Philosophy and science

Lasmii asks:

I am a literature student. I am deeply interested in philosophy and science. Who are the philosophers who probed into scientific ideas?

Answer by Craig Skinner

In the ancient world there was philosophy. Then Christianity appropriated it to formulate intellectually appealing doctrine (theology). Throughout, systematic enquiry into the natural world was called natural philosophy. A ‘science’ was simply a body of knowledge or area of enquiry, such as military strategy or geometry. It was only with the application of mathematics, and the distinctive methodology of conjecture and testing with experiment, beginning with Galileo and Newton, that natural philosophy became science as we now know it, and physics, chemistry, geology, biology, psychology, and other fields of study, successively budded off from philosophy.

I will deal briefly with three things:

1. Great philosophers who were also scientists.

2. Great philosophers of science.

3. Great or well-known scientists who show interest in philosophy.

(1) The presocratics are sometimes called protoscientists because they were the first to seek explanation of events by natural rather than supernatural causes (mechanism rather than agency). Perhaps the most notable is Anaximander (born 610 BCE). He held that the Earth was a stone floating in space and didnt ‘fall’ because there was no reason for it to prefer one rather than another direction to move. He also held that change through time was due to universal necessary laws. A sparkling account of his contribution and its significance is given by one of our best scientist-writers (Rovelli C (2007) Anaximander, Westholme.

The greatest scientist among great philosophers is Aristotle. His physics is often derided as nonsense these days. Of course it is long superseded. But it held the stage for 2000 years because, given the accepted cosmology of his day — an Earth-centred system of concentric spheres with circular motion in the heavens and linear motion on Earth — it was a coherent system of fluid mechanics, and was only replaced when Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton came up with something better. Newton, in turn, was replaced by Einstein, and now, because Einstein’s theory of gravity doesnt work below the Planck scale, we await the new theory of quantum gravity which will replace it. Aristotle’s field work in marine biology is world-class. Darwin admired it, commenting on the illustrious biologists, Linnaeus and Cuvier, that ‘they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle’. Aristotle knew that individuals varied within a species, that some variations were heritable, and that some variations aided survival. But he didnt make the conceptual leap to evolution by natural selection, maybe because of his view that there were fixed natural kinds. Mind you, nobody else came up with the idea either, although Hume was close, till the 19th century. Philosophy texts tend to skim over Aristotle’s biology (although they deal with its metaphysical underpinnings, and these are also very much alive and well in modern scientific practice). An outstanding account is given in Leroi AM (2014) The Lagoon: How Aristotle invented Science, Bloomsbury.

Descartes was a great mathematician, inventing analytic geometry, and we still refer to the x-y axes on which we plot our graphs and functions, as Cartesian co-ordinates. But he was also a scientist. His vortex theory of the formation and motion of the solar system was mainstream till succeeded by Newton’ laws of motion and gravity. He also studied animal anatomy and physiology by dissection.

Berkeley made original contributions to the science of optics, again mostly skimmed in philosophy texts.

(2) Once science got going, philosophers turned to systematic analysis of scientific method and practice, including confirmation, refutation, theory choice, underdetermination, versimilitude, realism, reduction, distinction from pseudoscience, and much else. Among the great 20th century philosophers of science are Popper (distinguishing science from pseudoscience), Kuhn (science proceeds by long stretches of within-paradigm routine work punctuated by paradigm shifts), Feyerabend (there is no single scientific method, only a hotchpotch), Duhem, Lakatos, Hempel, Laudan, Cartwright and others. All have written important works, and well, but, perhaps, they are mostly too heavy-duty for the general reader.

(3) Scientists with an interest in philosophy are a mixed bag, their philosophy ranging across the whole spectrum of the good, the bad and the ugly. Einstein’s contributions are mostly aphoristic, but astute. Eddington’s 1927 Gifford lectures, published as The Nature of the Physical World are worth a read. A brilliant account of the science and philosophy of time, making clear difficult ideas which many other authors leave opaque, is Rovelli C (2018) The Order of Time, Allen Lane. As for Dawkins and Hawking, considerable scientists and good writers both, their philosophical contributions are best passed over.

I have only skimmed the surface of a vast subject, and havent even touched on the disputed question of the distinction, if any, between science and philosophy, but I hope my remarks are of some help.

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