Science and Philosophy

Personally, I think the importance of explanation is much exaggerated. Philosophy is concerned with explanation, but science is more concerned with measurement and prediction.

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That sounds an admirably restricted role for science. I don’t think it’s at all true, though, from the whole range my scientific education to Richard Feynman’s autobiography. Nobody would be interested in the former, but Feynman’s entire life was about wondering how stuff worked, from broken radios to how ants found their way round his Los Alamos living quarters.

I suppose Babylonian divination science was mainly measurement and prediction (over 2000 years), but even they needed a theoretical explanation for why they thought it worked.

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I agree with that. But Feynman was not just looking for an explanation. He was looking for data.


A false dichotomy: there actually is no such thing as data alone, because the world is full of infinite information. One selects a set of questions to ask, and the answers nature returns are than called “data”, as opposed to all the other phenomena excluded.

But first come the questions, and the question are driven by some hypothesis, and the hypothesis is some kind of possible explanation. In Feynman’s case it was (as I recall) “Why do those ants all find the same way home? Maybe thy leave a trail. So will they get lost if I clean that bit of floor?”

And so science depends on disciplined imagination guiding the whole enterprise, with the collection of data and its logical processing following along and feeding back to the imagination.

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I have seen this sort of statement made by philosophers of science and others in recent decades, but I think it rests on a very recent notion of “science.” I think that ancient, medieval and even early modern science aimed primarily at explanation – at understanding how nature worked. Of course, starting with the early modern period, “measurement and prediction” loom larger, but still there is a strong lust for explanation. One feels it in Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, for all their interest in prediction. They want to know the way the world really is, and why it is that way. Later thinkers will speak of Newton and others as wanting to “think God’s thoughts after him”, which refers not merely to prediction but to understanding.

This recent emphasis on “models that predict” as if that is all that science is about, as if the question “Which model is closer to the real way nature works?” is an airy-fairy philosophical question that hardheaded scientists don’t any longer bother with, is to me a betrayal of the original spirit of science, as handed down to us from the ancient Greeks, through the medieval developments (which were greater than many think), and to the heroic ages of astronomy, physics, and chemistry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution was not primarily about measurement and prediction – he had very few quantitative tools to work with for studying living things, and he wasn’t trying to predict which way evolution would turn, or trying to use evolutionary theory technologically for human benefit. He just wanted to understand and explain how species had arisen. The original Greek theoretical motive is still strong in him.

In very recent developments, where the Baconian technological motive has reached its apogee, and where the Kantian understanding of nature (we can never know the things in themselves, but only the appearances, so the most sensible thing for scientists to do is learn how to predict the appearances and remain silent about whether they tell us anything about the real character of nature) has become dominant, many scientists and philosophers of science are now saying that science has nothing to do with truth or reality or knowing what nature really is (all supposedly useless “philosophical” questions), but is merely about measurement and prediction – often with a view to technological control. I don’t think this is a positive development. I think the theoretical motive should always be greater in natural science than the predictive or the technological motive (though the technological motive is perfectly appropriate for engineers, medical scientists, etc.). The question, “Why does nature behave in this way?” is, so to speak, an epistemologically nobler question than “How can I predict and control things?”

Of course, answering the first question often enough enables us to answer the second, which is the primary reason why governments and businesses give out the billions they do for scientific research. But in the end, I think the motives of Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, etc. were higher and better motives for doing science than the motives of Bacon and Kant.

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Not based on what is considered science at this point.

I don’t disagree that your ideal of science as prediction and measurement would remove confusion but a lot of what is considered science today would need to be kicked up to the philosophy category.

All humans philosophize.

Scientists certainly philosophize. But the kind of philosophy that comes from scientists can be very different from what we see coming from academic philosophers.

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Not all science is primarily concerned with technology and control. The entire field of particle physics today is still concerned with the fundamental question of what are the basic constituents of matter and how do they behave. There are many physicists working on experiments such as mine, harnessing all the technological powers we have to measure certain fundamental quantities to the utmost precision. Even if control is important, in this field it is only useful for the sake of increasing the precision of our instruments even further.

That being said, the dichotomy that you see between “control” vs. “explanations of nature” seems overstated, besides being not clearly delineated. In physics, both those doing research for “control” (e.g. quantum information) or pure fundamental physics (particle physics) share commonalities in that their theories have to produce testable predictions of measurement results. In the process of doing so, physicists invoke various entities, structures, and interactions to explain what they’re seeing in their experiments. Measurement, control, and explanation are all intertwined together. When an astronomer or physicist asks the question of what is dark matter, although it is true that he will also ask for measurement predictions (as all good physicists would), it’s a stretch to say that he is only concerned with “control.” In fact, it is fair to say that particle physicists are worthy heirs to the tradition of inquiry started by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and others.

So I’ve argued that contemporary physics is concerned with more than “control”, but also explanations as well. Then why do some physicists think some philosophical questions are “useless”? Why do they insist on testability and prediction? The foremost reason is likely purely pragmatic. In history, the major advances of science have mostly occurred through experiments. A single experimental result sheds more light on our knowledge about nature than decades of pure calculation and hypothesizing by theorists. A second reason I can think of is that pure reasoning often falters because the fundamental physical principles that we think underlie nature often turn out to be valid only in a limited domain. The classical physics of Newton and Maxwell was shown to be insufficient to explain fast-moving objects and was refined by Einstein. It was also insufficient to explain very small objects, and out came quantum mechanics. All of these newfangled theories were only widely accepted once experimental evidence was acquired for them.

This second reason is probably also why many scientists are impatient with fundamental philosophical questions that cannot be turned into testable predictions. How do we know that our fundamental principles and intuitions are correct? One could debate for hundreds of years and be led to conclusions that could be falsified with a single, precise experiment. Of course, no one - including scientists - can escape philosophizing. Everyone has to start with certain philosophical assumptions, even to do science at all. But a scientist would probably be skeptical and cautious about various metaphysical principles that are invoked by various philosophers without empirical evidence (even if it is impossible to design an experiment, even in principle, to test some of these principles). But this is likely why scientists tend to view answering these questions as a waste of time.

Now, I don’t think most scientists (other than the most militant defenders of scientism) seriously think that philosophers should just quit their jobs. But this might give a better idea of which kinds of questions are the domain of science, and which are the domain of philosophy. Roughly speaking, anything that is empirically testable via the scientific method can be considered scientific. Anything that is primarily decided by pure reasoning from fundamental principles is likely philosophical. (Of course, physicists reason from fundamental principles also. But the final result is always testable.)

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I agree with pretty much all of this, Daniel. I respect your warning not to overstate things.

My target was really those who go along the path indicated by Neil even further than Neil did, and say that science isn’t concerned with truth or reality at all, but only with predictions (which in many fields go hand-in-hand with control over nature). Just the other day a physicist told me that scientists don’t use the word “truth” – meaning that they only test models, etc. But test models of what? Surely, of natural processes. The purpose of constructing a model of something was originally to get at something that was true about the part of nature that you were studying. One might not be able to exhaust the truth about nature by any model, but surely the idea originally was to get a description that was as close to how nature really is, i.e., close to the truth about nature, as we possibly could. Or at least, that was the idea, for a long time. Yet today some – perhaps more often philosophers of science than scientists, though the physicist I mentioned was a scientist and not a philosopher – seem to relish announcing that science has no business with “truth” but only with testing hypotheses. And that strikes me as an overstatement. If I exaggerated in the other direction, I apologize.

Indeed, I admire theoretical physicists for precisely the reasons you set forth – I think the pure love of understanding nature is in them. The fact that so much of theoretical physics does not seem to have immediate technological benefits makes the physicists akin to the ancient Greek thinkers, who wanted to know what was real, purely for the intrinsic benefits of knowing. When I look at the apparent motives of a number of scientists these days, tainted by political ideology or anti-religious personal agendas, whether the field be climatology or evolutionary biology, I think the physicists overall come off looking pretty good as representatives of the original, theoretically detached Socratic spirit. (I am willing to overlook the sins of Stenger, Krauss, and Hawking, in the interest of peace here. :slight_smile: )

I agree with you about empiricism – which is why I tend to side with those physicists who are dubious about things like the multiverse and string theory, on the grounds that such things are very hard to test. I don’t think, “It has to be true, because it is so mathematically elegant” is a reliable argument in natural science.

I certainly understand the impatience of scientists with some of what goes on in academic philosophy. Indeed, I am impatient with most of what goes on in academic philosophy (and theology and Biblical studies, for that matter, though that’s a subject for another day). But when philosophy is done well, though it is not testable in the rapid way that a scientific hypothesis is, it is still “testable against reality” in a broader sense that is not irrelevant. Allan Bloom, in his classic work The Closing of the American Mind, showed how a faulty philosophy of human nature can lead to a dysfunctional system of higher education with bad social consequences. So there is an empirical aspect to philosophical argument, but whereas in natural science, a single experiment that takes a few hours to perform is sometimes sufficient to topple a theory, in philosophy it usually takes the experience of decades of civilization to play out, in the social or political sphere, the premises of a faulty theory, to the point where everyone finally realizes that those premises were wrong. In human matters, the relevant “data” requires a more stretched-out period of time to acquire and interpret.

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The question that that physicist was answering was a more philosophical, namely whether we should think of our physical models as actually “real”, or mere constructions in our minds. No one has ever seen an electron with their naked eyes - to conclude that they exist they have to rely on chains of logical reasoning. Do electrons actually exist, or are they merely a “model” for us to understand nature? And there seems to be a wide variety of opinions among scientists about this. For a short time I (being a hard experimental physicist) was a strict instrumentalist like the physicist you quoted here, saying that I do not know if electrons or even atoms actually exist. But since then I’ve become more convinced by arguments from more realist philosophers of science, who for example point out how remarkable it would be for our physical theories to be so successful and consistent with each other if they were mere constructions of the human mind. In addition, the language used in all of our physical theories would not make much sense if we did not literally believe in the existence of the entities we talk about.

This is why my current stance is more moderate - I think physics and science in general is a rough but true approximation of nature as it actually is, as I described in my initial reply to you. In addition, my stance is almost certainly influenced by the fact that I’ve lately been reading more on Aristotelian-Thomism and Nancy Cartwright (whose philosophy of science is somewhat Aristotelian, explaining the laws of physics as rough descriptions of capacities and powers in nature).

As you said, I see real beauty in doing fundamental physics for the sake of pure knowledge (whether experimental or theoretical), even if it is imperfect knowledge. I marvel at the fact that physicists, for example, moved a 17-ton, 50-foot electromagnet across the country for the sole purpose of repeating an experiment that found a small anomaly in the magnetism of the muon. This is as far as it gets from “control” into the pursuit of pure truth! I think as Christians we have more reason to do such “useless” science, having the conviction that God created these intricate structures and also allowed us the skills to discover and appreciate them.


I sense a slight difference between the point Neil made, and the realist v idealist divide that Eddie highlighted.

There’s a sense in which the Mediaeval approach to science was an admirably humble one: “God’s creation is so deep and complex that our theories are unlikely to uncover more than a crude model of a bit of that reality. Sufficient that the theory be shown to save the phenomena.”

I think there’s some mileage there in these days when the extremes of reality, especially in quantum physics, have to be overtly acknowledged as only expressible in models, the realities not corresponding to our classical sensory experience. We’re telling the truth about the reality, but it’s partial and it’s also metaphorical.

All that, though, seems different from the attempt to show science as hardnosed and free of philosophy and all that nonsense - “We just measure data and make predictions, leaving all the woo to philosphers and theologians… or else if scientists do it, we’ll say they’re not doing science at that point.” That move, I think, is designed to preserve the “objective and certain truth” of science from objections that science is a fundamentally human enterprise. What could be more objective that “data” and “predicition”?

If it would true, of course, it would simply shrink science to a shadow of itself. It’s simply uninteresting to say “We now know all about the world - here is a mass of data, and I’ll prove it’s correct by predicting some more data.” We have, already, more data than we can handle simply by living in the world - what matters is explaining it.


As you argued above, even data itself is not free from an explanatory context - a set of certain questions which have some more fundamental assumptions. The interesting part about science is that you don’t need to agree on what that explanatory language means on a higher level - whether it is to be taken as somewhat reflective of actual nature (even if imperfect) or purely an artificial model in the human mind. Both kinds of people can do the same science, perform the same experiments, and come to the same scientific conclusions. Because everyone agrees on the predictions and data. Quantum mechanics is a prime example: so many different possible interpretations, but while the philosophers are sorting those out, physicists can continue focusing on the more mundane scientific aspects. That’s where the objectivity part comes in. I think this is an advantage instead of deficiency of modern science.

To a degree that’s true, of course - and a big selling point for the “non-sectarian” view of science. In practice, it’s still necessary to have a kind of cultural uniformity (through the training, publication policies etc) that get scientists asking the same kinds of questions. It’s amazing how, particularly in biology, national/continental models can limit that “universality”.

And it’s still the case that the more “data/prediction” is the paradigm, the more limited the explanatory power. Quantum physics is something of an extreme example, I think, because it admits of such a wide range of interpretations that nobody dares assume they have the final answer. In other fields, where particular theories rule the field, it’s easy to forget that the “sorting out” is actually philosophy, rather than part of the science (to use your distinction).

This obviously has application in the queston of a theology or philosophy of nature, because one can (for example) take “chance” for granted as an undirected cause in the whole field of statistics, and be very surprised if someone says you’ve made a philosophical choice, not a scientific deduction.


Well the problem in that case is that when we start to talk about “directedness”, as with any explanatory language in science, the question is then asked: what is a rigorous, non-circular definition of that term that we can subject to an actual measurement? Otherwise the question will be relegated to philosophy, not science. Does that limit the explanatory scope of science? Of course it does. But again, it seems more productive to have 10 experimental results of limited explanatory scope that everyone can agree upon rather than one powerful explanation with controversial philosophical terms that people spend decades debating over with no consensus.

The field of statistics is otherwise quite interesting in that there seems to be philosophical choices that have actual consequences: such as the split between frequentist and Bayesian interpretations of probability, which leads to different ways of calculating and presenting scientific results depending (to some extent) on the subjective tastes of each scientific subfield. (Particle physicists always use frequentist statistics, for example.)


We have very different ideas about “information”.

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Do they want explanation? Or do they want to know how nature works?

Those are not the same.

Explanation is easy. Rudyard Kipling gave a bunch of interesting (and enjoyable) explanations in his “Just So Stories”. But those don’t tell you how nature works. It is the emphasis on prediction and data that gets at how nature works.


But that’s not my point at all.

We do not “just measure data and make predictions”. Rather, we invent new ways of getting data; we invent new forms of measurement. And we use our ability at prediction as a kind of quality control to validate newly invented forms of measurement.


Yes, I know. The famous Harvard evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould was very amusing in pointing out that many of the “natural selection” explanations offered by Darwinians are really nothing more than just-so stories. I don’t have the page numbers handy at the moment – if I find them I will report later – but the comments are in his Structure of Evolutionary Theory (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeated the charge in some of his shorter popular essays on evolution).

However, I was talking about true explanations, not fanciful explanations such as one might find in Rudyard Kipling (or in selectionist explanations of how moth coloration helps moths hide on tree trunks when in nature they don’t actually rest on tree trunks, but have to be glued there for photo-ops for popular books on evolution). Scientists traditionally sought true explanations. It is only in recent decades that some scientists and some philosophers of science have put on this sophisticated, wised-up air of, “Oh, you think science aims at TRUTH? How silly, now naive!” That’s a modern reconceptualizing of science’s ambitions…

Of course, I’m aware, as Jon points out, that early on astronomy, astronomers were aware that more than one geometrical model might explain the appearances of the movements of the planets, and that therefore more than one model might give accurate predictions, without actually describing how planets actually move. But certainly by the time modern astronomy was cemented into place, the Ptolemaic model, whatever its use for predictions of eclipses, etc., was no longer considered the true one. Nobody any longer thought that it might be the way the heavenly bodies were arranged. They all came to believe that heliocentrism was “true”, and it was considered an intellectual advance by science to have determined this.

By “explanation” I of course meant a coherent account of why things are the way they are. If I give an explanation of rainfall in terms of evaporation, condensation, the fall of rain droplets due to gravity, etc., I am giving an explanation of the phenomenon of rainfall. And no matter how much “philosophically sophisticated” scientists may say that “science doesn’t deal in Truth”, in fact every living meteorologist I’ve ever heard of believes that the standard scientific explanation of rainfall is the TRUE one, and that explanations such as “The Great God Okowombo sheds tears for his dead wife, and that is why rain falls,” are not true ones. So I find this “science doesn’t deal in truth” notion rather pretentious and mock-sophisticated. It doesn’t honestly reflect the state of practical certitude that scientists project when they are trying to convince anyone of anything.

All one has to do is read the climatology debates around global warming. If anyone, no matter how qualified, questions the accuracy of the predictions or the soundness of the modelling behind them, they are angrily informed that “the science is settled” and that they are not only socially but even scientifically irresponsible to question it. “Settled?” Meaning, “beyond dispute?” Meaning, “No further research is needed in order to be certain that this is correct?” Meaning, “No possible future data or future mathematical analysis could show that the current models are flawed?” Well, that sure sounds to most people as if the scientists pushing for the strong version of AGW are pretty sure that their models offer a TRUE description of how the earth’s climate works. That kind of dogmatism about a particular alleged result of science does not sit well with the supposed belief of scientists that they never deal in “truth”. The scientists apparently need to get their methodological act together, if they are saying the one thing out of one side of their mouth, and the other thing out of the other.

Statements about global warming are difficult to be used as barometers (pardon my pun) to evaluate the practice and philosophy of science today, because they are always politically charged. There’s a lack of public understanding about uncertainty and probability in science. Nothing in science is 100% certain, but some things are held to be very likely true due to the evidence we’ve found for it. However, in some circles it seems that admitting science is never fully certain is equivalent to saying that we are free to accept or reject scientific facts as we please. (A more immediately damaging example is the anti-vaccination movement.) This is why some climate scientists have chosen to state their findings very strongly because they feel that such rhetoric is needed to spur positive action.

I think you are misstating what the strict instrumentalists are saying. No scientist or philosopher of science doubts that for example, the statement

  1. “The Standard Model predicts the magnetism of the electron with part-per-billion accuracy”

is anything but TRUE. The way you’re describing makes it sound as if some scientists have turned into covert postmodernists who no longer believe in truth in science, which is absolutely false. I’ve never met such people. Instead, the philosophical debate is more likely over questions such as whether electrons actually exist in nature independent of our minds - i.e., what does it really mean to say that statement 1 is true?


I agree, but that evades the question. The statement that the standard model predicts… may be regarded as entirely true, but it states a truth about a model’s success in prediction, not a truth about nature itself. Would the same physicists all say that “the standard model is a true, or approximately true, depiction of nature?” Not according to the people whose views I was reporting. They say that scientists don’t have the word “truth” in their vocabulary anymore. They say that science doesn’t deal in “truth” at all, and that people who are looking for “truth” about nature should look somewhere other than science. I don’t say that all such people are philosophically postmodernists (indeed, I know that some of them are not), but they do seem to be saying that truth is not even something that scientists strive for. Better models, better predictions, yes; truth, no.

And that is what jars, when we consider that up until about 100 years ago, scientists tended to boast that they held nothing more sacred than the search for the truth, that religious obscurantism must give way to the established truths of science, that when heliocentrism replaced geocentrism, it was a victory for truth, etc.

Meanwhile, at least some philosophers, historians, and others plod along, hoping to arrive at truth in their various fields. I guess that at least some scientists and philosophers of science consider this hopelessly naive.

On your first point, the fact that climate scientists may feel there is justification for exaggeration and anger when speaking to resistance from the uneducated public, does not justify their anger and dogmatism against highly qualified dissidents from within their own professions. I don’t wish to take the discussion here off to global warming, but it’s a fact that even accomplished scientists (like Judith Curry, with 150+ publications in climatology peer-reviewed journals, a formerly a gung-ho strong-AGW proponent, and therefore extremely familiar with the data and arguments on the pro side) are angrily belittled and demeaned by climatologists who disagree with them. If a pro-AGW scientist were merely trying to silence an ignorant heckler from the crowd, I would be more sympathetic, but when they try (as some of them have) to shut down debate even within academic circles, then they go too far. It might be that for public policy purposes governments sometimes have to act on imperfect information, and therefore have to pretend that “the science is settled” – but it’s wrong to say to your peer that he has to shut up and stop objecting because “the science is settled.” Anyone who says that to a peer has badly failed to distinguish between the need of policy-makers for closure of debate with the need of the scientific community (and the academic community in general) for complete theoretical openness.

(If anyone here picks up on these remarks, addressed to Daniel for the purpose of methodological discussion, and tries to start a fight with me about global warming, rushing to the defense of the Climategate e-mailers, or condemning Judith Curry, etc., I simply will not respond. The place to discuss AGW is elsewhere. My point was not about whether AGW was right or wrong, but purely about the faulty epistemology in the claim that “the science is settled” – especially when that claim is directed to academic peers rather than public policy-makers. The moment that some thoughts are forbidden, the moment some arguments by competent scholars and scientists are shouted down or prevented from appearing in journals for political reasons, the university has betrayed its heritage. That’s the only point I’m making.)