Science: The art of the insoluble?

Under the microscope: A debilitating befuddlement
Click to follow
I HAVE been listed in a US publication as a serious enemy of the philosophy of science. I am rather pleased, as my claim is that philosophers of science have contributed nothing to the understanding of science this century - certainly nothing of the slightest relevance to practising scientists. This is a great pity, as science is the great achievement of our culture and is our best way to understand the world. It is precisely because it is so successful that I looked to the philosophers of science for illumination about what, for example, is meant by a scientific understanding, and why science works. I would like help with all sorts of problems such as the nature and limits of reductionism, and how to distinguish science from non-science, such as belief in the paranormal.

Alas, I have found nothing but obscurity and disinterest in such problems. The practitioners include some very clever academics who are friends of mine and they tell me: "Look, Lewis, we are not here to help you, a scientist, to understand science." In return, I express my surprise that they have no interest in helping us. It seems that they are really interested in philosophy rather than science in problems like those concerned with realism. I am a crass and naive, even militant realist, which I know is a philosophical position I am unable to defend, but for my science that is totally irrelevant. Practising scientists have not the slightest interest in the philosophy of science, and in the historian Gerald Holton's phrase, I view the philosophy of science as a "debilitating befuddlement".

In his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, distinguished physicist Steven Weinberg has a chapter entitled Against Philosophy. He describes himself as a "working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy," and continues, "I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose work has been significantly helped by the philosophers." This is true for biology and the tremendous success of genetics and molecular biology.

But things are actually even worse than that. An apparently widely held position in the philosophy of science is what is known as the "underdetermination of theories". This states that any given body of data will always be compatible with a number of mutually incompatible theories, and so one cannot use observations in order to choose any particular theory. When I challenge the philosophers to provide me with just one other explanation for how genes code for proteins, or for the composition of water, or the circulation of the blood, they become uncharacteristically silent or claim that I just do not understand. On this latter point they are certainly correct.

I often hear claims that Karl Popper is a significant exception to the failure of philosophers to help scientists. After all, did not the Nobel Laureates Medawar and Eccles say that he was a major influence on their work? My own view is that he is greatly overrated: possibly, as a friend said, because he is the only philosopher that scientists can understand. I'm amused by how lowly he is regarded by philosophers. His emphasis on falsification discounts discovery and fails to solve the problem of induction; it is certainly not the way scientists work.

There is also, apparently, something called the feminist philosophy of science, which I see described in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy as: "a particularly significant contribution to the body of skeptical literature which asks whether conventional scientific methods and methodology are as successful at tracking or converging on truth and validity as they have claimed to be." No justification for this bizarre suggestion is offered.

Medawar made a wonderful comment when he said that science is the art of the soluble. Could it be that philosophy of science is the art of the insoluble?