Should biologists care at all about philosophy of science?


Is philosophy of science of any use to biologists? A well-known response is that philosophy of science is as helpful to science, as ornithology is to birds. Whether or not it was Richard Feynman who actually said this does not affect the fact that many biologists that we have met, especially those older than us, would easily agree. Among these biologists one can find top researchers, with prestigious grants and publications, who think that any philosophical discussion is a waste of time. The experienced researcher, they would say, know what has to be done; the inexperienced has to learn from the experienced ones in the lab or in the field. Whatever Kuhn or Popper said (few have heard about Lakatos, or any philosopher after him), is irrelevant to the actual practice of science. Philosophy of science is, at best, a nice endeavor for retired scientists, if they decide to reflect upon their own career and work. Or so the story goes.

This response is a caricature, of course, and many biologists do not think like this. But even those who are not in principle opposed to philosophical reflection and discussion, usually do little to promote it. They have data to analyse, papers to write and grant proposals to submit. Science is a full-time job, and there is little time left for philosophizing, which thus becomes a luxury. However, we believe that it is not a luxury but a necessity. Philosophical reflection is inherent in any scientific activity, and what is necessary is to guide the experienced researchers to make it explicit, and the inexperienced ones to understand it. Philosophy of science is very important for biology, and biologists will benefit from thinking and reflecting in a philosophical manner.

In our experience, science teaching at the university level does not make students aware of the importance and usefulness of philosophy of science for doing and understanding science. This is related to a broader question about the kind of education that science departments should offer to their students, the future scientists: science courses only, or some humanities courses as well? Training to work in the lab or in the field, or also training to reflect upon important issues? To give an example, we want healthcare professionals to know how to deal with patients in the clinic; but do we want them to also have a good understanding of ethics? We think, yes. Not only because ethics is directly relevant to their work but also because we believe that people with university education should have a broad scope of intellectual experiences and reflections. University science education should not only provide future scientists with what they will need to know for their research and teaching, but also with a broader culture that will make them better researchers and better teachers. There is a long way to go, but we can try. Teaching philosophy of science to biologists could be a modest first step in this direction.

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About the Author: Tobias Uller

Tobias Uller is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Lund University, Sweden. He works on the relationships between development, heredity and evolution, using an integrative approach guided by mathematical modelling and conceptual analysis. He has held fellowships in the UK, the USA, and Sweden, and was the 2018 recipient of the Tage Erlander Prize...

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About the Author: Kostas Kampourakis

Kostas Kampourakis is the author and editor of books about evolution, genetics, philosophy, and history of science, and the editor of the Cambridge book series Understanding Life. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of the journal Science and Education, and two other science education book series. He is currently a researcher at the University of Geneva...

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