Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A bit of chauvinism

Philosophers often face the peculiar position in any discussion with another academic that they will understand far more about their interlocutor's discipline than their interlocutor will understand anything about philosophy. However, I see many philosophers of science be quite diffident in dealing with scientists even when the topic is more philosophical in nature in regards to some science. I will be advocating more confidence and maybe a kind of chauvinism. I do think philosophers of science often understand their respective sciences more than the scientists themselves. Scientists do understand what they do obviously quite well, but they often are mired in the details and do not have a comparative and general overview of just exactly what the fundamental nature of what they are doing consists in. Philosophers of science do have this overview and should not feel presumptuous when talking about the more philosophical aspects of some scientific domain as they are usually well informed about the discipline itself and the body of philosophical literature about the philosophical aspects of it.

I've seen interviews with many physicists such as Feynman and Susskind who shamelessly will pontificate on all sorts of scientific matters outside of their area of specialization. Feynman talking about social science, Susskind about morality and evolution etc. They clearly have no clue. Physicists generally seem to have fewer qualms about discussing things outside of their expertise proclaiming all sorts of nutty things about them. Philosophers of science should do the same but the difference now is that at least philosophers of science are usually well-read and competent in the science they philosophize about.

Here's an interesting related story: Once Feynman supposedly said (paraphrasing) of the philosophy of physics "a physicist needs the philosophy of physics like a bird needs ornithology." A well known philosopher of science famously responded "If a bird could understand ornithology, it would come very handy to him.

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