Does Philosophy Make You a Better Scientist?

This question was asked recently by Sean on the Discover Magazine website. The 85 comments that ensued may be taken as a small, but relevant sample of the understanding that interested folks have of the contribution of philosophy to science. My summary comment was short and subtle:

“This is all well and good, but we must remember that it is impossible to teach someone anything that his job requires him not to know. If physicists and cosmologists really understood the philosophy behind quantum mechanics, relativity, and the Big Bang Theory, they would have to look elsewhere for employment.”

My analysis was based on the fact that the strange goings on in modern physics are solidly based on the philosophy of idealism, which is inherent in the works of all the philosophers cited in the discussion. There was hardly a hint that there might be a problem with that approach. In particular, there was no discussion of how and when to drop the ideality and replace it with materialism. Previously, I have been reluctant to criticize idealism because it definitely has its place in science. I use mathematical idealism and ideal models in my professional work all the time. These idealizations, however, should be slaves to science, not the other way around as in modern physics. For instance, we can invent more than three dimensions, but that does not give existence to more than x, y, z dimensions. We need to be able to distinguish clearly between the real and the ideal.

The discussion so far has lacked a recognition of the importance of the philosophical struggle that has taken place in science in relation to the one in the greater society. In “The Ten Assumptions of Science” and “The Scientific Worldview” I framed that struggle, not as a battle between materialism and idealism, but as the opposition between determinism and indeterminism. I did this to establish a modern determinism (univironmental determinism) as the philosophical goal for scientists as well as for those interested in the scientific worldview. We can discard indeterminism altogether, but we can never discard idealism. We just need to put it in its proper place.

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