The Philosophical Education Of Scientists

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?

7 thoughts on “The Philosophical Education Of Scientists

  1. I think that you partially answered yourself: “many philosophers are embarrassingly ignorant about actual scientific theory and practice”. I would add that those so-called philosophers are also often extremely willing to try to argue about science without evidently having any decent knowledge of it. I think that many scientist have the misfortune of just getting to know these kind of philosophers, and this is the reason of this rejection. In fact, I blurted out something very similar to your comments about scientists recently, while talking about this category of “philosophers” (and yes, I put philosophers in quote marks because I don’t think they should be called such, at least not in an etymological sense).

    1. Yes, that is certainly true. This is why I think the history of science is very important for a full philosophical education in the philosophy of science. And of course, some competence in the domain you aim to understand and criticize. I’m going to write a post on this very soon (from my background in the philosophy of physics.)

  2. Gauss made his influential comment that Kant’s philosophy issues claims that are either trivialities or false back in the 1840s. Newton makes sniffy comments about Descartes as well — while those were not based on a distinction between philosophy and science, the tone and content was an ancestor of the genre.

  3. Apart from some philosophers’ scientific ignorance or (more broadly) anti-scientific style, the aversion you describe could also derive from fear: most scientists are working under the (economic) imperative of usefulness, always trying to show how applicable (or sellable) their work is, trying to get the job done asap. Dealing with metaphysical suppositions, however, does not get the job done, so no temporal or mental ressources should be wasted on philosophy. Incidentally most scientists (in training) I know are actually quite open to philosophical debate, even interested or at least willing to hear me out. Maybe it’s a generational or a regional thing (I’m based in Heidelberg, Germany).

  4. (to actually answer your question: insofar as the economisation of science is indeed a modern phenomenon, I would say yes, the scientific rejection of philosophy on the grounds I mentioned is a modern phenomenon.)

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