Friday, October 25, 2013

What philosophy works for which science: a small beginning

It has been awhile since I've done any academic blogging. The end of a hectic summer also signaled the beginning of an even more hectic Fall season. No teaching or any other assistantships; just writing,writing, editing, revising, writing, making deadlines, and of course, applying for fellowships and postdocs yada yada. Now it is almost Halloween.

But it is in all the writing I have been doing, and conversations I've been having, and even a book review I have to work on now, that got me thinking about how philosophy works, and specifically, how philosophy of science works in relation to science. What is it about the particular developments in 20th century, going forward, scientific thought, that has made analytic philosophy the most popular approach, at least within the academy, for thinking about the science. Yesterday, I managed to catch snippets of a web-casted talk by Arne Schirrmacher on the topic of Bohr and the development of atomic physics. One point he made that stayed was about the different approaches to thinking about the atom within the different scientific circles of Western Europe, such as that between France and Germany, and how that shape their particular histories, and therefore, receptivity to certain philosophies.

Therefore, how does one fit together conversations between philosophy and a particular science; including the fact that some philosophers and humanists who are trying to understand the science (or sub-field of a category of science) through the theoretical and philosophical writings of the other humanists/philosophers who are themselves looking directly at a particular science, may think that a subfield of that science is representative of the entire field. Hence, they may think that, just because philosopher D is theorizing from the perspective of complexity science, the same theory is therefore applicable to psychology or genetics, or ecology. Of course, there is no law (scientific or otherwise) against the application of complexity theory to the thinking about these other fields, and the cross-fertilization itself may prove to be enriching. But, there is a definite difference between how one might use the philosophy with great awareness that the specificities of these other fields are not directly related to the science the philosophy is addressing, from using the philosophy to speak to these fields only because you think both sound cool, appear workable in tandem, and you would like to bring them together because the idea of them fit with what you are doing.

As my own work involves matching up critical theories in the humanities to scientific theories as a process for grounding my own hybrid philosophies, I find myself running asunder, or connecting for the wrong reasons, with some theories that are themselves a fine work fine art, with scintillating observations about scientific enterprises (especially scientific theory and experiment), but do nothing in adding to specific scientific objects. But one can become so enamored by the arguments that,one way or another, this must work, and should work. I am sure I am not alone in thinking this. In the days of natural philosophy, it would have worked wonderfully well, for regardless of certain predisposition towards a particular natural object or way of thinking about that object,  at the end of the day, the operating epistemology still came out of natural philosophy, The day the sciences underwent specialzation and subpspecialization, even the most resilient and astute of philosophical analysis can only work within the limits of the reach of the science. Maybe the way forward is to think in terms of the ontology. But the question looms over this too: can there ever be such a thing as a shared ontology in the highly specialized science? Furthermore, is it ingenuous to even think that we can take a science unrelated to a philosophy and then work on them together to then say that we are trying to do something better than the science we don't sufficiently understand? Is there also a problem of upstreaming, as the historians would say, or fitting together of materials that work well in fiction but would fall apart upon actual application to a technology, let's say?

These are questions I will continously be bringing up and addressing as I write my way through the dissertation and other related writing projects.

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