Why Non-Scientists Need To Study the Philosophy of Science

Edward R. Dougherty

Edward R. Dougherty is Robert M. Kennedy '26 Chair and Distinguished Professor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Scientific Director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Genomic Systems Engineering, at Texas A&M University. His publications include Epistemology of the Cell: A Systems Perspective on Biological Knowledge (co-author Michael L. Bittner, 2011) and The Evolution of Scientific Knowledge: From Certainty to Uncertainty (2016).

In a previous NAS article, I addressed the question of why scientists need to study the philosophy of science. My answer was that knowledge in a discipline requires an understanding of what constitutes knowledge within the discipline. Scientists need to know that scientific theory must be constituted and validated according to scientific epistemology. This epistemology is subtle and should be studied as a coherent, discrete subject. It should not be taught as just a collection of haphazard remarks along the way to a degree.

But does the general student need to know the philosophy of science? Why should a non-scientist care about the structure of scientific knowledge?

In the first place, a good historical education surely should include the history of major scientific events. Indeed, the historians Will and Ariel Durant listed three books in The Age of Louis XIV as “the basic events in the history of modern Europe”: Nicolaus Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543), Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). These events were more important than the American, French, and Russian revolutions because they radically altered human perception of the human condition. Under the Copernican model man is no longer at the center of the universe. Under a universal Newtonian model, his free will vanishes and along with it his moral dimension. Under the Darwinian model, he is just a meaningless product of chance events.

Furthermore, the success of science as a body of knowledge leading to the vast alteration of man’s environment makes it impossible to argue that scientific thinking does not reveal the structure of the physical world, albeit, indirectly. To be ignorant of the epistemology supporting that thinking leaves one cut off from the dominant intellectual enterprise of the last four centuries. Since this enterprise includes “the basic events in the history of modern Europe,” and since it now spans the globe, it is hard to see how a student unfamiliar with its epistemology can speak meaningfully on any important subject. The manner in which a moral or political philosopher relates his theoretical analysis with the empirical basis and mathematical conceptual structure of modern science is a fundamental characteristic of his thinking.

Here one might consider Immanuel Kant, who claimed that human understanding of Nature is deterministic because determinism is a category of the understanding imposed upon phenomenal knowledge owing to the structure of mind, but that in the unperceived real (noumenal) world man is free and hence is a moral agent even though his understanding is deterministic. Kant wanted to have his cake (causality) and to eat it (moral agency) too.  Did he succeed? And if not, where did he fail? These questions are not arcane. How far from Kant is Niels Bohr when Bohr states in Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge that “in our description of Nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena (i.e., the quantum character of their ultimate constitution) but only to track down, as far as possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience.” A liberally educated student should know the intellectual world that the philosophy of science has opened up to us—the new answers, the new questions, and the new debates.

Finally, the general student needs to know the philosophy of science so as to be able to judge properly about a great many matters of public policy. Once we leave the philosopher’s chair, the pragmatic force of epistemology pushes upon us. In economics, what is the epistemological status of the labor theory of value? It is not a scientific theory. It cannot be validated via prediction as would be a scientific theory. In biology, what is the status of macroevolution? As biologist Stuart Kauffman notes, the theory of evolution includes Darwinian pre-adaptations, but, “Could we pre-state all the possible Darwinian pre-adaptations even for humans, let alone predict them?” One could go on endlessly listing theories that are not capable of validation, or even rigorously expressible in mathematics. Are such theories more than linguistic gibberish? This question is crucial for the functioning of society because scientific knowledge is highly constrained and society must function both within and without the confines of scientific knowledge. Owing to its inter-subjectivity if practiced properly, science escapes the subjective postmodern critique—but does anything else?

Consider the words of climate scientists Claudia Tebaldi and Reto Knutti: “It is important to note that climate projections, decades or longer in the future by definition, cannot be validated directly through observed changes.” Models that cannot be validated cannot constitute scientific knowledge; yet how many supposedly educated people believe that they do? Owing to the importance of climate to humanity, should not political leaders be concerned with the epistemic conundrum surrounding climate and other large-scale complex systems, such as the human cell?

It is these challenges that make it imperative that the general student learn the philosophy of science. Whereas contemporary scientific education is impoverished owing to a dearth of philosophy, liberal arts education is impoverished owing to a dearth of mathematics and science. Any scholar would look askance at a liberal arts degree not having a heavy dose of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Kant, to name just a few of the higher peaks. Thus, anyone possessing a quality liberal arts degree would also possess the philosophic background for science. Yet how many liberal arts degrees require meaningful courses in calculus, statistics, logic, and physics? These constitute the bare minimum to appreciate the modern philosophy of science. Knowledge of statistics is particularly important, because statistical methods are required in order to relate experimental observations to predictions derived from a scientific theory. Since statistics is subtle and often counter-intuitive, its serious study is mandatory.

Knowledge of the philosophy of science is critical in a society that depends on scientific thinking. Both a good scientific education and a good liberal education require at least a survey-level acquaintance with the great advances in scientific epistemology in the last four hundred years. It is detrimental to society for a scientist not to have studied David Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – and very few have. It is equally detrimental for an educator or political scientist or a liberally educated citizen not to have studied statistical estimation theory.

Consider the words of physicist and historian Gerald Holton: “By having let the intellectuals remain in terrified ignorance of modern science, we have forced them into a position of tragic impotence; they are, as it were, blindfolded in a maze through which they feel they cannot traverse.” Impotence is not a condition conducive to flourishing in a world in which a Hobbesian state of nature may be as close as the next little ice age or worldwide pandemic.

The general student needs to know the philosophy of science partly to enlighten his mind—but partly to defend against the barbarism that is still a present danger to mankind.

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