Big Ideas: Better we understand science, better we understand ourselves

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

When it comes to big ideas, what’s bigger than the idea of science?

Science is a human endeavour and a human creation, pretty much like literature, drama and football. But unlike other human creations, the object of the study of science – the world at large – is not a human creation. This makes science, by and large, a process of discovery: mapping uncharted territories.

The world of science studies does not reveal itself directly to us. Most of its content is hidden to our senses and is presented to us via scientific theorizing. We come to know about the structure of the DNA molecule, the curvature of space, continental drift and so many other things, via scientific theories. This fact creates a ground fertile to philosophical reflection.

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How can it be, that the world is independent of us and knowable by us? Are there good reasons to resist an outright skeptical stance toward current science? Should we take theories as more than useful instruments for prediction and control?

The philosophical battlelines are drawn around these and other similar questions.

Epistemic optimism – the view that science has been on the right track and has succeeded in disclosing to us the structure of the world – should be grounded on the ability of the scientific methodologies to extend our senses and to track the world’s hidden-to-the-senses causal structure. The history of science is hugely relevant to this kind of project.

Here is a tough question: Are the theories taught today in science departments of universities part of a permanent, but evolving, scientific heritage, or are they going to be taught as chapters of history of science textbooks in a couple of centuries from now?

You might think this question is pedantic. It turned out it was a vital (almost existential) question for science professors and students in earlier centuries, where subsequently abandoned theories were researched and taught.

What makes current science and scientists epistemically privileged, vis-à-vis their past counterparts?

Current theories, we believe, are better confirmed by the empirical evidence than their predecessors, but establishing this, as well as showing there is substantial continuity in science while theories change, requires thorough philosophical reflection and investigation. That’s exactly the space in which science and philosophy meet and blend together: we call this space ‘philosophy of science.’

We are confident current science can explore the cosmological depths of the universe, that it can survey the microscopic particles that make up matter and energy, that it can trace the origins of life and evolution in the remotest past.

This is how big the idea of science is.

Big ideas need a big platform – philosophy of science is precisely the platform for understanding science. Physics, biology, chemistry, geology, the various social sciences offer us perspectives on reality. They describe and explain the world from their different points of view, employing their own conceptual and methodological tools. All these partial perspectives are synthesized into a coherent (though not necessarily reductive and hierarchical) scientific image of the world within philosophy of science.

Philosophy has almost always been interested in science.

Scientific knowledge and human praxis define the two major horizons within which philosophy moves and thrives. Perhaps, until fairly recently in the 20th century, philosophers and scientists worked in tandem to understand the scope and methods of science. When modern science was formed, back in the 17th century, philosophers and scientists were the two sides of the same coin. Acquiring experimental and theoretical knowledge of the world was achieved by the very same individuals who reflected on what it is and what it takes to acquire such knowledge. In the late 19th century, the post-classical scientific image of the world, from physics to biology and geology, was shaped up by scientists engaged in philosophy.

Nowadays, there are voices in science which scorn philosophy and attitudes in philosophy which disregard science.

We, at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, beg to differ.

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PSILLOS

It is our conception of philosophy that it engages science. And doubly so: engaging with philosophical problems of science and engaging philosophers and scientists in addressing these problems. Science is the best way we humans have invented to describe, understand and transform the world. It deserves our respect. It requires our critical appraisal – if we better understand science, we better understand ourselves as well as the world, and we stand a better chance to make the world a better place to live.

Stathis Psillos is the Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science.