What is the Philosophy of Science All About?

Slides [here], See this post by John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, the video is a talk John gave at the Philosophy of Science conference in Melbourne 2014.

Every so often, somebody will attack the worth, role or relevance of philosophy on the internets, as I have discussed before. Occasionally it will be a scientist, who usually conflates philosophy with theology. This is as bad as someone assuming that because I do some philosophy I must have the Meaning of Life (the answer is, variously, 12 year old Scotch, good chocolate, or dental hygiene).

But it raises an interesting question or two: what is the reason to do philosophy in relation to science? being the most obvious (and thus set up the context in which you can answer questions like: are there other ways to find truth than science?). So I thought I would briefly give my reasons for that.

When philosophy began around 500BCE, there was no distinction between science and philosophy, nor, for that matter, between religion and philosophy. Arguably, science began when the pre-Socratics started to ask what the natures of things were that made them behave as they did, and equally arguably the first actual empirical scientist was Aristotle (and, I suspect, his graduate students).

wilkins_picBut a distinction between science and philosophy began with the separation between natural philosophy (roughly what we now call science) and moral philosophy, which dealt with things to do with human life and included what we should believe about the world, including moral, theological and metaphysical beliefs. The natural kind was involved in considering the natures or things. A lot gets packed into that simple word, nature: it literally means “in-born” (natus) and the Greek physikos means much the same. Of course, something can be in-born only if it is born that way (yes, folks, she’s playing on some old tropes here!), and most physical things aren’t born at all, but the idea was passed from living to nonliving things, and so natural philosophy was born. That way.

In the period after Francis Bacon, natural philosophy was something that depended crucially on observation, and so the Empiricists arose: Locke, Berkeley, Hobbes, and later Hume. That these names are famous in philosophy suggests something: philosophy does best when it is trying to elucidate science itself. And when William Whewell in 1833 coined the term scientist to denote those who sought scientia or knowledge, science had begun its separation from the rest of philosophy.

Or imperfectly, anyway. For a start the very best scientists of the day, including Babbage, Buckland and Whewell himself wrote philosophical tomes alongside theologians and philosophers. And the tradition continues until now, such as the recent book by Stephen Hawking in which he declares the philosophical enterprise is dead, a decidedly philosophical claim to make. Many scientists seem to find the doing of philosophy inevitable.

So why do I do philosophy of science? Simply because it is where the epistemic action is: science is where we do get knowledge, and I wish to understand how and why, and the limitations. All else flows from this for me. Others I know (and respect) do straight metaphysics and philosophy of language, but I do not. It only has a bite if it gives some clarity to science. I think this is also true of metaphysics, ethics and such matters as philosophy of religion.

Philosoophy of Science 2014

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