The Gym Teachers Of Academia
February 5, 2015 1:56 AM   Subscribe

"Philosophy of science is about as useful to science as ornithology is to birds." This is the reported judgment, by the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, on my lifelong profession.
Michael Ruse, noted atheist and philosopher, 'stands up for the philosophy of science.'
posted by the man of twists and turns (75 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
This might be interesting, but I can't get past the terrible, terrible interface.
posted by gene_machine at 2:10 AM on February 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah, that is pretty appalling.
posted by AdamCSnider at 2:26 AM on February 5, 2015


This might be interesting, but I can't get past the terrible, terrible interface.

That is actually pretty close to how a lot of scientists feel about philosophy of science.
posted by srboisvert at 3:00 AM on February 5, 2015 [25 favorites]


I reckon Popper had a lot more influence on scientists than Audubon had on birds.
posted by Segundus at 3:01 AM on February 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


Things I had to look up:
tant pis - too bad, never mind
apologia pro vita sua -john henry newman - Latin for "A defense of his life" - an English catholic priest's defense of Catholicism.

Article summary
His contributions to science:
Something something about functionalist explanations in biology
Something something about the notion of evolutionary progress/complexity.
Fighting creationists and Third waying between new atheism and science friendly religious moderates.

I did an informal self-guided minor in philosophy of science during my undergraduate and I do think it is useful for thinking clearly about science but I also came away feeling like philosophers had a notion that they are the only people who can think clearly and that a lot of their beliefs about science seem to stem from an ignorance of both what scientists know and what scientists are taught.

I particularly think that philosophers of science don't realize just how historical most advanced science teaching is. I wonder if this is because the science requirements for most BAs is a quick introductory overview course or two rather than a deep dive in a single research area.
posted by srboisvert at 3:33 AM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


I also came away feeling like philosophers had a notion that they are the only people who can think clearly

They think everyone else is also trying to do philosophy, but really botching it. But scientists are the same way.
posted by thelonius at 3:39 AM on February 5, 2015 [13 favorites]


"Science" is philosophy, just with really specific evidence criteria.
posted by KMH at 4:10 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


"philosophy of science" is the anglo-academic home of positivism. it includes critics like Popper who, while critical of early positivism, still want to maintain the central positivist distinction between "scientific" knowledge and other human knowledge and a broad rejection of metaphysics as an intellectual pursuit,

it's as archaic and useless as a "magazine" style web-interface for reading pdfs... complete with page-turning sound effects.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:10 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


the tragedy is that epistemology, ontology and metaphysics in general are desperately important to various scientific pursuits, but are almost impossible to study within the anglo-american academic setting even if you aren't a scientist because they are been largely purged from academia unless you are either a "pragmatist" or an "analytic" philosopher, much less the practical problems, if you are drowning in the kind of scholasticism required to pursue a career track in science.

if you grew up thinking that Mr. Spock is actually kind of a moron, and couldn't possibly understand anything scientific due to his fetishized empiricism, then critiques of positivism can seem like a breath of fresh air... but the "philosophy of science" is a closed room intellectually...
posted by ennui.bz at 4:20 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I miss when I could laugh at people talking about scientism. Dismissing HPS is the very epitome of it.

I did an informal self-guided minor in philosophy of science during my undergraduate and I do think it is useful for thinking clearly about science but I also came away feeling like philosophers had a notion that they are the only people who can think clearly and that a lot of their beliefs about science seem to stem from an ignorance of both what scientists know and what scientists are taught.

Virtually everybody thinks they can do philosophy and virtually everybody is very, very, very wrong and prone to endlessly repeating extremely basic errors that even a philosophy minor would help them avoid. It's just like the de-valuing of writing thing where people go "writing is just putting words together, I do that all day long, writing is easy and I'm as good a writer as everybody else!" Critical thinking is the same way where everybody thinks they're really good at it despite not studying or practicing it, and watching people who clearly don't have any understanding of philosophy fliply dismiss it- watching somebody who clearly doesn't know how to think critically dismiss the study and practice of it while thinking that they are thereby doing it- is weird and maddening. It's a "my ignorance is the equal of your knowledge" for a field that a lot of people are really, really invested in pretending has no value and in so doing demonstrate the value of.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:21 AM on February 5, 2015 [37 favorites]


So does anyone know of any prominent scientists standing up for the philosophy of science?
posted by Drexen at 4:29 AM on February 5, 2015


And all that's not to say that philosophy is perfect and unflawed and etc etc etc because philosophy as an academic field has a fuckin' lot of problems but the solution to those problems is rigor and dialogue and reading and reason, not Reddit shithead STEMicism.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:36 AM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


The interface loads so brokenly in chrome on my Mac that I can't read it.

I have at least one comment anyhow though-- Feynman probably didn't intend anything positive by his comment, but isn't ornithology useful for birds? I would guess that e.g. eagles whose egg quality was destroyed by DDT have directly benefited from it. (If no one was paying attention to the birds, then no one would have noticed the bad effects, and we would have been less likely to stop using DDT. Since we stopped, some bird populations that were suffering have rebounded).

(from a physicist occasionally worried about the extinction of her species)
posted by nat at 4:43 AM on February 5, 2015 [7 favorites]


I disagree. I read a couple books on philosophy of social science and causation, and they really helped clarify my thinking about what causal inference is.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:44 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, ornithology is useful to birds. To say ornithology is not useful to birds is like saying studying humans is not useful to humans. And I'm not sure I like someone being stuck with making a comment based on a "reported judgment."
Ruse proves the usefulness of philosophy of science when he testified against creationism being placed in school curriculum.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:49 AM on February 5, 2015


I also came away feeling like philosophers had a notion that they are the only people who can think clearly

I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. And I plan on finding out what that is.
posted by Wolof at 5:01 AM on February 5, 2015 [6 favorites]


Yeah, ornithology is useful to birds. To say ornithology is not useful to birds is like saying studying humans is not useful to humans.

I respectfully disagree. The point of the analogy is that, just as ornithology is a study made by, and thus primarily useful to humans, but not to birds - the subjects of the study - so too the philosophy of science is useful to human beings, but scientists are sub-human animals who should be butchered for our consumption, forced to lay eggs, plucked for their soft, downy quiltage, etc. It is thus quite a profound statement, and one that is undeniably correct in every particular.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:04 AM on February 5, 2015 [27 favorites]


This is all desperately current. If you pick up the machete of truth and head on into the steaming thickets of Big Data, you'll find a lot of big beasts stumbling around trying to work out what knowledge actually is and how you find it, all based on masses of variably qualified stuff in piles of mixed size and inchoateness. There is no underlying philosophy guiding this (absent "sell the sizzle") and a great deal of, shall we say, waving of magic wands. It's positively medieval in there - or at best, early modern.

The philosophers of science should get stuck in. There's money.

As for the ornithology analogy: the ornithologists I know care passionately about birds, and do not see themselves as passive observers or avian manipulators. They want to use their knowledge to promote the good of birds, and defend against the bad, even if the birds themselves are unlikely to fully appreciate the cause of any benefit to them that results.

The lot of the birds would be much the poorer without the ornithologists.
posted by Devonian at 5:14 AM on February 5, 2015 [12 favorites]


scientists are sub-human animals who should be butchered for our consumption, forced to lay eggs, plucked for their soft, downy quiltage, etc.

This scientist-down parka I bought a few Winters back is really freaking warm--I think its fill power is actually rated better than goose down. Their eggs are nasty though
posted by dubitable at 5:14 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well, the ornithologists I've known have looked into bird diseases, bird ecology (habitats - in terms of protecting them) and... (okay, I've only known two).
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:15 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


... the ornithologists I've known have looked into bird diseases, bird ecology (habitats - in terms of protecting them) ...

Well on reflection, it seems you make a very good point, but just to fully understand your argument ... these ornithologists, how did they taste?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:28 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


According to Brian Magee (I highly recommend his book "Confessions Of A Philosopher"), the Vienna Circle (the logical positivists) totally misunderstood Popper as a fellow traveler, whereas his philosophy of science is actually almost the inverse of theirs.

The big idea of Logical Positivism* was the Verification Principle, which was a theory of meaning in language (or,that is one way to think of it). This was the notion that the meaning of a sentence is to be found only in its empirical verifiability. So, they discard all of metaphysics, ethics, art, and religion as actually meaningless, since there is no empirical criterion for verifying anything said in these subjects. Popper, however, said that what distinguishes a scientific theory from other kinds of thought is that it is falsifiable - you can determine empirically testable consequences from it , and, if experience contradicts those consequences, you know that there is something wrong with the theory. The experiments showing that the Earth is not moving through luminiferous ether seem to me to be a good example of what he has in mind.

Now i am punching a bit over my weight here, since I have not read Popper, or studied much philosophy of science. It seems to me that, for Popper's theory to make sense, one must first be able to understand what a theory means, before it's possible to attempt to falsify it. That seems fatal to the Verification Principle as a theory of meaning. (Another deadly blow is that the Verification Principle itself is empirically verified....how?)

Magee says that they also totally misunderstood Wittgenstein.

*Logical Positivism has been dead as a doornail since the 1940s or so, by the way.
posted by thelonius at 5:29 AM on February 5, 2015


I didn't read all the fine print but I want to bet there is more than one orinthologist working on Operation Migration. (They are working on saving the endangered whooping crane.)
posted by bukvich at 5:34 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a very shallow understanding of Logical Positivism which is very popular among the /r/atheist set, meanwhile.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:35 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm a philosopher (still feel odd about self-labeling that way), but I think critics are kinda justified in their low opinion of the field. Philosophy is definitely hard, and non-philosophers are (on average) bad at it -- but being a professional philosopher doesn't magically make you good at it, either! Sturgeon's Law is very much in effect.

"philosophy of science" is the anglo-academic home of positivism. it includes critics like Popper who, while critical of early positivism, still want to maintain the central positivist distinction between "scientific" knowledge and other human knowledge and a broad rejection of metaphysics as an intellectual pursuit,

This research program is called the "demarcation problem," and AFAIK hasn't been the main strand of philosophy of science since the '60s. The Vienna Circle and their fellow travelers certainly thought of themselves as anti-metaphysical, but I'm not sure what you mean when you go on and cast them as anti-epistemological as well. And anyway, despite the efforts of Carnap, Quine, and Popper, metaphysics has enjoyed a decades-long revival in philosophy.
posted by grobstein at 5:36 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


I don't especially think philosophy of science is useful for scientists -- not often anyway. From what I've read of the linked article, I don't think I agree with it. But I'm not sure that's such a cutting criticism, anyway. Is linguistics useful for poets? No, but we don't treat utility for poets as the be-all, end-all of an enterprise's value.

That said, I think there are some interesting exceptions and limits to the general rule, cases where scientists do make use of, and / or do, philosophy of science.

When the foundations of a field are in flux: It's fine for critics like Krause to say that philosophy is not useful to physicists, because the main research program of physics has been more-or-less firmly established for decades (physicists excuse my casual history). However, when you look at periods when the physics community is unsure what physics is about, you find physicists marshaling philosophical arguments.

Two such periods that I'm aware of: 1) the 17th century, before the establishment of mechanics; 2) the late 19th century, before the establishment of microphysics. During these periods, the same scientists concerned with producing evidence are also concerned with the broader question of what constitutes evidence, because the answers are unclear. The atomic theory is now taught to children, so it seems natural to us, but in the 19th century it was bizarre, and it was very much a live question what kinds of evidence in our visible, macroscopic world could give us knowledge about supposed invisible building-block particles.

In the 17th century, important scientists who engaged in philosophical argument certainly include: Kepler, Galileo, Gassendi, Descartes, and Newton. Today, Newton is remembered for mumble-mumble-invented-the-calculus, but a central concern of Principia is, How is it possible to establish physical facts with certainty? Newton wants to say that Kepler's "laws" of motion were conjectural, and Hooke's gestures at universal gravity were only guesses. It's only Newton who has actually proven these facts. He was very interested in the difference between what he was doing and what came before, an essentially philosophical concern about the nature and workings of evidence. The argument can be made that this meta-interest in evidence was an important driver of his object-level scientific accomplishments.

More generally, Newton was working in a time when the agenda for physics had not been set -- what sorts of explanations were sought? What can count as evidence? And in this kind of environment, philosophical arguments come to the fore.

In the 19th century you again find leading physicists arguing about the philosophy of science. Maxwell and Rayleigh were both moved to defend the use of mechanical models (analogies) in microphysics and electromagnetism. Moving down to the second rank of physicists, the thermodynamicist Pierre Duhem wrote a still-excellent essay in the philosophy of science, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Ernst Mach is remembered as a physicist but was also the spiritual founder of Vienna-Circle positivism; "Mach's principle," as honored by Einstein, is basically a philosophical criterion for physical theories.

What this tells us, I think, is that philosophy is useful to physics when physics is in a time of philosophical trouble. This has happened more than once in the history of physics, but if it's not happening right now, then physicists will be inclined to dismiss philosophy.

For another example, look at the ongoing replication crisis in social psychology. Psychologists suddenly have use for philosophy of science, because the foundations of the field's evidentiary practices are under fire. This piece by a Harvard psychologist, which was posted to the blue a while ago, makes use of Popper and Kuhn in a live scientific dispute over the course of the discipline. (It's not necessarily a good piece, see comments by me and others, but it demonstrates that philosophical matters are relevant to working scientists.)
posted by grobstein at 5:36 AM on February 5, 2015 [45 favorites]


I suppose the thing is that while birds may benefit from the study that ornithologists make of them, the birds don't themselves utilize the knowledge gained - of course not, as birds are too stupid to understand such things! So obviously what the analogy is really saying is that scientists are all idiots. Horrible, stupid idiots. Which is true, obviously.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 5:56 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Philosophy has made itself into the whore of science, which itself is now little more than the aggregated egoism, lust, greed and fantasy of the superstitious mass of mankind.
posted by No Robots at 6:04 AM on February 5, 2015


So does anyone know of any prominent scientists standing up for the philosophy of science?

I'd say that Ilya Prigogine was a prominent scientist who made major contributions to the philosophy of science.

My current favorite philosopher of science, Mark Wilson, whose Wandering Significance will hopefully, probably, eventually get the recognition it deserves as an absolutely astonishing, groundbreaking work of philosophy, which all physicists should read as well as all philosophers, studied physics as well as philosophy, and so is a "scientist", whatever that means.

Philosophy has made itself into the whore of science, which itself is now little more than the aggregated egoism, lust, greed and fantasy of the superstitious mass of mankind.

Is this some kind of reference I should pick up on? Otherwise I think you're a bit confused.

If we're whores of science, you'd think we'd get paid better.
posted by dis_integration at 6:25 AM on February 5, 2015


Philosophy has made itself into the whore of science, which itself is now little more than the aggregated egoism, lust, greed and fantasy of the superstitious mass of mankind.

You say that now, but just wait until you visit their flying island, where they've just unboiled an egg for the first time. On to ungrowing cucumbers!
posted by kewb at 6:26 AM on February 5, 2015


My undergrad education included some philosophy of science, largely taught by scientists. Science is a human endeavor: conducted by humans, for the purpose of producing human knowledge and the tangible benefits thereof. So having an organized way of thinking about the big picture of what they do is helpful for scientists. I'd much rather that be based on something deeper than cultural biases and "this is how we've always done things".

One major area where philosophy (in general) and science overlap is in research ethics. Lots of other mefites can talk about research ethics boards and related issues, so I won't go into detail.

In non-lab sciences, and especially in the social sciences, there are active debates around what constitutes valid knowledge. What is the role of qualitative studies versus quantitative studies, for example? Of the scientists I know in areas where these sort of epistemological questions are highly relevant, some have formal training or exposure to philosophy of science and some have less training or exposure - the ones whose viewpoints seem to be more influenced by personal or cultural biases than other considerations do seem to be a subset of the ones with little training in or exposure to philosophy of science.

There's some interesting overlap there with philosophy of math, too. Particularly in the area of interpretation of probability and statistics. The statisticians and probability theorists I know all seem to have had this covered in their math education, but for scientists (and especially the general public) who are less math-literate, a lack of knowledge in this area at the interface of philosophy and science has pretty significant consequences for misinterpretation of data in scientific studies, misapplying statistical tests, and general decision-making around public policy issues.

One component or branch of philosophy of science that is highly topical currently is feminist philosophy of science and similar critiques from perspectives outside the establishment. This deals with issues like, how do biases affect the explanations that scientists consider for their experimental results or data? How do we determine what are important or worthwhile research problems in the first place? How does the lack of representation of women, non-white people in Western science, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. affect the above?

Perhaps it is helpful that my philosophy of science training was from more of an "applied" perspective. Theoretical philosophy can be unapproachable to outsiders. My personal frustration is that regular words are used in technical contexts rather than technical terms being generated, and as a mathematician it sometimes appears to me like the technical definitions are fuzzy to start with. But at least being aware of the major issues has been helpful to me, and relevant to a number is scientists I know in a variety of fields.
posted by eviemath at 6:34 AM on February 5, 2015 [11 favorites]


It's not fair, really; if there's philosophy of science, why is there no science of philosophy? The philosophers are allowed to boss everyone around and the poor humble scientists never get their own back.
posted by Segundus at 6:34 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


My experience with evolutionary biology is that there are some evolutionary biologists who read or encourage reading philosophy of science from philosophers in their students, but that most biologists respond to philosophy of science with a resounding "meh." That said, there is quite a lot of discussion about philosophy of animal behavior or evolutionary biology from biologists incorporated into most evolutionary biology programs, and you will see a lot of discussion about what qualifies as good evidence of adaptation or content of animal communication or the relationship between paradigms of sexual selection and what have you. Among other things, the author is very much correct about how frequently that bloody spandrels paper comes up in your average evolutionary biology education.

We have a philosophy of science seminar series here, and I don't know anyone in my department who attends even occasionally. The one time I went, the audience was entirely composed of people I don't recognize and have never seen. On the other hand, I've never seen one of my university's evolutionary psychology profs or students attending the evolution/ecology/behavior department seminars, either, so take from that what you will.

Regarding the piece itself, which I am still reading...

The EO Wilson quote in particular seems really strange to me, because I will eat my hat if Wilson isn't very familiar with the issues that come out of adaptationist thinking and "evolution always progresses towards more complexity"--he comes out of a sociobiology tradition that has had a lot of discussion of the issue, and it's a huge issue in his own field of the evolution of eusocial insects. Especially with respect to the kin selection/group selection debate he's spent the last five years immersed in the thick of, apparently gleefully stirring it up occasionally.

Evolutionary biologists as a whole know damn well that evolution =/= progress towards more complexity--OR less. Look at anyone who is familiar with the evolution of cave-dwelling animals like Astyanax fish, who have repeatedly lost pigmentation and eyes as an adaption to living in caves. Or look at the evolution of halictid bees, with multiple gains and losses of eusocial behavior. I... have a hard time thinking that anyone who works closely with evolutionary biologists thinks the field has a pernicious problem with that particular issue right now. In the past, sure--but not now. Just on Monday, while reading a 1969 paper with my PI in a historical context, he spent like ten minutes going "ignore this huge error in their thinking about humans being the pinnacle of evolutionary complexity" in an effort to prevent the discussion from derailing into complaints about it.
posted by sciatrix at 6:55 AM on February 5, 2015 [8 favorites]


So does anyone know of any prominent scientists standing up for the philosophy of science?

Here's physicist Sean Carroll standing up for philosophy in general.
posted by crLLC at 7:12 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


> The lot of the birds would be much the poorer without the ornithologists.

They would also be much richer.

Ornithology as science exists only because humanity has developed to such a resource intensive state where ornithology as a profession can exist.
posted by Poldo at 7:16 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Some addenda to my post above:

-- Locke and Hobbes are now remembered mostly as philosophers (political theorists), but were both active in the science of their day. Locke at least was engaged with concerns related to philosophy of science. Locke and Newton were friends. (There is a letter from Newton furiously accusing Locke of trying to set him up with women. Newton later apologized.)

-- Descartes is popularly remembered as a philosopher, and a somewhat airy one at that, but his contributions to science were immense (even though his scientific theories were almost all wrong and bad). Descartes, in his Principia Philosophiae, was the first person to formulate the idea of a centripetal force that could be measured by the tension on a string constraining a revolving body. This idea forms a cornerstone of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. The similar titles are not coincidence; Newton saw himself as responding to and supplanting Descartes's work by introducing mathematical methods and exact quantities. But the key insight about centripetal force was a necessary precondition and was due to Descartes.

-- Francis Bacon was a founding figure both in science and in philosophy of science. His idea of the "crucial experiment" has been cited by scientists for centuries. The received view of the "scientific method" (for example, as taught in high schools) was first formulated by Bacon.
posted by grobstein at 7:20 AM on February 5, 2015 [9 favorites]


Good god are you supposed to be able to read that? Not an advertisement for the relevance of philosophers if they can't put their articles in a properly web-accessible form.

However, and without attempting to read the article to see whether he discusses this, I would point out that science and philosophy have gone hand in hand since there has been such a thing as science at all. Many of the people we think of as early scientists, such as Galileo, had the title "philosopher" at the time.

On preview, what grobstein said.
posted by iotic at 7:23 AM on February 5, 2015


Where's the talk about Judea Pearl and his absolutely massive contribution to causality which is influential to social science research and has been influenced by philosophy of science?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:23 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Popped the link open. Saw the interface. Immediately thought of one of my favorite philosophers of the late 20th century, Clay Davis. "Sheeeeeeeeeeeit."

if you grew up thinking that Mr. Spock is actually kind of a moron, and couldn't possibly understand anything scientific due to his fetishized empiricism

If Spock were a human, instead of a Vulcan, he'd be clinically insane.
posted by CincyBlues at 7:34 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Where's the talk about Judea Pearl and his absolutely massive contribution to causality which is influential to social science research and has been influenced by philosophy of science?

I was thinking of bringing that up, as you and I had talked about it in a previous thread (question, response).

Ultimately, I decided I wasn't sure if Lewis's work was what most would label "philosophy of science." But you're right, Causality and the associated theory is a great example of philosophy being relevant to science.

On a side note, Clark Glymour, a philosopher of science at CMU, also did some of the foundational work on causal Bayesian networks, and is sometimes credited along with Pearl as their inventor. The philosophers of science at CMU generally are involved in active research on machine learning. Their approach is not really mainstream in the philosophy profession, but I have tremendous admiration for it.
posted by grobstein at 7:34 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Having finished it:

His take on the progress discussion in general is really weird. Evolution as a field has a consensus that the process of evolution doesn't necessarily progress in any direction with regard to complexity, BUT that you do get a progression of interesting changes and tweaks over time because you have more time to build on previous adaptations and you have more structures that you can tweak to do interesting things.

For example, the evolution of flight in birds needed to have a bunch of things on hand before it could happen. You needed to have feathers, right? Well, the current accepted theory is that the feather structures started as down for early theropods to use for heat conservation. I'd bank that the long 'flight' feathers (which were definitely around way before flight was a possibility) started, building off of that, as something that was useful for social communication, possibly for threat displays or courtship displays. You needed to have a lightweight skeleton--well, that probably started as useful for predators trying to chase down prey. You need to have rather flexible arms--that was probably a predatory adaptation to start which later got co-opted for flight. etc. It's easier to evolve something complicated if you have all these previous adaptations to work with that you can co-opt later to turn into something else. And that frequently takes some evolutionary time to get going.

Basically, 'progress' and how evolutionary biologists think about it is complicated. Which makes sense, since the whole bloody field is about how organisms and life forms change over time, jesus. The only 'verboten' thing about progress to discuss in modern biology is the practice of making value judgments about whether one extant organism is "more evolved" than another, and that's mostly because humans have a long and self-centered history of assuming that anything more like them is somehow better. And even then I could talk about assays that exist to see whether specific genes have undergone more change and selection in one species than another over time, and that's all perfectly fine and acceptable.

For someone who says he spends his time working with evolutionary biologists and studying the philosophy of how those biologists think, his conclusions about problems facing the field currently seem either obvious or off the mark to me. Maybe I'm being uncharitable, though, since it looks like he might be aiming for an audience of physicists rather than biologists.
posted by sciatrix at 7:50 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


If Spock were a human, instead of a Vulcan, he'd be clinically insane.

and also the star of a prime time drama where he solves puzzles.
posted by srboisvert at 7:59 AM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: Reddit shithead STEMicism.
posted by sammyo at 8:04 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Philosophy of science is about as useful to science as ornithology is to birds." This is the reported judgment, by the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, on my lifelong profession.

Funnily enough, Tim Maudlin, a philosopher of science, called out Feynman for misunderstanding the mechanism behind the Twin Paradox in the latter's Lectures on Physics. Feynman writes:

This is called a "paradox" only by people who believe that
the principle of relativity means that that all motion is relative;
they say "Heh, heh, heh, from the point of view of Paul
can't we say that Peter was moving and should therefore appear
to age more slowly? By symmetry, the only possible
result is that both should be the same age when they meet.'
But in order for them to come back together and make the
comparison, Paul must either stop at the end of the trip and
make a comparison of clocks, or, more simply, he has to
come back, and the one who comes back must be the man
who was moving, and he knows this, because he had to
turn around. When he turned around, all kinds of unusual
things happened in his space-ship --- the rockets went off,
things jammed up against one wall, and so on --- while Peter
felt nothing.
So the way to state the rule is to say that the man who
has felt the accelerations, who has seen things fall against the
walls, and so on, is the one who would be the younger; that
is the difference between them in an "absolute" sense, and
it is certainly correct.'


Maudlin in one of his books shows that this is a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding also committed by physicist Wolfgang Rindler in his book, Essential Relativity. The differential aging between the two twins does not come from a difference in acceleration, for it can be shown mathematically that even if the two twins accelerated equally, there could still be an aging difference.
posted by Dalby at 8:06 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Sort of a derail but we need more philosophy posts. And not just wacky Zizicisms. This seems like it could be a really interesting venue for peeing back bits of contemporary directions. Perhaps a meta-philo-contest some month?
posted by sammyo at 8:07 AM on February 5, 2015


Maybe he meant "Philosophy of science is about as useful to science as birding is to birds."
posted by Kabanos at 8:08 AM on February 5, 2015


Here's a nice quote from Maudlin in this interview:

"I don’t think that the spats between physicists and philosophers are more heated, or of a different kind, then the spats that break out among philosophers or among physicists; they just get more public attention. Disputes in foundations of physics typically cannot be settled by observation or experiment, so argumentation has to come to the fore. And the analysis and evaluation of arguments requires a certain fastidiousness about terms and concepts that can be fostered by a background in philosophy.

That said, though, I do not see any deep fissure that runs between the two fields. In my view, the greatest philosopher of physics in the first half of the 20th century was Einstein and in the second half was John Stewart Bell. So physicists who say that professional philosophers have not made the greatest contributions to foundations of physics are correct. But both Einstein and Bell had philosophical temperaments, and Einstein explicitly complained about physicists who had no grounding in philosophy. The community of people who work in foundations of physics is about evenly divided between members of philosophy departments, members of physics departments and members of math departments. Many of us on all sides are trying to open and broaden channels of communication across disciplinary boundaries. And I don’t see that there is much correlation between disciplinary affiliation and sobriety: no one is more sober than Bell and Einstein were, or more cavalier (at times) than Bohr or John Wheeler. A more salient division in contemporary foundations is between those, like myself, who judge that Bell was basically correct in almost everything he wrote and those who think that his theorem does not show much of interest and his complaints about the unprofessional vagueness that infects quantum theory are misplaced."
posted by Dalby at 8:20 AM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I suspect most scientists are able to do their work quite happily with only a fairly rudimentary "philosophy" of science, so in that sense Feynman is right. But...so what? Since when is "usefulness to scientists" the criterion for judging the value of a field of humanistic inquiry? The practice of most individual scientists is relatively useless to philosophers of science, but that doesn't negate the value of their work. How useful is astronomy to celestial bodies? Not one whit: doesn't mean that astronomy is a useless science.

The question to pose about the utility of philosophy of science is: "does it generate interesting and revealing ways to think about the nature of the scientific endeavor." If yes, then it's valuable to people who like to think about those issues. Some of those people will be scientists, some of them will be hairdressers, some of them will be poets, some of them will be professional philosophers.

(A p.s. to ennui.bz: if you haunt skeptic discussion boards at all--as I have at various times in the past--you will soon find that Popper is a bete-noire to many skeptics who see him as preaching antiscientific relativism. Strange how the world turns. But your view of the current state of the philosophy of science as some sort of last redoubt of logical positivism is hilariously outdated; it's as if Kuhn never happened).
posted by yoink at 8:56 AM on February 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Feynman's sentiment is far from universally shared in the physics community. There are many physics Nobel prize winners who cared deeply about the philosophy of science and published numerous books and articles on the subject, e.g. Schrödinger and Heisenberg. Hermann Weyl's classic work "Philosophy of Mathematics and Natural Science" was recently published with a new introduction by 2004 physics Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek.
posted by tecg at 8:58 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


My huge university (GO IU!) had a "History & Philosophy of Science". I sat in on a course as a first semester frosh, and realized that it was kinda a sham. I'm pretty sure they are trying to seem legitimate by throwing in three words indicating how its a real subject.

They are like the groupies of Science. Those who can, do; those who can't, get involved in the history and philosophy of science.

Oh. I sat in on a course in my senior year, and there were absolutely NO science majors in the class. Also, I'm not 100% sure, but it seems as it counted as "arts and humanities" credit, rather than science. Which makes sense.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:49 AM on February 5, 2015


KMH: “‘Science’ is philosophy, just with really specific evidence criteria.”

Exactly. And – to elucidate further – "science" is a branch of philosophy which takes as its evidence criteria certain first principles which science itself cannot provide any firm basis for. The rest of philosophy is necessary because without it science has no foundation whatsoever.

To find useful "philosophy of science" – a terrible appellation which makes it sound like philosophy is just really the study of this or that, rather than a cohesive way of life called "philosophy" – one would have to look past simplists like Karl Popper and back to the roots of what we call science. In particular, to Aristotle.
posted by koeselitz at 9:51 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


They are like the groupies of Science. Those who can, do; those who can't, get involved in the history and philosophy of science.

Yeah, ha ha. It's like people teaching history don't even make history themselves!!!!

But, um, come to think of it, astronomers don't make planets--what a bunch of fucking poseur losers!

And a lot of those so-called-scientists who study aeronautics can't even fly a fucking plane!

(Hint, to study something and to practice something are not the same thing. They both serve their own purposes and have their own coherent sets of values and practices.)
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


I'm a professional philosopher. The post above where it's pointed out that everyone thinks they can do philosophy (or at least understand its contemporary condition) is spot on. So mostly I avoid philosophy posts.

Feynman hated philosophy based largely from an incomprehensible class full of process philosophy that he took at MIT. If that class had been my only exposure to philosophy, I'd probably hate philosophy, too.
posted by persona au gratin at 10:29 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't have time to explain myself in detail, but just feel like putting my thoughts out there:

I am thinking, maybe there are only these two reasons for the general disdain of philosophy that some scientists have:

Case 1: Somewhere along their scientific development, they learn a cognitive model that is analogous to how some secular people learn to become atheists. Basically it's just an intuitive feeling that a field is of no use/validity to them—akin to how I myself intuitively feel that religion/belief in God is not useful. And then the given explanation is a post-rationalization (not that there's anything wrong with that per se). And I think this process of developing one's disbelief in this way, it's an interesting social phenomenon.

Case 2: Politics, and ideology. The reason we have scientists who have this kind of reaction (or apathy) towards certain areas is less due to any deliberate, rationalist, intellectual conviction, but more because the modern political, economic apparatus tends to create these kinds of working scientists who think a particular way and don't freely choose to look at other things, etc.

I don't know. But as a STEM person who has on various occasion been accused of being too philosophical, these are the two things that occurred based on some self-reflection.
posted by polymodus at 10:52 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maudlin in one of his books shows that this is a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding also committed by physicist Wolfgang Rindler in his book, Essential Relativity.

I took a graduate seminar on the philosophy of relativity from Maudlin. It was very probably the most exciting and illuminating course I've taken. People who bash philosophy of science just don't realize what real philosophers of science like Maudlin are up to.
posted by painquale at 10:55 AM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


I went to the moon for the cheese, then I went to Venus for the women. Was I wrong?

I designed rockets for Hitler, then I designed space stations for Walt Disney. Was I wrong?

Everyone may agree that ornithologists did eagles a good turn when they found out that putting nests on top of the steel power towers helped keep them (the eagles) from getting electrocuted. I read that in Reader's Digest while I was waiting to have my teeth cleaned. However, the eagles don't have to care, and if you don't have a warm spot in your heart for eagles, neither do you.

I can process analogies easily enough, but I often have trouble verifying premises. I (eventually) have to just haul off and trust somebody. Must I include a caveat every time I write an opinion?--I won't be seen as falsely modest, but I don't mind if people know that I sometimes get confused. So then, how do I pluck the gem out of Sturgeon's pile of crud? Does this mean that even if I believe Creationism is crud and can't prove it that I still get to snicker at the guys who come knocking at my door believing they have a chance to rescue my soul from eternal torment? I'm pretty sure that, if they know my agnosticism is tentative, they will keep coming back. (I choose to say "agnosticism" because it's the least poor of words that cover this ground.) Never mind. If proving them wrong is so hard I don't want to be right. I can simply refuse to answer the door.
posted by mule98J at 11:03 AM on February 5, 2015


Hal c on, that is an incredibly dismissive comment that is based on your one experience and you use it to discredit a whole field. For people who know what they are talking about, philosophy of science matters. Jon Elster is an example of a philosopher who is routinely cited and discussed by practioners.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:43 AM on February 5, 2015


The weird thing about philosophy is that it's everywhere. Say what you will about bloviating theorists in their ivory towers, when you start scratching at a problem, no matter how mundane, once you get past the topsoil you strike philosophy, every durn time.
posted by tspae at 12:21 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


an incomprehensible class full of process philosophy

A friend of mine compared Whitehead devotees to Heidegerrians, sociologically speaking. They have kind of found It, and they aren't really all that interested in engaging in criticism from outsiders.
posted by thelonius at 12:41 PM on February 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Also: Maudlin is top-notch. As is David Albert. Speaking of, if you want to see why philosophers are useful, check out his epic smackdown of Lawrence Krauss.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:55 PM on February 5, 2015


I got a philosophy minor in college and consider Philosophy of Science to be one of the most important classes I took because it explicitly discussed methods of thought. In my physics classes we of course discussed what constitutes a valid experiment, but it was all very specific to the task at hand.

Perhaps part of it was my background. I grew up in a religious environment with which I generally disagreed. People in that environment are not keen on discussing methods of learning the truth except for appeals to authority. I specifically remember feeling extreme excitement in Philosophy of Science when I learned the logic behind discussions where the goal is to discover the truth.

I don't know if I consider Philosophy of Science to be an ongoing endeavor, but I do consider it basic knowledge in the same way that addition and reading are basic knowledge.

If I could change one thing about school it would be the requirement that Philosophy of Science be a required class in grade school, middle school, and high school with increasing levels of complexity in each course.
posted by HappyEngineer at 1:24 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not meaning to credential drop, but I double majored in philosophy and biochem/cell&molec under the auspices of a liberal arts BA, and subsequently earned a MSc and a PhD in the cellular/molecular biosciences.

That philosophy training has definitely made me a better scientist; all-round, specifically helping me understand better what my data actually means, and to better understand the narrative of research advancement paths through the years. I also feel that my education path was in some ways superior than a lot of my grad school peers, who did STEM-intensive "Science One" BSc (Hons.) undergrads, in being a more effective scientist.
posted by porpoise at 1:30 PM on February 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


So does anyone know of any prominent scientists standing up for the philosophy of science?

Statisticians and computational biologists tend to care a lot more about this, in my experience. Pearl is an excellent example. Shalizi and Gelman have published recently about the intersection of philosophy of science and Bayesian statistics. And to put in a plug for someone I know IRL, Florian Markowetz is a computational biologist with some philosophy background who has also written about philosophy of science on his personal blog (and not just philosophers that scientists tend to like already).
posted by en forme de poire at 1:53 PM on February 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


I made this comment here a few years ago, that I'll share here. I think some of the problem is that we separate disciplines that lead to hubris and infighting, when really they should be seen as integrated tools in the Game of Life that are distinct yet symbiotic. It's not like scientists aren't applying traditionally philosophical methods to their discipline, for crying out loud. The second point is probably the one I'd consider important to this discussion.
Philosophers would argue that philosophy, in the analytic tradition, does at least three things, either independently or as an integrated part of other important disciplines:

1. It sits outside of other disciplines, as an independent endeavor, to ask questions of (arguable) importance: What is knowledge? What is justice? Do (or can) immaterial objects exist? These questions can be entertained conceptually outside of the laboratory of life in ways that are beneficial.

2. It sits underneath disciplines, to help give direction to the way that they operate. There are good ways to do science, and there are bad ways to do science. Hence, when scientists critique different scientific approaches, they are generally utilizing philosophical concepts to do so. Hence, a Philosophy of Science exists as its own discipline. This doesn't mean that it trumps the role of science itself, but it says that science works cooperatively with philosophy (sometimes innately and sometimes overtly), which already exists and operates as its own discipline, to make sure it is utilizing a method that best approximates truth. There are good reasons that modern scientific methodology developed from the flowerbed of philosophy.

3. It also works within all disciplines, to make sure they are internally coherent. For example, in just about any discipline that derives conclusions of any importance, you want to make sure that you are not violating various formal and informal fallacies.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:03 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


evimath mentioned it briefly but issues of ethics is an area that I'd think scientists would welcome independent thought that is allied with the goals of scientific endeavor. Not just in the biological sciences where "when does life begin" type of questions that are not obviously resolvable with experimental tests but what about when we start sending folks to Mars, is planetary emigration ethical?
posted by sammyo at 2:49 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


The only people who can say philosophy of science has no bearing on science itself have to be completely ignorant of statistics and that field.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 2:52 PM on February 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wonder what physicsmatt would say about this discussion? I wouldn't necessarily take anyone's views as gospel on this particular subject, but I am curious.
posted by ovvl at 7:04 PM on February 5, 2015


On a point of clarification, math is not a science, so philosophy of math (eg belief in the Axiom of Choice or "do existence proofs constitute valid knowledge or must everything be constructible?"; what are sufficient standards for proof in areas such as analysis (underlying most of statistics) where results are not directly derived from axioms - not mathematical philosophy) is not the same thing as philosophy of science. But there is definitely overlap, eg in the question of Bayesian vs frequentist interpretations of probability, that affects interpretations of data, statistical methods for experimental design, and methods and interpretation of data analysis.
posted by eviemath at 3:52 AM on February 6, 2015


This article, its formatting, or specific claims aside, scientists implicitly use philosophy of science regularly in:
* ethics determinations
* experimental design - what needs to be accounted for in order for the data collected to give valid results?
* data analysis - are correlations statistically significant (and should a threshold for statistical significance be fixed or depend on domain context or issues in the shape of data collected that either are or are not accounted for in a p-value calculation?)
* relative value of quantitative vs qualitative data, or experimental vs observational data
* deciding on what are the important questions in an area to even ask or investigate in the first place
* coming up with interpretations of results beyond mathematical models - particle/wave duality, existence of emergent behavior and emergent phenomena(**), epigenetics and why molecular biologists no longer believe in the "central dogma" of unidirectional transfer of genetic information
* evaluating articles for peer review, grant applications under committee review, value of colleagues' research output for academic tenure and promotion decisions, and the effects on such evaluations of cognitive biases, sexism, racism, preference of different styles of scientific writing, etc.

Good scientists think about these issues rather than following some received conventional wisdom. While that doesn't always involve direct contact with the academic discipline of philosophy of science, the ideas from that academic discipline have most definitely percolated through the scientific community.

(** The idea of emergent phenomena is important and relevant but still relatively recent in many areas: plant and animal behavior in biology eg why geese fly in V patterns, how colonies of slime mold or flocks of penguins actually move, and other issues of coherent effect without intention at the individual organism level; ecology; climatology and related fields (eg that climate, as opposed to just weather, exists, but then also what is a climate effect or climate change versus an individual weather anomaly); the existence of "society" above and beyond the collection of individual behaviors (the assumption of which us kind of fundamental to the study of sociology, but is not always widely accepted by the general public, eg people who think that discrimination can only ever be individual and intentional bias rather than a cumulative or systemic effect), etc.)
posted by eviemath at 4:25 AM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


All of those issues are very current topics of concern and debate in medical research, as I understand it, as well.
posted by eviemath at 4:27 AM on February 6, 2015


Guh. Now that I've managed to read some of it despite the horrid interface (turns out I was using safari on mac earlier, but chrome loads it ok -- still annoying though. With sound? seriously?)--- my main thought is that I find it rather funny that the last philosophy talk I went to was at ASU. In the Beyond Center, which I thought was created at least partially when they recruited Lawrence Krauss to be a prof there.

Anyhow. As far as string theory goes, there is actually lots of discussion about what it means to know something scientifically, particularly as many of us work at the boundary between physics and mathematics. And accordingly there is some related interest in philosophical takes on it-- e.g. this past year, Greg Moore gave a "vision talk" at the yearly Strings conference (written version here). It's definitely meant for fellow stringers (especially near the end when he starts listing open problems) but I think it brings up some interesting and definitely philosophical ideas.

Separately I've heard James Wells speak (at a physics/philosophy workshop) regarding whether naturalness should guide our searches for realistic particle physics models. I don't know the answer, but I do think the question is important.

Now of course there's the question, would I be as interested in these ideas if they were presented directly by a philosopher of physics? I dunno. I think it depends on the philosopher. The presenter would need to realize that they are speaking cross-discpline; we have familiarity with the physical concepts, but not with the philosophy-technical vocabulary. That talk I went to at ASU was *not* successful regarding this; she kept referring to an evidently well known problem in her philosophical area, but when I asked her afterward what the problem was, she wasn't able to explain it. (It can be an absolute pain in the ass to explain a problem to a non expert, so I get that, but still... in this case my own area of expertise ought to have made it possible).

But that failure on an individual level doesn't necessarily correspond to the irrelevance of the field of philosophy as a whole. It points instead to a communication problem.
posted by nat at 5:18 AM on February 6, 2015 [3 favorites]


Rationally Speaking: Elise Crull on Philosophy of Physics
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:18 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


Quantum Gravity Expert Says “Philosophical Superficiality” Has Harmed Physics.

"[T]heoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy."

An interview with Carlo Ravelli. I was impressed with this interview.
posted by painquale at 6:49 PM on February 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


" even if the two twins accelerated equally, there could still be an aging difference."

Could you please show me the math for that?
posted by Collin237 at 12:18 AM on February 26, 2015


Think about it this way. In a curved spacetime, twins could travel along two different completely inertial paths that have a shared start point and shared end point but that have different interval lengths. You can get the twins paradox going without anyone accelerating at all.
posted by painquale at 12:49 AM on February 26, 2015


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