Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Are General Philosophers of Science Becoming An Endangered Species?

(Disclaimer: some of the claims in this post are grossly exaggerated for the purpose of sparking a debate on an issue that, I would think, is important to many readers of this blog but do not necessarily reflect the considered views of its author).

Ok, a few days ago I said I was going to write a post about this and here it is...

"General" philosophers of science are at risk of becoming an endangered species. In saying this, I don't mean to say that there aren't many philosophers that do a lot of very interesting work on general issues in philosophy of science (many of those who contribute to this blog do!). Rather, I mean that there are very few philosophers of science today that are primarily interested in general issues in PhiSci. It almost feels like "respectable" philosophers of science are expected to pursue general PhiSci questions in their spare time, when they are not doing serious PhiSci (which often seems to be equated with philosophy of physics, biology, economics, etc.) or at most as a by-product of their doing "serious" philosophy of science. If one really cannot help but being primarily interested in general PhiSci questions, then s/he'd be better off pursue those question within some formal framework, if s/he wants to be taken seriously (e.g. Bayesian accounts of IBE, unification, confirmation, etc.). But, if you want to work mainly in general PhiSci, do so at your own risk!

(A few more disclaimers: a) personally, I find much "serious" PhiSci very interesting. b) I have no nostalgia for the time in which philosophers of science largely ignored "real science" (I have no problems with--in fact, I like--people using "real science" to illustrate their points when doing general PhiSci for example. c) I don't have anything against "formal" PhiSci--a lot of my work on scientific representation is pretty "formal" but I didn't go down that route to look like I'm doing serious PhiSci. I did only because it seemed to be the best way to say what I wanted to say clearly).

Of course, as I stated in the opening disclaimer, the one I painted above is a grossly exaggerated picture, but it's hard to paint a much rosier picture after glancing at recent issues of the main PhiSci journals or at the programs of major recent PhiSci conferences or after looking at the results of the latest PGR survey for general philosophy of science (which seem to reward faculties for having philosophers of science independently of how much they work on general PhiSci) and its list of assessors (many of whom have made important contributions to the general PhiSci debates but can hardly be considered as working mainly in general PhiSci). The problem appear even more serious when one considers how many senior philosophers of science work mainly on general issues without being either close to or past retirement or having earned much of their credibility by moonlighting as philosophers of physics or biology. If this climate perdures, I wouldn't be surprised if philosophers of science who work mainly on general issues were to become soon virtually extinct.

For those who, like me, see themselves as general philosophers of science and don't suffer of any inferiority complex, however, it's hard to see any good reasons for the apparent decline of the discipline (at least insofar as research output and number of senior figures) and it's tempting to attribute it to what good ol' Imre Lakatos would have called "external" reasons (I know, aint' I soooo unfashionable?)--i.e. historically and sociologically contingent causes, philosophical trends. One of the few "internal" reasons I can think of is that (for reasons that I take to be "external") general philosophers of science have too often ignored or disregarded many crucial, relevant debates in neighbouring fields such as metaphysics or epistemology. Today, the philosophical neighbours of gen PhiSci are flourishing, general philosophers of science seem to have isolated themselves from their most natural interlocutors who seem to consider them thier not-so-bright cousins (the serious philosopher of science because they do that kind of stuff on their spare time and the epistemologists and metaphysicians because general philosophers of science are so philosophically unsophisticated).

  1. So, how far off the mark is my grossly exaggerated picture? Am I completely wrong about general PhiSci not being considered a very respectable discipline these days? (For example, do PhD students at major PhiSci programs who are interested in general issues feel any explicit or implicit pressure to work on more respectable topics or work on general topics in a more respectable manner?)
  2. How wrong am I about general PhiSci isolating itself from M&E or in thinking that it's part of the problem? (For example, how many pure M&E grad courses do PhD students at major PhiSci programs take? At LSE, we were not forced to take any and many of my fellow students there had no background in philosphy)
  3. If I'm not wrong about there being a problem, but I'm wrong about its diagnosis? What is your diagnosis?
  4. If you think general PhiSci has no reason to exist today, why do you think so? (btw, if you think so why are you reading this blog?)


  1. Is it possible the "general" philosophy of science has gone the way of "general" science itself? Back in the 1940s, it was pretty well accepted that there was *a* scientific method that applied across the board to all endeavors wishing to be recognized as "science." Since then, a great deal of historical research has shown that this view was, to a first approximation, a myth. The things that the various special sciences share are indeed so general that they do not amount to a common "method." They have each developed their own standards, their own methods, their own cultures (though, to be sure, there is a fair bit of sharing when appropriate). In short, the reason we now have philosophers of physics and philosophers of biology, instead of philosophers of (general) science is that those are (currently) the locations of the philosophically interesting questions, rather than the level of "science in general." Of course, that might change in the future, but someone is going to have to come up with a conceptualization of science that ties physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. back together in an interesting way not currently available.

    Chris Green
    York U.

  2. There are three reasons I would offer. First, the level of scientific competence has increased over time. The luminaries of our field - Reichenbach, Hempel, Carnap, Lakatos, Kuhn, Laudan, etc. - knew a lot of science and history of science. However, your average worker in the field is expected to be more conversant with science than in the past. Second, the best way of being conversant with science is to learn a lot about a few areas. Even in the philosophy of biology we sub-specialize in evolutionary biology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, cognitive ethology, etc. Thus, many of us don't have the relevant expertise to say much of interest about SCIENCE. Third, many of the debates about SCIENCE such as explanation, confirmation, unity, and so on presuppose that we have a much broader expertise than many of us actually do. So, as a conjecture, maybe very few of us should be doing general philosophy of science.

    Jay Odenbaugh
    Lewis and Clark

  3. I have two personal experiences that might contribute to this topic. I am currently abandoning my PhD iin HPS at a large midwestern Research University, for a number of reasons (not the least of which is that I am now convinced that no one who does not now hold a tenure track job at a university never will, PhD or no) but one of the reasons is related to the post. I came here wanting to study HPS after becoming very interested in general philosophy of science in my Philosophy Master's Program, under the guidance of a Philosopher of Biology who is currently notorious for a book attacking Evolutionary Psychology. I was reading a lot of Logical Empiricism (Hempel, early Putnam, Carnap, et al.) and the canonical critiques (Goodman, Polanyi, Hanson) and found the clash between the two ways of looking at philosophy very interesting (basically, perhaps, as an example of late-Wittgenstein influenced philosophy replacing the old-guard, but in a very different way than the advent of Ordinary Language philosophy in Phil. of Language.) So, I figured that this particular HPS program would be a great place to study, since it was itself part of the history of that shift in perspective.

    Unfortunately, I found that beyond an excellent core-course sequence in general phil-sci, and some outstanding courses in topics like Laws of Nature, Causation, Unification (all taught by the same faculty member actually) and Mechanism, Function, and Models (team taught by members of the cog.sci. and philosophy departments) most of the current work in these areas was being done by specialists in Phil. of Physics and Phil. of Biology. Which I have no problem with at all, but eventually, it hit me: I simply didn't have enough of a physics or biology background to say anything interesting on these more general topics at the professional level. My background was in the liberal arts and Philosophy (which I did have an MA in, a pretty good background the history of science as it related to the history of philosophy). But there was no time to catch up.

    As a result, I started looking more towards psychology, since the faculty I started to gravitate towards were interested in cog. sci, naturalized epistemology, and experimental philosophy. I had enough familiarity with the history of psychology and philosophical psychology to wiegh in on the issues, but when I started to raise what I thought were pretty important general phil. sci. objections to what was being discussed in the experimental philosophy circles, I generally got a response along the lines of, "but science tells us facts, and our surveys of epistemic intuitions are scientific ..." I actually had a falling out with a faculty member who I greatly admired over such issues.

    So, after I got my MA in HPS, I took a hiatus, realizing that formal methods might be the way to go, but without much encouragement or the resources to switch everything up mid-stream, I just decided to get a job to pay off my debt and try to keep up my interests in my spare time (which is going pretty poorly just now).

    Sorry if this sounds more like a sob-story, its really not. It was a hell of a ride, actually, and I'm glad that I took it. But it might speak to at least one casualty of general philosophy of science!

  4. Uhmmmm... this makes me think one thing: how is it possible that after one century (or almost two, if we count from Whewell) of careful reflection by hundreds or thousands of EXTREMELY CLEVER intellectuals devoted to analysing the 'big' questions in PoS, there are still so many 'open' problems? (Or... are they really there? Or is the existence of philosophers of science what mantains the necessity of having 'open' problems?
    Sorry for the existencialism

  5. I think that general PhilSci is highly important to more "serious" endeavors, just as meta-ethics is highly important to doing work in normative and applied ethics.

    I'm a M.A. student who will be applying in the fall, and I plan on doing general as well as a specific sub-discipline. Doing both seems to help tie each together; and in doing so, my future students can see how general questions parlay themselves into specific questions regarding sub-disciplines (or specific fields in PhilSci).

    The field might be diminishing, but I think that with well-informed philosophers of science (both generally as well as specifically), there is the potential to do fantastic things and to draw connections for students in a way that makes the much broader project of philosophy pertinent and compelling.

    I think that the more this happens, the sooner we'll get to showing people that philosophy (the broader project) is better than the negative connotations that it currently receives amongst the general public.

  6. Which are the general PhiSci´s problems if a proper object of study, a PhiSci of "something" (aka, biology, neuroscience, physics...) is the best way to constraint and deliniate problems.

  7. I consider myself a general philosopher of science and think that there is a productive way to reorient this segment of the philosophical community. My basic idea is that we should help to mediate between the philosophers of the special sciences and philosophers in other areas like metaphysics and epistemology. In one direction, metaphysics and epistemology could benefit from learning what the special sciences actually do, at least what some of the main positions are in physics, biology, economics, etc. In the other direction, which I take to be equally urgent, philosophers of the special sciences need to think at least some of the time about how their debates relate to broader issues in epistemology and metaphysics.

    There is a similar debate going in philosophy of mathematics. For a small sample, see my review of Corfield's book, his blog and a more general discussion by Paseau.

  8. It strikes me that there is a small conflation between the general philosophy of science and general philosophers of science going on in this thread. The post starts with this distinction, but then it gets lost.

    It is however important to keep this distinction in mind. Supposing that the number of general philosophers of science is decreasing (a claim for which I have seen no evidence), that would not mean that less general philosophy of science would be done.

    Indeed, it is quite striking that *some* of the best general philosophy of science in the last 20 years has been done by people who have an expertise in some special science. Consider Earman's work on confirmation theory, PGS's work on models, Callender's papers on the pessimistic induction, Schaffner's work on reduction in the 1990s (derived from this work on medicine), Machamer, Craver, and Darden's work on mechanisms, and so on and so forth.

    And it would be a mistake to think that for these philosophers, issues in the general philosophy of science are a mere after-thought. Quite the contrary: Questions and issues in the general philosophy of science often inform their work on their preferred science.

    Two asides:
    - You mention the PGR's ranking on the general philosophy of science. They make quite a lot of sense once you keep in mind that that much excellent philosophy of science is done by philosophers of physics, biology, medicine, neuroscience, psychology.
    - I am not claiming that this is the only way to do excellent general philosophy of science.


  9. Here are a couple of questions and comments.

    1. What are the central questions in general philosophy of science? Mid-20th-century, they would have been confirmation, explanation, theoretical/observational terms, theory construction/induction, reduction, research programs/paradigms. Some of these topics have either dead-ended -- paradigm shifts and incommensurability is a good example. Others have become quite technical -- frameworks such as Bayesianism have considerably deepened the discussion of confirmation for instance, and thus discussions of this topic are forced to be quite formal. These seem to be healthy developments.

    2. Some other topics seem to have taken on new interest by becoming topic-oriented. Reduction is a good example. I am thinking here of discussions of consciousness in philosophy of mind, of genes and of population level causation in philosophy of biology, and of phenomenological thermodynamics in philosophy of physics, and of chemistry in general. A lot of new questions have come to light, and most of these demand an engagement with metaphysics, modality, and formal models of various kinds. But to reiterate: the discussion of topics in the special sciences has been enlightening, and it seems to me as if general philosophy of science would benefit a great deal from a synthetic overview. The question now is: are these questions the same or different? If the same, then how? -- It's not obvious. If different, then why are there different questions.

    In short, it seems to me as if general philosophy of science has made a great deal of progress, and that there is room for more.

  10. Sorry, it was quite busy for a while and it's going to take me a while to respond to all the interesting comments...

    Chris G.,

    It is true that the specialization in philosophy of science has somewhat mirrored the specialization in science, but there still seem to be quite a few general epistemological/metaphysical questions about science in general that do not depend on the specific science one is considering. And I don't think that a "reunification" of philosophy of science presupposes a reunification of the sciences (in fact much of the recent interesting work in general philosophy of science happens to be work on the disunity of science).


    As far as I can see, many of the general questions in general philosophy of science do not need much more than a high-school level science to be understood. (Am I naive? I am a general philosopher of science after all) For example, I work a lot on scientific models and representation and I generally can explain quite clearly to my undergraduate students the kind of stuff I work on by using very simple scientific examples from high-school physics and I think that the general lessons we learn from those example apply almost equally well to much more complex physics. In other words, I don't think there are many general phisci questions that cannot be illustrated and understood with some very basic scientific knowledge.


    By your criteria, it would be even harder to explain how there can be still open questions in metaphysics or epistemology or in general in philosophy.


    I understand your frustration and this is exactly the kind of story I was expecting to hear (because my experience and the one of other recent PhDs I know was not particularly different).


    I think your approach is really the right one for someone planning to do doctoral-level work in phisci and I hope you are right about the future of the field.

    Chris P.,

    As it might be clear from my post I agree and I think that your work clearly illustrates that way of doing gen phisci (and helps keeping the reputation of general phisci high! ;-)). I hope that a new generation of phisciers will see you as an example of a way of combining philosophy of sci/math with more general philosophical concerns.

  11. Gabriele,
    exactly; I think that the 'open questions' in metaphysics and epistemology are mostly (not necessarily all of them) questions that have not a definitive solution, but essentially subject to subjective opinion. The motherlode of demonstrable truths 'out there' in fundamental philosophy is perhaps nearly void... Or not, but I cannot avoid to think in that possibility (perhaps is the midlife crisis).
    On the other hand, this is not to say that philosophy of science is unimportant: nothing essentially new is going to be discovered about the elementary rules of arithmetic, but it will always be essential to teach them to primary school students.
    But my impression is that, the more time passes, the more it tends to 1 the probability that any 'new discovery' in philosophy of science could have been more easily done by reading an old philosophy of science journal.
    Sorry to be so pesimistic.

  12. I take it that the probability in question is subjective, Jesús. I don't see any argument that it's anything else.

    I strongly agree with Gabriele's and Chris's sentiments.

    I'd add that from my point of view, overspecialisation is a general problem in contemporary philosophy (not to mention elsewhere). That's to say, I think it's important that some philosophers, at least, devote their efforts to working across the artificial sub-disciplinary divides. Otherwise synthesis of findings will be impossible, and the wider significance of much work that goes on in philosophy will never be revealed.

    I can't resist quoting Popper:

    'There are no subject matters; no branches of learning – or, rather, of inquiry: there are
    only problems, and the urge to solve them. A science such as botany or chemistry…
    is… merely an administrative unit.'

  13. Darrell and Gabriele:
    I want to agree with you. Just if you post a list of the 'open' problems in philosophy of science, explaining why the attempts to solve them failed, and why there are sensible expectations that the CAN be "solved" (and what a 'solution' would amount to).
    Don't say it wouldn't be an amazing post.

  14. By the way, to help starting the list:
    for me, all problems in philosophy of science 'reduce' to this one: what makes good theories to be good?
    Is it 'unsolved'?

  15. I agree with many of the comments on this thread. Much of my own work has involved applying general work on causation to specific issues in special sciences. The picture of general phil-sci as a bridge between M&E and the phil of particular sciences applies quite well here.

    Sometimes I think, echoing some above, that philosophy of particular sciences is the place where most of the interesting live issues are – precisely because they arise out of new science rather than out of much-debated old philosophical classics. And, at least in the case of causation, while tackling particular science issues does require tools from general phil sci and metaphysics, often one can gain significant traction on those issues without having to solve completely the underlying centuries-old philosophical debates.

    Does this make philosophy of particular sciences analogous to applied ethics, i.e. damned as being of only derivative intellectual interest? In the eyes of some hardcore philosophers, possibly so. On the other hand, making a contribution to science, albeit usually at the theoretical or conceptual end of science, hardly makes one feel marginal to humanity’s general intellectual progress and achievement … in this age, that danger would seem more pressing for many areas of philosophy.

  16. Darrell, isn't specialisation necessary as the sheer volume of knowledge accumulates? There is now too much philosophy written for anyone to understand it all. So specialisation is inevitable. How do you decide when specialisation becomes OVERspecialisation?

    I agree that interdisciplinarity can be valuable, but it is in danger of becoming a buzz-word...

    I understood the problem as not one of increasing specialisation, but as the dying out of a particular specialisation, namely general philosophy of science. Or is that the wrong way to look at the problem?

  17. Hi Seamus - good to hear from you, and hope you're doing well at the LSE,

    Sure, but that doesn't mean that everyone should specialise as much as everyone else.

    As for your second question, the worry is that people will stay away from some issue simply because it doesn't fall into their own domain -- even when it is potentially relevant. Consider the use of analogies, for instance. Do people who work on normativity in epistemology have something to learn from people who work on normativity in ethics, and so forth? I think so... and so do some of the leading figures who work on normativity.

    I see how you can think of 'general philosophy of science' as a specialisation in its own right, but I was more worried about it becoming fragmented into sub-groups. One might imagine, for example, people working on confirmation who have no interest in realism, or vice versa. Yet it is very plausible that findings in one area can and should inform those in another... and so forth.

    In short, I have no problem with increasing specialisation. I have a problem with the view that _everyone_ should be becoming increasingly specialised. (It's a community level issue...)

    Jesús - My lack of a reply to date is simply due to the fact that the list is, for me, so long!

    I won't take the invitation to explain exactly why I think that all these questions are unsolved, due to time constraints, but here's a stab:

    What is the aim of science? (Or, on a closely related note, 'What is scientific progress?)

    What is a good falsification rule for probabilistic hypotheses?

    When faced with a falsified conjunction of a theory and some auxiliary statements (e.g. initial conditions), is there any fact of the matter about whether we should attack the theory or attack the auxiliaries (or both)? What should determine our strategy?

    What precisely, if anything, distinguishes scientific inquiry from other forms of inquiry?

    Which interpretation of probability is most appropriate to use for the purposes of confirmation/corroboration theory?

    ... and so on...

    And yes, people may call me old-fashioned. But my stuff still gets published... so not everyone can think these issues are closed!