Feynman’s Madness and Why Philosophy of Science Matters


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According to Richard Feynman, the philosophy of science is for birds.

Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. (Usually attributed to Richard Feynman)

It’s a popular quote that comes up every time someone mentions the philosophy of science. Considering that Feynman was such an annoyance, I’m not sure he wasn’t just ironic. However, the philosophy of science has a bad reputation with science fans in general, who are wary of attempts to critique science.

Do Scientists Need Philosophy?

The usual complaint about the philosophy of science is that philosophers do nothing, while scientists are the ones who generate all progress and results. So who are the philosophers of science to tell real scientists how to do their job?

This is a major misconception for many reasons. It’s not like philosophers are supposed to generate scientific data and beat scientists in the fist. They evaluate the scientific method and its methodologies, and its practice in scientific research and academia. They don’t tell scientists how to do their job, they articulate the questions scientists face in their work:

What is a theory and what is a law of science?

Realism and anti-realism: how well do scientific theories describe reality?

What is a scientific explanation? Why are scientific explanations so successful? What makes something a good explanation?

Reduction and emergence: what is reductionism?

What is falsifiability? Falsifiability is often seen as a “litmus test” of science – it means that a claim can be falsified or proven to be false.

What is and is not “scientific”? This is called the demarcation problem.

What is the definition of Direct observation? For example, how many layers of theoretical observation can be applied, before you no longer observe directly and before theory-laden tools compromise the term “direct observation”?

What, if any, are the ramifications of the theory-laden observation?

What defines the natural world?

What is the limit of scientific reasoning?

Pseudoscience: what characterizes deviations from scientific principles that could affect their reliability?

(Courtesy of RationalWiki)

These are all questions that have many possible answers depending on the scientific field, the type of investigation conducted, the expectations of the interests that fund the research and a host of other variables.

Science as a program of philosophical research

There are historians and sociologists of science, but it is the philosophers of science who seem to be lightning rods to the disdain of scientists and science enthusiasts. Historians of science are concerned with the historical development of scientific methodology and theories; philosophers deal with the underlying assumptions of these methodologies and theories. Science fans have an idealized and simplistic view of science, where it is about testing hypotheses-data-conclusions; they assume that activities can be carried out without consciously acknowledging these issues. However, as Daniel Dennett says, There is no science without philosophy, just a science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions. Ignoring these questions does not make them go away.

What is good for the goose

Finally, I am not even sure that ornithology is not useful for birds. If birders uncover important information on topics like bird nutrition, migration, and disease, they could certainly use that information in the field to help bird populations. If anything, the fact that the birds might not be aware how useful ornithology is to them makes the analogy with scientists even more relevant.

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