Category Archives: Science

Science and its use for philosophers

Really nice quote about the relationship between philosophy of science and philosophy more generally: “As long as there was no such subject as ‘philosophy of science’, all students of philosophy felt obligated to keep at least one eye part of the time on both the methodological and the substantive aspects of the scientific enterprise. And if the result was often a confusion of the task of philosophy with the task of science, and almost equally often a projection of the framework of the latest scientific speculations into the common sense picture of the world … at least it had the merit of ensuring that reflection on the nature and implications of scientific discourse was an integral and vital part of philosophical thinking generally. But now that philosophy of science has nominal as well as real existence, there has arisen the temptation to leave it to the specialists, and to confuse the sound idea that philosophy is not science with the mistaken idea that philosophy is independent of science” Wilfrid Sellars (quoted in an article from the book What is Philosophy?, C. P. Ragland, Sarah L. Heidt (editors)).

Much has changed since 1956 when Sellars wrote this but it raises an important issue. I’ve long believed we need closer merge science and philosophy, and whilst many philosophers do not integrate science in their work, plenty do. This is positive. However, I’m often concerned that when philosophers do use science to further their arguments, they often take scientific evidence too concretely, as something which either logically supports their argument or does not. Generally, however, scientific theories are models that describes idealised probabilities. They do not easily function as premises which entail logically valid arguments or function as clear counterarguments. Rather, they function more analogously to risk factors, scientific claims being individual sources of evidence which push an argument in one direction or another. Sellars claims general philosophers paid more attention to the methodology of science. I wonder if this is lacking today. Whilst it is great that philosophers not infrequently turn to science to support their arguments, those philosophers should realise how tentative, how heavily inferential and how probabilistic many scientific claims are. When philosophical claims rest upon such scientific claims then the strength of those philosophical claims is reduced. I think this is generally the case and philosophy would be better to recognise this. Just like scientists, philosophers employing science need both knowledge of science and knowledge of methodology of science.

When science goes wrong

I love science perhaps above and beyond all else yet I refuse to take a blind acceptance approach to science. When science gets something right then that is among the most important things we have, yet so often science gets things wrong. Here is a fantastic example. This is taken from an article by Emilie Bovet (from the book Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry III: the nature and source of historical change). She is discussing epigenetic research on violent behaviour and how some researchers combine evolutionary models and animals models (i.e. understanding how what evolutionary factors shaped psychology of modern animals) and sometimes draw parallels with humans. She points out just how far some researchers have taken this when she said “an internationally famous researcher in behavioral genetics claimed [at a conference] that beards in human males were related to the lion’s mane, which could explain a lot of similarities in way they both act” (Bovet 2015). She uses this as a good example of how specific methodologies (emphasis on evolution and animals) drives theoretical hypothesis and she provides some much more relevant alternative methodological approaches which would result in much better theoretical hypothesis. Anyway, I quote Bovet simply because she gives a clear example of when blind acceptance of scientific researchers is clearly unwarranted!