Philosophy of Science for Scientists, and Science for Philosophers of Science

Ellen Clarke

Most professional philosophers of science would, I hope, agree that our discipline shares the object of its investigations with some other academics, i.e. scientists. But how often do we actually talk to them?

Till Grüne-Yanoff has published a paper over at the EJPS, making a case for science students to be taught compulsory philosophy of science courses, and setting out some constraints on the optimal design of such courses.

He does a great job of identifying some obstacles that advocates of such courses need to overcome. These are resisted by

(i) administrators (they won’t want to fund/run around on behalf of ‘outside’ students);

(ii) scientists (they often doubt that philosophers have anything to say to them);

(iii) the students themselves (they may shrink at the thought of all that reading and writing).

In my experience the latter is probably the least of these, although it can be problematic that science students often hope a philosophy course will indulge their desire to do something creative, and are disappointed when they are not encouraged to be wilfully radical, or to play the wise guy cynic.

Furthermore, we also need to revise our own ideas, as philosophers of science, about which elements of a standard curriculum are actually interesting/ useful to practitioners of science.

I like this claim, although I’d perhaps go further than Grüne-Yanoff and say that philosophers of science should question why they ever spend time on issues that are not actually interesting/ useful to practitioners of science. However, Grüne-Yanoff admits that ‘it’s hard to determine where “mere” philosophical interest ends and relevance for analysis, comparison and evaluation of scientific practices begins’, and his suggestions regarding what should and shouldn’t make the cut are ruthlessly pragmatic: he is assuming that classes will be large, time will be extremely limited, and so on. Nonetheless, I’d be reluctant to drop some of the topics he discards – for example, reductionism or natural kinds. Reductionism is well worth teaching to biology students, in whose field words like ‘emergent’ and ‘irreducible’ have recently been getting bandied about in an alarmingly cavalier and philosophically naive manner.

We philosophers of science are surely at fault for the confidence with which so many scientists adopt an uncritical soup of Falsificationism and post-elightenment zeal. We don’t speak their language, we don’t hang out in their labs, we delude ourselves that they are going to look up from their million-dollar research centres and interrupt their frantic activity to try to decode our reticulated jargon in case its relevant to them; and then we wonder why not only are they not listening, they aren’t even aware that we’re talking. For their sakes we need to get into their faculties, get hold of their students, and let them know that there are ideas in existence that can help them.

For our sakes, on the other hand, we philosophers of science need to get into their labs, get into their reading groups, and do a serious amount of listening. Grüne-Yanoff mentions that too few of us and our graduate students are literate enough in the methodologies and norms of specific sciences to be able to offer an effective exploration of their limitations and path dependencies.

My own experience as a philosopher of biology, whose background is in philosophy, has mostly been about busily steeping myself in the minutiae of current debates in evolutionary theory by wading neck deep through articles in Evolution, Nature and the like. I was recently lucky enough to join Kevin Foster’s Social Evolution lab group as a sort of apprentice. Under the capable instruction of Sara Mitri, I carried out simple experiments testing the effect of substrate density on population structure in colonies of bacteria. I learned how to prepare plates (petri dishes), to inoculate them. I learned that we freeze strains of bacteria because this slows down their growth, and therefore their evolution, enough that we feel confident calling them the same strain over time; but that freezing them can also radically alter their phenotype. I learnt that claims about the phenotypic properties of individual bacterium are derived by averaging from the properties of vast colonies numbering millions of individuals. I learnt that bacteria are hugely intelligent and malicious creatures who will go to great lengths to confuse and defeat their investigators (well, I’m only a rookie).

I learnt many, many things that are interesting in themselves and that will inform my thinking about evolution and about bacteria. But perhaps most significantly, only after this did I realise that a large part of my wide biological reading had been largely in vain, because I have effectively been reading different papers than those read by scientists like Kevin Foster. As a philosopher, I was largely skipping the boring-looking section called ‘methods’, with all its tedious numbers and caveats. ‘Show me the money’, I would think, browsing on to the discussion. Here is the meat, I thought. What I’ve learned is that this part of the paper is rarely even glanced at by empirical (i.e. lab- or field-based) scientists. They’re not really interested in the speculations of the authors. Sometimes this is because they don’t get that far—they stop reading once they’ve decided that the methods used were unsound in their experience. But mostly it is because the meat of the paper, for them, is in the methods section. This is where they learn what the paper is about and what findings have been made—where they project what claims ought to come in the conclusion.

Until I got into a lab and actually carried out the motor tasks that people like Sara Mitri carry out every day for years and years (pipetting is hard on your thumbs by the way!), and had her put up with my millions of stupid questions about ‘why we have to do it that way’, I wasn’t really managing to read the papers that I thought I was reading. I couldn’t get behind the shortcuts and assumptions to gain any conception of what had actually taken place in the laboratory or field, and so I was left taking the authors’ word for whatever wild, unfounded, and self-serving fantasies they may have chosen to write at the end of their paper (in fact, many scientists do indulge themselves slightly under the discussion heading, maybe because they know that few people will actually read it anyway.)

How we could ever hope to find enough sympathetic, far-thinking Principle Investigators to treat all philosophers of science to comparable opportunities is something I don’t have an answer for, unfortunately. Forward-thinking departments will be setting up reciprocal agreements with science figures—we’ll teach your students and even give you some input into the curriculum, if you let a few of our grad students hang around.

What we need next—the handbook: philosophy of science for scientists. Till?

Ellen Clarke
University of Oxford