by Greg Mayer
Having just read of Jerry’s lamentable indisposition (get well!), I thought I’d write something brief that at least might get discussion going among WEIT readers till he can post again. (And in passing I note that perhaps encountering the greatness of salamanders in the wild for the first time caused a sensory overload which upset Jerry’s homeostatic equilibrium.) So here goes.
Unlike some readers, I have no great qualms about philosophy as an academic discipline or realm of human endeavor. In fact, quite the opposite. For a considerable part of last academic year I was even the chairman of my university’s philosophy department (a fact still attested to at this time, due to the slowness with which webpages are updated; an unusual set of circumstances, mostly revolving around the fate of small departments at small universities, led to my being chair, but these need not detain us).
I think philosophy has much to offer us, and Jerry has remarked often upon the long traditions of the philosophy of ethics as the basis of secular ethics and a counterweight to faith-based ethics. But I’ll mention two things here that relate to philosophy of science in particular.
First, there’s conceptual clarification. Some ideas in science are difficult and complex, and philosophers have often contributed to the elucidation of the implications and assumptions underlying our ideas. Philosophers, qua philosophers, do not contribute empirical data, but by helping to clarify our ideas they help us think more clearly about our data and the world. Work by the late David Hull on species, and by Elliott Sober on the nature of selection are two examples that spring immediately to mind.
Second, understanding scientific methodology, and how/why it works, is a branch of epistemology– the study of how we know things. I found reflection on scientific methods, and what they imply about the nature of science, indispensable in my own development as a scientist (something I began thinking about in grad school). The understandings I achieved then, and their development over time, have been at the core of my nearly twenty years of teaching general education students about the nature of science, how we can evaluate claims about the world, and what claims can be said to be more or less reliable. It has also been very important in my teaching of statistics, for statistics is just a specific instantiation of the general problem of scientific inference. In this area, I think immediately of Philip Kitcher‘s contributions to a general understanding of the progress of scientific inquiry, and Elliott Sober and Malcolm Forster‘s contributions to statistical epistemology in particular.
I could go on, but I promised to be brief. Have at it.