Why Science Education Needs Philosophy

Many of the young people who attend my classes think that philosophy is a fuzzy discipline that’s concerned only with matters of opinion, whereas science is in the business of discovering facts, delivering proofs, and disseminating objective truths. Furthermore, many of them believe that scientists can answer philosophical questions, but philosophers have no business weighing in on scientific ones.

That’s Subrena Smith, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, writing at Aeon. Her essay, “Why philosophy is so important in science education“,  should be circulated widely to science educators and students.

She continues:

Why do college students so often treat philosophy as wholly distinct from and subordinate to science? In my experience, four reasons stand out.

One has to do with a lack of historical awareness. College students tend to think that departmental divisions mirror sharp divisions in the world, and so they cannot appreciate that philosophy and science, as well as the purported divide between them, are dynamic human creations…

Another reason has to do with concrete results. Science solves real-world problems. It gives us technology: things that we can touch, see and use. It gives us vaccines, GMO crops, and painkillers. Philosophy doesn’t seem, to the students, to have any tangibles to show. But, to the contrary, philosophical tangibles are many: Albert Einstein’s philosophical thought experiments made Cassini possible. Aristotle’s logic is the basis for computer science, which gave us laptops and smartphones. And philosophers’ work on the mind-body problem set the stage for the emergence of neuropsychology and therefore brain-imagining technology. Philosophy has always been quietly at work in the background of science.

A third reason has to do with concerns about truth, objectivity and bias. Science, students insist, is purely objective, and anyone who challenges that view must be misguided. A person is not deemed to be objective if she approaches her research with a set of background assumptions. Instead, she’s ‘ideological’. But all of us are ‘biased’ and our biases fuel the creative work of science. This issue can be difficult to address, because a naive conception of objectivity is so ingrained in the popular image of what science is…

The fourth source of students’ discomfort comes from what they take science education to be. One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist—‘the facts’—and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Smith understands that various pedagogical pressures mean that there isn’t much room for doing philosophy in science courses, but our colleagues in the sciences can still help by “making clear to their students that science brims with important conceptual, interpretative, methodological and ethical issues that philosophers are uniquely situated to address.”

Read the whole essay here.

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