Is Philosophy of Science Useful to Scientists?

I was intrigued to see this post from UofT biochemistry professor Laurence Moran’s blog Sandwalk. In some respects, sadly, Moran seems to be from the Jerry Coyne school of biochemistry, as he opens the article with:

I think philosophy has lost its way. The discipline gives credence to religious philosophers who write about god(s) and to other philosophers who reject determinism and think the mind-body problem is still an open question. Philosophers still debate the validity of the ontological argument. Philosophers of science have not even settled the question of what is science, let alone come up with a valid answer of how to do it. There are few other disciplines that are still respected after several hundred years of trying, and failing, to answer the most fundamental questions in their field…

However, he does seem to be better than Coyne in that he doesn’t think philosophy is totally off. In fact he supports the philosopher of science Elisabeth Lloyd’s contribution to understanding evolution by suggesting that biologists not favor natural selection to the exclusion of other mechanisms of evolution.

I think Moran is right to say that philosophers can advance science by making clarifications. Another good example is Hacker and Bennett in neuroscience. As their work demonstrates, scientific theories can be shown to be wrong, not by scrutinizing their empirical basis, but rather by a more fundamental attack on a conceptual error underlying the theory. To illustrate: it seems Moran thinks there is a lot to Francis Crick’s theory of the mind, given that he puts the following quote from Crick on another page of his: “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cell and their associated molecules.” However, this is erroneous, not because the studies it relies on are necessarily flawed, but because it mistakenly assumes that just because there is a correlation between mental activity and certain brain activity, that the latter must be the real cause of the former. Another way a philosopher could show the error in this theory is by making the Aristotelian point that it tries to overthrows something supremely self-evident (that humans really exist) on the basis of something less self-evident (a materialistic interpretation of neurological studies). One can only pray that Moran reads their work and maybe gets a new perspective on the supposedly closed question of the mind-body problem.

Finally, I did think there was an interesting comment left on Moran’s blog post: “I often wonder if the mindset among some scientists who always look for adaptation is, in any way, related to the mindset among theists who seem to insist on seeing teleology in everything.” I’m not sure how characteristic this would be of ancient theists, though. Considering the prominence they gave to Aristotle, they would probably agree with him that some human features – such as eye color – do not have a specific purpose for the good of the organism. But of course God could have intended such things for the sake of some good, e.g., the beauty of diversity.

EDIT: I originally linked to the wrong page for the Crick quote.

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3 thoughts on “Is Philosophy of Science Useful to Scientists?

    1. I’m actually not familiar with Lloyd either. The most famous paper about mechanisms of evolution other than natural selection is ‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm’ by Gould and Lewontin. Lloyd did write two articles with Gould, which are probably good if you want something about evolution specifically from Lloyd.

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