Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Divisions: Who watches the philosophers of science?

There are a few things for the poor old philosophers of science to get over.

If Peter Lipton is right, namely that,
"Astronomers study the stars; philosophers of science study the astronomers. That is, philosophers of science—along with historians and sociologists of science—are in the business of trying to account for how science works and what it achieves" (Lipton, 2005: 1259).
then philosophers of science have to able to see beyond current trends and political avarice. After all who watches the philosophers of science?

The trend of embracing apparent dichotomies within systematics and biogeography rather than question them, is one of things that philosophers of science need to get over. Philosophers of science need to question, examine and assess such divisions and not blindly accept them as many seem to do.

Below we list the top 10 dichotomies in systematics and biogeography that philosophers of science need to get over:
  1. Morphology and Molecules
  2. Homology and analogy
  3. Homology and homoplasy
  4. Transformational and Taxic Homology
  5. Synapomorphy and symplesiomorphy
  6. Congruence and consensus
  7. Cladistics and Phenetics
  8. Simultaneous analysis and separate analysis
  9. Ecological and Historical Biogeography
  10. Dispersal and Vicariance

Just because scientists use these divisions does not mean they actually exist. Dichotomies often groups "us" from "them". Science is not immune from subjectivity or distortion of "the facts" through clever manipulation. Scientific decisions too are sometimes decided upon politics, personality and fashion.

Philosophers of science are there to make sure that fish caught last Sunday afternoon was indeed "that big". In believing, rather than questioning, the divisions between certain ideas that are made by scientists, philosophers of science are unable to for "account for how science works". For some philosophers of science, the one that got away was "ooh .. so big, bigger than anything you have ever seen".

Lipton concludes
"Indeed, one might go so far as to worry that if philosophy did have any impact on scientists, it would be pernicious, depriving them of the kinds of commitment and confidence upon which their practice depends" (Lipton, 2005: 1269).
Philosophers of science have already influenced science, based on some of the highly questionable divisions listed above, to the extent that that it has been fashionable to attribute the cladistics/phenetics "war" in systematics to real events rather than to a poor account of how science functions (i.e., Hull, 1988).

Hull, D.L. 1988. Science as Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lipton, P. 2005. The Medawar Lecture 2004: The truth about science. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 360, 1259–1269.


John Wilkins said...

I'm not going to comment. I'm not going to... oh damn!

Reputedly, Richard Feynman once dismissed philosophy of science by comparing philosophers of science to ornithologists, and scientists to birds. We don't teach you guys to do science, OK? Just as ornithologists don't teach birds to fly. That's the consensus these days. But we can bring the occasional bit of clarity when you lot get yourselves in trouble that you can't resolve, and anyway, you;re all just so damned interesting, and that is the final justification for philosophy of science as it is for ornithology.

Malte Ebach & David Williams said...

To just observe might be possible. We can observe the development of English literature, for example, and have no effect upon its development. The moment we write on the subject, we (potentially) can. So, the degree of isolation depends upon whether one wants to remain isolated, which is clearly not an aim. As soon as Hull devised his way of reporting he was committed to a viewpoint, just as scientists are committed to a viewpoint once they begin to investigate the world. So John can only have what he wants by not doing what he wants. We understood this paradox to be accepted 'wisdom'. Nevertheless, one might read the papers on homology in Biology & Philosophy, for example, and conclude that they have no bearing on what biologists do or even speak about right now.

In any case, ornithologists may not teach birds to fly but they can breed new varieties that would never occur in nature. Philosophers of science can influence the course of science. Just because you want to observe doesn't mean you don't participate.

John Wilkins said...

I rather think that philosophers are more like conservationists, attempting to keep the social conventions rich enough for science to flourish (although there are those in STS that think this is not a legitimate task of philosophy). But the act of observation does change the nature of the subjects being observed, and anyway, some birds are ornithologists all on their own (many scientists engage in philosophy, both of science and more generally). A few philosophers even do some science. This is rare amongst birds.

But as it happens, I am in the happy situation of not being read by scientists (or anyone else, much), and so my effect is to not scare the birds at all. And I do not breed them, either.