A debate in The School of Athens, by Raphael. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Science versus philosophy: debating the debate

It seems the debate between science and philosophy, triggered by Stephen Hawking, stubbornly refuses to evaporate, even though it’s a debate where if one side wins, we all lose.

This time the debate comes in the form of, well, an actual debate, hosted by iai.

The panel includes: developmental biologist and unrelenting philosophy critic, Lewis Wolpert; the ever energetic postmodern sociologist and philosopher of science, Steve Fuller; and the voice of moderation, New Statesman’s culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire.

It’s worth a look, largely because whichever side you take, you’ll find something in here you agree with – and probably even more you will disagree with.

That said, I think these public spats debates between philosophers and scientists are only useful to the extent that they dissolve the disagreement rather than further polarise the issue. After all, science and philosophy are essentially on the same side in a much bigger debate between reason and unreason.

As such, I don’t take the side of philosophy versus science, I take the stance of consilience versus the disagreement in the first place. In that spirit, I do wish to contest a few comments made by Wolpert. Not because I’m against science, but because I’m against his unconstructive characterisation of what’s wrong with philosophy.

Let’s kick off with that favourite quote of the philosophy sceptic, Richard Feynman’s droll missive that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”, which is offered by Wolpert during his “pitch.”

Cute though it is, this quote doesn’t quite do the work the philosophy sceptic wants it to. In order to understand why, we need to do a bit of philosophy. Firstly, it carries the assumption that ornithology is only “useful” if it benefits birds. Yet Feynman likely didn’t intend to dismiss ornithology as being utterly useless to humans.

Secondly, just because something is not useful doesn’t mean it is not important. There are many disciplines – like pure maths, or astrobiology, or ancient Greek studies – that might not have many direct practical applications today, but that doesn’t mean they ought to be abandoned.

Thirdly, I actually think ornithology might be useful to birds – understanding migration patterns or foraging strategies, for example. It’s only that birds are not smart enough to understand it.

Wolpert also makes the claim that just about everything philosophy has told us is either “obvious” or “trivial,” thus is basically a waste of time. Now, I don’t doubt that a lot of philosophy is obvious and trivial. But a lot of it isn’t. From Plato’s cave, to the dissolution of the Cartesian theatre, to challenges to our intuitive impressions of free will or personal identity, to reflections on the good life, to Francis Bacon’s very suggestion that nature should be investigated via empirical experimentation – philosophers have said a lot of non-obvious things that have turned out to be eminently sensible and rather important.

Philosophers even created the scientific method. The only reason they don’t go out and do empirical studies is they’ve delegated that task to the scientists.

And as far as Wolpert’s claim that no scientists take the philosophy of science seriously, he mustn’t be aware that many of the papers on biology he has read were written by philosophers of biology. Our understanding of concepts like fitness or the role of teleology in biology have been strongly influenced by a lot of very good philosophy.

Wolpert then shoots himself in the foot when he says “that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation”. In doing so, he’s making a philosophical claim, as such a claim is not verifiable within the strictures of the scientific method. And it’s a claim I strongly suspect might be false – but demonstrating that takes a lot of careful reasoning and reflection.

I have many other points of contention with Wolpert – and a few with Fuller too – but I think the real point is that the existence of the debate itself, rather than just the content, is what needs to be contested.

If there is a lesson to emerge from debates such as this, it’s that we need better communication between various disciplines in order to enlighten all about what each other do, and so they can help lift each other up. Then we might avoid cases where scientists can be so woefully ignorant – and contemptuous – of philosophy, and can get on to the real battle between reason and unreason. That’s a battle that is going to take every mote of energy we can spare.

If you can’t see the video below1, you can watch the entire debate here.

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Your thoughts
  1. I figure scientists and philosophers have been going at it since science became a recognized MO for understanding the world. This is not new. What is relatively new is the number of soapboxes that exist for people to proclaim from to other audiences than their peers.

    I think often these prominent scientists are sharing their thoughts and observations in as rational a manner as they know how. Sure, they might be ‘doing philosophy’, but we all do that from time to time. These are very intelligent people who’ve been attempting to answer some big questions about the world for a long time. We should perhaps cut them a little philosophical slack if their form of words is a little off, or if they seem a little ‘strident’ about it.

    I think some philosophers do philosophy a disservice by being territorial about philosophy and demanding their own high standards of everyone else. As a scientist, having a philosopher snapping at your heels is likely to get a reaction, and this ends up being bad for everyone as you suggest, when reason/unreason should be the debate.

  2. I agree, Mike, this debate isn’t new. Which is a shame really.

    I don’t doubt there are many individual philosophers and scientists who do their disciplines a disservice by being too territorial or being overly strident. Those people do need to be criticised if they are being unconstructive – although, of course, the greater aim ought to be the strengthening of the rational approach to understanding the world.

    What is probably needed now is a big conciliation effort to bring philosophy and science – and other disciplines – closer together.

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