Defending Philosophy of Science, Conclusion

Here is the messy conclusion to the thread on the applicability of Philosophy of Science:

Johnny, I hate to join in this debate, as I’m not very interested in Philosophy of Science, but could you please read these questions again and answer them properly:

>Lolawalser:Next, is your contention that biochemistry and applied sciences have laboured all this time employing methods without the backing of “sound theory”? If it is, can you show it is true?

Let me simplify: do you think that all the achievements of biochemistry etc. have been serendipitous, discovered by methodologically blind people groping around?

You replied

>johnnylogic: theory may allows us to systematize, optimize, predict and control where we could not do so before.

Does that mean biochemists operate without any knowledge of biochemistry (which is the so-called “theory”)?

Does that mean they have not been capable of systematizing, optimizing, predicting and controlling anything before?

Do you realize how absurd such an argument sounds?

>Lolawalser:Now, assuming that it is true (to speed things up–I personally think it’s a ridiculous statement–Not Even Wrong), what does it tell you, if the achievements of science so far have been produced “without” the backing of sound theory–such as you envisage?

You did not reply to this question, but never mind.

>johnnylogic:What makes you think that science as currently practiced is optimal? How would you suggest our methods be improved, if not by reasoning about and a theory of its methods? This is just PoS.

Why do you think the enhancement or correction of methodology belongs to some metaphysical or “logical” (analytically) realm? Does it occur to you that methodology comes about according to the nature of the experiment at hand, and that modifying or changing methods is inherent to the work of doing science itself, rather than requiring a philosophy of praxis as a crutch to fall back on?

Let me put it another way – say you are an inventor, with a concept but no tools or materials. What would be your first step? Do you sit down to “theorize” about the practice of building? Or do you familiarize yourself with the science or engineering required, try to make an educated guess about what you need based on your learning and experience, and attempt to build your concept? And when aspects of your construction fail, or you realize what you have built is something different from the concept you envisaged, do you not automatically try other methods or expand your concept? This is a very simplistic example and I am no scientist, so someone can feel free to correct me here, but what I am getting to is that I think your ‘philosophy of (practice of) science’ sounds redundant to LolaWalser because it already is immanent in the act of doing science. Sure, you can specialize in a philosophy of a particular scientific method (but I don’t call that philosophy) when you are engaged with that scientific method, but do you realize how meaningless such a philosophy is by itself, as a field of its own, divorced from any reference to real data, actual experimentation, etc.?

>fluffy, pomo, intellectual onanism

These comments always make me chuckle, particularly in the light of tautological arguments with little or no definition of concepts, from allegedly critical, consistent and rigorous ‘philosophers’.

Yes, it is Existanai again; you may remember him from such threads as The Analytic/Continental Divide.

My reply and more below the fold:

Let me simplify: do you think that all the achievements of biochemistry etc. have been serendipitous, discovered by methodologically blind people groping around? Does that mean biochemists operate without any knowledge of biochemistry (which is the so-called “theory”)?

No. What reading of what I have posted would prompt these questions? Theory of scientific methodology, not an individual science. Science’s success has come with reflection about method (see Galileo’ or Newton’s writings for plenty of methodological talk) and it is certainly not serendipitous, but possibly suboptimal given the many outstanding methodological questions hanging about. Of course, how would we know if such considerations get shut down before we even consider them?

I have not claimed that there is a philosophical or theoretical prerequisite to doing science, just that it may help our scientific practice to reflect on and refine our methods with the logical, mathematical, and conceptual tools available to us.

Why do you think the enhancement or correction of methodology belongs to some metaphysical or “logical” (analytically) realm? Does it occur to you that methodology comes about according to the nature of the experiment at hand, and that modifying or changing methods is inherent to the work of doing science itself, rather than requiring a philosophy of praxis as a crutch to fall back on?

Where did you get “metaphysical” from? Replication would require us to be able to individuate components that do not magically arise from “the experiment at hand”. How are we to compare experiments and results without identifying relevant commonalities and differences? If we are to automate the practice, as is the goal in machine learning, we certainly must do more than wave our hands at context of experimentation and discovery– we are forced to model the process, which means using the aforementioned conceptual tools.

Wow–we have two people now that engage in debate, but are not interested in philosophy of science. Does anyone else want to try to satisfy this peanut gallery?

Existanai:

>Me: Does that mean biochemists operate without any knowledge of biochemistry (which is the so-called “theory”)?

>johnnylogic: What reading of what I have posted would prompt these questions?

This: “My point is that methods should be backed by sound theory.”

And this: “To quote a scientist, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.””

And this: “However, theory may allows us to systematize, optimize, predict and control where we could not do so before. “

Etc.

Apparently it’s still not clear to you. If you need a good theory to to systematize, optimize, predict and control where we could not do so before, your implication is that 1) methods as they exist today are insufficient for the work of science, and/or 2) could be much improved, consequently leading to ‘better science’, and/or 3) there are some ‘a priori’ truths regarding science or scientific methodology, a la Kantian metaphysics, that determine the scope of what science can or should discover, and if these a priori truths are established, science will flourish, in whatever pre-defined way.

Firstly, you have not even attempted to explain what you mean by science, which is diverse by definition and by method. There is always crossover of course – you can study part of a tree bark at a subatomic (physics), molecular (chemistry – bonding etc.), or cellular (biology) level, but to state the obvious again, there is also enough distinction that an expert in quarks doesn’t become an expert in barks. What makes ‘scientific method’ in theoretical physics, which is often purely mathematical at first, has little or nothing in common with the scientific methodology of a botanist.

In the first case, if the current methods are insufficient, then that does not explain how science in whatever form continues to be effective, reliable, and in practice, so your suggestion is useless. In the second case, if you want to suggest ‘improvement’, then you can only do it through science itself, which in my opinion is well within the domain of science and not philosophy – you cannot establishes rules for botanical methodology through pure logic, and you cannot gather black holes and white dwarfs in a laboratory to carry out tests on them. Even assuming that you want to separate the thinking-through of methodology from science, and call it a philosophy, then such philosophy can only exist as a highly specialized field that supplements a particular kind of scientific research. Because when it’s decontextualized, it loses any meaning and value. Again, since you have not attempted to define anything, I can only assume that by philosophy you mean the current academic practice, and not all of philosophy since the start of recorded time.

If, however, you think a philosophy of science can and should transcend the work of science, that its ideas or principles are above and beyond specific, topical methodology, then you are merely engaging in metaphysics. Whatever the philosophical value of Kant etc., I think anyone who even vaguely remembers science from their school days should understand that a search for ‘a priori’ principles of knowledge are completely redundant and unnecessary where the work of science is concerned, as evinced by the existence and effectiveness of all of science itself. A physicist does not need to know whether a reality exists within or beyond the physical reality he is studying, or an ulterior knowledge exists beyond his physics, because they have no bearing at all on his study, reasoning or conclusions, which are in any case self-consistent. Whatever the philosophical implications of such a rejection, they don’t matter to physics because physics is defined by restricting itself to the observable, palpable, testable, and so on. So a hunt for such transcendent principles is utterly pointless.

All the examples you have provided, of recent philosophers having a dialog with and ‘aiding’ scientists, is merely the critical thinking of one person coming to the help of another, an example of seeking other ways of approaching a problem, other opinions, even from outside one’s field in the hope of breaking out of one’s own limited approach – because everyone’s mind is limited in some way and requires a little inspiration or shaking up once in a while. This, for you, is academic philosophy, but not for me – it is philosophical, certainly, but no more or no less than what non-philosophers are capable of (a point I have made before.) To oversimplify the point greatly, there is the famous anecdote of Kekule making a breakthrough with the structure of benzene, establishing that it was a ring of carbon, a notion that apparently came to him when he dreamt or thought of a snake eating its own tail; based on such an anecdote, however, I wouldn’t really want to hypothesize about the usefulness of dreaming to science, although I’m sure there’s a little history of that too.

>Where did you get “metaphysical” from?

See above.

>Theory of scientific methodology, not an individual science. Science’s success has come with reflection about method (see Galileo’ or Newton’s writings for plenty of methodological talk) and it is certainly not serendipitous, but possibly suboptimal given the many outstanding methodological questions hanging about. Of course, how would we know if such considerations get shut down before we even consider them?

Galileo and Newton were establishing a foundation for further work, or defending themselves against arbitrariness and untested faith, so your example is redundant (like your earlier examples). Since the beginning of this thread you have been conflating the historical practice of science, ancient philosophy, the foundations of modern scientific method, and mostly contemporary academic philosophy, when doing so makes the very premise of your argument invalid because you can then equate almost anything in philosophy before 1800 with almost anything in science before 1800. As we’re all aware these fields were not even distinct until two to three centuries ago and even now, people like yourself insist on there being underlying principles or ‘commonalities’ when the world is perfectly content to operate with complexity and diversity and difference. Why is that so hard to accept?

>If we are to automate the practice — we are forced to model the process, which means using the aforementioned conceptual tools.

Why automate anything? I’ve answered this too above.

>it may help our scientific practice to reflect on and refine our methods with the logical, mathematical, and conceptual tools available to us.

A philosopher or series of philosophers or scientist arguing for carefully established rules of method does not convert ‘scientific methodology’ into philosophy any more than the original, philosophical hypotheses about the universe make astronomy a philosophical or humanitarian field. We are covering the same ground again: if you do want to call all critical thinking philosophy, then science and engineering and architecture and even, say, manufacturing or industrial design are ‘philosophy’, or at least their ‘theoretical’ parts are. And if they are not philosophy, then you have to stop and define the differences, as any non-fluffy, non-onanistic philosopher is expected to do. And yet again, if the question is irrelevant, we are free to call both critical thinking and the current academic field philosophy. And you should not be insisting on the importance of ‘philosophy of science’ as something above and beyond the work of science itself, or we will soon also need a ‘philosophy of sports’ to tie up all critiques of sport with the sports themselves, to ’round out’ the athletes and further modify the ‘underpinnings of their applied technique’.

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In brief, your argument is weak if not terrible. It’s certainly not up to the high standards of ‘logic’ you’ve set up, as evidenced by your dismissal of so-called ‘pomo’ figures.

And since we are only going round in circles, let me offer you a way out with a cue from the fluffy onanists:

At what point can critical thinking about a subject be said to have become systematized? In other words, at what point along the way from the ‘naive’ biology of Aristotle to the current science of biology did observation and inference establish a model called science? In what category should we place medicine, or psychology, if they both rely on scientific method but do not have the consistency or predictability or blunt applicability of other sciences?

These are interesting questions about science that, on the one hand, require a knowledge of science and, on the other, do not try to take the place of science but merely offer a perspective or history of it, and attempt to investigate cultural and other issues that may or may not be of scientific concern. These are some of the types of questions attempted by the so-called post-modernists you look down on, and, even if one does not agree with their conclusions, their arguments are far more sophisticated and mature in that they do not attempt to pose as an essential part of science or claim to be ‘aiding’ science. If they do end up aiding science, that is incidental, not a call for the creation of a new faculty at universities.

If the above is what you mean by “philosophy of science” – or perhaps questions concerning bioethics, or the role of political manipulation of science to serve right-wingers, etc. then yes, there is a “philosophy of science”, that is of some interest. But it certainly doesn’t exist as a template for all science – there are no Forty Seven Commandments or whatever.

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>Does anyone else want to try to satisfy this peanut gallery?

The ‘peanut gallery’ does not seek satisfaction but, at the very least, a well-exemplified, well-reasoned and non-tautological argument from self-professed philosophers or philosophy hobbyists.

He has a mighty big chip on his shoulder.

My reply:

My statement about “fluffy pomo onanists” was meant in parody of a mistaken view of philosophy, so try not to take it personally; I do not dismiss “continental” philosophy the way that you dismiss analytic philosophy.

Firstly, you have not even attempted to explain what you mean by science, which is diverse by definition and by method.

I have (see #33). You have chosen to overlook it. I am not interested in giving the sufficient and necessary conditions for membership in the set Science.

What makes ‘scientific method’ in theoretical physics, which is often purely mathematical at first, has little or nothing in common with the scientific methodology of a botanist…etc.

Really? Is human reasoning so heterogeneous so as to not admit any common description? I’m not suggestion some totalizing, once-and-for-all purely logical characterization of science. I’ll settle for understanding parts, as we can.

Even assuming that you want to separate the thinking-through of methodology from science, and call it a philosophy, then such philosophy can only exist as a highly specialized field that supplements a particular kind of scientific research. Because when it’s decontextualized, it loses any meaning and value.

Is this true in all contexts?

All the examples you have provided, of recent philosophers having a dialog with and ‘aiding’ scientists, is merely the critical thinking of one person coming to the help of another, an example of seeking other ways of approaching a problem, other opinions, even from outside one’s field in the hope of breaking out of one’s own limited approach – because everyone’s mind is limited in some way and requires a little inspiration or shaking up once in a while. This, for you, is academic philosophy, but not for me – it is philosophical, certainly, but no more or no less than what non-philosophers are capable of (a point I have made before.)

If by science you mean all the methods of mathematics, logic, experiment, and critical thinking in general, then I guess we have to do it through science. Nothing like forcing the answer definitionally! Who’s being tautological? The activities of institutionally and self-described philosophers in following their line of inquiry are not doing philosophy; they are just critically thinking. OK. I am just interested in the questions. I don’t care what label you give it.

As we’re all aware these fields were not even distinct until two to three centuries ago and even now, people like yourself insist on there being underlying principles or ‘commonalities’ when the world is perfectly content to operate with complexity and diversity and difference. Why is that so hard to accept?

I am content with both difference and sameness– to the extent we find helpful similarities in method, we may systematize; where we cannot find common ground, we wont. I am no enemy to diversity. Good strawmanning, though.

>If we are to automate the practice — we are forced to model the process, which means using the aforementioned conceptual tools.

Why automate anything? I’ve answered this too above.

There are very good practical reasons to automate scientific processes, including the production of expert systems for diagnostics, AI for exploratory satellites and robots (NASA), filtering spam, etc. There are also good theoretical reasons, as programming theories of inference tends to make clear the assumptions being made, and reveal relevant constraints (computational, time, etc.).

>Does anyone else want to try to satisfy this peanut gallery?

The ‘peanut gallery’ does not seek satisfaction but, at the very least, a well-exemplified, well-reasoned and non-tautological argument from self-professed philosophers or philosophy hobbyists.

Happily, I do not see it my duty to convince you, when your conclusions is forgone. I have tried to provide examples of philosophers of science aiding science, historically, and contemporarily (which was the original question), but you have defined that possibility out of being; you selectively ignore the content of my posts and you fill the gaps in with uncharitable assumptions.

I have a more than full time job, a young child, and a fence in need of building, so I will leave you to dance with your straw men.

True to my word, Existanai has the last post:

>I am not interested in giving the sufficient and necessary conditions for membership in the set Science.

Not needed, but your definition as stated would apply to a number of things, such as architecture. Although I am no scientist of any stripe myself, I think you just don’t get how multifarious and complex the various sciences are, and speaking of them all together as “science” only makes one’s argument analogous to those of religious fanatics who lump everything outside religion as one great mass of heresy.

>Is human reasoning so heterogeneous so as to not admit any common description?

Again, human reasoning does not by itself constitute philosophy or require philosophy to exist.

>I’ll settle for understanding parts, as we can.

Well, good – learn and do science. Those are the ‘parts’ you speak of.

>Me: Because when (philosophy of science) is decontextualized, it loses any meaning and value.

> johhnylogic: Is this true in all contexts?

How many decontextualized contexts can you think of? Sorry – your question is so amusing I couldn’t resist. Seriously, how many cases can you think of where a philosophy of science as I described it, being an appendage to a scientific area of research and used by the particular scientists to think about their own practice, is meaningful outside of the particular scientific field?

>If by science you mean all the methods of mathematics, logic, experiment, and critical thinking in general, then I guess we have to do it through science… Who’s being tautological?

Again, you simply don’t understand that science is too much of a blanket term (and even as a blanket term, not well enough defined by you.) Each science will have its own approach, methodology etc. to solve its own kinds of problems, and it does not need to refer to a philosophy textbook to discover for itself what the most effective methods of investigation, research etc. are.

>The activities of institutionally and self-described philosophers in following their line of inquiry are not doing philosophy; they are just critically thinking.

No, this is what you fail to get again. If you are following a line of inquiry within certain bounds, well and good. If you are trying to wax poetic about already existing, self-consistent fields and offer pretty hypotheses with no practical/professional understanding of the field itself, in the hope that your pretty hypotheses are some day going to supplement, or ‘improve’, or reinvent some of those fields, then – to put it very gently – your ideas are as relevant as all metaphysical imaginings, and whether you are a philosopher or a waitress or a tennis player, your imaginings have equal weight (or lack thereof) to the science in question, and should not necessarily be considered representative of your profession :).

Anyone can offer some valuable help to science. This does not necessarily make them de facto scientists, or philosophers of science, etc. whatever their professional designation. It does not necessarily elevate the ‘help’ to the level of science either.

>There are very good practical reasons to automate scientific processes

Sorry, my question was intended to be: why do you think you need ‘philosophy’ to automate anything in science? Why do you think science is deficient in creating its own solutions?

>I have tried to provide examples of philosophers of science aiding science, historically, and contemporarily

These examples are not what you claim them to be.

>I do not see it my duty to convince you, when your conclusions is forgone… I will leave you to dance with your straw men

This is quite amusing, because you haven’t even bothered to directly reply to many of the questions you were asked. This is especially ironic in light of the fact that as a non-scientist (like myself), heading a group of mostly non-scientists, about what you call the philosophy of science, you barely address any valid criticism from the only two or three scientists on this board. Never mind me – if you can’t convince them, and can’t post at least one clear example of the philosophy of science ‘improving science’, how much more progress are you going to make in the broader world? Do you always hope to appeal to people within the inner circle of your kind of reasoning? If so, why go to all the trouble of elaborating a ‘philosophy’ for the good of hundreds of other fields and millions of people all of whom you shoehorn under the label ‘science’?

The great strawman in all of your own arguments is that science as it exists now is incapable of devising solutions to its own problems, and somehow needs something ‘added’ to it, some ‘performance booster’ as it were – and that’s what your little philosophy of science is there to provide.

It’s not my duty to convince you either, but I at least offered ways for you to bolster your argument.

All of us have greater priorities, by the way. So, if I don’t hear from you – take care and have fun.

I am quite done with trying to explain my position to an unsympathetic bore with selective attention.

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