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

Pardon my redundancy, but some debates just aren’t going to go away. Dennis Overbye, the very fine science writer for the New York Times, has an article/essay today that once again poses the essential Kantian-Humean issue – is there a priori knowledge by which we order sensory data (Kant) or is what we presume to know of the universe’s regularities merely a conclusion we reach by induction from all the past regularities (Hume)? Here’s a taste:

Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and author of popular science books. . .asserted in [a New York Times op-ed piece] that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function. His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on and letter to the Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and examination. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.

I think the latter view (i.e. the Humean view) simply ignores too many unresolvable questions and paradoxes, like whence come scientific hypotheses, and the relationship of the scientific hypothesis to categories, analogies, and metaphors, but I also recognize that you don’t have to engage in meta-thinking about hypotheses to come up with hypotheses. Apropos of this is another quote in the article, this one attributed to Richard Feynman: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

I have been thinking about that quote this morning and trying to decide if philosophy of law or jurisprudence is about as useful to lawyers as ornithology is to birds. Is it a good analogy for either scientists or lawyers? We start with the relationship of the two concepts in the source which are linked by “usefulness”: ornithology is the science concerned with the classification and the properties and vital phenomena of birds; is it ornithology not useful to birds because they are incapable of thinking about ornithology, or because ornithology wouldn’t help them flourish as birds even if they could think about it? I think the former is the primary characteristic of birds, and I am hoping it’s the latter Feynman (if in fact he’s the author) wanted to imply about the primary characteristic of scientists as the target of the analogy.

To flip it around, suppose I said ornithology is about as useful to birds as physiology and anatomy are to human beings. That can’t be right, because physiology and anatomy are important to human beings. And I do think there are ethics of science and ethics of law that are part of meta-reflection about those disciplines, even for pure doers, that go beyond being birdbrained.

I guess my main problem with pure empiricism and pure pragmatism is that they give a great big shrug to the paradoxes and inconsistencies, probably because they are, for many people, too disturbing to consider. And to judge by a number of my family members, who roll their eyes and head for their iPods when I bring up these subjects, they are probably happier for it!

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1 Response

  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.