(This piece is aimed at scientists that are not already engaged with philosophers of science and originally appeared in The Biologist in April 2020).
Philosophy of science is frequently described by those outside the discipline as obscure, technical and irrelevant to scientific practice. While this picture of my own field is accurate enough to cause my ears to burn a little, I want to tell you why it is still a caricature and a harmful one at that.
Philosophy of science is alive and kicking, and in many aspects, of huge relevance to science today. The poor perception of the discipline means, however, that the potential benefits of collaboration between philosophers and scientists are largely being squandered. Looking at the two broad areas of work in the philosophy of science, the possibility of fruitful engagement between philosophy and science is clear.
First, there is the philosophy of nature. Along with scientists, philosophers of nature are concerned with answering big-picture questions about our world such as ‘what is cognition?’, ‘what is life?’ and ‘are humans unique?’. This integrative and somewhat speculative research requires us to step back from the nitty-gritty of particular disciplines and contexts, and focus on what science is saying as a whole.
Of course, it requires a great deal of scientific literacy and understanding – many philosophers of science have tertiary training in science – but it also helps to have tertiary training in logic, reasoning, analysis and argumentation, the type of training study in philosophy provides.
Philosophers of science in this context see their work as continuous and overlapping with that of scientists, and any division between the two as arbitrary. Good science requires clear concepts and reasoning, along with carefully constructed, large-scale theories, but the daily burden of scientific practice imposed by the laboratory or field makes finding the time for such theoretical work difficult.
Philosophers are specifically trained to do this particular work, and have the time and inclination to focus on it, so can contribute to the scientific enterprise. Importantly, philosophers of science are not denying that scientists too can engage in this practice – they are merely putting their hands up to contribute.
Some critics chastise philosophers of nature for being concerned with ‘non-empirical’ issues, such as what concepts mean or how arguments fit together. This is a mistake: these issues are important when developing a big picture of what science is saying. Scientific disagreement is all too often a product of talking past each other or a failure to recognise where the language used in related disciplines diverges. Take the concept of a ‘gene’, for example. Not only has our understanding of the gene changed over time, but also different areas of science have adopted different definitions of it. This is a natural product of scientific progress, but also a source of avoidable confusion and disagreement.
Second, there is ‘traditional’ philosophy of science. Like their famous forebears, Popper, Lakatos and Kuhn, philosophers engaged in this project seek to understand what science is and the success of the scientific method. Some key contemporary projects include ‘what makes for a good scientific model?’, ‘is science value-free?’ and ‘how do generality and specificity trade off in scientific theories?’.
This work has direct relevance to contemporary debates in science, especially those concerning the replication crisis, publication bias and open science. However, there is still infrequent collaboration between philosophers and scientists. Very little of the debate regarding the replication crisis, for example, has occurred in philosophy journals, despite its obvious philosophical relevance.
To my mind the reasons for this are twofold. While there is the potential for philosophy of science to influence the sciences, understanding science is the sole aim for many traditional philosophers of science.
The other reason for a lack of collaboration could be the sociological and institutional barriers. The central roadblocks I see between philosophical and scientific engagement lie in, for a start, antiquated teaching: if I had a pound for every scientist who presents Popper’s outdated 1960s falsificationist view of science as the cutting edge of philosophy of science, I’d be a millionaire.
Second, there is a lack of infrastructure and support for interdisciplinarity within universities – for example, to co-locate cognate research across the humanities and sciences, funding and time for training and education in cross-disciplines, and recognition for interdisciplinary work in research assessments. Finally, there is the poor perception of philosophy of science from outside the discipline, something I have attempted to counter here.
In denying the current Australian bushfire crisis is directly caused by climate change, Prime Minister Scott Morrison (and others) take the hair-splitting that has become the norm in Australian political rhetoric to a new level. And it all rests on what is meant when we say that one thing “a cause” of something else. Causation is, you see, a complicated beast to get your head around. Even though quite small babies have a grasp of the idea that one event can generate another—crying brings a caregiver, kicking moves toys in my baby-gym, and so on—causation in a broader sense is rarely that simple. Whilst the cynic in me is pretty sure that the PM knows this and is simply exploiting the vagaries of language for his own political ends, here is a lesson on the nuances of causation and explanation for ScoMo to mull over on his pre-Christmas Hawaiian holiday.
What causes any particular bushfire? Anyone who has tried to start a campfire knows that a spark alone is rarely enough to start a small fire, let alone a big one. What is required is fuel of the right type; the fuel has to be dry; the air can’t be too wet, and so on. Without these “background conditions” in place, one can go through whole boxes of matches without generating anything so much as a whiff of smoke or roasting a single marshmallow. Extending this conclusion to our current predicament, it is trivially true that every bushfire is directly caused by a spark of some sort, whether it be an arsonist’s match or a lightning strike (a fact that I do not wish in any way to downplay). If we want to know, however, why it is that any given spark comes to result in a large scale or out of control bushfire we must look more broadly and think more sophisticatedly about what is meant by an explanation for an event and go beyond mere causes.
Good explanations of events point to those things in the world which philosophers call robust difference makers for those events we want to explain. This is just a fancy philosopher’s way of pointing to those things that together make the outcome of interest highly likely. In the case of a campfire, for example, the robust difference makers are a spark of some sort, dry fuel and low humidity. Whilst the spark is necessary for the fire, it is not by itself usually sufficient for it. Other conditions must hold. In the case of a bushfire, we are (simply speaking) looking at something akin to the campfire. So, whilst the PM is right that it is only the spark that directly causes any one fire, adequately explaining a bushfire requires reference to the other conditions that robustly contribute to fire, such as hot, dry conditions, and the quality and quantity of available fuel. Now, whilst climate change may not be a cause of the spark that starts a fire (though that in itself is debatable), it is definitely a cause of hot, dry conditions and increased fuel quality and quantity. In this sense it is, at a minimum, a key explanation for our current bushfire emergency, and on all but the most restrictive accounts of causation, a cause (albeit, yes, an indirect one) of the fires.
As I said at the outset, the cynic in me suspects our PM is aware of all this and is just splitting-hairs for political gain, but maybe I am wrong. In which case he really does need a lesson on causation for Christmas.