I have been asked what I thought of some criticisms of the scientific relevance of philosophy of science, as discussed in the following snippet from a recent Scientific American blog. My title elicits the appropriate degree of ambiguity, I think.
“I interviewed Rovelli by phone in the early 1990s when I was writing a story for Scientific American about loop quantum gravity, a quantum-mechanical version of gravity proposed by Rovelli, Lee Smolin and Abhay Ashtekar[i]
Horgan: What’s your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this. I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong. Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly. You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the “true” philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.
Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the “why not?” Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe? Science has never advanced in this manner in the past. Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories. Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this. But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort. Why? Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.”
I find it intriguing that Rovelli suggests that “Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories.” I think this is an interesting and subtle claim with which I agree. Would this have been brought to light by being better tuned into current philosophy of science? Unclear. I don’t know Hawking’s criticisms, but I think philosophers of science would admit—most of them, at least if they’ve been in the field for awhile—that the promises of 30, 20 and 10 years ago, to be relevant to scientific practice, haven’t really panned out. To be clear, I absolutely think that philosophers of science can and should be at the forefront in any number of methodological, conceptual, and epistemological quagmires across the landscape of the natural and social sciences. I have written about this many times, and have organized forums with likeminded philosophers of science and scientists. With few exceptions, philosophers of science have not been involved in tackling these issues. In philosophy of statistics, philosophers are less of a presence now than when I was in graduate school[ii].
Debates over the philosophical foundations of statistics have a long and fascinating history; the decline of a lively exchange between philosophers of science and statisticians is relatively recent. Is there something special about 2011 (and beyond) that calls for renewed engagement in these fields? I say yes. There are some surprising, pressing, and intriguing new philosophical twists on the long-running controversies that cry out for philosophical analysis, and I hope to galvanize my co-contributors as well as the reader to take up the general cause. It is ironic that statistical science and philosophy of science—so ahead of their time in combining the work of philosophers and practicing scientists1—should now find such dialogues rare, especially at a time when philosophy of science has come to see itself as striving to be immersed in, and relevant to, scientific practice. I will have little to say about why this has occurred, although I do not doubt there is a good story there, with strands colored by philosophy,sociology, economics, and trends in other fields. I want instead to take some steps toward answering our question: Where and why should we meet from this point forward?
The on-line volume growing out of that conference, and contributions obtained shortly after, may be found here.
In a week or so, my paper, “On the Birnbaum Argument for the Strong Likelihood Principle” (and my rejoinder to comments) will appear in Statistical Science. The Likelihood Principle and the general topic of inductive-statistical “concepts of evidence” was of keen interest in philosophy when I was starting out, along with philosophy of statistics more generally. Now there may actually be more interest among statisticians than philosophers. We shall see.
[ii] There was a post which garnered quite a lot of comment last year: “What should philosophers of science do” (The comments got kind of off topic.)