Philosophy of science. Again.

culture, Education, philosophy, science Leave a reply

I wrote about philosophy of science back in 2012, and a recent spat in biology has brought this up again. The Wired article “Twitter Nerd-Fight Reveals a Long, Bizarre Scientific Feud” explains the details of that fight pretty well, and I just want to dig into a particular comment that seems to represent the core of the disagreement here.

“They said if you want to use another method, you have to show that it’s philosophically better, not scientifically better,” Eisen says. “That’s why I said it seems like they’re dropping science for dogma.”


“I’ve never in my life, in any area of science,” says Eisen, “seen something presented where people said, ‘We’re not going to judge something on the science, we’re going to judge it on the philosophy.’”

Eisen, frankly, couldn’t be more wrong (in principle).

Cards on the table: I don’t expect scientists to be well versed in philosophy, just as I don’t expect experts in one particular field to be experts in a second field (regardless of how foundational the second field is to the first). However, one of the results of the lack of education in philosophy is this profound lack of understanding of the foundation of science itself.

Science is little more than a combination of specific philosophical notions:

  1. Empiricism: claims about the world must be testable in the world.
  2. Materialism (physicalism): the material world is all that there is.
  3. Realism: the properties of objects are to be found within the objects themselves.

There are good arguments in favour as to why we should adopt these principles when trying to ‘dig into’ the world, to see what’s really out there, but there are also plenty of arguments against those that are quite strong. Now, none of these philosophical views are scientifically supported because they are precursors to science itself: in order to scientifically demonstrate that materialism ‘is true’, one would first have to presume the truth of materialism.

Such is the issue with ‘parsimony‘, a concept that stretches back centuries that is not, itself, scientifically testable. The only way to discuss this is in the realm of philosophy, and as much as Eisen may object to that, he might as well object to logic being the foundation of mathematics, or physics being the foundation of car mechanics: this is an inescapable fact about the world. That he is ill-equipped to have this debate is, frankly, an indictment of his scientific education which has, unfortunately, turned him into little more than a glorified mechanic, merely applying these principles in his everyday work without actually understanding what it is that he’s doing at a deep level.

Is there a solution to this particular fight? Well, contrary to Feynman, both Cladistics and Eisen could contact eminent philosophers who specialise in Philosophy of Science and have them hash it out, but I suspect that Eisen would find that less than satisfactory. Beyond that, in the future? Perhaps making one or two Philosophy of Science courses mandatory for those pursuing degrees in science would help avoid this issue in the future.

(And before people get clever: in my university, at least, several science courses are mandatory for a degree in philosophy)

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