Friday 13 March 2020

What is science? Introduction

Why do we have a subject called “philosophy of science”? What is it for? Does it for instance help science or scientists? I don’t think it does. Scientists are no more likely to read philosophy books than people from any other profession.

Would scientists benefit from having to study philosophy of science at university? Perhaps they would. I think it is beneficial to study philosophy, but it is just as beneficial to study metaphysics or philosophy of religion as it is to study philosophy of science.

Does the study of philosophy of religion help a person to become more religious? It might, but it might equally show that there is no way of proving that a god or gods exist and indeed that statements about faith are not knowledge statements. The purpose of philosophy of religion is not to make a person religious, but rather to make him think about religion in a clear way and to apply reason to the various issues involved in religion.

So too, the purpose of philosophy of science is not to turn someone into a scientist, but rather to clarify the issues surrounding science and to use reason to discover what if anything science tells us about truth and knowledge.

This may or may not be useful for scientists. That is up to them. If philosophy of science were useful scientists would naturally read about it. But it wouldn’t matter if scientists thought philosophy of science was useless or even harmful for science. This is not its purpose.

Is philosophy of science then something like being a music critic? A music critic neither produces music nor indeed helps composers to compose. A music critic evaluates music and theorises about it.

Why is this useful? The reason we have music critics is that it enables listeners to judge whether it is worth going to a concert or buying a CD.  But in the end what matters about music is whether the public like it or not. It doesn’t much matter if all the critics think a composer is wonderful if everyone else hates the music.

If philosophy of science is about being a critic of science, it would be in a still worse position. Imagine if a philosopher of science said that the theories behind flight were terrible according to philosophy. Would this stop anyone flying? Science is judged by what works. If a new medicine cures people, it is considered to be based on good science. If instead the ill people die, we would condemn the scientist. Would it matter what the philosopher of science said about it?

Then why study philosophy of science? We study philosophy of science for the same reason we study any other branch of philosophy. We want to clarify our thinking about a subject, in this case science. We want to understand what science can tell us about truth and knowledge. We want to know what science can legitimately say and what it cannot say. We do these things because philosophy of science is a subject worth studying in its own right. It is worth studying because it helps us understand science, but more importantly it provides us with a mental training which is useful not merely for science but for every other subject.

I don’t believe that philosophy has ever proved anything that is not trivial. The debate always continues and if truth is the goal, it is never reached. But it is the journey itself that is worthwhile. The purpose of philosophy of science is to learn about science not as scientists learn about science, but as philosophers do. More importantly by learning about science through philosophy we learn about argument, about reason and about truth. This is the purpose of the study.