Mar 17 2011

Is Philosophy of Science Dead?

In his latest book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking gives his opinion that the philosophy of science has outlived its usefulness – it is “dead”. The reason he gives is that modern philosophers have not kept up with the cutting edge of science, and therefore their musings have become irrelevant.

Not surprisingly, philosophers have not taken kindly to this suggestion. I find myself siding with the philosophers on this one. But Hawking’s observation is not without merit, especially if you give it one critical tweak – some philosophers of science have not kept up and their musings about science are largely irrelevant. I could also says that some scientists are not up on their philosophy and this hampers their efforts as scientists.

Christopher Norris does a good job defending philosophy (in the link above), so I won’t repeat the same points here except to summarize. Norris observes:

By the same token, scientific theories are always ‘underdetermined’ by the best evidence to hand, meaning that the evidence is always open to other, equally rational interpretations given some adjustment of this or that ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ or negotiable element of background belief. All the same, I don’t want to push that line of argument too far, because among some philosophers of science it has now become an article of faith; a dogma maintained just as fixedly as any precept of the old, unreconstructed positivist creed. Moreover it has given rise to a range of relativist or ‘strong’ sociological approaches which use the theory-ladenness and underdetermination theses to cast doubt on any distinction between true and false theories, valid and invalid hypotheses, or science and pseudo-science.

Very likely it is notions of this kind – ideas with their home ground in sociology, or cultural studies, or on the wilder shores of philosophy of science – which provoked Professor Hawking to issue his pronouncement.

I think that is it exactly. Scientists need to understand that there is a philosophy that underpins the methods of science. There is no science without the philosophy of science, even if it is implied and not implicitly understood by scientists. And we need to understand the philosophical  assumptions and limits of science. However, some philosophers have taken the fact that science does rest on certain basic principles that themselves are not empirical (although I would argue have stood the test of time and are practical – which, I know, are criteria that are also based on philosophical premises) to the extreme of post-modernism, that science is no different than culture.

It is no surprise that scientists recoil from the notion that science is hopelessly subjective and that no theory can be said to be objectively better than any other. This is nonsense. Ironically, this view of philosophy of science is also a product of “not keeping up”, because it is passe among philosophers of science. Norris seems to echo this assessment – that this type of post-modernism comes from the “strong” sociological approach, or only among the “wilder shores” of philosophy of science. I have spoken to several philosophers of science who are highly critical of this view, as Norris seems to be.

Hawking’s mistake seems to be to paint contemporary philosophy of science with too broad a brush. It is more accurate, and more effective, to rely upon those philosophers who are also critical of the misapplication of post-modernism to science as allies.

But Hawking’s criticism does raise an interesting question – will the philosophy of science ever be done, or at least reduced to minor tweaks of an essentially correct and fully formed philosophy of science? Philosophy is a system of thought, like mathematics. I don’t think there is one, final and objective “Truth” out there, but at least as far as a system of thought, like math, is concerned – at any point can it be said to be complete and correct? Is algebra still evolving? (Perhaps it is, I profess my own ignorance on this topic not being a mathematician, but it seems to me that the algebra of today is much the same as that of 30 years ago). I know that mathematics is still developing – there is a cutting edge of advanced mathematical techniques and problems yet to be solved, but I don’t think we will be changing the basic concept of geometry much.

It is somewhat similar with science – when we nail down the basic concepts then science advances by addressing finer and finer detail, or deeper and deeper understanding. Some believe that science may end once we come up with a theory of everything, but I disagree because there are endless permutations of how the universe works that can be explored. Perhaps philosophy is the same – there are endless permutations of philosophical questions to be addressed.

And that is my best guess at this time – at some point, and perhaps we are there or very close – we will have a philosophy of science that is internally consistent, thoroughly explored and essentially a whole and complete philosophy. At that point further work will involve the application of the philosophy of science, but fundamental changes or insights will no longer be necessary.

It may further be true that some philosophers (and I emphasize some), looking to make a novel contribution, will propose changes for the sake of changes. They will try to fix what is not broken. I think this is partly what was happening with the post-modernist community. They took some useful insights as to the history, process, and limits of science and then ran with them to an absurd extreme. They tried to fix what was not broken. They then had to be reigned in by their successors.

But it seems to me that the extreme post-modernist application to science still echoes in the popular culture (which did not get the memo that this is not the cutting edge of philosophy of science). Hawking was reacting mainly to that echo, and not the best that current philosophy of science has to offer.

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