Richard Feynman on Philosophy of Science and Ornithology

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.

6 thoughts on “Richard Feynman on Philosophy of Science and Ornithology

  1. My suspicion is that the hostility of some scientists towards philosophy of science is that it takes away their position as the pure subject of knowledge looking at the world from outside and makes them instead into an object of knowledge.They don’t want to be the birds in an ornithologist’s study, they want to be the ornithologists.

  2. I can take advice from philosophers like Robert Paul Wolff (blog Philosopher’s stone) on science or life. But, your profession is full of Plantingas and Nagels. Yes, there are bad scientists, but they are weeded out not given book deals.

  3. When I began work in professional philosophy in the 80s, the big thing was pledging that philosophy of science would be or would become relevant to scientific practice. Larry Laudan was my colleague, and he and others worked toward an interdisciplinary program on philosophy, history, and sociology of science. Students were expected to combine work in philosophy with some science. Unfortunately, the resulting STS program increasingly became hostile both to philosophy and to science. They jumped on the social constructivist train and never really got off it (I’ve lost touch with what they’re doing, I’m sure some of it is interesting). Philosophers of science do intermingle with scientists, notably in philosophy of biology and psychology. But the goal has mainly been scientifically informed philosophy of science, rather than helping to solve problems in the scientific field itself. Naturalizing philosophy of science has generally meant appealing to one or more sciences—e.g., psychology, cognitive science– to inform philosophical problems. Foundational assumptions of these fields are rarely questioned, even when they cry out for philosophical ministrations (of course there are some exceptions).

    The one field where philosophers of science were way ahead of their time, even back in the 70s and before, was philosophy of statistics (or “confirmation theory” as it used to be called). Advances in that field could just as well be by philosophers as by statisticians. Conferences and journal issues combined both. That has largely disappeared, unfortunately. As a result, we currently have some of the most noteworthy philosophical problems of statistics being wrestled with by statistical practitioners with few philosophers in sight. For some examples: the nature and justification of statistical inference and modeling (falsification vs confirmation, long-run performance vs comparative degrees of support vs severe testing, prediction vs causal inference), current reproducibility crises, meta-research, and fraudbusting. I hear machine learners who wonder about “black box” methods (where statistical parameters aren’t intended to refer to anything real) actually asking aloud: Where are the philosophers? I was recently a philosopher “observer” at a meeting of the American Statistical Association devoted to coming up with agreed-upon principles for the use and interpretation of P-values. The philosophical, conceptual, and methodological presuppositions of the disagreements could be greatly clarified by those with a combined understanding of the statistics along with the philosophy and history of statistics. But they aren’t.

    This is a topic that often comes up on my blog:
    Here are some papers, mostly from a conference
    that I organized, combining statisticians and philosophers at the LSE in 2010.
    Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science: Where Do (Should) They Meet in 2011 and Beyond?

    1. Deborah, thanks for your wonderful comment. I think in some areas where philosophers could contribute–as in the domain you mention–there has been a tendency to back off and concede it to ‘professionals.’ There is a curious mixture of science-worship and self-abnegation here, perhaps something that would profit from a sociological investigation.

      1. I wouldn’t bother trying to seek an explanation, be it sociological, political, or fad or personality-driven, it should be fixed. It’s alarming the degree of damage being done among statistical practitioners and even self-styled meta-researchers and reformers. I can explain & give examples another time, I’m currently trapped in an airport surrounded by fog.

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