Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gif Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

finch beaks

Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

beautifulbrain01-1080x1373

Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

~

 

I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

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9 comments on “Science & philosophy

  1. Lou Faber says:

    So very true. Theoretical physics (one son’s field) could not exist in the absence of what philosophy has to teach. Science, as taught, is semi-necessarily observational. I see it thus it exists. Breakthrough science cannot be. Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead, at least until observed. If you doubt this, ask either of Einstein’s twins. And speaking of Albert, was he a scientist who dabbled in philosophy or merely one of the greatest ever philosophers of science (not to mention so many other topics)? If you pause, even for a moment< to consider this, best to do so without your technological tools.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The human brain: a pretty amazing piece of “technology” in itself.

    Like

  3. […] cites several researchers who use the evolutionary model of fitness and bargaining, concepts that Marjorie Grene might caution us away from relying too heavily upon. Drake Baer of The Science of Us, whose article […]

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  4. oghuzkhagan says:

    So true. However, I should note that I partially disagree the idea “without philosophy science would not exist”. I think, without philosophy we cannot even propose a definition for science so that we could talk about its existence in the absence of such definition. What is science really? Without asking the ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions how can we describe science? So, how can we identify it without philosophy..

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  5. Wonderful. I studied philosophy for years – never graduated, sadly. And now I work in a technical field – Database Engineering. I find my philosophy training extremely useful in my day-to-day work.

    Go figure!

    Oh, and I love the poem you put in at the end.

    Like

  6. Reblogged this on mindonfirebooks and commented:
    I loved this reading! Philosophy should always be at the base of every science.

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  7. […] Source: Science & philosophy […]

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