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What Exactly is Philosophy of Science – and Why Does it Matter?

Routledge author Alex Rosenberg offers some answers, casting needed light as well as some controversial heat on the subject. Click here to see the full Q&A.

Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor and Chair in the Philosophy Department and the co-director of the Center for Philosophy of Biology at Duke University. This August, Routledge will release a thoroughly revised and updated Third Edition of his widely successful Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction (for more information on the book click here). Alex also has a general trade book with W.W. Norton coming out this October, entitled The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.

Given that both books rely heavily on Alex’s background in philosophy of science, and given that many students and scholars in the humanities don’t understand this important branch of philosophy, we thought we’d ask Alex some general “softball” questions about this area of study. What we got back, however, was anything but “soft.” As Alex noted after he answered our queries, “you might want to print this on fireproof paper.”

We’ll preface Alex’s sometimes scorching remarks that follow with the note that none of these views is developed or imposed on the reader of Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, Third Edition. All the questions Alex answers, below, are opened up but definitely not answered in that book, which tries to maintain a balanced and questioning stance towards all views.

– Emilie Littlehales and Andrew Beck, Routledge Philosophy

Routledge: Could you give a brief description of the field of philosophy of science so that it makes sense to non-philosophers, and identify some of the core issues the field takes on?

A.R.: Well, the discipline of philosophy as a whole addresses, first, all those questions the sciences cannot answer and second, the questions about why the sciences can’t answer the first set. Figuring out which questions science can answer, and how it does so, that’s the job of the philosophy of science.

Routledge: How did this field develop? Are there any key figures or contributions that everyone should be aware of?

A.R.: The history of western philosophy is the history of the philosophy of science, and the first philosophers of science were the Greek philosophers who lived before and after Plato and Aristotle and simultaneously invented philosophy and science. Rationalism and Empiricism, the two dominant philosophies of the last 400 years, are almost entirely devoted to problems raised by science as it developed from Newton’s day to Einstein’s. So, the list of key figures is just the Who’s Who of western philosophy. As for the major figures working in the recent past whose work students should have a feel for, I’d start with Quine first of all, and then add Putnam, David Lewis, Popper, Salmon, and Kuhn, though he was a historian, not a philosopher.

Routledge: Why are the problems that philosophy of science tackles important? What kind of importance do these problems/issues have outside the field? In other words, should philosophy of science matter to scholars and students in other disciplines? Why or why not?

A.R.: Science is the most reliable route to knowledge of the nature of reality. But in our culture and in others, this claim is persistently challenged by those who embrace one or another religious or other nonscientific source that claims to provide real understanding. Evaluating these competing claims is crucial to individual well being—whose guidance should each of us accept? And it’s essential to the guidance of social policy—the design and improvement of institutions that make human life possible and rewarding. The philosophy of science addresses these questions about science’s claim to objectivity and its implicit denial that there are alternative routes to knowledge. I think that makes the subject indispensible to every thinking person.

Routledge: What is the relationship between philosophy and science, and how do philosophers and scientists view the field overall? (There’s a quote attributed to Richard Feynman, and repeated by Steven Weinberg, which one could interpret in a couple different ways: “Philosophy of physics is about as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.” What do you make of this comment?)

A.R.: Feynman was a wag, and a great philosopher of science himself (check out The Nature of Physical Law, a work of pure philosophy; Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory has a lot of good philosophy of science in it too). Of course the answer to Feynman’s jape is that physicists know about as much about the philosophy of physics as birds know about ornithology! (I wish I had said that, but it was some funnier philosopher of science than me).

Einstein famously made it clear that it was by reading philosophers of science like Leibniz and Berkeley that he was led to the special theory of relativity. More examples of the relevance of the philosophy of science to science are provided by the very fruitful interaction of evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology working at the intersection of their two disciplines on the nature of Darwinian natural selection, the levels at which it operates, and its applicability outside its original domain—especially in the human sciences.

There is no reliable generalization about how scientists and philosophers view the field of philosophy of science overall. But that is no more surprising than the fact that scientists and philosophers don’t even completely agree among themselves about how to view their own fields. A lot of my philosopher colleagues will disagree with one or another of the answers I am giving to these very questions.

Routledge: Some have suggested recently that those working in the humanities are envious of the prestige and accomplishments of the hard sciences. What do you think of that suggestion and how does philosophy of science either reinforce or challenge that suggestion?

A.R.: I think that the humanities are in serious trouble. In our culture science has secured more cachet and more resources owing to its successes in technological application and to its ever-expanding explanatory reach. Meanwhile the humanities have lost confidence in their own ‘canons’ for various reasons, and have not found a substitute. Too many humanists, following their French colleagues, have sought to fill this vacuum with ‘theory’--scientific-sounding but ultimately unintelligible babble, perhaps in the hope that it will be mistaken by students and the public for “science,” and rewarded as such. Additionally, they have sought to wrap themselves in the mantle of Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, meanwhile hoping that Kuhn’s book would also strip the mask away from science’s claim to objectivity and progress. The study of the philosophy of science is one important tool for demystifying this stratagem. Indeed, it is the most important one.

Routledge: What was the “Sokal hoax” and how did that affect both the humanities and scientific research?

A.R.: One of the symptoms of the trend in the humanities described in my last response was provided by a physics professor, Alan Sokal, who produced a “pastiche”—an intentionally silly imitation—of the sort of ‘theory’ that humanists in the 90s were taking seriously. He called it "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" and he submitted to one of the important journals in this ‘theory’-besotted part of the humanities. I have to admit the journal was edited by famous scholars at my own university. They accepted it (without refereeing), and published it, after which Sokal revealed his hoax. Of course critics of the latest fashion in this high-prestige area of the humanities announced that the hoax revealed that the emperor had no clothes. Meanwhile the editors complained that Sokal should be condemned for academic dishonesty. They thereby showed no sense of humor or shame. Alas, among humanists the scandal was soon the subject of amnesia. Meanwhile scientists and philosophers of science had better things to do than continue to point to the emperor’s nudity.

Routledge: In what way is an understanding of philosophy of science essential to an understanding of the overall discipline of philosophy?

A.R.: Go back to my answer to the first of your questions, and you’ll see why I think philosophy of science is indispensible to philosophy as a whole, including the normative parts of philosophy—ethics and political philosophy. We need to understand exactly why science cannot answer the questions posed in these two domains of the discipline.

Routledge: How does a refusal within the scientific community to engage with philosophy impact the scientific disciplines? What do researchers in molecular biology, virology, physics, etc. stand to lose by not paying attention to the field?

A.R.: Insofar as philosophy is the custodian of science's unanswered questions, or at least their deeper ones, it's pretty obvious that doing philosophy of science helps delineate the boundaries of the scientists' own disciplines and the boundaries, if any, of science as a whole. Understanding how science operates when faced with the special obstacles, standards, temptations of other disciplines, is bound to have an impact on how you pursue your own discipline and subdiscipline.

Finally, I think that studying the philosophy of science should give scientists more confidence in the scope, power and grounds of their profession's abilities to answer questions, instead of, as so many people suppose, sapping the confidence of scientists in their enterprise. Is this an important contribution of the philosophy of science? These days, given the challenges from outside science, I should say it is.

Routledge: In your opinion, what philosopher of science has had the greatest impact on science in the last 100 years?

A.R.: I think the answer to that question has to be W.V.O. Quine. By overthrowing the terms in which rationalists and empiricists debated epistemological questions and prioritized them over metaphysical ones, he reopened a region of inquiry that had been closed off by Logical Positivism for half a century. The excitement of our field is due as much to his work as to any other philosopher’s.

Routledge: What sort of challenges does the field face now and what challenges do you think will be most salient in the future?

A.R.: At the research frontiers of our field one big set of problems is in the philosophy of physics—trying to make sense of quantum mechanics—a theory that combines the greatest imaginable accuracy and breadth of predictive and explanatory precision, with complete unintelligibility. Add the testability problems and the multiverse possibilities of string theory, and it’s obvious why the philosophy of physics is ‘hot.’ Another area is my own special interest, the philosophy of biology, where questions about extending Darwinian theory beyond its original area of application—the evolution of lineages of individual organisms—to other levels of organization and even other domains, such as human behavior, cognition, morality, culture generally. Finally, the financial crisis has generated increased interest in the philosophy of science’s application to economics and the questions about its scientific prospects. Developments in each of these sciences and their cognate fields (for econ it would be cognitive social psychology, and evolutionary game theory) will set the agenda of the philosophy of science in the near future, I think.

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