Philosopher-Scientists, Scientist-Philosophers and Philosopher- Philosophers: An Exercise in Futurology

Posted on April 17, 2017 by

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Futurology comprises the study of possible futures and, as such, it is a cheap thing: it does not require much to speculate about how things can be in the years to come. Futurology also produces inaccurate predictions most of the time, which could render this post useless. Nevertheless, here I am concerned with the future of philosophy of science. More precisely, I am interested in opening a discussion about the supposed tendency for philosophy of science to be more specialized, and their practitioners to undergo more training in the sciences. Is this tendency real? If it is, what consequences could it bring to both the discipline and to us as philosophers of science?

Before jumping into the future, let’s talk about the past and present (in very rough lines). Many decades ago, philosophy of science was arguably an armchair activity. One sees this in the general approach to the main issues discussed at that time: demarcation, underdetermination, theoretical reductionism, explanation, and the relation between history and philosophy of science. All these issues were discussed without close attention to how scientists actually understood them. Here I have in mind classic discussions comprising logical positivists and detractors like Quine, Reichenbach, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and many others. As the story goes, this early period was succeeded by philosophy of the special sciences. Around 1960 to 1970, philosophers shifted their attention to biology, psychology, economics and other scientific domains. They started to reframe the issues of the general philosophy of science as problems for each particular science. An example here would be the discussion about reductionism in genetics (for an early example, see Hull 1974). Along the way, two things became clear. First, general philosophy of science was previously and implicitly biased towards physics. Second, the other sciences were full of specific problems just waiting for philosophical scrutiny. The mere reframing of old questions was not enough. Hence, philosophers of science finally started exploring a more specialized scientific world.

The attention to special sciences did not mean the abandonment of the armchair. The first decades of the philosophy of special sciences were very much based on conceptual analysis of scientific theories, even though philosophers were relying on “textbooks” from different sciences. In this context, Ian Hacking’s experimentalism was an interesting move (1983). It advocated the idea that the analysis of experimental practice – as opposed to abstract theories – could reveal a set of scientific commitments and assumptions not appreciated otherwise. Also of significance was the so-called “naturalistic turn,” namely, close attention to empirical studies and results, as well as the exploration of case-studies and other approaches aligned with scientific methodologies rather than traditional conceptual analysis. For instance, Werner Callebaut’s 1993 edited volume is an important indicator of the spreading of this naturalist principle. Hence, both experimentalism and naturalism inspired philosophers to distance themselves from the armchair. These ideas inspired philosophers to get their hand “dirty” in detailing the practice of science. Consequently, specialization increased and became a natural path for philosophers of science to follow, as seen by the number of philosophers with past undergraduate and graduate degrees in scientific disciplines.

Now let’s talk about the present. As soon as I started my Ph.D. and began to travel for conferences, I observed what would be the current developments of the rough history just outlined: the history of philosophy of science as a history of increased specialization. Here are some crude and non-rigorous observations. First, as traditionally considered, general philosophy of science is modestly practiced by older generations and rarely by younger scholars. Second, philosophy of science in both North-America and Western Europe is dominated by a specialized and naturalistic attitude. There is much evidence for this second point. In particular, there is a strong emphasis on  scientific practice in philosophy of science. This turn to practice was institutionalized by the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP), which just completed ten years of existence. SPSP organizes big international conferences every two years and these conferences are more frequently recognized as very inclusive and supportive of a more practice-oriented philosophy of science. In philosophy of biology particularly, the naturalistic attitude is also multi-faceted. In Europe, the Konrad Lorenz Institut and its journal Biological Theory are good examples. Projects carry out in Cambridge UK by Hasok Chang and Tim Lewens, Exeter UK by Egenis, in Bordeaux (France) by Thomas Pradeu’s team also follow the same direction. In North-America, projects led by Alan Love are very clear explorations of the philosophy of science in practice. Recently, the project “From Biological Practice to Metaphysics of Science” led by Love, Ken Waters, Bill Wimsatt and Marcel Weber follows the same path. Here is one thing that I noticed in these and other similar projects (as far as I know them): they encourage, promote, and sometimes even privilege scholars with a strong and preferable formal background in the sciences.  Is this the future direction of philosophy of biology and science more generally? Is the promotion of “a strong and even formal background in sciences” the new chapter following the history I outlined before?

Here is where my exercise in futurology begins. Let’s imagine that my last observation is more or less accurate: many important projects and/or research groups in the philosophy of science (or biology) encourage, promote, and even privilege a very strong or formal background in sciences. Interestingly, as far as I can see, many philosophy grad students nowadays have such a background. Many of them did B.As or M.As in the sciences. Indeed, I would guess that the number of people coming from the sciences (or having a scientific background) to the philosophy of science is increasing. Hence, they could have an important advantage over other philosophy grad students if indeed the turn to practice calls for previous science experience. If we consider that the job market is astonishingly competitive, one is led into a vicious circle: students are encouraged to study sciences and, as the number of students with science background increase, they reinforce the importance of science for projects and research groups. One consequence of this is that specialization tends to continue or even further increase in the field. At the institutional level, this sort of dynamic involving the job market, institutions, and students seem to indicate a new phase in our history of specialization. Science background can become important or even decisive for getting a good job in the philosophy of science. Additionally, as the general philosophy experience is replaced by a focus on scientific training, philosophers of science can alienate themselves from their more traditional philosophical peers. I discuss these last two points in what follows.

As I said in the beginning, futurology is cheap as well as inaccurate. There are many ways in which the vicious circle scenario and the consequences I described are too simplistic and most likely mistaken. First, assumptions concerning the job market and institutions are problematic. I don’t have to tell you how complex the job market is, right? This complexity is partially because hiring institutions have different histories and profiles. So, it seems too simplistic the idea that competition will push institutions to prefer philosophers with a strong background in science. Think for example in the case of the teaching institutions/colleges across North-America. They are one of the main employers of philosophers. Would a degree in the sciences or a strong background in them be important for hiring a philosopher in these institutions? It likely depends on the department. What many institutions need is a good philosopher able to connect their teaching with the other faculty. In this context, specialization can even be a bad thing: it can distance the candidate from the faculty working on traditional areas of philosophy. In fact, this distance is one of the big risks of specialization in the philosophy of science faces today. In a recent interview, Elliott Sober shows concern with this risk in the philosophy of science. According to him, the future of our discipline depends on philosophers of science “redoubling their efforts to connect what they are doing to other areas of philosophy.”

Here is a second scenario: research-driven institutions will hire the philosophers with a heavy background in sciences, while teaching-driven institutions hire philosophers with more traditional training. This scenario seems to make more sense than the previous one. After all, the teaching institutions would prefer to have philosophers with the capacity to teach large portions of standard philosophical topics. In contrast, research-driven institutions want philosophers capable of attracting research funding and producing breakthroughs. Since the philosophy of science already follows the path of specialization and naturalism, the way to attract funding and produce breakthroughs would be by establishing an even closer relation with the sciences. Hence, philosophers with a strong or formal background in science would be in the spotlight, again.

But is this second scenario likely? Well, it is still very simplistic because it doesn’t take into account the histories and profiles of different research-driven institutions. Even though naturalism and specialization seem to be an overall tendency, why should we believe that most respectable research-driven institutions tend to hire philosophers of science with a strong or formal background in the sciences? What about big institutions with a profile of favoring traditional work on the philosophy of science? Is it not the case that such institutions usually have a particular research agenda? Additionally, let’s think for a second in hiring committees.  Giving the heterogeneous formation of these committees, there are reasons to say that even in big research-driven institutions philosophers of science with a strong background in science will not be necessarily favored over other philosophers. Additionally, why assume that attracting funding and producing philosophical breakthroughs are easy to achieve when a philosopher of science works more closely with science nowadays? It is hard to have good answers for these questions when we only have a glimpse of what the field is like and no proper ways to do sociology and history of philosophy. This is why the scenarios I discussed look so sketchy. Hence, maybe I should stop here.

All these questions and scenarios pop up in my head as I try to do futurology. As far as specialization and naturalism go, I can’t help but think that the future belongs to scientist-philosophers. These are the well-trained science students who become philosophers. However, the future also has room for philosopher-scientists, i.e., those philosophers who will be able to connect with scientists and get strong scientific training along with their philosophical education. They don’t become scientists (well, some even do!) but they find in the scientific community a suitable host for academic parasitism and mutualism. Of course, scientist-philosophers and philosopher-scientists face different challenges: the former needs to minimally catch up with certain portions of the philosophical tradition, while the latter needs (not minimally, but strongly) catch up with science. But what about a third figure, the philosopher-philosopher? These are the philosophers of science without much scientific training but still very sharp analytical skills. They contribute to the philosophy of science mostly by doing conceptual analysis. Is this figure going extinct in the future? Does the increase of scientists philosophers lead to the decrease of philosophers philosophers? Can this increase also lead to the decrease of philosophers scientists? You tell me!

–Celso