October 26, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Need Philosophers

Wise journal editors realize that they can’t do science without philosophy.

Science and philosophy are locked in a symbiotic relationship, but scientists often get the most press.  Indeed, some scientists disdain philosophy as a useless intrusion.  But science doesn’t work in a vacuum; it needs to be grounded in philosophy; and all three major divisions of philosophy—ontology (what exists), epistemology (how do we know), and ethics (how should we act)—must hold science accountable.  Here are a few recent articles dealing with this sometimes tense but unavoidable relationship.

“In defense of philosophers as scientists” is the title of an essay by Brian Koberlein published on PhysOrg.  After reviewing the history of philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Popper etc.), he defends philosophy against the scientific naysayers who, like Vizzini in The Princess Bride, said with puffed-up arrogance that “compared to him, the great philosophers were morons.”  Not so—

Our modern world is so deeply rooted in scientific thinking that it can be difficult to recognize the philosophical roots of our modern worldview. It’s easier to think of past generations as wrongheaded and ignorant rather than adherents to a different metaphysics. And this is one of the reasons science needs philosophers. It’s always good to have a bit of pushback against your assumptions.

The edge of scienceScience Magazine published a book review by Michael A. Goldman of Dartmouth cosmologist Marcelo Gleiser’s book, The Island of Knowledge The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.  This “demanding, though stimulating, read” is somewhat positivistic, but recognizes the limitations of science, particularly of physics and astronomy, Gleiser’s specialty.  At best, science can only offer tentative answers:

Coming to grips with the ever-changing landscape of fact, and the possibility that some things cannot, by their very nature, be known, is fundamental to our understanding of science and the scientific method. But, as Gleiser argues, this needn’t be cause for despair. “To avoid the funk of a modern scientific nihilism, we must find joy in what we are able to learn of the world, even if knowing that we can only be certain of very little.”

Gleiser might struggle somewhat with Ken Ham’s conundrum: “If you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know what you do know, which could be very little” (paraphrase).  This makes it audacious for Gleiser to claim any certainty at all.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thingNature published an editorial summarized by its subtitle, “The significance of expertise passed on by direct contact— tacit knowledge — is moot.”  The article deals with the problem of reproducibility, tackling the question of how much in a method such as measuring something is science, and how much is art.  Like Goldman and Gleiser, they struggle with our limited knowledge:

There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns, as former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld clumsily explained. Some tacit knowledge is deliberately withheld, and some journal methods sections offer insufficient space for elaboration. Those are the known unknowns and are most easily addressed. The tacit knowledge that is harder to pass on is the nugget of information that neither the teacher nor the pupil realized was important: the varnish on the Stradivarius violin; the greasing of the thread behind the ear.

The editorial leaves the problem unresolved.  Even though we have more data and faster communication, are all forms of knowledge dependent on the procedures used to discover them?  “One way or another, we could be poised to find out.

Buyer beware:  Consumers of scientific knowledge have their issues, too.  In “What kind of research can we trust?” on Medical Xpress, Adam Dunn And Florence Bourgeois worry about the reliability of health claims.  This gets into philosophy’s third division, ethics.  How much should we doubt the conclusions of a scientist with ties to a drug company?  How can we know the statistics were not fudged?  Is there conflict of interest?  “To be able to make informed decisions together, doctors and patients need research that’s trustworthy,” obviously. “If systematic reviews are to remain the pinnacle of evidence-based medicine, then the processes underpinning them need to be continually reassessed to ensure they meet the highest of standards.”  Ah, but who makes the standards?

Bloviating without repentance:  It’s funny to read Sean Carroll’s bombastic claims in summer about the BICEP2 results (Caltech E&S, Spring/Summer 2014), then to follow that up with Nature’s hand-wringing editorial (Oct 14) about lessons learned from the “Dust to dust” fiasco (see 9/25/14).  The editors reveal some of the human element inserting itself into the knowledge-generation process:

There is a deeper issue here: science not by press conference but presented as an event. What in reality is a long, messy and convoluted process of three steps forward and two steps back is too easily presented as giant leaps between states of confusion and blinding revelation. At the heart of this theatre is the artificial landmark of a peer-reviewed paper. Fixed print schedules and releases to journalists under embargo (with or without champagne videos) help to lend the impression that the publication of a paper is the final word on a question — the end-of-term report on a scientific project that details all that was achieved.

Incidentally, Caltech’s article featured a photo of that now-embarrassing champagne party after BICEP’s media event.

Earlier in the editorial, apparently penitent over the establishment media’s misdeeds, they had something good to say about science bloggers:

The (welcome) rise of the science blogger has fuelled this navel-gazing. Some bloggers seem to spend most of their time criticizing other science writers, or at least debunking examples of what they regard as inferior science writing. But they do lots of good stuff too. Although traditionalists lament the decline of science coverage in the mainstream press, a terrific amount of analysis and comment, much of it very technical, is happening online under their noses.

Maybe you’re reading some of that right now.

As we have argued many times, you can’t get ontology, epistemology or ethics out of materialism by blind, unguided processes of evolution.  Only the Christian worldview provides the necessary and sufficient presuppositions for doing science with any degree of reliability.  It provides an ontology that’s reliable (because our Creator made us to perceive it), an epistemology based on an omniscient Communicator, and an ethic based on the Creator’s holy character that loves truth and hates lies.

If you disagree, we’ll just argue that your selfish genes are using you in their strategy to propagate themselves.  Philosophize your way out of that.


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  • Tony says:

    “Only the Christian worldview provides the necessary and sufficient presuppositions for doing science with any degree of reliability.”

    this begs the question

    “If you disagree, we’ll just argue that your selfish genes are using you in their strategy to propagate themselves”

    this is a pathetic fallacy, giving inanimate and inpersonal things personal attributes

    • Editor says:

      Tony, you’re missing the irony of the statement. Free will is an illusion if you are a Darwinist; your beliefs and actions are determined by your genes. You have no reliable standard for truth and morality. This is the implication of the “selfish gene” doctrine, where gene survival is all that matters.

  • Tony says:

    “You have no reliable standard for truth and morality.”

    again this begs the question

    “Free will is an illusion if you are a Darwinist; your beliefs and actions are determined by your genes”

    wrong and wrong your beliefs and actions are determined by yourself and free will is an illusion if you are a Christian, you cannot help but to act a certain way because god made you that way

    • Editor says:

      OK, Tony, please explain your reliable standard for truth, morality, and free will, based strictly on materialism and evolution. You say your beliefs and actions are determined by yourself. Can other people use that standard? How would you respond if someone said their beliefs and actions dictated that they should eliminate you and everyone who agrees with you?

  • Tiago says:

    Tony, when you say your beliefs are determined by you, while believing that you are a just a collection of molecules ultimately stemming from goo, no different from other bodies of matter like apes and trees, how is that different from the animism you seem to speak of in your first comment?

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