"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Of birds and wisdom....

'Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.'

It's a bit cleverer than Richard Dawkins usually manages, but the sentiment could be his.  That which he does not know is not worth knowing.  The statement is usually attributed to Richard Feynman, a man with a posthumous (at least) reputation for wit and insight; and it is an interesting insight, at least into the education of Anglo-American scientists.

The "fathers" of quantum mechanics would disagree.  Most of them were trained more generally rather than more narrowly: they were as comfortable with philosophy as they were with physics.  It must be a German thing:  Rudolf Bultmann could confer with the greatest of Biblical scholars (he was one himself) on many topics, and make reference to the most obscure points in that field, complete with several footnotes; and he could also converse easily and well about phenomenology and existentialism with his colleague, Martin Heidegger.  Bultmann's magisterial study of the gospel of John is replete with arcane references to textual history, composition, and interpretation, (the very nuts and bolts of Biblical scholarship, and German scholars erect scholarship like they have an elaborate erector set) and equally comfortable with references to Kierkegaard and reflections of his arguments with Heidegger (they taught at the same university).

What can Richard Dawkins tell you about the work of Rudolf Bultmann?

To discard "philosophy of science" is to discard the very basis of science, which is a philosophical argument about the nature of perception, human being, and reality, known as empiricism.  The very idea of "objectivity," central to the practice of science, is a philosophical idea.  Indeed, the very idea of "idea" is a philosophical one.  To divorce science from philosophy is to separate the dancer from the dance:  how do you do that, really?

To say one is irrelevant to the other, is to betray one's ignorance of the subject one says is irrelevant.  Knowledge of the law and Constitutional construction is equally irrelevant to Wayne LaPierre when it comes to how he interprets the 2nd Amendment.  That doesn't make Mr. LaPierre's work on behalf of his interpretation of the Constitution equal to the work of Constitutional lawyers.  Jurisprudence, the philosophical study of law, is very important in any discussion of Constitutional interpretation.  But if you don't know what jurisprudence is, or the schools of thought it contains, you might say it is as useful as ornithology is to birds.

No one who knew anything about Constitutional law would regard you with anything but disinterest, at best.  Maybe the cop on the beat doesn't need to be a Constitutional scholar; but that doesn't mean Constitutional scholars and students of jurisprudence are irrelevant to how the police officer does her job.

Still, you might say, birds are entirely the product of natural causes, so they really don't need ornithology.  Yes, but science is not a product of nature as birds are.  Science, like ornithology, like philosophy, is a product of human effort. Science is what scientists are taught it is.  It is a human construct, not a naturally occurring object.  How we understand such constructs is the subject of philosophy.  To say philosophy is irrelevant to science is to say understanding and interpretation are irrelevant to science.  But the very idea of science, the very work of science, is to interpret data.  The rocks don't speak.  The printout of the chromatograph or the developed x-ray don't explain themselves.  Data must be interpreted.  The people who do that are specialists:  geologists and paleontologists and radiologists.  They are trained in interpretation.  They are trained in science.

And where does science come from, except ideas?  And what is the study of ideas, except philosophy?  And how do you know your ideas about science are right, or valuable, or even valid, except by appeal to a field other than science?  Because that's where the stereotype of the "mad scientist" came from:  the 19th century literary figure who left behind the constraints of contemporary culture for the pursuit of pure knowledge and damn the consequences!  Law is in part the field of consequences.  Ethics, a school of philosophy, is the arena where we decide what there should be consequences for, and why.  The scientist who abandons ethics, either blindly or maliciously, is rightly vilified as the "mad scientist."

Suddenly philosophy has a great deal to do with science; and philosophy of science explains back to scientists what they are actually doing, rather than what they want to tell themselves they are doing.

Philosophy, generally, does that.  It has that salubrious, and usually unappreciated, role.  Ask Socrates.  He told Athens they should keep him around so he, the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, could keep them honest.  He proposed to explain to them what they were doing, rather than what they wanted to tell themselves they were doing.  They decided to execute him, instead.  He presented them with sophia; they found techne to be less troublesome.

As Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Science is all about techne, not a bit about sophia.  Philosophy of science is about the sophia science should pay attention to.  It really isn't a surprise, if prominent scientists scoff against such a "waste of time."  History tends to repeat itself.

Repetition, while a good thing in establishing a new scientific theory or building a new product, a new piece of technology, is not necessarily a good thing outside the narrow bounds of science or consumer goods.  Not that wisdom is all about novelty, either.  But wisdom does have more to do with what is timelessly valuable.  And wisdom does offer more than a distinction between what things we can talk about (Hume's analytical statements) and what things we can only speculate about (Hume's synthetic statements).  That dichotomy is inextricably at the heart of science; it's a matter of the philosophy of science that cannot be wholly ignored.  Not if you wish to be wise.


Blogger ntodd said...

I don't know how any scientist could think that. Oy.

4:12 PM  
Blogger rick allen said...

"Wissenschaft wird von Menschen gemacht. Dieser an sich selbstverständliche Sachverhalt gerät leicht in Vergessenheit, und es mag zur Verringerung der oft beklagten Kluft zwischen den beiden Kulturen, der geisteswissenschaftlich-künstlerischen und der technisch-naturwissenschaftlichen, beitragen, wenn man ihn wieder ins Gedächtnis zurückruft. Das vorliegende Buch handelt von der Entwicklung der Atomphysik in den letzten 50 Jahren, so wie der Verfasser sie erlebt hat. Naturwissenschaft beruht auf Experimenten, sie gelangt zu ihren Ergebnissen durch die Gespräche der in ihr Tätigen, die miteinander über die Deutung der Experimente beraten. Solche Gespräche bilden den Hauptinhalt des Buches….In den Gesprächen spielt die Atomphysik keineswegs immer die wichtigste Rolle. Vielmehr geht es ebensooft um menschliche, philosophische oder politische Probleme, und der Verfasser hofft, daß gerade daran deutlich wird, wie wenig sich die Naturwissenschaft von diesen allgemeineren Fragen trennen läßt."

--Werner Heisenberg

6:03 PM  
Blogger ntodd said...


7:36 PM  

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