There is a hypothesis called the Sapir-Whorf Thesis (also known as linguistic relativity) in language that one can only think what one’s language permits you to think, and indeed forces you to think. This idea that some conceptual scheme can determine how you think is widely held. It appears again in the notion of a Weltanschauung, or “world perspective”, which is the idea that one has an all-encompassing conceptual scheme. It appears in Kuhn’s idea of a “paradigm”, later revised to “disciplinary matrix”. It appears in Wittgenstein’s notion of a Lebensform, or form of life. In each case, the idea is that there is a conceptual scheme that somehow constrains or determines what we do or think.
Conceptual schemes have been criticised. Donald Davidson once gave a talk, titled “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”, which attacked the coherence and salience of this notion. Davidson’s target was the conceptual relativism that seemed allied to this notion, which is another matter, but I want here to discuss a related idea. I call this idea metaphysical determinism.
This is the commonly held idea that science is somehow determined by the metaphysics of its practitioners. Back in the 1920s people began to consider how the metaphysics of theories led to their content. E. A. Burtt’s Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science claimed that underlying the development of modern physics were several metaphysical assumptions, including the primary/secondary qualities distinction of the empiricists that led to the Kantian noumenal/phenomenal distinction.
Obviously nobody thinks that science is incapable of changing its metaphysics (beyond a few who want to claim that science is just another religious worldview like their own, and so a matter of faith). But there is underneath this view the idea that somehow metaphysics forces scientists and occasionally scientific views to think in particular ways. It is this that I think is false, or at least only weakly true.
I gave a talk last week on the philosophical foundations of biological essentialism in which I concluded that essentialism in biology (which is very different from essentialism in psychology or identity politics) was invented not by Aristotle but by philosophers of biology in the late 1950s and early 1960s, around the time of the centennial of the Origin, after Quine and Popper had introduced the idea of a philosophical (in both cases a methodological or linguistic) essentialism. In short, the essentialism that is supposed to predate Darwin actually postdates him by a century or more.
I wondered aloud how it might be this way, and decided that we had by then swallowed the idea that world views force our thinking; when instead it seems to me that scientists are more moved by facts and experiments, and good explanations, than by philosophical ideas, and that when they do philosophy (like all scientists they do it a lot less well than they often think), they invent a philosophical justification for what they would do in any case. My fundamental rule is: never believe what a scientist says, but instead believe in what they do. Peter Medawar is a case in point: a vocal Popperian, his own work was quite ordinarily inductive, and relied on naive observation as much as anyone else.
Metaphysical determinism is one of those myths philosophers like, because it makes philosophy relevant. The talk the next week was by my friend and philosopher and historian of physics, Kristian Camilleri, who noted that at one time philosopher-physicists often thought that physics could make a contribution to philosophy, while ill-tempered critics of philosophy in the physics community like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawing and Leonard Mlodinow seem to think, echoing Feynman, that if philosophy can’t contribute to physics, it is worthless or moribund.
Philosophers of course respond by claiming that philosophy does make a contribution to sciences, but the evidence is that it rarely does, only in rare theoretical cases. I do not think that people became philosophically sophisticated because Darwin published; all the evidence though, is that philosophy was influenced by Darwin, not Darwin by philosophy, although he read a fair bit of it including the early positivists.
Any intellectual exchange between fields is going to be two-way. However, the bulk of it seems to be science to philosophy and a lot less the other direction; and as I often say, when scientists do philosophy they usually do it badly; however, science generates philosophical reflection no matter who does it, whether it is Lawrence Krauss or Daniel Dennett or whoever.
It is time to recognise that science is largely independent of philosophical trends and schools, but that scientists are still creatures of their time and place and it is hard to think about things nobody has ever raised as contestable. One of the real contributions of philosophy to science is to ask the questions that everybody thinks are obvious; and it is this that the scientist critics of philosophy fail to understand. Also, they tend not to like anyone raising their own views to criticism and inspection…