Why do (some) scientists hate philosophy?
My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature... It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them. —Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” —Lawrence Krauss
Philosophy is dead. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow
It wasn’t always like this. Descartes and Newton would have been horrified by (some) modern scientists’ turn not just away from but against philosophy.
So what happened?
In The Knowledge Machine, Michael Strevens argues that we shouldn’t read these scientists’ pronouncements as sophisticated cultural commentary or even as serious arguments. Instead, we should see these figures as “holy men chanting empiricist invocations” to ward off philosophical thinking:
Their function is exhortatory: Young scientists, shun philosophy and all its ways.
But why? Why do (some) scientists hate philosophy?
Strevens offers a unique account of modern Western science—that’s the Knowledge Machine he’s talking about—that makes sense of these narrow-minded pronouncements from influential scientists.
Modern science is incredibly effective at generating knowledge about how the world works. And technological advances prove how well we can use that knowledge to achieve very impressive ends, from flying around the world to irradiating cancer cells to doing your homework for you.
So what makes modern science so effective?
Strevens argues that modern science’s success hinges on the widespread adoption of what he calls the iron rule of explanation: while scientists are free to reason as they wish in private, their public scientific arguments can only appeal to the empirical data. If you want to get published, you can’t write about how pretty or philosophically interesting your theory is. You have to perform an experiment or make an observation that helps the community decide between competing theories. Get out of your philosophical armchair and look, dammit!
But collecting useful empirical data is hard work. We live in a very complex world full of causal interactions we’re only beginning to understand. So conducting helpful experiments and observations requires very fine-grained, careful work that’s labor-intensive and, frankly, boring. A scientist’s day-to-day isn’t running around the streets of Athens yelling “Eureka!”; instead, it requires intense, prolonged diligence to measure tiny differences and constantly try to reduce or account for unwanted variability.
And after all that, there’s no guarantee that years or even decades of hard work will culminate in a satisfying breakthrough, or even a statistically significant result. A scientist’s whole career may be spent exploring paths that turn out not to look so fruitful after all. That’s great for science, but a raw deal for the dedicated scientist.
So how do you convince scientists—brilliant young people passionate about finding the truth—to be willing to sacrifice years and potentially careers just to make a tiny contribution to the overall progress of the Knowledge Machine?
You convince them that science is the only game in town, the only reliable method for generating valuable knowledge about the world. As Strevens asks,
Why furnish a future scientist with all the protocols of philosophy, the paraphernalia of art, only to tell them not, under any circumstances, to be seen putting these accoutrements to use? They make the student a more fully realized person but quite possibly a worse scientist. Better not to take the risk. Therefore, remove such things altogether from the scientific syllabus.
Of course, not all scientists are so narrow in their understanding of value. Newton, for instance, was an astonishing compartmentalizer. After coming up with Newtonian mechanics, he spent vast amounts of time diligently working at alchemy and Biblical interpretation (he thought the world would end by 2060).
But crucially, Newton never tried to bring his distinct studies together. He never brought Biblical interpretation to bear on the laws of physics or vice versa; he kept each mode of argument isolated in its distinct place.
That requires incredible intellectual discipline. Most of us want a sense of how our different lines of inquiry converge. One big reason we care about how the world works in the first place is the deeply philosophical need to see how things hang together. And we think that bringing everything we know together into a larger view will help us make forward progress in each of our subinquiries.
But surprisingly, that hasn’t been the case. Appealing only to empirical observation has made science much more effective at making progress. We tried bringing everything together for millennia and made relatively little progress; the iron law of explanation makes modern science work better, as a vastly more effective machine for producing knowledge about the world:
science is a machine for motivating disputatious humans to carry out tedious measurements and perform costly and time-consuming experiments that they would otherwise not care to undertake
Given that uncharitable characterization of their work, why not train scientists to be as narrow-mindedly effective in their field of research as possible? Why not prevent any risk that their thinking is led astray by outside influences?
I find Strevens’s argument fascinating and compelling, but I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Say that training scientists to be closed-minded in their thinking about value really is best for science’s progress. Well then, who’s supposed to think about value—the rest of us? Just the philosophers? (God forbid.)
Science is an incredibly useful tool for figuring out how the world works. But science can’t tell us what’s ultimately valuable. So what are we left with—a bunch of clever, driven scientists trained to disguise their own arguments about values in empirical terms while denigrating philosophy? Those are some of our most visible public intellectuals?
Hating philosophy may be useful for some scientists. But even if that’s true, scientists have to make value judgments in order to do good science!
This is actually the most interesting part of the book. Strevens argues that modern science is like a game in which the only legitimate move is to perform an experiment or make an observation that generates relevant empirical evidence. But it’s a game without an objective scoring system.
That’s because Strevens thinks an objective rule for weighing scientific evidence is logically impossible; he’s not alone in this, by the way. But that means that scientists must appeal to their own subjective values in order to do science. Subjective values are not a bug but a feature, the fire that drives the Knowledge Machine. “The logic of scientific reasoning is by its very nature subjective,” he says, even if it limits its own public language to objective data alone.
It’s this bizarre, inhuman combination of subjective reasoning and objective argument that makes the Knowledge Machine work.
Most intro philosophy of science classes spend weeks carefully comparing Kuhn and Popper's monolithic theories of Science. Strevens’s project is every bit as sweeping. But I don't know how to evaluate such enormous claims about how modern science works, in part because I don’t interact with that world on a daily basis, in part because (some) modern scientists openly hate philosophy.
And as a good little Nietzschean, I’m also open to viewing this book as a brilliant expression of ressentiment by a philosophy nerd who feels shunned by science nerds and goes on to philosophically explain why of course his denigrators are narrow-minded fools because, in an ingratiating twist, that makes them better at science.
Any scientists willing to weigh in?