How Science Can Get the Philosophy It Needs

A recent essay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by an interdisciplinary group of scholars argues that philosophy has had “an important and productive impact on science” and provides recommendations for how to facilitate cooperation between philosophers and scientists.

The authors of “Why Science Needs Philosophy” are Lucie Laplane (CNRS) Paolo Mantovani (Roehampton)Ralph Adolphs (Caltech)Hasok Chang (Cambridge)Alberto Mantovani (HumanitasMargaret McFall-Ngai (Hawai’i)Carlo Rovelli (Aix-Marseille)Elliott Sober (Wisconsin), and Thomas Pradeu (CNRS, University of Bordeaux, Sorbonne).

They provide specific examples of major contributions philosophy has made to scientific work in areas such as stem cell research, cancer treatment, immunology, the microbiome, cognitive science, and others. These examples, they write, lead them to “see philosophy and science as located on a continuum”:

Philosophy and science share the tools of logic, conceptual analysis, and rigorous argumentation. Yet philosophers can operate these tools with degrees of thoroughness, freedom, and theoretical abstraction that practicing researchers often cannot afford in their daily activities. Philosophers with the relevant scientific knowledge can then contribute significantly to the advancement of science at all levels of the scientific enterprise from theory to experiment as the above examples show.

They note, though, that scientists often do not see the value in philosophical work. This may be owed, in part, to lack of familiarity and exposure. What can be done to bring philosophers and scientists together?

They issue the following recommendations:

  1. Make more room for philosophy in scientific conferences. This is a very simple mechanism for researchers to assess the potential usefulness of philosophers’ insights for their own research. Reciprocally, more researchers could participate in philosophy conferences, expanding on the efforts of organizations such as the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology; the Philosophy of Science Association; and the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice.

  2. Host philosophers in scientific labs and departments. This is a powerful way (already explored by some of the authors and others) for philosophers to learn science and provide more appropriate and well-grounded analyses, and for researchers to benefit from philosophical inputs and acclimatize to philosophy more generally. This might be the most efficient way to help philosophy have a rapid and concrete impact on science.

  3. Co-supervise PhD students. The co-supervision of PhD students by a researcher and a philosopher is an excellent opportunity to make possible the cross-feeding of the two fields. It facilitates the production of dissertations that are both experimentally rich and conceptually rigorous, and in the process, it trains the next generation of philosopher-scientists.

  4. Create curricula balanced in science and philosophy that foster a genuine dialogue between them. Some such curricula already exist in some countries, but expanding them should be a high priority. They can provide students in science with a perspective that better empowers them for the conceptual challenges of modern science and provide philosophers with a solid basis for the scientific knowledge that will maximize their impact on science. Science curricula might include a class in the history of science and in the philosophy of science. Philosophy curricula might include a science module.

  5. Read science and philosophy. Reading science is indispensable for the practice of philosophy of science, but reading philosophy can also constitute a great source of inspiration for researchers as illustrated by some of the examples above. For example, journal clubs where both science and philosophy contributions are discussed constitute an efficient way to integrate philosophy and science.

  6. Open new sections devoted to philosophical and conceptual issues in science journals. This strategy would be an appropriate and compelling way to suggest that the philosophical and conceptual work is continuous with the experimental work, in so far as it is inspired by it, and can inspire it in return. It would also make philosophical reflections about a particular scientific domain much more visible to the relevant scientific community than when they are published in philosophy journals, which are rarely read by scientists.

Thoughts on these recommendations, information about current examples of them, and suggestions for other ways of encouraging “a renaissance in the integration of science and philosophy” are welcome.

Jiyong Lee, “Segmentation Series 10”

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