Do scientists need help from philosophers?

Jack asked:

I recently saw (YouTube) a very interesting discussion between Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci on the limits of science. One point that was not discussed adequately was that science sometimes turns to philosophers to help formulate the right questions. Dr. Krauss agreed apparently only if the physicist or other scientist runs out of questions to explore. I feel that the philosophy of science should play a larger role, but it intrigues me that scientists DO turn to philosopher to formulate the right question. That is, how does one know that they’re asking the wrong question? Is there a method for evaluating such, and for formulating the right question? I don’t expect Steps 1, 2 and 3, just some insights.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The relationship between science and philosophy is a complex and always evolving one. Physicist Lawrence Krauss is notoriously skeptical of any use of philosophy to scientists [1], while philosopher Dan Dennett has famously written (in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), that ‘There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.’

Then there is Einstein’s (no lightweight in matters of science!) opinion, as expressed to philosopher of science Robert Thornton in 1944:

"I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth."

None of this amounts to philosophers telling scientists which questions to ask, or how to formulate the questions they are interested in. The idea, rather, is that philosophers are good at stepping back from the nitty gritty details of everyday scientific investigation (because, you know, they don’t have to run labs or get grants funded), and are well trained in the logical analysis of concepts and their implications. Which makes philosophers valuable partners especially in those areas of science that are not well defined, either because they are not yet fully mature, or, at the other extreme, because they are at the cutting edge of what science can currently do.

For instance, much discussion between scientists and philosophers of science these days concerns the status of string theory in fundamental physics. Given that there is no currently foreseeable way of testing the novel predictions made by the theory, is it even science? The battle lines are drawn in somewhat unexpected ways, with for example philosopher of physics Richard Dawid openly calling for a ‘post-empirical’ science (which to me looks a lot like mathematically-based metaphysics), countered by physicist Lee Smolin advocating for a return to empirically verifiable theorizing and a move away from what he sees as increasingly unhinged (from the real world) speculation.

It is, I think, highly unfortunate that some high profile scientists and science popularizers (e.g., Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson [2]) have recently made disparaging remarks about philosophy, just as it is equally problematic that some philosophers (e.g., Jerry Fodor in his What Darwin Got Wrong, and Thomas Nagel, in his Mind and Cosmos) have made statements about science that are clearly ill informed and not carefully thought out.

Rather, science and philosophy should keep engaging in that continuous dialogue from which science itself, at the time characterized by practitioners such as Galileo and Newton as ‘natural philosophy,’ evolved from philosophy as an independent field of inquiry.

[1] See: Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, and Krauss does it again, so soon!.

[2] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy.


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