Why do philosophy of science

Every so often, somebody will attack the worth, role or relevance of philosophy on the internets, as I have discussed before. Occasionally it will be a scientist, who usually conflates philosophy with theology. This is as bad as someone assuming that because I do some philosophy I must have the Meaning of Life (the answer is, variously, 12 year old Scotch, good chocolate, or dental hygiene).

But it raises an interesting question or two: what is the reason to do philosophy in relation to science? being the most obvious (and thus set up the context in which you can answer questions like: are there other ways to find truth than science?). So I thought I would briefly give my reasons for that.

When philosophy began around 500BCE, there was no distinction between science and philosophy, nor, for that matter, between religion and philosophy. Arguably, science began when the pre-Socratics started to ask what the natures of things were that made them behave as they did, and equally arguably the first actual empirical scientist was Aristotle (and, I suspect, his graduate students).

But a distinction between science and philosophy began with the separation between natural philosophy (roughly what we now call science) and moral philosophy, which dealt with things to do with human life and included what we should believe about the world, including moral, theological and metaphysical beliefs. The natural kind was involved in considering the natures or things. A lot gets packed into that simple word, nature: it literally means “in-born” (natus) and the Greek physikos means much the same. Of course, something can be in-born only if it is born that way (yes, folks, she’s playing on some old tropes here!), and most physical things aren’t born at all, but the idea was passed from living to nonliving things, and so natural philosophy was born. That way.

In the period after Francis Bacon, natural philosophy was something that depended crucially on observation, and so the Empiricists arose: Locke, Berkeley, Hobbes, and later Hume. That these names are famous in philosophy suggests something: philosophy does best when it is trying to elucidate science itself. And when William Whewell in 1833 coined the term scientist to denote those who sought scientia or knowledge, science had begun its separation from the rest of philosophy.

Or imperfectly, anyway. For a start the very best scientists of the day, including Babbage, Buckland and Whewell himself wrote philosophical tomes alongside theologians and philosophers. And the tradition continues until now, such as the recent book by Stephen Hawking in which he declares the philosophical enterprise is dead, a decidedly philosophical claim to make. Many scientists seem to find the doing of philosophy inevitable.

So why do I do philosophy of science? Simply because it is where the epistemic action is: science is where we do get knowledge, and I wish to understand how and why, and the limitations. All else flows from this for me. Others I know (and respect) do straight metaphysics and philosophy of language, but I do not. It only has a bite if it gives some clarity to science. I think this is also true of metaphysics, ethics and such matters as philosophy of religion.

Now there are those who think that science effectively exhausts our knowledge-gathering. This, too, is a philosophical position, which has to be defended, and elaborated (thus causing more philosophy to be done). I don’t object to that view, but for me, it is better to be positive (say that science gives us knowledge even if other activities may do) than to be negative (deny that anything but science gives us knowledge). It may be that we get to the latter position after considering the former; if so, that would be a philosophical result.

I am fascinated by science. It allows us to do things no ancient Greek (or West Semitic) thinker would have been even able to conceive of. It means we make fewer mistakes. Philosophy is, and ought only to be, in the service of knowledge (I’m sure somebody has said that before). Science is a good first approximation of that.

But scientists who reject philosophy, as if that very rejection is not a philosophical stance (probably taken unreflectively or on the basis of half-digested emotive appeals), them I have no time for as philosophers. They should perhaps stick to their last and not make fools of themselves.

Not, of course, that every philosopher is worth reading. Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies here too. But lest any scientist get too smug, recall that 99% of all scientific papers are never cited again many scientific papers are uncited [see comments]. In philosophy, that ratio is perhaps lower… probably almost down to the Sturgeon limit.

Late: See underverse’s take

37 Comments

Filed under Epistemology, Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Logic and philosophy, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Rant, Science

37 Responses to Why do philosophy of science

  1. Susan Silberstein

    John, I’ll take Dental Hygiene for $500, please.

    Although I am not a scientist, I recognize that I do science every day. Thanks to you, I realize that I engage in the philosophy of science, while probably not every, certainly every week. I just didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden

    … recall that 99% of all scientific papers are never cited again.

    I can’t speak for “all scientific papers”, but so far as biochemistry is concerned your estimate is grotesquely far from reality. It may be between 20 and 30%, or even as high as 50%, but 99% sounds like it comes straight out of someone’s head. Of course, it will be higher if your “all scientific papers” includes meeting abstracts, but only people who’ve never published anything else would call those scientific papers.

    As an example, the Journal of Biological Chemistry published 53 papers in January 1961 (long enough ago to suppose that future citations won’t have a significant effect). Scaling that up to the whole year gives 636. The Web of Science says that 652 papers published in that journal in 1961 have been cited. That presumably means that scaling up to the whole year has produced an underestimate, but no matter, it’s clear that the true figure is closer to 1% than to 99%.

    The Journal of Biological Chemistry was, of course, the best-known and most-cited biochemistry journal in 1961, but it also published a substantial proportion of all the biochemistry papers published in that year, so even if we include the handful of papers published in extremely obscure journals there is no way we’re going to reach your made-up figure of 99%.

    • I think you are right! This is one of those things one hears and never checks, but on checking I find this:

      “At a basic level, most publications are minimally recognized, with ? 47% of the papers in the ISI data set uncited, more than 80% cited 10 times or less, and ? .01% cited more than 1000 times.” From here.

    • A quick visit to google suggests the truth is a little starker than that.

      Two studies in Science (Hamilton 1990, 1991) found that 55% of papers in the top 4500 journals went uncited in the 5 years after publication. In 2009 a researcher found the number was over 59%.

      Hamilton included non-research materials, and that number was later revised downward by Pendlebury to 22% for the hard sciences, according to the ISI. (Social sciences drop down to around 48%.)

      Individual journals may beat those odds–I saw an assessment of 3% uncitedness for the Journal of Fluid Mechanics over its long history. But it would be rash to extrapolate from any one case.

      Alas, the number for philosophy papers is much worse (Hamilton found it to be 92%, though John should take heart that in Philosophy of Science the percentage is a respectable 29.2%)

  3. I don’t object to that view, but for me, it is better to be positive (say that science gives us knowledge even if other activities may do) than to be negative (deny that anything but science gives us knowledge).

    But, but, but, it was the Positivists who said that nothing but science give us knowledge. Pointing that out may sound trite, but is not one of the problems of the philosophy of science that it sets up a framework for science – an assumption of what science is for and what it can do – which is quite different from what science does? By which I mean to say, philosophers of science (Popper especially) decide what science is about and create an epistemology for it. Meanwhile, scientists get on with doing science. They do not need philosophers of science to tell them what science is about; they just do science.

    Meanwhile again, epistemologists create a framework for knowledge, scientific or otherwise, which assumes that there is a single thing – the truth – that can be known if only we can find the right way of knowing it. Perhaps epistemology is a load of tosh. Perhaps, we do not know things at all, but we create vocabularies (I am borrowing from Rorty here) that are useful to us as tools.

    On the other hand, I am an architectural historian, so what do I know?

  4. “Philosophy of Science: It’s where the epistemic action is!” I want the t-shirt.

    Every time I get a new bunch of student evaluations my opinion of their worth asymptotes to zero. I think it may have actually got there this year when reading a second year psychology student who, after studying philosophy of science with me, wrote “This isn’t real philosophy”.

    • John S Wilkins

      The slogan is Paul Griffiths’. I hope you slapped that student upside the head. And made him/her read some Grünbaum…

  5. John S Wilkins:
    The slogan is Paul Griffiths’. I hope you slapped that student upside the head. And made him/her read some Grünbaum…

    The good thing is that student evaluations are anonymous or I’d be up on charges. For making him/her read the Aufbau (heartless, I know). And I really should finally meet Griffiths – every time I hear his name it’s because he’s said something sensible.

  6. Paul Litterick:
    On the other hand, I am an architectural historian, so what do I know?

    May I volunteer the view that antirealism is a less troubling position when held by architectural historians than when held by architects.

    • You may, but I should warn you that anti-realist positions are popular in architecture schools these days. I think it has something to do with the growing unlikeliness of any student getting a job.

  7. MKR

    This passage is doubly ambiguous:

    So why do I do philosophy of science? Simply because it is where the epistemic action is: science is where we do get knowledge . . .

    (1) The construction and the context of the first part of the second sentence implies that the antecedent of the pronoun “it” is the phrase “philosophy of science.” KT-K’s post above presumes this interpretation and your reply does not disavow it. But the continuation of the passage implies that the intended antecedent of “it” is not “philosophy of science” but “science”: that is, according to you, “where we get knowledge,” which is what I take you to have meant by “where the epistemic action is.”

    So which is it? These are two widely different claims, and require two different understandings of what you mean by “epistemic action.” If “it” is philosophy of science, then you must be talking about epistemological action, not epistemic action. If you really mean epistemic action, then “it” must be science, not the philosophy of science.

    (2) The question “Why do I do philosophy of science?” is itself ambiguous, in much the same way as the question “Why do you rob banks?” is. You could be asking why you do philosophy of science (rather than science) and you could be asking why you do philosophy of science (rather than some other part of philosophy). I initially read the question the first way, but the continuation of the passage seems to me to imply the second reading.

    • I have a constant problem with unanchored prepositions.

      The “it” here is science. But the latter ambiguity is rather intentional. I do philosophy rather than science because the nature of science fascinates me. I do philosophy of science rather than other philosophy because the nature of science fascinates me. Either way.

  8. Since you’re interested in epistemology and not just science, you must have given some serious consideration to other possible ways of knowing.

    Can you give us a brief summary of the other ways of knowing that produce something that most philosophers would recognize as “truth”?

    Let’s consider the hypothesis: “science is the only way of knowing.” Do you consider that hypothesis to be: “proven,” “not falsified,” “refuted,” “tentatively correct,” “unproven,” or something else?

    • Some other possible origins of knowledge:

      - “Common sense” (Reid)
      - Revelation (one or two theologians)
      - Intuition (one or two philosophers)
      - Reason and a priori knowledge (rationalists since Plato)

      Now in each case there are concerns about how we know it is knowledge (the KK problem, it is called), and what counts as truth (an oldie but a goodie, with a literature too vast to summarise). Let each person hope and believe as they can, to murder a phrase. For myself, I am a pragmatist, and so truth is effective knowledge anyway, leaving the field open for moral knowledge and syntactic knowledge such as mathematics and logic.

      As to what kind of knowledge each delivers, well that too is a field for discussion. I personally think none of them deliver knowledge that doesn’t, in the end, resolve down to knowledge gained experientially by trial and error, but that is not a given here. It has to be argued and defended (which is philosophy).

      • I’m not trying to be argumentative so bear with me. This is a genuine attempt to understand how philosophers deal with this issue.

        What methodology can one use to find out which, if any, of these ways of knowing actually produce knowledge? Can you use science to determine if revelation is a valid way of knowing and vice versa?

        If you use the scientific way of knowing to define pragmatic epistemology then isn’t that “science” as much as it is “philosophy”? What I’m worried about is that philosophy seems to be a subset of science if science is the only valid way of knowing. The only way that philosophy becomes a distinct discipline is if one of the other ways of knowing is valid.

        • bob koepp

          Larry – You focus on methodology, a typically philosophical concern, which quickly gives rise to traditional philosophical problems with circularity and infinite regresses. You ask whether one can use science to determine if revelation is a valid way of knowing, but one can’t even use science to determine if science is a valid way of knowing. Even that most unempirical science, logic, founders here…
          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_the_Tortoise_Said_to_Achilles

        • “Let’s consider the hypothesis: “science is the only way of knowing.” Do you consider that hypothesis to be: “proven,” “not falsified,” “refuted,” “tentatively correct,” “unproven,” or something else?”

          Well, the hypothesis is on dicey ground from the off, given that Teh Scientific Method is not really a matter of settled law as it were. Even in its idealised form, it’s still only an approximate guide based on a kind of triangulation of opinions of the likes of Popper and Kuhn (it gets even messier in practice, because, for good or ill, most of us scientists don’t tack very close to this idealised methodology – post hoc theorising abounds – and a large number of us, particularly in the life sciences, are guilty of violently abusing statistics on a fairly regular basis).

          So, with respect to the following,
          “What I’m worried about is that philosophy seems to be a subset of science if science is the only valid way of knowing. The only way that philosophy becomes a distinct discipline is if one of the other ways of knowing is valid.”

          To say science is the only valid way of knowing would require that we have a firm idea of what way of knowing science employs, both idealistically and practically speaking. But we don’t, and philosophers have been arguing about it until relatively recently, and statisticians are still arguing about it. Meanwhile, scientists are just getting on and doing it, although few of us have a completely firm idea of exactly what it is we’re doing beyond endeavouring to…

          “… resolve down to knowledge gained experientially by trial and error”

          It’s hard not to conclude that philosophy is, and always has been, in the position of looking down upon science as something under its umbrella and proclaiming, “I’m yo’ daddy!”.

  9. @Athel Cornish-Bowden

    It may be true that as many as 50% of biochemistry papers are cited at least once but what would that number be if we eliminated self citation in subsequent papers?

    We’d probably be left with a much smaller number but that doesn’t really tell us anything about the quality of the paper. I’ve cited many biochemistry papers that were crap.

    We see an exaggerated version of the same phenomenon in the blogosphere. I’m far more likely to link to crappy philosophers in order to point out the flaws in their arguments. I’m less likely to link to intelligent, thoughtful philosophers of science who put up insightful postings that make a lot of sense.

    At last count I had 75 postings that mention John Wilkins. :-)

  10. It’s hard to complain against the imperialism of science since any counterexample you propose to its universal reign will simply be assimilated to the empire ex post facto. For my money, the notion that science simply equals reliable knowledge would be more impressive if somebody would define what will count as a science in advance. After all, it does appear on first glance that enterprises that aren’t obviously science such as legal reasoning, writing history, or evaluating art have a serious cognitive dimension, i.e. they amount to something more than just expressing the opinion “Yippy! I like this,” and deserve to be taken seriously.

    What is actual is one thing. Possibilities also matter. If I imagine the space of possible meaningful cognitive disciplines, assuming, of course, that that it’s possible to define the true dimensions of such a space, how much of the volume is taken up by what is, as of July 2011,practiced as science? It seems to me that the proportion is vanishingly small, though the absolute quantity is very large, which is why it is so easy to overestimate the reach of science.

    • Along the same lines, Jim, I’ve noticed that certain things tend to silently drop off the list when they become inconvenient. For example, folk empiricism, if it leads to desirable truths, will be said to be a form of science in one breath (as when PZ Myers described his courtship with his wife as “empirical investigation”), but then when some undesirable claim is made by the same standards–such as homeopathy, for example–suddenly such methods are “pseudo-scientific.”

      Coyne uses this bait and switch all the time. He will define science as simply “rational and empirical investigation” without further qualification, for the purpose of showing it is the only instrument for fact finding. But this definition is far, far too inclusive, giving us little reason not to consider all the assertions of (for example) Plato, Aristotle and Descartes as scientific fact.

  11. Michael Fugate

    The issue is not whether science is a method for acquiring knowledge, but whether religion is. Do gods or their messengers reveal knowledge to humans? For instance, did the angel called Moroni reveal the golden plates resulting in the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith? Or are revelations just something occurring in the individual human brain – something we don’t register as conscious thought – perhaps under the influence of meditation, fasting, sleep deprivation, or drug use?

  12. Something like 50% of papers, as I recall it for my fields (oceanography/glaciology/meteorology/climate), are never cited by someone other than the author. My own, though not heavily cited, have all been cited by people other than me and people I was working with.

    Philosophy, I find interesting in my unknowledgeable way. Maybe if I knew more, I wouldn’t. Still, I think there’s something to be gained by listening to people who study a question directly, such as philosophers on epistemology, rather than people who may work on related things (trying to understand, say, the oceans) but never directly attack the epistemology.

  13. I suspect that the root of the problem that some scientists and others have with philosophy is in the apparent claims of some philosophers to be finding “truth” – which, as is hard to credit when they consistently fail to find common ground on just about anything.

    The value of reading and doing philosophy to me is not in the “answers” but in (some of) the questions and, to a lesser extent, some of the arguments. These may not actually solve anything for me but, like poetry or literature they may colour the attitude with which I approach real problems.

  14. Chris Schoen:
    Coyne uses this bait and switch all the time. He will define science as simply “rational and empirical investigation” without further qualification, for the purpose of showing it is the only instrument for fact finding. But this definition is far, far too inclusive, giving us little reason not to consider all the assertions of (for example) Plato, Aristotle and Descartes as scientific fact.

    Many of the assertions of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes that are no longer considered valid were ‘scientific’ when they were originally made being based on the best available evidence at the time they were made. Scientific knowledge and scientific truth are time dependent, which is a philosophical statement!

    • Thony C.: Many of the assertions of Plato, Aristotle and Descartes that are no longer considered valid were ‘scientific’ when they were originally made being based on the best available evidence at the time they were made. Scientific knowledge and scientific truth are time dependent, which is a philosophical statement!

      Right–”science” and “truth” are self-evident to practitioners. It’s the philosopher’s job to explore what these words mean in any given context. (Or scientists wearing their philosopher’s hats–no need to get tribal about it.) The first thing we notice about Coyne’s definition of “truth” as “things about the universe that are in accordance with fact” is how conveniently tautological it is. How do we determine what is factual?

      It’s fine to be incurious about these things, but to be actively hostile to the investigation of meaning is just anti-intellectualism at its worst.

      • I guess it’s the anti-intellectualism of those who owe a debt to intellectualism that most upsets me. I don’t mind a scientists saying, quite justifiably, “how does this all help me do what I do?” because it is clearly the case that one can do science relatively unreflectively (although I would suggest this is not always true, especially when you are trying to do something really new). But when a scientist effectively sneers at all intellectual activity but their own, I take umbrage. It’s like a jazz musician who not only doesn’t do any other kind of music but asserts that any other kind is wrong, and even talking about it is a mistake.

        Some proportion of scientists are going to do this, of course, as any profession has its chauvinists and provincialists.

  15. TB

    Chris Schoen: as when PZ Myers described his courtship with his wife as “empirical investigation”

    So will marriage vows now have to include citations and be peer reviewed?

  16. dsks: Well, the hypothesis is on dicey ground from the off, given that Teh Scientific Method is not really a matter of settled law as it were.

    My doctoral grandfather had something to say about that:

    The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’. [Concluding chapter of Against Method 1975]

    • bob koepp

      There is no unitary method to science, not even empiricism. If you look at a fair sampling of the ‘methodological’ moves made in the history of the sciences, what you find is a an odd assortment of ‘finite procedures’ for arriving at a ‘best guess’ at the truth, ‘given’ a huge body of ‘background knowledge/belief’. We muddle through, inventing/discovering new methods as our questions require.

    • and the Albino Aussie Anthropoid plays out the Feyerabend trump to which those that have never actually read him answer but you can’t take Feyerabend seriously can you?

  17. Yes, yes, yes, but which 12-year-old Scotch?
    (More of a 10-year-old Laphroaig fan myself.)

  18. jeff

    “Philosophy is, and ought only to be, in the service of knowledge (I’m sure somebody has said that before). Science is a good first approximation of that.”

    Well… not quite. Due my personal experience of reality, science is often hearsay. But i will admit that it does sound good… most of the time, especially when you are trying to to apply it too much elsewhere.

Leave a Reply