Why scientists should learn philosophy
In a sprawling, dense, 10,000-odd word tract on philosophy in science that took me several weeks to get through, Michael Pearl suggests that advancing scientific discovery should be philosophy’s ultimate goal. That is, philosophers of science should be trying to help scientists do better research:
The first point of note here is that when the essential core of science is considered in terms of discovery rather than knowledge, it begins to become more apparent why the endeavors of philosophers of science are not only largely irrelevant to practicing scientists but also misdirected when, as per Papineau, these philosophers continue the ancient concern with whether (or to what extent) claims of knowledge (in this case scientific knowledge) are justified and true. This is to say that if philosophy is to contribute genuinely to the scientific enterprise, then that contribution will be one that focuses on the mechanisms and conditions which bring forth discovery. Haggling over the natures of justification, truth, and knowledge does not itself come close to fostering scientific discovery. [Emphasis added-PK]
This strikes me as a bit misguided, and not at all how I think about the worth of philosophy, and science studies more generally. As far as discovery goes, scientists seem to be doing just fine on their own, and it’s not clear what philosophers–even in principle–can do to help. Leaving aside certain abstract topics that may have some room for philosophical conjecturing (perhaps something like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), the vast majority of scientists themselves offer very little outside their field. Given both how balkanized and specialized science has become, we surely shouldn’t expect much from anyone without a deep familiarity of the specific research problem at hand.
For better and for worse, academic research is no longer a vocation for an all purpose, general intellectual. The focus on obtaining grants and publications (more often than not in boutique, specialty journals) along with the explosion in research output demands budding scientists focus on at most a handful of topics at one time. My colleagues in my own research group weren’t always able to help me “bring forth discovery”, and so I’m deeply skeptical that a walk to the philosophy department would have done so.
None of this means that philosophers of science have nothing to offer. Rather, it means that we should recalibrate what we mean when we say something is “irrelevant to practicing scientists.” There is more to life than improving your experimental setup or debugging your Matlab code. There are diffuse, unquantifiable personal benefits of a broad liberal education, and in my experience most scientists accept this without further justification. On top of this, philosophy can illuminate and clarify what scientists do even if it doesn’t help them do it better. These two justifications alone are enough, I believe, to make the philosophy of science worth studying.
But going back to the other side, that philosophy is just good for itself and is not necessarily intended to help working scientists, you know the famous quote from Feynman which says ‘philosophy of science is about as useful for scientists as ornithology is for birds.’ Most people would see that as denigration of philosophy of science, but I don’t see it that way at all. Ornithology is not intended to be useful for birds. In principle ornithologists might, by studying the physics of how birds fly, come up with some suggestions to birds about how they could fly more efficiently, except that natural selection has probably beaten them to it anyway. In the same way, philosophy of science could come up with suggestions for working scientists, but that’s not necessarily its major goal. I like that Feynman quote precisely because it’s not, in my view, pejorative towards philosophers of science. It’s saying that the philosophy of science is different. It clarifies what scientists do whether or not it helps scientists.