Reprise of Son of “Hume v. Kant” Redux Again

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  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    I was struck by that quote too, and it sounded wrong-headed. I don’t know if it’s genuine, but it faithfully reflects a cocky attitude that was common in science and science education in recent decades. Some background for this is described in Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics.” My quantum mech prof, ca. 1973, told me that scientists in the 1920s worried about philosophical issues because “the theory was new and they didn’t understand it, but now we understand it very well,” so such worries are superfluous. There’s a Feynman quote that puts the lie to that too — as if one needed such big guns to recognize the silliness of that remark.

    Fact is, folks like Einstein, Bohr and many others were quite conversant with Kant, Hume et al. and worried about the implications of those arguments for their physical theories. Similarly, in biology until recently many of the practitioners of philosophy of biology have been field biologists, not philosophers (e.g., E. Mayr and S.J. Gould, and, of course, Darwin). Recently, though, big chunks of philosophy of science have become professionalized and compartmentalized, and the citation lists have become orthogonal (scientists citing to scientists and philosophers to philosophers). I don’t think Feynman was referring to that tendency, but considering his quote in that light (and allowing a little poetic license about the self-reflective abilities of birds) I’d agree with him. I.e., in principle, philosophy of science (or whatever) might be useful, but as practiced, not really. Kind of like the relation between practicing lawyers and (typical) law academics.