by Robert Waltz
Not for the faint of art.
|This one's a little on the deep side, and I can't claim to understand all of it. But I'm putting it out here anyway in the hope that someone will get something out of it.
Questioning Truth, Reality and the Role of Science
In an era when untestable ideas such as the multiverse hold sway, Michela Massimi defends science from those who think it hopelessly unmoored from physical reality.
Incidentally, my browser's spellchecker doesn't recognize the legitimacy of "untestable." There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm entirely too sober to tease it out right now.
It’s an interesting time to be making a case for philosophy in science. On the one hand, some scientists working on ideas such as string theory or the multiverse — ideas that reach far beyond our current means to test them — are forced to make a philosophical defense of research that can’t rely on traditional hypothesis testing. On the other hand, some physicists, such as Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, were notoriously dismissive of the value of the philosophy of science.
I expected better from Feynman, and Hawking always struck me as having something akin to a philosophical streak.
That value is asserted with gentle but firm assurance by Michela Massimi, the recent recipient of the Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal, an award given annually by the U.K.’s Royal Society. Massimi’s prize speech, delivered earlier this week, defended both science and the philosophy of science from accusations of irrelevance. She argues that neither enterprise should be judged in purely utilitarian terms, and asserts that they should be allies in making the case for the social and intellectual value of the open-ended exploration of the physical world.
Personally, I think judging anything on "purely utilitarian terms" misses an important part of the human experience. Which is not to say I don't have a utilitarianist perspective on a lot of things; I just don't think that's the only viewpoint worthy of consideration.
The article goes on to interview Massimi, and while I won't quote most of it here, it's worth seeing both the questions and her answers. But this is one question that struck me as interesting -- not for the answer, appropriately enough, but for the question itself:
One criticism made is that science moves on, but philosophy stays with the same old questions. Has science motivated new philosophical questions?
Her answer is important from one perspective, but I'll offer another point of view: Yes, science motivates new philosophical questions. It does this all the time. These discussions even seep into popular culture. The very first true science fiction book, Shelley's Frankenstein, delves into the philosophical repercussions of applied science (albeit from a purely fictional perspective). The question isn't answered, of course -- we're still asking it, in stories, right up to the present day. And undoubtedly beyond.
Without science offering the possibility of creating something new in the world, there would be little reason to ask those questions on a serious level.
Later, a part of her answer to another question goes like:
Obviously it is not the job of philosophers to do science, or to give verdicts on one theory over another, or to tell scientists how they should go about their business. I suspect that some of the bad press against philosophers originates from the perception that they try to do these things. But I believe it is our job to contribute to public discourse on the value of science and to make sure that discussions about the role of evidence, the accuracy and reliability of scientific theories, and the effectiveness of methodological approaches are properly investigated.
Ethics is in the purview of philosophy. Perhaps not so much in physics, but other branches of science, particularly biology and related fields, absolutely has to consider ethics. Animal testing? Hell, human testing? The potential for cloning? The quote from the original Jurassic Park movie comes to mind: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."
But this is, for me, the most important point she makes:
In this respect, I see philosophy of science as delivering on an important social function: making the general public more aware of the importance of science. I see philosophers of science as public intellectuals who speak up for science, and rectify common misconceptions or uninformed judgments that may feed into political lobbies, agendas and ultimately policy-making.
This article is from 2018, and since then I think at least one major thing has happened that demonstrates the value of science in the public sphere. While there is certainly research that is, at best, questionable -- nutrition science comes to mind -- I think one of the greatest issues facing us right now is general distrust of science and the dismissal of experts, in science or other fields, as no more useful than your uncle's deranged Failbook posts.
So yes, by all means, keep up the philosophy. I won't understand all of it. But I don't have to.