Although some scientists (I believe Lawrence Krauss is one) have said that philosophy is useless to scientists, I’m not one of these miscreants. Although I recognize that philosophy can’t find out truths about the real world as opposed to “truths” within logical systems, it can certainly be an aid to thinking about science. Two examples are Dan Dennett’s ideas about consciousness (I don’t think his lucubrations about free will, though, have been helpful to science as opposed to philosophy itself) and Phil Kitcher’s critique of sociobiology (now “evolutionary psychology”) in his book Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature.
Further, philosophers have been instrumental in helping discredit Intelligent Design theory and creationism; I’m thinking in particular of Rob Pennock’s book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism and Kitcher’s anti-creationist book Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism. Surely dispelling an “alternative” theory to evolution is a real contribution to science and to science education.
My Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, was a big fan of philosophy, and some of his scientific papers, like the one on the units of selection, sit at the border of science and philosophy. We often had philosophers spending sabbaticals in our lab (Eliott Sober, one of the authors of the paper below, was one of them), and their presence was stimulating.
Now several scientists and philosophers have teamed up to once again make the case for the value of philosophy in science in this paper in the new PNAS. Click on the screenshot to read the piece, or download the pdf here.
It’s a short piece—3.5 pages long—and gives several examples, new to me, about how philosophers have helped guide research, mainly by clarifying concepts. Not all of the “helpful” aids from from philosophy seem to have been all that helpful, though, including debates about the “modularity” of the brain, or emphasis on the importance of microbes in the biosphere, which seems to me to have come from science, not philosophy. This is what the piece says about brain modularity, for instance:
Philosophy had a part in the move from behaviorism to cognitivism and computationalism in the 1960s. Perhaps most visible has been the theory of the modularity of mind, proposed by philosopher Jerry Fodor (10). Its influence on theories of cognitive architecture can hardly be overstated. In a tribute after Fodor’s passing in 2017, leading cognitive psychologist James Russell spoke in the magazine of the British Psychological Society of “cognitive developmental psychology BF (before Fodor) and AF (after Fodor)” (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/jerry-fodor-1935-2017).
Modularity refers to the idea that mental phenomena arise from the operation of multiple distinct processes, not from a single undifferentiated one. Inspired by evidence in experimental psychology, by Chomskian linguistics, and by new computational theories in philosophy of mind, Fodor theorized that human cognition is structured in a set of lower-level, domain-specific, informationally encapsulated specialized modules and a higher-level, domain-general central system for abductive reasoning with information only flowing upward vertically, not downward or horizontally (i.e., between modules). He also formulated stringent criteria for modularity. To this day, Fodor’s proposal sets the terms for much empirical research and theory in many areas of cognitive science and neuroscience (11, 12), including cognitive development, evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive anthropology. Although his theory has been revised and challenged, researchers continue to use, tweak, and debate his approach and basic conceptual toolkit.
Well, modularity could have been true in principle, and surely the idea of brain modularity has stimulated a lot of discussion. But in the end, it hasn’t led anywhere, largely because the actions of the brain don’t seem to be separated into distinct, quasi-independent moieties but seem to be diffuse—and plastic enough to be influenced by other parts of the brain. You can read about this diffuseness in Matthew Cobb’s new book, The Idea of the Brain. But even the precise definition of modules isn’t sufficiently specific that philosophers have been able to propose good experiments to test it.
In the end, the authors offer some suggestions for how to make science and philosophy more of BFFs, and they’re reasonable but nothing that doesn’t come to mind—or haven’t come to mind—to others. For what they’re worth, here they are (my emphasis):
i) Make more room for philosophy in scientific conferences. This is a very simple mechanism for researchers to assess the potential usefulness of philosophers’ insights for their own research. Reciprocally, more researchers could participate in philosophy conferences, expanding on the efforts of organizations such as the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology; the Philosophy of Science Association; and the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice.
ii) Host philosophers in scientific labs and departments. This is a powerful way (already explored by some of the authors and others) for philosophers to learn science and provide more appropriate and well-grounded analyses, and for researchers to benefit from philosophical inputs and acclimatize to philosophy more generally. This might be the most efficient way to help philosophy have a rapid and concrete impact on science.
iii) Co-supervise PhD students. The co-supervision of PhD students by a researcher and a philosopher is an excellent opportunity to make possible the cross-feeding of the two fields. It facilitates the production of dissertations that are both experimentally rich and conceptually rigorous, and in the process, it trains the next generation of philosopher-scientists.
iv) Create curricula balanced in science and philosophy that foster a genuine dialogue between them. Some such curricula already exist in some countries, but expanding them should be a high priority. They can provide students in science with a perspective that better empowers them for the conceptual challenges of modern science and provide philosophers with a solid basis for the scientific knowledge that will maximize their impact on science. Science curricula might include a class in the history of science and in the philosophy of science. Philosophy curricula might include a science module.
v) Read science and philosophy. Reading science is indispensable for the practice of philosophy of science, but reading philosophy can also constitute a great source of inspiration for researchers as illustrated by some of the examples above. For example, journal clubs where both science and philosophy contributions are discussed constitute an efficient way to integrate philosophy and science.
vi) Open new sections devoted to philosophical and conceptual issues in science journals. This strategy would be an appropriate and compelling way to suggest that the philosophical and conceptual work is continuous with the experimental work, in so far as it is inspired by it, and can inspire it in return. It would also make philosophical reflections about a particular scientific domain much more visible to the relevant scientific community than when they are published in philosophy journals, which are rarely read by scientists.
The first two are fine; as I said, Lewontin’s lab always had a philosopher about. Co-supervision of Ph.D. students would be practical only if one’s thesis had a big philosophical component. #4, a curriculum balanced in science and philosophy, sounds good but there is little time in graduate school for courses outside one’s area, so a roughly equal “balance” would be impractical. A single course in philosophy of science, however, would be useful for Ph.D. candidates, at least in evolutionary biology. Reading groups are great if they’re well supervised, and many science journals already adhere to #6, having some bits about philosophy.
In the end, philosophy is an extremely valuable adjunct to science, but useful largely for getting us to think hard and avoid blind alleys, not so much in providing answers or suggesting experiments. Giving answers to empirical questions is not, of course, the job of philosophy, which is why Francis Crick is supposed to have made this statement, which may be apocryphal:
“Listen to philosophers’ questions, but not to their answers.”