Periodically, some scientific celebrity from the physical sciences– Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking, say– will say something dismissive about philosophy, and kick off a big rush of articles about how dumb their remarks are, how important philosophy is, and so on. Given that this happens on a regular basis, you might wonder why it is that prominent physicists keep saying snide things about philosophy. But never fear, the New York Times is here to help, with an op-ed by James Blachowicz, an emeritus philosopher from Loyola, grandly titled There Is No Scientific Methods.
It’s actually not that bad as essays about science from philosophers go, until the very end. Blachowicz’s point is that the process of scientific discovery has more in common with other disciplines than generally appreciated. He kicks this off with a reference to a long-ago talk about the writing of poetry, but most of the essay is devoted to a comparison between a Socratic sort of argument defining courage and Kepler’s discovery that Mars has an elliptical orbit.
The specific examples he uses are kind of dry and abstract, but I’m mostly on board with his argument. I would pretty much have to be, having written a whole book arguing that scientific thinking plays an essential role in everyday life. But then we come to the final three paragraphs:
If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.
I am not a practicing scientist. So who am I to criticize scientists’ understanding of their method?
I would turn this question around. Scientific method is not itself an object of study for scientists, but it is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.
I have any number of problems with this, starting with the fact that it feels like he realized he was up against his word limit for the column, and just stopped, like an undergrad whose term paper crossed onto the tenth page in Word. We get a thorough exploration of blind alleys toward a definition of courage, then dismiss all of science with “highly quantified variables”, and off to the faculty club for brandy.
But I think this horrible shruggie of an ending also serves to illustrate what drives (many) physicists (and other scientists) nuts about philosophers. That is, he makes a pretty decent argument by analogy that scientific thinking and philosophical thinking are more similar than not, but then fails to do… anything, really. As a scientist reading along, this positively screams for a “Therefore…” followed by some sort of action item. You’ve made an argument that the scientific method is “only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry,” great. I’m with you on that. And now, what do we do with that information?
I find this incredibly frustrating, in no small part because (as noted above) I wrote a whole book making a similar argument. And I had a pretty clear take-away message in mind when I did that, namely that the universality of the scientific method shows that science is not, in fact, incomprehensible to non-scientists. We can all think like scientists, and knowing that should give us courage to use those reasoning skills to our advantage.
Now, obviously, I’m a scientist, and thus inclined to favor a conclusion encouraging non-scientists to take some lessons from the study of “highly quantified variables” and apply them to their own activities. But I’d also be happy with a conclusion that ran in the opposite direction– that the commonality on methods should lead scientists to show more respect for their colleagues in other fields of study. That’s also a reasonable argument to make.
But instead, it’s just ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. And while this is an especially abrupt ending, it’s just an extreme example of a pretty general phenomenon when dealing with philosophers and other scholars in “the humanities.” As a scientist, I often find myself nodding along with the steps of the process to work something out, only to be left waiting for some sort of concrete conclusion about what comes next. There’s a comprehensive failure to build on prior results, or even suggest how someone else might build on them in the future, and as a physicist I find this maddening.
(Of course, the absolute worst part of this tendency is that it carries over into faculty governance. As a result, we have interminable meetings in which people ask questions but aren’t interested in hearing answers, or identify problems but decline to make any policy recommendations toward solving them…)
And there’s an extra bonus scoop of “maddening” when, as in this case, the great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is followed by an assertion that study of these Important Questions is a matter that must be left to philosophers. Because, clearly, scientists simply aren’t equipped to follow through this kind of analysis and then… not do anything with what they’ve learned thereby.
So, if you wonder why it is that scientists (particularly physicists) tend to roll their eyes and sigh heavily when the subject of philosophy comes up, I think this is an excellent case study. And it’s something to take into account the next time somebody sits down to write (or edit) yet another essay on Why Philosophy Matters To Science. If you want physicists to take philosophy more seriously, you need an “and therefore…” at the end. Or they’re likely to come up with their own more colorful but less helpful suggestions of what you can do with your research.