Challenges Facing Philosophy of Science


What are the most significant challenges facing philosophy of science today? Nick Zautra, a PhD student in the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University Bloomington, interviewed 30 philosophers of science over the past two years, asking them this question, and presented a summary of their answers at the recent 2018 Philosophy of Science Association (PSA) meeting

Zautra, who hosts the Sci Phi Podcast (previously), found that the most common answer to the question were about “balance,” that is the challenge of “being really informed by science but also being critical and reflective about it at the same time.”  Over 40% of the answers categorized into this group expressed a concern about philosophy of science involving “too little science.” Roughly the same proportion of answers expressed a concern about philosophy of science involving “too much science”. The third most prominent concern expressed was “too little philosophy.”

Besides “balance,” other challenges to philosophy of science noted by his interviewees included improving communication with other areas of philosophy, addressing the apparent “disconnection” between different discussions of the same topic, finding better ways to engage with the public, and improving  diversity in the field.

Here is an image of the poster Zautra designed to share the results of his survey at the PSA meeting:

I asked Zautra what philosophers who are not working in philosophy of science should take from his findings. He replied:

I think what is most important for philosophers in other subfields to know is that philosophers of science are concerned about the disconnection between more traditional metaphysics and epistemology, on the one hand, and on the other, philosophy of science. Misunderstanding and miscommunication between, for example, metaphysics and philosophy of physics, and epistemology and philosophy of cognitive science is seen as a real problem. Philosophical work across the board is perceived to be weakened as a result. Philosophers of science would like to see relationships between more traditional M&E philosophy and philosophy of science improved (so much so that they’re writing papers about it). I think meeting this challenge begins with philosophers of science recognizing their highly social role as cross-disciplinary researchers. Not only must they communicate and engage with the scientists, but they must also work closely with their more traditional M&E colleagues who could help them to better make sense of and/or point them to relevant literature concerning the philosophical implications of their work. In turn, it would be fantastic if traditional M&E folks would be open to finding common ground on philosophical problems of which philosophers of science may contribute.

He added that concerns similar to those had by philosophers of science might arise for philosophers in other areas:

It’s difficult to say without speaking directly to philosophers in other subfields how generalizable the perceived challenges in philosophy of science are to other areas in philosophy. But I think the results from this study might be a good starting template to begin thinking about what more traditional M&E philosophers might consider to be their greatest challenges. Is there an issue with “balance” in Ethics? Are there communication problems between philosophers of mind and epistemologists? Is their a problem of “hyper-specialization” in philosophy? Does philosophy lack a sense of unity? Do philosophers across disciplines, and even in the same discipline seem to be talking past one another? Do philosophers consider diversity an epistemic issue? How should philosophers engage with the public?

Thoughts from philosophers—in philosophy of science or not—and scientists welcome.

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