Thursday, July 9, 2009

Scientists Wonder If Philosophy Makes You a Better Scientist

Over at Cosmic Variance Sean Carroll has initiated an ongoing discussion of the following passage from Feyerabend:
The withdrawal of philosophy into a “professional” shell of its own has had disastrous consequences. The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrodinger, Boltzmann, Mach and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth — and this is the fault of the very same idea of professionalism which you are now defending.
With some hesitation Carroll concludes that "I tend to think that knowing something about philosophy — or for that matter literature or music or history — will make someone a more interesting person, but not necessarily a better physicist." (See comment 56 by Lee Smolin and comment 64 by Craig Callender for some useful replies.)

Beyond that debate, it's worth wondering how knowing some science and mathematics helps the philosopher of science and mathematics. Pretty much everyone in these areas of philosophy would agree that it does help, but exactly how is probably a controversial issue.

8 comments:

Aaron Boyden said...

Einstein credited Hume and (the philosophical writings of) Mach with helping him come to the insight which led to relativity. I suppose it would take some really thorough examination of the history of science to find out how common this sort of thing is, but I doubt this is the only case where scientists were making unnoticed and perhaps unjustified metaphysical assumptions, and a little anti-metaphysical philosophy might have helped expose them.

Chris Pincock said...

Aaron, yes, I agree that there must be cases where philosophy is helping. I wonder, though, how many times philosophy has hurt science by introducing obstacles to scientific innovation! It would be hard to know for sure where the balance ends up ...

Anonymous said...

From Einstein himself:

“So many people today -- and even professional scientists -- seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is -- in my opinion -- the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” - (To Robert Thornton, December 7th, 1944, (EA 61-574))

“How does it happen that a properly endowed natural scientist comes to concern himself with epistemology? Is there no more valuable work in his specialty? I hear many of my colleagues saying, and I sense it from many more, that they feel this way. I cannot share this sentiment. When I think about the ablest students whom I have encountered in my teaching, that is, those who distinguish themselves by their independence of judgment and not merely their quick-wittedness, I can affirm that they had a vigorous interest in epistemology. They happily began discussions about the goals and methods of science, and they showed unequivocally, through their tenacity in defending their views, that the subject seemed important to them. Indeed, one should not be surprised at this.”

“The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind. They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is - insofar as it is thinkable at all - primitive and muddled. However, no sooner has the epistemologist, who is seeking a clear system, fought his way through to such a system, than he is inclined to interpret the thought-content of science in the sense of his system and to reject whatever does not fit into his system. The scientist, however, cannot afford to carry his striving for epistemological systematic that far. He accepts gratefully the epistemological conceptual analysis; but the external conditions, which are set for him by the facts of experience, do not permit him to let himself be too much restricted in the construction of his conceptual world by the adherence to an epistemological system. He therefore must appear to the systematic epistemologist as a type of unscrupulous opportunist: he appears as realist insofar as he seeks to describe a world independent of the acts of perception; as idealist insofar as he looks upon the concepts and theories as the free inventions of the human spirit (not logically derivable from what is empirically given); as positivist insofar as he considers his concepts and theories justified only to the extent to which they furnish a logical representation of relations among sensory experiences. He may even appear as Platonist or Pythagorean insofar as he considers the viewpoint of logical simplicity as an indispensable and effective tool of his research."


A relevant thought from Stephen Stich:

“The idea that philosophy could be kept apart from the sciences would have been dismissed out of hand by most of the great philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But many contemporary philosophers believe they can practice their craft without knowing what is going on in the natural and social sciences. If facts are needed, they rely on their "intuition", or they simply invent them. The results of philosophy done in this way are typically sterile and often silly. There are no proprietary philosophical questions that are worth answering, nor is there any productive philosophical method that does not engage the sciences. But there are lots of deeply important (and fascinating and frustrating) questions about minds, morals, language, culture and more. To make progress on them we need to use anything that science can tell us, and any method that works.”

André Ariew said...

One of the things I'm arguing in my book MS is that Darwin's adherence to Whewell and Herschel's Newtonian philosophy of science led him astray when constructing the theory of natural selection. Darwin should have listened to LaPlace, Gauss, and Quetelet instead. If I'm right then this is a case where philosophy has hurt science by introducing an obstacle.

Aaron Boyden said...

I suppose the position that metaphysics is pretty much always the enemy is controversial, but it is a controversial view that I hold. If so, then I think philosophy is generally beneficial, because common sense contains plenty of metaphysics. Thus, while I think anti-metaphysical philosophers are most helpful, even pro-metaphysical philosophers are not as harmful as they might seem. They don't generally make things worse than they would have been without philosophy, since they only replace one metaphysics with another, and indeed in advocating and arguing for metaphysics the metaphysicians bring metaphysical assumptions into the open, where they can be questioned.

Kenny said...

Aaron Boyden - I think that anti-metaphysical philosophers have at times hurt science as well. Didn't the positivists stunt quantum mechanics by convincing the scientists to go for something like the Copenhagen interpretation? It might be a useful way to think while applying some aspects of quantum mechanics, but it seems to get in the way of understanding the foundations of it. But then again, I'm no expert on either the positivists or quantum mechanics.

Aaron Boyden said...

Copenhagen was motivated by idealist metaphysics more than positivist anti-metaphysics; Einstein the supposed realist was really much closer to the positivists than Bohr was. Bohr misinterpreted EPR when he said Einstein's mistake was assuming realism. EPR really showed a conflict between quantum theory and relativity, not between quantum theory and realism (hence Einstein's conviction that there was a serious problem there; Einstein was very flexible when it came to metaphysics, but he was quite confident about relativity). It's not clear that anybody's satisfactorily resolved that conflict yet.

徐若瑄Vivian said...
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