Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, in his usual inimitable style, that “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Cue chuckles from scientists and grumbles from philosophers. Science is useful! Philosophy is useless! Go back to counting angels. Or something like that.
The persistent disdain that distinguished scientists–like Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Feynman–level at philosophy in general, and philosophy of science in particular, should be embarrassing for the scientific community at large. At best, it shows an ignorance of the history–and thus, the foundations–of the discipline, and at worst a deliberate, anti-intellectual obtuseness. (Some previously expressed thoughts of mine on this matter can be found here and here.)
Let us grant Feynman his point. (I’m not inclined to, but let’s press ahead.) What follows? Consider his analogy. Perhaps the branch of zoology that studies birds is indeed useless to avians. What then? Should ornithologists put away their binoculars, cancel all conferences, burn their journals, and enter a prolonged period of mourning? I think not. Ornithology is not just for the birds.
Ornithology informs us, its students of a great deal: avian behavioral patterns, speciation, migration, ecological niches, learning etc. Those who study philosophy of science–and its study is inseparable, almost conceptually, from that of the history of science–learn a great deal too. They learn about science’s metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological presuppositions; they come to understand the dynamics of theory change in the sciences; they learn how inductive and abductive inference generate conclusions, which though not deductive, can still count as knowledge. And so on. If such students are interested in the workings of a historical, social, and cultural phenomenon called ‘science’ which has been supremely successful in helping us interact with, and control–to a limited extent–our physical environment, and that is capable of generating testable hypotheses about the world that surrounds us, they will find a great deal of value in the philosophy of science. Which, to repeat, cannot be studied without studying the history of science (something which reveals a great deal about the sociology and political economy of science too.) Perhaps Feynman would have us believe that the history of science is also useless to scientists.
Perhaps Feynman meant to say that philosophy of science does not result in the discovery of new scientific laws, or perhaps that no philosopher of science ever devised a new scientific principle. But why is this a disqualification of the philosophy of science? Science does not just need to be practiced; it needs to be studied too–from the inside and the outside. The society it is embedded in needs to understand how such a vastly productive and tremendously successful system of knowledge functions; those who study its history and methods aid in this enterprise. They help distinguish science from other practices and prevent both encroachment on, and overly aggressive expansion of, its epistemic boundaries; they may provide means by which its metaphysical and implicit and explicit moral claims may be evaluated.
Many years ago, in talking to a senior mathematical logician about one of his students, I said the student was ‘absolutely brilliant.’ My interlocutor said, “Well, I don’t know; he’s certainly very talented.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant. When I see folks like that illustrious trio above disparage the philosophy of science, I know exactly what he was getting at.