Friday, July 25, 2008

Ruse, Michael. "Handmaiden to the Science." REDORBIT July 23, 2008.

Half a century ago, philosophers of science paid little real attention to the nitty-gritty reality of what happens in the laboratory or field. Idealizations ran rife; the only subject considered was physics; and the only tenable philosophy was a logic- intoxicated form of positivism. But in the 1960s-thanks to people like Thomas Kuhn, who insisted in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that philosophers must take seriously the real life of science-the field began to welcome those who took pains to study and understand the actual practice of empirical inquiry. No area saw a greater sea change than the philosophical study of biology. The 1950s and 1960s were good to the science itself, what with the discovery of the double helix at the molecular level and the growth in confidence of evolutionary studies at the organismic level. Looking for areas to conquer, philosophers of science turned to the life sciences, with aims beyond simply showing that organisms are more than just machines or that one must invoke vitalistic modes of understanding to capture the mystery of the organism. The first biennial conference of the (American) Philosophy of Science Association, held in Pittsburgh in 1968, marked the first real awakening of this new way of doing things. I was in attendance, one of a small group who were determined to look conceptually at the life sciences and make the philosophy of biology a genuine and worthwhile branch of the larger discipline. Looking back now, I see that beneath the excitement was a troubling issue that remains with us today. If you are an empirical scientist, the reasons for what you do are fairly obvious: You want to understand the nature and the workings of the world of experience. But what if you are a philosopher, specifically a philosopher of science? What are you doing and why? Is your job primarily to aid science, to be a kind of high-powered theoretician? In the words of the great British empiricist John Locke, is your task that of being a "handmaiden" to the sciences? Or do you have aims of your own, and if scientists do not care for what you are doing, tant pis? Should your primary focus be on the traditional problems of philosophy-epistemology (theory of knowledge) and ethics (theory of morality)? . . . Read the rest here:

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