Scientists making use of philosophy

A few months ago, on my old blog, I did a “so what do people want me to write about?” thread, and got one request I wasn’t sure how to respond to at first: “I’d like to see the proper relationship between science and philosophy.” The problem with trying to answer this question is that I’m not sure I know how to “do philosophy right,” and it’s hard to say you can say the “proper” way for science and philosophy to work together before you know the “proper” way for philosophy to be philosophy. But I think I may now have a halfway-usable answer.

The idea came to me when re-reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. One of the driving ideas of the book is the computational theory of mind, which Pinker attributes in large part to the philosophers Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor. Yet Pinker manages to avoid making the section look much like a standard philosophy of mind. Certainly no quibbling over arcane distinctions. In philosophy circles, Putnam and Fodor are known for (in my opinion rather confused) complaints directed at “reductionism,” and Pinker just ignores those while using the ideas from those philosophers he wants to use.

Reading this, it occurred to me that one way you could do the division of labor between scientists and philosophers is to let philosophers muck about coming up with all sorts of ideas, and let the scientists decide which bits of philosophical work contribute to scientific progress, and which are best ignored. That seems to be how Pinker handled the philosophy in How the Mind Works.

Though I wonder how much role the philosophers really played in developing the ideas in that book, and to what extent they merely served as window dressing, to allow Pinker to claim for his own book some of the positive associations people have with philosophy. As we’ve seen previously the role of philosophers in progress is sometimes less than meets the eye.

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