itself.

    If you wanted to look for a field where the objective merit of claims was valued, and not their historical canonicity, you’d have to go to science.

  55. #55 bob koepp
    July 19, 2007

    It seems this thread has about reached its natural (if tortured) end, but thought I’d mention one “general methodological” issue where philosophers of science have pretty obviously impacted scientific practice; to wit, in analysing the role of ceteris paribus clauses in both theoretical and experimental contexts.

    I’ll just leave it at that…

  56. #56 Oliver
    July 20, 2007

    @Francois Ouelletee, July 19, 2007 09:43 AM

    I think you ought to read more on cognitive neuroscience. I’d say in another 10-20 years, it will be able to tell you more about how knowledge is generated than philosophy could do over the last 100 years.

    Sorry, but you’re mistaken on all accounts. First of all, neurobiosciences was my minor during my PhD studies. Second, you’re talking about the wrong type of knowledge here. You’re talking about memory. The fact that you have stored something away in no way indicates that bit of data is actually true.

    My problem with philosophy is that it’s not “grounded” on anything, except pure logic.

    Again you are mistaken. Philosophy of science is to a large degree based on observing the scientific process and analysing why something worked and why something produced a bad result. This is done with logic as a tool.

    Aside from that, being grounded on logic doesn’t have to be a problem at all. As mathematics shows, it makes for very clear results.

    With physics, I knew that the knowledge I would find would be strictly bounded, constrained by its confrontation with the natural world. Whatever flaws may exist within the scientific institution, being a scientist is still a wonderful job. I know of no stronger thrill than to make a genuine scientific discovery, especially alone in the lab at night, and get to know, as Jacques Testard once said, “the scent of nascent truth”.

    …which all too often is the scent of nascent self-delusion. Which is precisely why philosophy of science is important. Almost 2000 years after Tacitus, “sine ira et studio” is still a much better basis of good science than thrills and intoxicating scents which cloud the judgment. Your personal interpretation of data has very little to do with “knowledge”.

  57. #57 Francois Ouellette
    July 20, 2007

    Oliver,

    Come on! You’re telling me that neuroscience is only concerned with memory? Not with language acquisition? Not with emotions? Hello! Mirror neurons anyone?

    You seem to say that the “truth” of knowledge exists independently of the brain where it is stored. But knowledge is information, and information only exists when and because it is stored, and because there is a “code” to decipher it, all of which depend exclusively on our brains. No brains, no science, no knowledge, no “truth”. The logic you use to do philosophy is a product of your brain. It is also the product of evolution. We don’t think the way we do because of some god-given gift. Logical thinking is an adaptive trait. We may think it has some absolute value, but when you get to know quantum physics, you realize that logic as we know and use it may not be the most appropriate tool to understand the natural world in its most fundamental aspects.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that philosphy of science is not completely useless, but it runs the risk of being outsmarted by science itself. Philosophy of science has not been able to give a definite as to how and why we do science the way we do and it works. Neuroscience may be able to do it. My advice to philosophers would be: if you can’t beat them, join them! Philosophers could be of great help in our attempts to understand the brain, and the reverse is true as well. That’s what “naturalized epistemology” is all about. As far as I can see, it may be the only way out for philosophy of science.

    And, yes, I know, lab work is delusional. But it’s still fun! You know, if you launch infrared (invisible) laser light into a short piece of glass optical fiber, and out comes a bright green light beam, when, theoretically, it’s not supposed to happen, you just sit there, watch, enjoy the show, and wonder at the world.

  58. #58 Caledonian
    July 20, 2007

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that philosphy of science is not completely useless, but it runs the risk of being outsmarted by science itself.

    It was ‘outsmarted’ by science hundreds of years ago. Science absorbed everything valid in philosophy, and the field that we now know by that name has nothing of value.

    As you well know, Dr. Stemwedel.

  59. #59 Oliver
    July 21, 2007

    Francois:

    Come on! You’re telling me that neuroscience is only concerned with memory? Not with language acquisition? Not with emotions? Hello! Mirror neurons anyone?

    Language acquisition IS memory. And emotions isn’t knowledge. You miss the point. Neuroscience can’t tell you whether something is true or false, whether you can accept something as fact or not. What it does is tell you to be very cautious about what you think you see, because by the time it reaches conscious thought, it has been processed already numerous times.

    We may think it has some absolute value, but when you get to know quantum physics, you realize that logic as we know and use it may not be the most appropriate tool to understand the natural world in its most fundamental aspects.

    Sorry, but all you’re doing is telling legends. Quantum physics was discovered by the same type of logic that produced other knowledge. You mix up comprehensive understanding and logic. The fact that it’s so complex few people manage to understand it doesn’t mean that logic isn’t the right tool to understand it.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that philosphy of science is not completely useless, but it runs the risk of being outsmarted by science itself. Philosophy of science has not been able to give a definite as to how and why we do science the way we do and it works.

    Does it? Or does it work chiefly there where the tenets of philosophy of science are followed?

    Neuroscience may be able to do it.

    No. Never. Neuroscience can tell us something about how the individual processes data. Period. Neuroscience investigates how the nervous system functions, it doesn’t tell us anything about what happens outside the individual. You’re trying to use the wrong tool.

    As far as I can see, it may be the only way out for philosophy of science.

    Out of where? Out of the fact that scientists hate to question their own methods? Tell you what: The scientist who doesn’t question his methods isn’t a scientist. Because methodology is the chief thing that distinguishes the scientist from an amateur dabbler.

    You know, if you launch infrared (invisible) laser light into a short piece of glass optical fiber, and out comes a bright green light beam, when, theoretically, it’s not supposed to happen, you just sit there, watch, enjoy the show, and wonder at the world.

    And what does it tell you? It tells you you should be very careful about believing your predictions to be true before you have tested them. Guess what: That’s precisely what philosophy of science tells you.

  60. #60 Francois Ouellette
    July 23, 2007

    Oliver,

    I don’t want to get into a nasty debate, and we are by now all alone on this thread. I don’t agree with you on some of your answers. We agree on a lot of stuff, but you seem to feel threatened because I do question the usefulness of philosophy of science. No need to. So just let me give you my “final answer” to your arguments. You can reply if you wish, but I will not pursue this debate any further.

    First, I don’t think that language acquisition is only memory. Steven Pinker’s work, among others, has shown how language is also an “instinct”, and how the brain is already hardwired to learn language. In particular, we don’t “learn” grammar, it is in a way “innate”. By grammar, I mean generative grammar “√† la Chomsky”. What does that have to do with knowledge and philosophy of science? Well, science is a lot about language, logic is a lot about language. The fact that the way we structure language is innate, and not learned, shows that the way how brain is structured has a lot to do with the way we do science.

    About quantum physics and its “legend”. It is also a legend (this time propagated by physicists themselves) that quantum physics fits very well with “ordinary” scientific explanations. It’s not because it’s hard to learn and complicated that I’ve said what I’ve said about it’s different logic. I’ve learned it all, and I master it well enough, thank you. But it still doesn’t follow “natural” logic. Natural logic is deterministic, almost by nature. A implies B. In quantum physics, A implies B, C, or D, in a probabilistic fashion. We accept it and deal with it (“shut up and calculate”). But it’s not the “natural” logic with which we view the world. It’s not the way philosophical arguments, for example, are constructed. It’s not for nothing that people are developing computers with “quantum logic”. As macroscopic creatures, our brains evolved to function in a framework where cause leads to effect in a deterministic fashion. Which works very well until you go to microscopic phenomena that have no consequence for us as animals. Again, we face the fact that our brain has evolved to give us a sense of what is “logical”.

    Now, about the fact that neuroscience tells us nothing about what happens outside the individual. Sure. But it tells us how we process data. And isn’t that precisely what philosophy of science is attempting? Philosophy of science isn’t about the world outside us, but how we come to understand it. Sometimes, philosophy of science is in a dead end, because there are multiple ways that we can understand the world, yet we seem to be using only a limited set of ways. Neuroscience and evolutionary science can give us some answers about that.

    Finally, why do you say that philosophy of science tells me to be careful not to believe my predictions before I’ve tested them? Is that all that philosophy of science has to say that is useful to scientists? Well, Galileo has said it a long time ago, thanks! But still, everyday, a scientist somewhere is confronted with “facts” that go against the received view. It’s part of a scientist’s job. Item 1 of your job description: find new stuff. Of course, then there’s a long list of “other” items: get grants, publish, teach, sit on the departmental committees, supervise grad students, go to conferences, etc etc. At some point, you may feel like item 1 has been entirely forgotten, even though that’s why you chose this profession in the first place. Then IT happens. And it makes you feel great. Philosophy of science does not tell me why it makes me feel great. Neuroscience and evolutionary science can, and will.

  61. #61 quidnunc
    July 25, 2007

    The main fault I see in the discussion above is the myth of the discipline along the lines of professional specialization. Cognitive Science for example is an intersection of philosophy, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, evolution, and so on. Imagining otherwise is posturing or ignorance, or both, considering the silly image of philosophy some people have here.

  62. #62 Francois Ouellette
    July 25, 2007

    Quidnunc,

    If you’ve read me well, you will have noticed that I agree with you. But maybe I didn’t express myself correctly. The discussion somehow drifted into a “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” argument, and that was not my intention! In my opinion, philosophy is at its best when it’s itself rooted in science, not trying to position itself above it, as some sort of absolute arbiter of what is right or wrong with it. Understanding how we think does not imply that we have to stop thinking.

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