(Published in Sapere Aude: The Future of the Humanities in British Universities, pp.185-190. Eds. K. Almqvist and I. Thomas. Stockholm: Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2017. This is the written-up version of a short talk I contributed to a symposium held at the British Academy on 15 February 2015 on the question – then recently posed by Stephen Hawking – “what is the point of philosophy?”.)
For anyone like me, working in or around a philosophy unit at a British university in the 2010s, the question “what is the point of philosophy?” is a very familiar one. We have to make the case for philosophy all the time. I want here to set out a more detailed form of the case that I make when pitching to scientists. I’m a historian and philosopher of science, so my own philosophical teaching and research are more science-directed than is typical for philosophers as a whole. But as the British Academy debate took some science-versus-philosophy remarks from Stephen Hawking as its starting point, a little attention along these lines seems appropriate.
I’ll make three points in what follows. The first – which is the one I’ll dwell on at greatest length – is that science goes better for close contact with philosophy. My argument for that claim is the “argument from science” of my title. The second point is that there are well-understood reasons why philosophical contact can be intellectually fruitful for scientists, to do with the nature of scientific training. The third point is that, in my view, the fruitfulness of this interaction can and should be two-way. Just as science goes better for contact with philosophy, so philosophy goes better for contact with science.
The Argument from Science
Why do I say that science goes better for contact with philosophy? My argument for the claim is, as philosophers of science would say, an inductive one: a generalization from the evidence of specific examples. My examples are Noam Chomsky, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. These men are among the most powerful scientific thinkers since modern science began in the seventeenth century. Their work has profoundly shaped the development of the human, the physical and the biological sciences respectively. Chomsky, Einstein and Darwin are also among the most philosophically literate scientific thinkers of modern times. I think that is no accident, and indeed, as we shall see, that each man’s immersion in the philosophy of science of the day left its imprint on his most important scientific achievements. Of course that connection only explains so much. We are dealing here with minds of off-the-scale brilliance. But I want to suggest how that brilliance got channelled in the productive ways it did in part thanks to their philosophical learning.
The young Chomsky’s slender book Syntactic Structures (1957), introducing his distinctive “transformational generative” analysis of grammar, laid the technical foundations on which, over the next ten years, he erected a research programme of extraordinary reach. Along with linguistics, it came to include psychology, anthropology, biology, computer science, even history and philosophy. It is the more striking to read the preface to Syntactic Structures and find a polemical essay as much about the philosophy of science as about linguistics. There Chomsky argues on the most general grounds for the virtues of the scientific method he pursues in the rest of the book: the construction and analysis of theoretical models, as distinct from up-from-the-evidence induction. Far from being idle wheel-spinning, Chomsky says, the study of such models can expose conceptual problems that might otherwise have lain unnoticed, and can yield insights into the nature of the phenomena well beyond what the model-maker had in mind. Chomsky here shows himself to be every inch the close reader of mid-twentieth-century American philosophy of science. Two of its most distinguished practitioners, Nelson Goodman and Willard Quine, were personal acquaintances, Chomsky having studied as an undergraduate with Goodman at the University of Pennsylvania, then, after joining the Society of Fellows at Harvard, getting to know the Harvard-based Quine. From the outset, then, Chomsky had a philosophically informed perspective on scientific inquiry. When he later entered into scientific battle, that perspective made him a formidable champion of his views, which he represented as flowing from the deepest considerations as to what made for the best science. One has the impression too that his deadliness in criticizing his opponents – notably, his talent for showing that the most basic errors of reasoning undermined their projects utterly – owes something to that early exposure to philosophical argumentation.
Einstein’s philosophical debts to the writings of Ernst Mach for the reflections that led to the theory of special relativity, published by Einstein in 1905, are well known. Professional philosophers in anything like the post-1900 sense were thin on the ground pre-1900. But Mach, a physicist, was as philosophically serious as they came. His book sceptically examining the conceptual foundations of the scientific understanding of the movement of bodies in time through space – the science of motion, or “mechanics” – opened Einstein’s mind to critical possibilities he had not sensed before. In his autobiography, he recalled how even the most intellectually adventuresome of nineteenth-century physicists presumed those foundations to be sound. “It was Ernst Mach who, in his History of Mechanics, upset this dogmatic faith,” wrote Einstein; “this book exercised a profound influence upon me in this regard while I was a student.” He went on: “I see Mach’s greatness in his incorruptible scepticism and independence; in my younger years, however, Mach’s epistemological position also influenced me very greatly.” The older Einstein had backed way from that position, known as positivism. The positivist recommended indifference to what is really going on in nature, deep down, in favour of the more modest task of organizing observations in ways that generate accurate predictions. But that later change of heart only underscores Einstein’s engagement in, and by, philosophical questions. I learned at the British Academy event from Rebecca Goldstein that Einstein’s regard for philosophy took a number of other forms, from a (bad) love poem he wrote to Spinoza to the making of a distinction between the scientist who is “a mere artisan” and the serious thinker, “a real seeker after truth.” (Niels Bohr, apparently, Einstein put in the former category.)
It fits with the popular image of Chomsky and Einstein to picture them at ease with abstract philosophical discussion. But Darwin? He is forever the Beagle voyager, clambering over the rocky Galapagos islands collecting finches, or a kindly old man pottering in a Kentish greenhouse full of Venus fly-traps, climbing plants, and well-thumbed copies of the Gardeners’ Chronicle. This zestful collector-gardener, moreover, is readymade as a specifically English hero: a Wordsworthian student of nature, trusting not to armchair speculation but to experience, the latter all the better for being wider. (We should note in passing that “what is the point of philosophy?” is a very English question. It’s hard to imagine it being asked in Scotland or Ireland, let alone France or Germany. One is reminded of another English hero, Samuel Johnson, “refuting” the idealism of the philosopher Berkeley by kicking a rock.) Over the last few decades historians have got to know another Darwin, not just a thinker but a reader of thinkers; and, thanks to his thinking and reading, a virtuoso of scientific argument. A telling sign of Darwin’s mastery of the philosophy of science of the mid-Victorian period, which was dominated by the writings of the astronomer John Herschel and Trinity College master William Whewell, is Darwin’s use of their terminology to classify his own theories. At that time, “hypothesis” was reserved for theories regarded as substandard in their relation to the evidence. A hypothesis posited entities and processes which, if they existed, and if they had the powers attributed to them, would explain whatever puzzling phenomenon one was interested in; but it was anybody’s guess whether the posited entities or processes existed or not. Darwin labelled what has come to be remembered as a “brilliant blunder,” his theory of pangenesis, about how inheritance (and much else) works, explicitly as a “hypothesis,” indeed a “provisional hypothesis,” by way of signalling his own sense of its falling short of the ideal. By contrast, he never referred to his theory of natural selection that way, and showed extreme irritation with people who did. Natural selection, in his view, was not a merely hypothetical cause. He judged the first two-thirds of the Origin of Species (1859) to have succeeded in arguing both that it exists and that it is sufficiently powerful to produce new species. That neither Herschel nor Whewell agreed – Herschel famously calling natural selection “the law of higgledy-pigglety” – was a source of disappointment, even distress, to Darwin.
Their reactions are instructive. Even as Darwin attempted to meet the canons of good argumentation in science as Herschel and Whewell had laid them down, he developed an argument that, in both its means and its end, was quite unlike anything else that had come before. Far from being stultifying of Darwin’s creativity as a theorist, his self-education in philosophical studies of science gave shape, direction, and edge to that creativity. More generally, and all over Darwin’s writings, he crafts arguments that are at once, like the man himself, utterly respectable and breathtakingly daring. Consider, for instance, his use of what have been called “companions in guilt” arguments. Roughly speaking, these yoke a disliked position to a liked position, in order to suggest that, for consistency’s sake, the former should be liked too, because really no different from the latter. In a letter to his friend and mentor, the geologist Charles Lyell, around the time of the Origin’s publication, Darwin defended his theory from the charge that it was incomplete because it did not explain the origin of the first living organism by noting that no one held it against Newton’s theory of gravitation that it left the source of gravity unexplained. Some years later, in his major book on human evolution, the Descent of Man (1871), he addressed the concerns of religious readers who might hold back from accepting a pre-human ancestry for humans on the view that it made the question of when and how our immortal souls entered the evolving lineage wholly problematic. Darwin allowed that the problem looked very difficult; but on reflection, he pointed out, the problem appeared no different in structure from the one of explaining when and how, once sperm and egg have united, a new individual soul comes into the developing body. And if believers were happy to live with the mystery at the individual level, then surely they could live with the same mystery at the species level.
Why Scientists Need Help Staying Clear-Eyed and Critically Minded
“Take nobody’s word for it” is a famous scientific credo. In Latin, as “Nullius in verba,” it serves as the motto of the Royal Society, now housed next door to the British Academy. One would be hard-pressed to find a more vigorous statement of the willingness to treat critically, sceptically, probingly, authoritative beliefs about the world and its study. It is, however, an expression of an ideal. To be an even moderately successful scientist is in fact to take a great deal of knowledge on trust, including, for most scientists most of the time, a certain conception of what their science is about, what methods are appropriate to it, what good questions and answers look like, and so on. Far from taking a critical stance on such matters, scientists often treat them dogmatically. So taught Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962 and easily the best-known and most influential book on the history and philosophy of science ever written. On Kuhn’s view, scientific disciplines flourish only when their foundations cease to be matters for dispute among a sizable community of inquirers, who can then get on with the business of research. Instead of inviting new recruits to squabble about the starting point, successful disciplines train the next generation in a way that all but shuts down the possibility of such squabbling. The trainees absorb the disciplinarily approved perspective or “paradigm” so completely that by the end, the only interesting challenges are to do with extending the paradigm ever further. Thus does scientific progress of an important but ultimately unsatisfactory kind – what Kuhn called “normal science” – often go hand in hand with the elimination of critical mindedness. A little contact with the philosophy of science, especially when historically informed, can go a long way toward awakening and sharpening the appetite for criticism in the well-trained and otherwise obediently disciplined scientist.
Why the Traffic Between Science and Philosophy Ought to Be Two-Way
My Leeds colleague Roger White once said to me that all philosophical debates become scholastic in the end. To put the same point in Kuhnian terms (as Tim Crane did in discussion), philosophy too has its “normal science” parts and phases, when organized inquiry becomes so insular and inward-looking – so fully taken up with the endless questions generated not by the world but by the application of the communally approved techniques – as to become a dead end intellectually. Here science can repay whatever debts it acquires from philosophy. If scientists can be saved from the scientific form of scholasticism by contact with philosophy, it is equally true that philosophers can be saved from the philosophical form of it by contact with science, and its ever-renewed capacity to throw up possibilities in heaven and earth undreamt of in our philosophies. I conclude with a credo of my own, adapted from a famous line from that great cosmologist and philosopher Immanuel Kant (though, again I learned from Rebecca Goldstein, Einstein beat me to it): “Science without philosophy is empty; philosophy without science is blind.” May the pavement between the Royal Society and the British Academy be well travelled, and in both directions.