About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, November 02, 2007
The borderlands between philosophy and science
Yet, the divide between the two cultures has only increased since, with philosophy now being part of the humanities, usually housed in a different part of campus, and – needless to say – much underfunded compared to even the lowest budget-sciences. Scientists and philosophers, with some notable exceptions, simply ignore each other, or – worse – fire critical or condescending shots at the other side whenever they have a chance. So we observe the pathetic attempts to undermine science by practitioners of so-called “science studies,” who usually know very little about the science they criticize; on the other hand, high-caliber scientists of the like of physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist E.O. Wilson dismiss philosophy as “armchair speculation,” when they know little about either how philosophy is done or what its goals are (e.g., Weinberg complains that philosophy hasn't solved any scientific problem, apparently without understanding the elementary fact that philosophy is not about solving scientific problems – that's what science is for!).
In the Philosophy Now article I report some of my personal impressions after having spent a few years straddling the two fields. I began with the admittedly naïve expectation that philosophers would welcome a scientist who was interested enough in their field to go back to graduate school and get a degree in philosophy. I was also expecting my science colleagues to put their money where their mouth usually is, supporting interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship.
With the exception of most philosophers of science and of a few science colleagues, I found that C.P. Snow's famous observation of a deep divide between the two cultures is still largely accurate today. Most philosophers I have met seem inherently threatened by the very fact that a scientist wants to do philosophy: apparently, E.O. Wilson's insane idea that the humanities will one day be “reduced” to biology has helped deepen the distrust of an already academically endangered community. On the other side, too many of my science colleagues simply dismiss philosophy as something that one does toward the end of one's career, or after retirement, displaying without much subtlety what they really think the relative intellectual merits of the two activities are.
Too bad, because when you actually do get scientists and philosophers to talk to each other, as I did a few months ago at a special symposium at Stony Brook University, the intellectual sparks fly all over the room, and everyone seems to have a jolly good time. It isn't a question of turning scientists into philosophers, much less of subsuming philosophy into science. It's that the borderlands between the two are a truly exciting place to be, for both scientists and philosophers.