Monday, July 03, 2017

Contributions of philosophy

I've been discussing the contributions of philosophy on Facebook. Somebody linked to a a post on the topic: What has philosophy contributed to society in the past 50 years?. Here's one of contributions ... do you agree?
Philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science such as Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Bruno Latour, Bas van Fraassen, and Ian Hacking have changed the way that we see the purpose of science in everyday life, as well as proper scientific conduct. Kuhn's concept of a paradigm shift is now so commonplace as to be cliche. Meanwhile, areas like philosophy of physics and especially philosophy of biology are sites of active engagement between philosophers and scientists about the interpretation of scientific results.


48 comments :

  1. Popper's arguments have made many biologists aware of the difficulty of confirming theories by experimental tests, as opposed to falsifying the alternatives. However many biologists are not aware that the presence of uncertainty (say, experimental error) makes the strict Popperian framework unusable. They think that Popper is the latest word in philosophy of science, and are not aware that philosophers of science have moved on beyond Popper.

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    1. Can you recommend a good book or other resource on this subject? I'm interested to learn about the current stance of philosophers of science on this kind of thing, as well as some of the history.

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    2. But in another way, Popper *is* the latest word in the philosophy of science for the exact reason that no later works have interested very many scientists. Too many philosophers of science forgot that their purpose was to help scientists rather than argue among themselves as to "ways of knowing".

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    3. The Popperian principle is: get (select or create) the theory that best explains the observations. Uncertainty/fuzziness just means we have to use a bit of statistics. But we had to anyway. I missed what it was that had superceded Popperism. The art of making models of the world is all we need.

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    4. Too many philosophers of science forgot that their purpose was to help scientists
      Is that the purpose though? To me that statement reeks of the type of thinking that also gave us Sarah Palins "You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." Isn't the idea that Philosophers of science should be concerned primarily with things that are of direct use to science merely the last step in a chain that holds that engineering should be focused on whatever is useful to people in corporate R&D departments right now and scientists should focus on what engineers are interested in?

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    5. What other possible use is there to such philosophy? Everyone in academia and other publicly funded research venues needs to think about why they are working on what they are and be prepared to explain why society should bother supporting it. And that includes scientists as well as philosophers. We aren't wealthy gentlemen like Darwin who are simply entertaining ourselves with our private fortunes but servants of the public entrusted with public money that could have been spent on roads, schools, hospitals, and so on. Just as any geneticist could explain that genetics of model organisms like fruit flies yield insights into human health, insights into methods of protecting crops against other insects, and so on. Likewise, philosophers of science need to explain the usefulness of their work. For all the potential problems in the Popperian model, Karl was excellent at explaining why thinking about science as disproving alternative hypotheses made more sense than the traditional view where one was thought to be able to prove things in science.

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    6. I call BS on your post. The German "Wissenschaft" i.e. "creation of knowledge" is the point of all academia. And your argument ask of scientists to answer the question "what will your work enable us to do?" in advance. That question can not be answered in good faith unless we already knew, when the whole point is to find out. It's like comissioning a painting from an artist and asking them to show it to you before you agree to the deal.

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    7. Research can have unintended uses, both positive and negative, yes, but certainly when doing research I and every other scientist I know can give at least one application of their research "in good faith". Also, your analogy for art doesn't really work, because quite often painters make sketches of proposed paintings that they showed to potential patrons ahead of time (and are often valued as art works in themselves).

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    8. Jonathan: "For all the potential problems in the Popperian model, Karl was excellent at explaining why thinking about science as disproving alternative hypotheses made more sense than the traditional view where one was thought to be able to prove things in science."

      From what I can see the "disproving alternative hypotheses" type thinking really only helps places like the Discovery Institute.

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    9. @Jonathan: At least among artists I know sketches are shown to clients after the commission has been made. The decision to hire the artist is made on the basis of their portfolio. I know plenty of scientists working on issues where no one has ideas for application, yet.

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    10. @Ration alMind: Can you recommend a good book or other resource on this subject?

      Two post-Popperian philosophers of science that I have heard of are Wesley Salmon and Elliott Sober. Both talk about the probabilistic nature of scientific inference and the limitations of falsifiability.

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  2. Kuhn's concept of a paradigm shift is now so commonplace as to be cliche.

    I can agree with that part. But I'm not sure whether to count that as a benefit, rather than as a neutral side effect.

    As to changing how we see the purpose of science in everyday life, I would think that Steve Jobs was far more influential.

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    1. The importance of paradigm shifts is widely accepted. Probably more than it should be.

      In any case it is a statement about the sociology of science, not the philosophy of science.

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    2. Sociology of science led to a somewhat active Reddit Social Science forum:

      https://www.reddit.com/r/socialscience/

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  3. It looks to me like wishful thinking. Outside of a forum like this one it's "Kuhn who?" Philosophers I most see are just trying to take shortcuts around reason in order to promote their religious beliefs.

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  4. Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds, Richard Feynman.

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    1. Nice quotation, not pejorative to me

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    2. "Nobody denies that the vast majority of physics gets by perfectly well without any input from philosophy at all. (“We need to calculate this loop integral! Quick, get me a philosopher!”) But it also gets by without input from biology, and history, and literature. Philosophy is interesting because of its intrinsic interest, not because it’s a handmaiden to physics. I think that philosophers themselves sometimes get too defensive about this, trying to come up with reasons why philosophy is useful to physics. Who cares?

      Nevertheless, there are some physics questions where philosophical input actually is useful. Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability, and so on. Again, a huge majority of working physicists don’t ever worry about these problems. But some of us do! And frankly, if more physicists who wrote in these areas would make the effort to talk to philosophers, they would save themselves from making a lot of simple mistakes."

      - Sean Carroll

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    3. He did seem to be entirely Popperian in his work. Surrounded at Los Alamos by many who had no doubt read Popper's pre-war works in the original German, it's easy to see how he assumed it was "just science". He could have followed the Positivists down a different philosophical line... and that too could be counted as a philosophical decision (maybe he'd have got less done that way, by taking a bad philosophical decision). His fault lay in recognising and making use of philosophy of science by quoting the Popperian principles he used, but denying the debt that he owed. Many, many scientists make the same error.

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    4. Philosophy is dead, Stephen Hawking

      Philosophy is not a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world, Neil Tyson.

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    5. Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem

      Sorry, that one has apparently been resolved without any contribution from philosophy required:

      https://aeon.co/essays/the-quantum-view-of-reality-might-not-be-so-weird-after-all

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  5. Was this Feynman right about his conclusions? how would he know without philosophy that he was doing accurate science? Recently i have been watching some of this physics stuff and i suspect anything after Einstein is suspect. Maybe einstein!
    As in physics so as in biology.
    creationists like and laugh about kuhn's paradigm shift thing. its just a silly way to admit "scientists" get things wrong without saying they are wrong. Like old Fonzie who couldn't mouth the word WRRRRRONG!

    I think the only place a independent thinker/philosopher can add to science is in the area of what is rightly concluded based on evidence.
    Proving/confirming hypothesis should not be left up to researchers in somev subject. Really! There should be rules of intellectual conduct. Accuracy in weighing evidence. Social 'sciences' are way off track these days.
    however it comes back to evolutionism. As creationists we don't just see error but see error in methodology.
    conclusions about past and gone processes and events are not established on worthy evidence. We think we are right.
    It is hard to do it regardless of what is true. Notwithstanding though!

    A philosopher is just someone who thinks about some subject. Scientists were called first NATURAL philosophers.
    So is what modern "philosophers
    " thinking about in science a different subject in science relative to those who study a certain subject.
    In short a greater concept of scientific methodology before conclusions drawn?
    YES I say from what I read. They are trying I mean.
    Paradigm shifting is welcome . ID/YEC is shifting as we speak a paradigm.
    Its really just old fashioned whoops got that wrong!

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    1. Notice that those who are making claims about science needing philosophers are primarily philosophers, not respected scientists.

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    2. http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/06/23/physicists-should-stop-saying-silly-things-about-philosophy/

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    3. Gaulin. Yet 'scientists" do need philosophy of science if a contribution is about methodology.
      Evolutionists, for sure, need a higher concept of methodology before making their conclusions which they claim are scientific ones.
      yet creaytionists like me say evolution is not based on Biological science. Really! Its a classic case of error in science subjects AND i think its about methodology AND i think philosphers could come into their own, a new norm, by establishing science evidence boundaries.
      they could earn their keep.
      Otherwise I don't see what they have to contribute.
      Science is about conclusions. So a philospher on science could demand methodology matters.
      Feynman was wrong. Actually wrong. Maybe about his stuff.

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    4. Robert Byers: "Yet 'scientists" do need philosophy of science if a contribution is about methodology."

      Show me a just one scientist needing a philosopher to explain their scientific methodology. You must have at least one good example, what is it?

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    5. Thney do in areas where conclusions are made too quick. then they fight each other.
      Recently I saw the guy who advised the Jurassic park movies on dinos. He is a famous dino researcher.
      he proposed that t-rex etc etc keep growing so much that relative to their age one would wrongly divide them into species. he suggests many species are wrongly called so. Just differences in age. Dramatic changes in the skull he proposes.
      Well he complains about his reject from fellow dino researchers.
      THIS is a case for a philosopher of science to show how boundaries should settle this hypothesis standing.

      Anyways all evolutionist researchers need philosophy about scientific evidence and so methodology.

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  6. Philosophers seek to reach useful conclusions based solely on reason. This is doomed to failure. The whole point of science is that useful conclusions can only be derived from the application of reason to observation/experience call it what you will. Philosophers cling to a method that is long discredited and which in addition is regularly contaminated by supernatural notions.

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    1. "Philosophers seek to reach useful conclusions based solely on reason."

      This is a straw-man and is false. In fact when it comes to philosophy of science, those philosophers tend to rely on experimental results.

      Sean Carroll:

      "This is the totally dopey criticism. Yes, most philosophers do not actually go out and collect data (although there are exceptions). But it makes no sense to jump right from there to the accusation that philosophy completely ignores the empirical information we have collected about the world. When science (or common-sense observation) reveals something interesting and important about the world, philosophers obviously take it into account. (Aside: of course there are bad philosophers, who do all sorts of stupid things, just as there are bad practitioners of every field. Let’s concentrate on the good ones, of whom there are plenty.)

      Philosophers do, indeed, tend to think a lot. This is not a bad thing. All of scientific practice involves some degree of “pure thought.” Philosophers are, by their nature, more interested in foundational questions where the latest wrinkle in the data is of less importance than it would be to a model-building phenomenologist. But at its best, the practice of philosophy of physics is continuous with the practice of physics itself. Many of the best philosophers of physics were trained as physicists, and eventually realized that the problems they cared most about weren’t valued in physics departments, so they switched to philosophy. But those problems — the basic nature of the ultimate architecture of reality at its deepest levels — are just physics problems, really. And some amount of rigorous thought is necessary to make any progress on them. Shutting up and calculating isn’t good enough."

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    2. The pure deductive approach of philosophy is part of what defines it and to call it discredited seems ignorant. To state one obvious problem with this view: mathematics is also purely deductive and if pure deductive reasoning is without merit, then this holds for mathematics, too. However I don't ever see this argument brought up against mathematics.

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    3. But mathematics is only really valued by non-mathematicians in relation to its applications in science, cryptography, and finance. And to be useful there, it can't be purely deductive but be based on empirical parameters.

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    4. BS. Take Riemannian Geometry, which generalizes from other types of Geometry (and things like Euclidean Geometry, Spherical Geometry and Hyperbolic Geometry are special cases). It had nothing to do with science at the time it became a major branch of mathematics. That it later became relevant to science (via general relativity) did not matter when it first got introduced - in 1854 Riemann published them in German, they got better known through Dedekind 1868 and were later published in an english translation in Nature (8:14-17). No connection to science until 1915 though. One of the reasons to do mathematics that don't matter to science right now, is that we don't know what mathematics will become important to science in the future.

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    5. Yes, but as with genetics research, mathematics has a good track record of being useful -- not that Riemann ever had to actually write a grant proposal or anything.

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    6. Re Gunkel

      One might also cite group theory which was developed by Galois and others in the 19th century but only became important via applications to physics in the 20th century. Like Riemann, Galois was unaware of these applications as the particles of physics (e.g. electrons, protons, neutrons, and neutrinos were unknown (although the concept of light being a particle went back to Newton).

      In particular, the conservation laws of physics were shown by Noether to be equivalent to the invarience of the laws of physic under static coordinate rotation (conservation of angular momentum) among others.

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    7. Actually, you inspired me to read the 1867 translation of Riemann. It turns out that it was a myth that he wasn't interested in scientific applications of his work and was just some weirdo interested in abstract geometry-- he was very much interested in the applications to astronomy. (and the passage is in the German original -- I looked -- I'm not fluent in German but I can read it to some degree)

      "If we suppose that bodies exist independently of position, the curvature is everywhere constant, and it then results from astronomical measurements that it cannot be different from zero; or at any rate its reciprocal must be an area in comparison with which the range of our telescopes may be neglected. But if this independence of bodies from position does not exist, we cannot draw conclusions from metric relations of the great, to those of the infinitely small; in that case the curvature at each point may have an arbitrary value in three directions, provided that the total curvature of every measurable portion of space does not differ sensibly from zero."

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    8. If you are trying to tell me the Noether theorem is one of the greatest insights in the history of human thought, I don't need a lot of convincing - though to me the equivalence of translational symmetry in time and energy conservation should be the marquee point, rather than angular momentum. Or maybe Kaluzas application of the theorem to work out a 5 dimensional theory which included conservation of charge and thus paved the way for supersymmetry.

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    9. @Jonathan: The passage states the opposite - curvature is constant and 0 (of course the first application of this in science can be boiled down to "curvature is not constant and 0 only on a null set").
      He did not forsee how his geometry would get used and it's certainly not the motivation for the work.

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    10. Re Gunkel

      Yes, the equivalence of space and time static translational invarience being equivalent to the conservation of momentum and energy is also important.

      However, the fact that the particles of nature that I mentioned previously have either integer or 1/2 integer intrinsic angular momentum is a consequence of rotational invarience.

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    11. The point isn't whether Riemann predicted general relativity or not (wow, he didn't!), but it is clear that the myth (which I've heard often repeated) that he had no interest in scientific applications of his geometry is false. It becomes far less amazing that his work was useful for understanding astronomy when that was his goal in the first place.

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  7. One of my favorite 20th century philosophers was Michel Foucault and it seems his work has had an impact on biology, at least to the point where two of his books are the first citations in Gould & Vrba (1982) "Exaptation - a missing term in the science of form" Paleobiology 8:4-15.

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    1. What was Michel Foucault's discovery? I cannot find anything making such a connection.

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    2. How did you try to make the connection?

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    3. Using search on key words like "philosopher Michel Foucault and Gould" and "Exaptation".

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    4. I did provide a reference for a paper, did you check that?

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    5. I found this on Google Scholar:

      http://www.diegm.uniud.it/detoni/download/didattica/SeminarioAndriani/ExaptationPaleobiology.pdf

      The paper mentions classification and how people think. That's more specifically cognitive science.

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  8. So discussions and thinking about the species concept, gene, etc. are not aided by philosophy?

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  9. I used Reddit to test the statement "Meanwhile, areas like philosophy of physics and especially philosophy of biology are sites of active engagement between philosophers and scientists about the interpretation of scientific results."

    I discovered a front page in a philosophy of biology forum with up to 3 year old posts that are really not worth scientifically engaging. Things like "beauty" will in time be scientifically explained without needing to resort to philosophical terminology.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/PhilosophyOfBiology/

    There was s forum for philosophy of physics that went private, which is not a good sign either. The forum for philosophy of science has some of the old armchair warrior arguments in it but even with that there was very little interest in these topics.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/PhilosophyofScience/



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