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.

In an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, physicist Alan Sokal (yes, that Alan Sokal!) echoes my sentiments:

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.


  1. As far as discovery goes, scientists seem to be doing just fine on their own …

    Praj, scientists are doing a lot; they are pursuing ever more and in increasingly greater detail. But, as to whether they are “doing just fine”, that is especially debatable when it comes to the application of those details. And it is the application which is the aspect of science that appeals to the population in general (and you already know how it is that such an appeal is relevant to the practicalities of so much research). Consider biomedical science and the virtually constant flow of what frankly appears to be so much contradictory – and yet seemingly conclusive – information. As I have discussed, it is reasonable to suspect that such problems are often the result of there being a pattern of serious problems with accounting for variables. To whatever extent there is a method to be abstracted from the disparate sciences, surely variable control is a primary concern. And, it just so happens, that the best way to conceive of (and then seek to control) variables is in terms of possibilities which, as discussed, fits perfectly with the modal logic approach to be found within philosophy. Likewise, the matter of whether a conclusion necessarily follows from the possibilities taken into account is every bit as important to science, and this, too, is very much a philosophical matter.

    and it’s not clear what philosophers–even in principle–can do to help.

    Unfortunately, too many philosophers seem hardly more adept at thinking more fully in terms of possibilities, but, in principle, at the core of philosophy is the need to think in terms of possibilities if, for no other reason, than to present more rigorous argument.

    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.

    As one becomes more habituated to thinking with emphasis on possibilities, specialized fields become ever more readily seen as little more than variations on a theme. In fact, an outsider adept at thinking in terms of possibilities will necessarily be well aware that one aspect of becoming familiar with a specialized field is the need to learn the specialized vocabulary, and having to learn such a language provides an opportunity to delve into conceptual inconsistencies or shortcomings that will not be as readily apparent to one apprenticed (or indoctrinated) into that field.

    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.

    The issue was not whether just any philosophers by virtue of being (professional) philosophers would likely be able to help; the issue addressed is whether philosophy, any aspect of philosophy, can contribute to or help improve the process of science. Science needs to be cast more emphatically in terms of possibilities, because that way of thinking is critical to the improvement of any intentional, controlled human cognition. It can also be expected that immersion in possibilities will often provide help or opportunity for intuitive decisions.

    None of this means that philosophers of science have nothing to offer. … There are diffuse, unquantifiable personal benefits of a broad liberal education …

    But, again, the issue was whether philosophy has anything to offer that is directly relevant to science. Philosophy of science which is conducted as if it were sociology of science can only be directly and most relevant to science to the extent that it stimulates thinking about and in terms of possibilities. Thinking in terms of possibilities is utterly basic to human thinking, especially with regards both to discovery and problem solving.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for your detailed response. I think that it is still a bit abstract for me right now. Maybe a bit more particulars will help. Are there any specific research problems you have in mind where philosophers can help? Maybe you could flesh out the biomedical example…I think it’s very promising.

      As I hope is clear, I think philosophy can be very helpful to scientists. But I’m still not completely convinced that their help carries over to improving the daily practice of science.

      Perhaps there are specific circumstances where modal logic, e.g., would be useful. But is it a general claim?

  2. … still a bit abstract …

    Before I address the more concrete, I want to note there is no escaping the abstract in this discussion. This is an essentially abstract matter, because science is first and foremost a cognitive process; it is not a mind-independent objective process. While it is (too) commonly taken as granted that scientific conventions of practice produce objectivity, the cognitive process that is science is best appreciated as being intractably constituted by a subjectivity – even if it is at least sometimes worthwhile to attempt to minimize that subjectivity.

    What will seem like a minimization of subjectivity in cognition is most fully accomplished by means of the development of a greater awareness for the perspectives (including, of course, assumptions) and judgments utilized in any sort of investigation – even scientific ones. These perspectives and judgments are best unveiled by the most thorough casting of the cognitive process in terms of possibilities in conjunction with an extensive avoidance of reliance on presumably underpinning necessities. This approach works to isolate – but not eliminate – the thinking/judging self. In effect, it is a means by which the thinking/judging self becomes more self-aware, including awareness about such matters as what factors have been simply adopted from the thinking/judging of others (convention).

    Although the abstract aspect cannot be eliminated from thought, since thinking (particularly in science) so often addresses (relatively concrete) matters presumed to have some independence from the self who is doing the thinking, a keener understanding of the abstract aspect can be gleaned from the sort of extensively mind-independent things which we regard as being best considered by science.

    Instead of referring to specific scientific studies (since doing so would also require the sort of extensive background explication which is usually presumed to be at least somewhat familiar to the intended audience), a possibly more productive concrete course could be to consider a medical matter with which even those who have next to no exposure to biomedical research will have some familiarity.

    Let us consider cholesterol.

    It is actually a very complex subject, and many more details related to cholesterol are known than one might suspect given what is most often heard in the general press or from most clinicians. There is an excellent quote from the Wikipedia article on cholesterol: “[H]igh levels [of cholesterol] in blood circulation … are strongly associated with progression of atherosclerosis.”

    This statement is excellent for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, it is the sort of conclusion from studies that might well appear in a press report. It is the sort of statement that can by now be expected to be interpreted by lay people as indicating that a diet is necessarily healthier (in this case heart-healthier) if that diet contains less cholesterol. Truth be told, such an interpretation has at times been fostered by clinicians. The statement is also useful as an entry point for the sort of study of expression that leads directly to thinking in terms of possibilities.

    The above-quoted phrase, “strongly associated”, can indicate the possibility that high levels of cholesterol in the blood can result in, produce, or cause atherosclerosis. However, the very phrase “strongly associated” also indicates that there seem to be other factors that are possibly involved. Indeed, upon knowing that not only is cholesterol necessary for health but also that it is even produced by the human body, it is logical that suspicion should immediately arise over the adequacy of any sort of attempt at understanding a disease as a matter of cholesterol concentration. After all, cholesterol is not only necessary for health; it is also normally found in circulating blood. Of course, the association with disease is on the basis of relatively high cholesterol concentrations, but, given that the very nature of blood vessel walls induces the laminar flow that inhibits the formation of vessel blockages, logic forces consideration of the possibility that increased cholesterol concentrations (certainly those most commonly encountered in otherwise apparently healthy people) would not, in and of themselves, be sufficient to initiate, much less result in, plaque build-up.

    It is therefore logical to consider whether it is not so much the cholesterol that is the problem as it might be some other factor (or coincidence of factors) which produces a local vessel wall anomaly that sufficiently disrupts the laminar flow of blood in such a way as to result in what we observe as atherosclerosis.

    Even after candidate initial causes other than cholesterol are identified, it still makes sense to consider whether artificially reducing blood cholesterol concentrations might impede the progress of the sclerosis process. And here the feedback mechanism which governs cholesterol production would have to be taken into account, since it is just such a mechanism that triggers the body to increase its production of cholesterol. There is also the possibility, especially in light of a feedback mechanism that could effect increased internal production of cholesterol, that attempts at reactive intervention directed at the amelioration of detected laminar flow disruption would be expected to be (as a general rule) more appropriate or worthwhile than attempts at prophylaxis via the manipulation of blood cholesterol levels.

    Of course, it is apparent that these approaches do not address what could rightly be referred to as the more basic problem having to do with the initiation of a cascade of events that possibly leads to the disruption of the laminar flow.

    I have not pointed out in detail as explicitly as it could be done where in the above discussion the thinking in terms of possibilities is critically important for producing an improved understanding, and maybe that needs to be done.

    Just to go off on one other tangent in closing, the above example also gives reason to be suspicious of ever increasing specialization. Ever increasing specialization is just fine for anyone who thinks that knowledge for its own sake, or science for its own sake, is a sufficient goal. But, when the scientific emphasis is maintained on the uncertain or the unknown, practical application will always serve as an impetus – the best impetus – for scientific development. However, practical application is virtually always in tension with specialization, because practical application virtually always requires broader, more general understanding. For instance, in the cholesterol discussion above, and as but one example, would the biochemist who specializes in characterizing how cholesterol is transported in blood also, as part of his expertise, be much or at all aware – or even think in terms – of how that transport relates to the nature of the blood vessel intima? The details only attain their greatest importance when someone with a broader perspective is able to make use of them.

    1. Hi Michael. Sorry for the slow response. I’m trying to get my life in order! As you know, my fellowship is ending in August. I’ve been busy applying to and interviewing for various jobs.

      At any rate…thanks for your detailed response, and I like the cholesterol example. I agree that we need to do more thinking in terms of possibilities. But while I think that philosophy is great for scientists to learn…at least in this example I’m not sure how it necessarily applies. I think that the issues you raised (perhaps lowering cholesterol won’t help, maybe it’s another issue at work, etc.) is still in the realm of textbook scientific thinking. That is, good scientists (I hate that I have to use that phrase!) would ask the types of questions you asked even without being trained in philosophy.

      With that, I think I see what you’re saying…and will again reiterate that I think learning philosophy is good. It may in some circumstances also improve the quality of the scientific work, but I’m still not sure it’s a general claim.

      I also wholeheartedly agree that increasing specialization has some real costs that are being overlooked. I’m just not sure how to best deal with it.

      1. Sorry for the slow response. I’m trying to get my life in order!

        Priorities, my man! Priorities! It just so happens that I, too, think that you are right to grant higher priority to securing employment. If any of the prospective employers need a talkin’ to, let me know if you think I can be of any assistance.

        … good scientists (I hate that I have to use that phrase!) would ask the types of questions you asked even without being trained in philosophy.

        First of all, there is nothing necessarily wrong with making distinctions on the basis of the quality of scientists’ work. After all, it is not as if terms such as science, scientific, or scientist themselves entail assuredly good quality work or thinking.

        That aside, I agree with you that scientists can be good scientists “without [ever] being trained in philosophy.” You may recall that back in January, with regards to this matter of scientists in general thinking more effectively in terms of possibilities, I said: “It would be nice if scientists [and I was referring to those who need to, because it is arguably the case that more than just a few do need to] could become better aware of the usefulness of modal logic. But, how would they be trained in modal logic? By philosophers?!?!?! Perish the thought!!!”

        Thinking more fully in terms of possibilities is arguably what should naturally occur within science even if, when, and though science does not bother itself with the more formal expressions of what we now think of as philosophy. This is because this thinking in terms of possibilities coincides so very well with the manner in which humans discover/invent – whether within or outside of science.

        The fact of the matter is that I would expect that scientists whose success can be traced to extensive thinking in terms of possibilities (despite never having been exposed to the formal philosophical discipline of thinking more extensively in terms of possibilities) would quite quickly, were these scientists later exposed to the more strictly philosophical approach, recognize that this aspect of philosophy was already in their science.

        Although people, in general, seem to ever more often think of science as a field apart from and surpassing philosophy, I think a truer understanding is one which recognizes science as a form, an aspect, or a class of philosophy. When science is conceived as wholly distinct from philosophy, it is very difficult indeed to forestall the descent of science into scientism.

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