Home arrow Philo Talking arrow Philosophy of Science


Philosophy of Science PDF Print E-mail

16 June  Is Philosophy of Science irrelevant to Real Science? - James Franklin

Jim Franklin discusses the philosophy of science, including the seeming anomaly of philosophers who know little science writing on science. 

First, something brief on the difference between science and philosophy of science.
Science – we all have a reasonably good idea of that: there are natural sciences like physics, ornithology, etc that do experiments and work on theories to explain the observations. Then there’s mathematics and the formal sciences like statistics and operations research, plus social sciences like sociology and economics.

Now, what can philosophy of science add to that, if anything? Here’s a list of questions that science raises but which need some more general thinking to answer – philosophical thinking. I’ll just list quickly, then take a few examples to illustrate some of them.
• What is evidence?: are scientific theories really believable, and why?
• Do scientists know all they claim to know in controversial topics like global warming and evolution?
• What about the furniture of the world mentioned in science: how literally should we take scientific language? E.g. are there really such things as atoms? Forces? Space? Numbers? Inferiority complexes? Social classes?
• What is the difference between natural sciences and say mathematics and social sciences? E.g. why do you have to get out in the wet in biology but you can just sit and think in mathematics?
• What scientific questions are interesting?
• What are the limits to science? For example, are questions about ethics and consciousness beyond the reach of science? Or does science show there are no such things?
That’s a survey of some of the questions that philosophy of science might attack. Now let’s see some examples.

What is evidence? Opinions differ. I approve of the “objective Bayesian” view, that the relation of experimental evidence to theory is one of pure logic. It works like this: you have a theory, say that all swans are white. You go out and observe some swans. If one of them is black, the theory is knocked over and it’s back to the drawing board. If they’re all white, the theory is confirmed, that is, it’s rationally more probable or believable than it was before. The notion of “confirmed” here is one of logic. It’s true in all possible worlds.

Imagine a tribe that did not believe in it, and thought instead that agreement between theory and observation was a reason for disbelieving the theory. They guess there are bison in the river field and go there to hunt them. They find none. So they conclude they will probably find bison there tomorrow and the next day and they go there day after day with high hopes. You will need to imagine that tribe because you won’t be meeting them. They are extinct.

Regrettably the most famous philosophers of science of the 20th century, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, didn’t agree with that. They thought scientific theories could not be made more probable by evidence. So Kuhn in particular tried to fill the gap between observation and theory with something that wasn’t logic. Something sociological, such as patronage. That set a good part of recent philosophy of science off on a postmodernist wild goose chase, and of course made that sort of sociology-based philosophy of science irrelevant to real science. Scientists quite properly ignored it. Educationists, unfortunately … but that’s another story.

Because of the logical nature of scientific reasoning, science can reach the truth very solidly. The theory of the circulation of the blood was discovered around 1600.  It’s stayed discovered, it’s got better confirmed all the time, and it’s not going to become undiscovered. But is confidence in science always justified? Science is sometimes not good at admitting when it doesn’t know. An example:
Why is the sun hot?

The sun is hot, as we know, because fusion reactions in it create massive amounts of energy, according to Einstein’s equation  E = mc2. That answer was discovered in time to be incorporated into the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s celebrated 11th edition, of 1911. So what did the 10th edition say? The true answer was “Science has no idea why the sun is hot”, but science does not so easily admit its areas of ignorance. Strictly speaking there is no 10th edition of the Encyclopaedia. There is a 9th edition (1887), with some “supplementary volumes” added in 1902. Both have an article “Sun”. That of 1887 simply avoids the question of why it is hot and confines itself to what is known about its size, mass and structure. The 1902 article makes some calculations of the energy given off and arrives at a large answer, suggesting that if the energy were not replenished, the sun would cool at a rate of 4% per annum, which plainly it does not. It mentions the only known possible cause of heating, contraction of the volume of the sun, and calculates that an annual contraction of 6790 cm would be sufficient to produce the energy. It offers no comment on whether that is possible.

In my view, the nature of the complexity involved in global warming and in evolution mean that the science in not as well-established as claimed. The standard scientific theories are good and there are no serious alternatives, but still, a little more politeness to sceptics might be indicated in view of the gaps. Working out causality in complex systems from observational evidence is really very much harder than it looks.  Here’s a joke that illustrates: Some scientists trained cockroaches to go when they shouted “Go!” They cut off the cockroaches’ legs. When they shouted “Go!”, the cockroaches didn’t move. So they concluded that cockroaches hear through their legs. It’s easy to laugh, but it’s not easy to work out what causes what.


Let’s try a question about the furniture of the world. Physics talks a lot about forces. Are there really such things as forces – are they really part of the furniture of the world like rocks? Or are they just a way of speaking about accelerations, so that Newton’s law,  Force  = mass × acceleration  is a definition of force? Here’s a reason for thinking forces are real: press your fingers together lightly, now press twice as hard. What’s the difference? …

Finally, an illustration of something about the limits of science. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, in a celebrated passage, drew a sharp line between “is” statement and “ought” statements. Science is about “is” statements, and, Hume says, you can’t deduce what ought to be from what is. He’s right. If ethics is to be found, it won’t be in science. So either there is no such thing as ethics, or you find it from somewhere else. One thing ruled out is “evolutionary ethics”, as if the evolutionary history of the human race can tell us how we ought to behave. Evolutionists formerly depressed by Darwinism’s “nature red in tooth and claw” picture brightened up when they discovered how to explain altruism, and some of them suggested we could now explain ethics scientifically. They omitted to mention that rape and genocide are just as much evolved behaviours as altruism – and quite useful for giving your genes a leg up in the evolutionary struggle. Genghis Khan has 16 million living descendants, so it certainly worked for him. But ethically, the evolutionary bases of his behaviour are not in the least excuses. Philosophy of science, among its other tasks, should keep science in its box.


James Franklin’s book What Science Knows: And How It Knows It will be published in July by Encounter Books, New York

 
< Prev   Next >