Science Unlimited, Part Three: Philosophy

This is the Third Part of a review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. See also Part 1, focusing on pseudoscience, and Part 2, focusing on the humanities.

Science started out as “natural philosophy” until Whewell coined the newer name “science”. As a scientist I have a PhD and am thus a “Doctor of Philosophy”. And yet many philosophers assert that today “philosophy” is an enterprise that is distinct from “science”.

The argument runs that philosophy is about exploration of concepts, and what can be deduced purely by thinking about concepts, whereas science is heavily empirical, rooted in observation of the world. Thus philosophy (exploration of concepts) and science (empirical observation) are fundamentally different beasts. And both are necessary for a proper understanding.

But, for this distinction to hold, a necessary corrollary is that science does not involve exploration of concepts, and concerns itself only with the accumulation of observation. Yet to me that is an utterly impoverished view of science, and one that is untenable. In order to advance understanding we need both the exploration of concepts and the guidance of empirical observation — either on its own won’t get far. Accumulating observations by itself is mere “stamp collecting” (to quote a derogatory remark that physicists aim at anyone not paying sufficient attention to explanations and understanding). As philosophers themselves know, all observation is “theory laden” in that one cannot even assimilate observational evidence without equal attention to what it means.

In essence, science is a continual process of revising and improving a “web of ideas” that contains our understanding of the world. We continually test the web by comparing its outputs to empirical data, looking for any mismatch, and then trying to figure out the best way of adjusting the web in order to eliminate the anomaly. It follows that attention to the internal coherence of the web of ideas, and exploring the implications of the ideas — and thus analysis of concepts — is a vital and basic part of the overall scientific enterprise.

The two halves of the whole are perhaps most clearly seen in physics, where practitioners are divided into “theoretical physicists”, who spend their lives exploring the implications of ideas and trying to scheme up better ones, and “observers” and “experimentalists” who concentrate on adding to the pile of empirical data that tests the concepts. Obviously this only works if the two halves are continually talking to each other, and so everyone sees themselves as part of the same overall enterprise, specialising in one “style” of science because division of labour allows the focused expertise necessary to make progress.

To me as a physicist, it makes little sense to read that some philosophers think that exploring ideas and concepts for their own sake is a philosophical activity that is “not science” and is clearly distinct from science. So why is it then defended by some philosophers? I suggest that the reason is sociological. Science nowadays is such a juggernaut that adjacent disciplines fear being trampled underfoot, and so jostle to establish a bailiwick of their own from which science is excluded. While understandable, such a path could lead to irrelevance.

Philosophy, with its role of asking certain types of question, is better thought of, not as distinct from science, but as a style of doing science, in the broadest sense of “science” as increasing our understanding of the world. Other “styles” of science, in addition to theoretical analysis, include accumulating observations, designing and performing experiments, and modelling a situation on a computer. The best approach is to combine and synthesize all of these styles. None of them would get us far on its own, and they best succeed in harmony with the others. Philosophy, therefore, is best done in close conjunction with adjacent disciplines, such as the sciences, and could condemn itself to pointless meanderings if it forgets that.

As expected, the authors in Science Unlimited have a spread of views on this issue. Maarten Boudry is closest to my own view, arguing against those of his colleagues who “still regard philosophy as independent from and conceptually prior to science”, and saying instead that: “much of philosophy is now tightly ensnared in the web of knowledge. Philosophy of mind shades into cognitive science, neurology, and linguistics. Epistemology is intertwined with cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology”, while declaring — correctly — that the sciences “often deal with conceptual issues that can be characterized as broadly `philosophical’ in nature”.

Stephen Law, however, is less sympathetic to this view, saying: “philosophical questions are, for the most part, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical”, and that: “in order to solve many classic philosophical problems, we’ll need to retire to the armchair, not to the lab”.

But, equally, theoretical physicists don’t work with laboratory equipment, taking measurements, they work with ideas and concepts. The internal coherence of concepts about the world is just as much a concern for scientists as for philosophers.

A current example is the black-hole information paradox, where the paradox is that current models of black holes suggest that “information” (which itself is a highly abstract concept, not a direct observable) is destroyed when material falls into a black hole. And yet, a basic principle of quantum mechanics (the best theory of matter, thought to apply everywhere) says that information can never be destroyed. Trying to resolve the inconsistency is currently exercising many of the world’s top theoretical physicists, partly because the solution might point the way to a model of “quantum gravity”, the long-sought unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity. Yet this activity is entirely conceptual, since observations and experiments pertaining directly to the issue are way beyond current capabilities. Physicists still regard the enquiry as “scientific”, even if some philosophers might want to declare it to be “metaphysics”.

Stephen Law’s own example is Galileo’s thought experiment of dropping balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The thought experiment demonstrates that balls of different weights must fall at the same speed, else one arrives at a contradiction. Law asks: “Is Galileo’s thought experiment an example of science, or of philosophy?” Since it “targets a scientific theory”, about how physical objects behave, “perhaps it belongs more properly to science”, but, Law continues, “the same armchair method employed by Galileo is also regularly employed by philosophers”.

And just as often by scientists. And so both science and philosophy are about concepts, and there is no clear demarcation between them. Such a view is also advocated by Mariam Thalos, who writes: “I propose to use the label science for all of what Aristotle would have called knowledge. Hence it applies to anything that accepts the authority of a coherent set of standards that aim at truth. […] Thus, philosophy is a science”.

In contrast, Massimo Pigliucci attempts to draw clear distinctions between philosophy and science, boldly declaring:

I would go as far as to challenge my scientistically inclined colleagues who contributed to this volume to show me a single instance of systematic observation or experiment (i.e., an example of science) throughout this collection of essays. The contributions Maarten and I collected here are so inherently philosophical in nature that they stand as a self-evidence refuation that science is our only path to knowledge and understanding.

Here, Pigliucci explicitly limits science to: “systematic observation or experiment”, overlooking the entire conceptual, theoretical and model-building side of science. Yes, if you limit science to only that aspect, then that impoverished and neutered hemi-science would be inadequate on its own. You do indeed need all the different styles, working in concert, to do the best science, and that includes the conceptual analysis characteristic of Boudry & Pigliucci’s book of essays.

Pigliucci replies that such a broad conception of science amounts to: “redefining science in a way that is coextensive with reason itself, which is not only historically and factually grossly inaccurate but ultimately meaningless”.

But I deny that it is meaningless, instead it points to a consilience that is a necessary part of seeking out knowledge. None of the “styles” succeeds on its own. One cannot define science as being limited to “systematic observation or experiment” while excluding the conceptual and model-building side of science that is needed to interpret the observations and experiments; such a science would not function.

Philosophers themselves agree with this, pointing to the inevitably “theory-laden” nature of even simple observations. The Quinean-web view of science — with a constant iteration between observation and experiment, on the one hand, and a “web of ideas” on the other — demands that science be just as much about the “web of ideas” as about the observation and experiment. Thus I would go as far as suggesting that Pigliucci’s attempted demarcation between philosophy and science is not consistent with the nature of science and not consistent with the best philosophical understanding of science.

5 thoughts on “Science Unlimited, Part Three: Philosophy

  1. Pingback: Science Unlimited, Part Two: The Humanities | coelsblog

  2. Schlafly

    Your example is unconvincing. My textbooks do not say that a basic principle of quantum mechanics is conservation of information. Whether information gets destroyed in a black hole is hopelessly outside the realm of science.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      The idea that information is conserved is not directly empirical, but current formulations of quantum mechanics would necessarily conserve information, and current formulations of quantum mechanics are our current best theory for modelling reality. Therefore, if information is not conserved then we need to adjust formulations of quantum mechanics. And, current models of black holes appear to destroy information. Therefore we’re either not properly understanding quantum mechanics or not properly understanding black holes. Surely all of that reasoning is clearly within the realm of science?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s