There was recently some back and forth in the Guardian between Nick Maxwell and Jon Butterworth concerning the nature of science and the role of philosophers of science (Evelyn Brister has a nice recap and some good comments over at Knowledge and Experience). Today the bloggingheads diavalog between Fodor and Sober on Fodor’s latest book was published online. I made the fatal mistake of looking at the comments on diavalog. I almost never read the comments on such things or the comments, for example, at pharyngula. But, Elliott is my advisor so I wanted to see what people had to say about his performance (which I thought was great!). I don’t usually read these things because there is a pervasive attitude among the commenters at such places that drives me insane. I’m now going to comment on that attitude.
Many scientists share the attitude that philosophers of science (or philosophers of a particular science) have little to contribute and should avoid talking about science and interfering in scientific matters. This attitude is even more prevalent among non-scientists who are strongly interested in what science has to say and keep a close eye on scientific matters. These are the kind of people that keep up to date with what Dawkins and PZ Meyers have to say, read blogs by scientists, etc. I typically refer to these people as Science Fan Boys, but I don’t intend that to be derogatory; I’m a science fan boy and I’m not at all ashamed of it. I love and am fascinated by science, and want others to be as well. I wish everyone were a science fan boy/girl. What I do not wish is for everyone to adopt the attitude regarding philosophers of science.
This isn’t because I’m a philosopher of science but because the attitude is stupid. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes philosophers opine about empirical matters on a priori grounds when they shouldn’t, but I think this mistake happens less and less. Professional philosophers in general, and philosophers of science in particular, are very cognizant about the relationship between the empirical sciences and their work and know when the empirical facts and not a priori reasoning should be appealed to to settle a matter.
Scientists, and science fan boys, on the other hand fail to see that often times empirical matters are tightly interwoven with conceptual and philosophical ones. They instead make the mistake of thinking that since an empirical enterprise involves a set of concepts C, that the empirical enterprise settles all the conceptual issues regarding C. Often times those conceptual issues are the domain of philosophy. For example, the nature of laws, the role that considerations like parsimony should play in deciding between theories, and the nature of evidence and the statistical method that we should use are all philosophical matters. (If you think they are not, you’ll have to endorse a view about how empirical facts settle these issues which will be a philosophical view….).
I understand why the attitude might be tempting. The thought is probably something like “What does this philosopher who sits in a chair all day have to say about something that consists in doing stuff that involves anything but sitting in a chair all day? It’s like getting advice about my health issues from an accountant.” Except it isn’t like that at all. Philosophers of science often are or were scientists. At the very least they have significantly more training than science fan boys. At most, they’ve got more than enough training to comment competently on the empirical matters that they study (the same can probably not be said about most scientists regarding the philosophical matters they brush up against). To be exasperated that bloggingheads gave space to philosophers to talk about science (as some commenters were) when the philosophers they gave space to were Fodor and Sober is a perfect example of people expressing the attitude when the philosophers in question (especially, in this context, Elliott) are more than competent to comment on the subject (Fodor is at least competent to comment on issues of law-hood and the like which are those issues he leverages in his work on selection).
Scientists and science fan boys (and obviously not all of them are guilty here) need to appreciate that philosophers are competent to talk about science and that science is not solely the domain of scientists. Furthermore, before you even think about criticizing philosophers for getting involved in scientific matters, you should be sure to evaluate the philosophers for competence (especially when the philosophers in question have not only trained with top scientists in the field, but when the philosophers are acknowledged by the relevant scientists as having made great contributions in the sciences).