Feynman’s Folly and Why Philosophy of Science is Important

Feynman’s Folly and Why Philosophy of Science is Important November 16, 2017


According to Richard Feynman, philosophy of science is for the birds.

Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. (Usually attributed to Richard Feynman)

This is a popular quote that comes up every time someone mentions the philosophy of science. Since Feynman was such a contrarian, I’m not sure he wasn’t just being ironic. However, the philosophy of science gets a bad rap from science fans in general, who are suspicious of attempts to critique science.

Do Scientists Need Philosophy?

The usual complaint about philosophy of science is that philosophers don’t do anything, while scientists are the ones who generate all progress and results. So who are philosophers of science to tell the real scientists how to do their job?

This is a major misconception for a lot of reasons. It’s not like philosophers are supposed to generate scientific data, and beat scientists to the punch. They’re assessing the scientific method and its methodologies, and its practice in scientific research and academia. They’re not telling scientists how to do their job, they’re articulating questions that scientists are dealing with in their work:

What is a theory and what is a law of science?

Realism and anti-realism: To what extent do scientific theories describe reality?

What is scientific explanation? Why are scientific explanations so successful? What makes something a good explanation?

Reduction and emergence: What is reductionism?

What is falsifiability? Falsifiability is often taken to be a “litmus test” of science – it means that a claim can be falsified, or shown to be not true.

What is and is not “scientific”? This is known as the Demarcation problem.

What is the definition of Direct observation? For instance, how many layers of theoretical observation can be applied, before you are no longer directly observing and before the theory laden tools compromise the term “direct observation”?

What are, if any, the ramifications of theory laden observation?

What defines the natural world?

What is the limit of scientific reasoning?

Pseudoscience: what characterizes deviations from scientific principles that might undermine their reliability?

(Courtesy of RationalWiki )

These are all questions that have many conceivable answers depending on the scientific field, the type of inquiry being conducted, the expectations of the interests funding the research, and a host of other variables.

Science as a Philosophical Research Program

There are historians and sociologists of science, but it’s the philosophers of science that seem like lightning rods for the disdain of scientists and science fans alike. Historians of science deal with the historical development of scientific methodology and theories; philosophers deal with the underlying assumptions of those methodologies and theories. Science fans have an idealized and oversimplified view of science, where it’s hypothesis-testing-data-conclusion; they assume that the activities can be carried out without consciously acknowledging these questions. However, as Daniel Dennett says, There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions. Ignoring these questions doesn’t make them go away.

What’s Good for the Goose

Lastly, I’m not even sure ornithology isn’t useful to birds. If ornithologists discover important information about things like bird nutrition, migration, and diseases, they could certainly use this information in the field to help bird populations. If anything, the fact that the birds might not be conscious of how much use ornithology is to them makes the analogy to scientists even more pertinent.

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