Science needs philosophy
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most famous scientist in the U.S. today. He’s a successful writer, his TV show, “Cosmos,” is a hit, and he packs auditoriums everywhere he speaks (I brought my kids to see him speak at Tulane, and he was fantastic). But he is clearly wrong when he recently dismissed philosophy as irrelevant in a recent interview for the podcast the Nerdist.
Tyson may not like philosophy, but he uses it every time he practices science. When he says he only trusts what he can test, that’s a philosophical position called naïve falsification. When he says he uses experiments because they work, that’s American pragmatism.
Ignoring the philosophical assumptions behind the scientific process has gotten plenty of scientists in trouble. Similarly, philosophers who dismiss hard data too quickly find themselves with useless theories with zero reliability. Both work best when working together.
Historically, many scientists have embraced and used philosophy to enhance their abilities. Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and Niels Bohr were avid readers of philosophy. Contemporary scientists like Massimo Pigliucci (who wrote a great rebuttal to Tyson online) continue to promote the relationship between the two fields.
Even physicist Richard Feynman, who said that philosophy was useless for scientists, discussed core philosophical issues of knowledge and justification in “The Character of Physical Law” or “Cargo Cult Science.”
What about fields like ethics or politics? Science can help achieve their goals once the goals are determined, but you need philosophy to determine the goal itself. For example, if you determine that happiness is the ultimate goal of life, there’s plenty of research on how to improve your happiness. But science can’t determine what the goal ought to be. To his credit, Tyson acknowledges this fact.
Science and philosophy don’t even have the same goals, so straightforward comparisons miss the point. Science investigates the natural world better than anything else, but philosophy of science delves into issues proof, certainty, probability, and justification. It investigates the framework science operates in. Doing proper science requires interacting with these concepts, so you’re better off knowing what they mean.
Criticizing philosophy for not making progress also misses the point. Science analyzes the natural world, while philosophy refines the process of how we do it. Debates like Bayesian probability versus frequentist statistics, or realism versus instrumentalism, are philosophical ones that influence our understanding of science’s interaction with the world.
If you’re interested in religion, as many atheists are, you need philosophy to understand the arguments and how science plays into them. Physicist Sean Carroll used modern cosmology to refute apologist William Lane Craig’s arguments for god, but Carroll had to learn how his philosophy of science interacted with Craig’s philosophy of religion.
I wonder what would happen if all science majors had to take a class in philosophy of science as a way to unearth their assumptions about the experimental method, to awaken their dogmatic slumber. Would it sharpen their ability to create hypotheses and draw out conclusions, or at least give them a deeper understanding of the scientific method? I suspect so.
Philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians often collaborate on philosophy of science and mathematics papers for journals, making progress in all their respective fields. The issues they investigate are both important and fascinating. If you’re interested, the book “Theory and Reality” is for anyone who enjoys science, philosophy, and rationality.