“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. “

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. So says Richard Feynman, apparently. Alan Sokal, in a recent interview with Jullian Baggini, wrote that this analogy is suggestive of the lack of epistemic merit that philosophy has to the structuring and adding of new knowledge to physics. Analogies like this are apt for the contribution that philosophy has to physics, granted; but I have found it wanting in other cases.

A musician, who was largely an autodidact once said to me that he did not care very much for music theory as it did not fit with performance skills and apprehension as a musician. I fell silent, not bothering to tell him that he was playing music predominantly in a mixolydian mode, while utilising tritones, ostinati, parallel 5ths, 8ths, dominant sevenths, suspensions, passing notes, arpeggiations, and so on…

I can appreciate the view that being steeped in a particualr style limits one and the musical options that they have. I have recently started to play the guitar, and I like playing on blues scales. This is largely to impress my friends at my ability to naturally create riffs and hooks, but there is another sense in which I communicate my utter disdain for a style by its ease, there is a sense of comfort and familiarity when I play a ragtime. I’m not very good at sightreading Bach, even less if I attempted Beethoven or Chopin. Joplin and Lamb, by contrast, are a joy to practice at sight, this is because of my own insecurity as a piano player, but also there is a joy in seeing the immediate fruit of one’s labour by my immediate apprehension of the musical style and its playing ease. There is not as much ease, by contrast, in heavier romantic styles.

In short, sometimes knowing the rules of the game enhances our performance as players. This is certainly true for olympic or professional atheletes; who, while being introduced to a professional level normally at university or younger; sometimes furnish their career with a doctoral thesis that relates either to their performance or training as an athelete. Our inspiration may come from other things; engineers and technologists can sometimes draw their innovations from the observation of nature.

Coming back to the philosophy example, a later point was made that physics is just as successful and unhindered by philosophy. Physicists like Feynman and Wolpert are distinctly anti-philosophical, in contrast to the likes of Einstein, or if one really wants to go back, Newton. Newton after all, had written about his empiricist leanings and nature of his methodology. Kant reacts critically to Newton’s ’empiricist’ methodology, but not the results. This kind of philosophical engagement of a physicist, by the standards of the day, were by no means amateur and are taken seriously by philosophers today.

The so-called philosophically oriented physicists of the 20thC, by contrast, are not terribly interesting in terms of our contempoary philosophical tools. Einstein’s ‘Spinozism’ has been talked about by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, as a caveat so as not to be interpreted into religious terms. Having an understanding of Spinoza’s metaphysics, by contrast, is not even addressed. Spinoza’s approach to life was one of emotional calm against the overwhelming and sometimes uncontrollable temperaments that we suffer in life. One of the enjoyments that we can have in life is an apprehension of the unity of nature that is, in his metaphysics, how the nature of our inner consciousness subsumed in no small part to the larger reality as a whole, as well as the underlying propositional language that both support. This may sound mystical, but really, it is a form of naturalism. The two prejudices that Spinoza’s philosophy had were: admitting that his metaphysics was fundamentally correct, and we put scientific development and knowledge on a pedestal. None of this is really addressed in the ‘Einsteinian’ view so bastardised by the atheist popularisers.

Stephen Hawking’s own popular books try to establish a so-called philosophically interested reading of M-theory, string theory and general relativity. There are moments where his reading is somewhat patchy. But perhaps the real thing that is important, and that Hawking succeeds in, is making the current understanding of science understandable to a general public. This is what I would consider the most socially important thing that phyiscists can do outside of their work. Sokal’s perspective by contrast is one where physicists do their science between monday-saturday and then their speculation on a sunday. What succeeds about Hawking’s presentation is that the physics is presented in a manner that has religious and humanistic dimensions, rather than one of a technical ‘philosophical’ merit. Does the universe have a beginning? Does the universe have an end? What is our place in the grand order of things? Is there life beyond earth? Physics goes on well without philosophy’s involvement, however, it should be attributed to the death of the polymath that there are less physicists more interested in philosophy. The rise of continental philosophy that fails to acknowledge the work in physics with any real expertise is also a reason why physicists may dislike philosophy as a whole, that is the whole point of the Sokal hoax in a sense.

Perhaps the most interesting, and important thing that physicists can do for the public is to be understood. Conspiracies such as the moon landing being fake, or the belief that miniature black holes will destroy the universe; are harmful to science, harmful to reason and pander to a mindset that hurts rationalism and rationality.



5 thoughts on ““Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. “

  1. Obviously the birds are unaware of the benefits they have gained from it, but bird species certainly do benefit from ornithology – without it, many species that are currently endangered would already be extinct. As for scientists and philosophy of science – having been both a scientist (astrophysicist then cognitive scientist) and a philosopher, I would say a great many scientists are as incapable of philosophic thinking as birds are of ornithology. This limitation does not prevent them doing their research, but neither does it invalidate the second order of feedback that philosophy of science provides.

    Also: interesting note on Spinoza, here. I am often shocked at the way the New Atheists dismiss Spinozan metaphysics by rolling up into the Einsteinian pantheism it inspired – and even more dismayed that even Einstein’s position in this regard is misused. Einstein greatly favoured religion as a vehicle for ethics; it was over the issue of the personal god of theism he held his objection. When Dawkins deploys Einstein, it is to avoid having to argue the untenable part of his case against God(s) i.e. it is an admission that his position is untenable if it is not artificially constrained. Although, frankly, even thus constrained his argument is laughably sophomoric (he treats God as a physical entity, he has read no modern theologists, he misrepresents Hume and skips Nietzsche entirely as if he were not relevant to the subject).

    Anyway, just my random thoughts on the matter. 🙂

    Best wishes!

  2. Pingback: Philosophy catfight!: Pigliucci vs. Krauss « Why Evolution Is True

  3. As a scientist, I see that any “philosophy of science” beyond the ‘stereotypical’ emphasis on the scientific method should not impact the results of science – whether reality is a dream or the creation of some kind of god, ‘observe-experiment-hypothesize-repeat’ will get the most accurate understanding of reality available. More-so, the very fact that Kant agreed with Newton’s results shows the very point that Feynman is making.
    –> Point 1 for Feynman.

    As a citizen, I realize that understanding the basics of scientific philosophy is critical to the well-being of society. Someone may be uneducated as to how hydrofracking or greenhouse gases work, but that doesn’t mean they should be incapable of distinguishing science from junk. In fact if the populous can’t tell science from non-science then the society is doomed to collapse.
    –> Point 2 for Hawking

    The tie-breaker still leaves a tie. Sure, some intrinsic philosophy exists – the significance of the scientific method, the use of parsimony and falsification. But this often is no more than the average person’s philosophy.

  4. Pingback: Pigliucci decries scentism, argues that science needs philosophy, and that most of us are doing it rong « Why Evolution Is True

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