Yesterday, in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class, we worked our way through Bertrand Russell‘s essay on “Appearance and Reality” (excerpted, along with “The Value of Philosophy” and “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description” from Russell’s ‘popular’ work The Problems of Philosophy.) I introduced the class to Russell’s notion of physical objects being inferences from sense-data, and then went on to his discussions of idealism, materialism, and realism as metaphysical responses to the epistemological problems created by such an understanding of objects. This discussion led to the epistemological stances–rationalism and empiricism–that these metaphysical positions might generate. (There was also a digression into the distinction between necessary and contingent truths.)
At one point, shortly after I had made a statement to the effect that science could be seen as informed by materialist, realist, and empiricist conceptions of its metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, I blurted out, “Really, scientists who think philosophy is useless and irrelevant to their work are stupid and ungrateful.” This was an embarrassingly intemperate remark to have made in a classroom, and sure enough, it provoked some amused twittering from my students, waking up many who were only paying partial attention at that time to my ramblings.
While I always welcome approving responses from my students to my usual lame attempts at humor, my remark was too harshly phrased. But I don’t think it is false in at least one sense. Too many scientists remain ignorant of the philosophical presuppositions of their enterprise, and are not only proud of this ignorance, but bristle when they are reminded of them. Too many think claims of scientific knowledge are only uselessly examined for their foundations; too many assume metaphysics and physics don’t mix. And all too many seem to consider their scientific credentials as being burnished by making a withering attack on the intellectual competence of philosophers and intellectual sterility of their work. Of course, many will do so by making a philosophical argument of some sort, like perhaps that philosophical questioning of the foundations of science is in principle irrelevant to scientific practice.
I get some of the scientists’ impatience. Who likes pedantry and hair-splitting? And yes, many philosophers are embarrassingly ignorant about actual scientific theory and practice. But not most of it. I wonder: Did they never take a class on the history of science? Do they never study the process by which theories come to be advanced, challenged, modified, rejected, formed anew?
I have long advocated–not in any particular public forum, but in some private conversations–that the Philosophy of Science class taught by philosophy departments should really be a History and Philosophy of Science class. You can’t study the history of science without ‘doing’ the philosophy of science, and you can’t study the philosophy of science without knowing something about its history. One can only hope that those who study science with an eye to becoming its practitioners would at least be exposed to a similar curricular requirement. (I made a similar point in a post that was triggered by the Lawrence Krauss-David Albert dispute a while ago.)
Incidentally, I’m genuinely curious: Is it just me or does it seem that this kind of ‘scientific’ rejection of the philosophical enterprise is a modern–i.e., late twentieth-century onwards–disease?