Yesterday I was explaining to a chemist friend just what sorts of questions philosophers of physics, biology, and math are interested in, and we were speculating what philosophers of chemistry might work on. (I had just found Synthese’s June 1997 special issue on philosophy of chemistry, but hadn’t read any of the articles yet.) It became clear in our discussion that he saw the primary goal of science as enabling us to do useful things, while I had always seen the goal as enabling us to understand how the world works.
Of course, it’s clear that having either as a fundamental goal licenses the other as an instrumental goal – it’s generally hard to change the world without having any understanding, and hard to understand the world without using various aspects of technology to change small parts of it. There does seem to be an ordinary language distinction between science and technology, in which science focuses on understanding and technology focuses on acting. But it’s also probably true that this distinction is overstated – it’s likely that large numbers of scientists see each of “understanding the world” and “making the world a better place” as their primary goal, and an even larger group might say that it’s some combination of the two. So we can’t just ask the scientists which is more important.
Arguing in favor of the understanding side, it seems to be a very (scientifically) unsatisfactory situation when pharmacologists are able to provide medicines that treat various conditions, even though they have no understanding of the underlying mechanisms. If we compare this situation to the converse, we see that in mathematics, it’s a perfectly normal (and not distressing) situation to develop understanding of some system without thereby increasing our practical powers. But the defender of the practically-based picture of science might respond that math is a non-representative case, and point out that a large part of the string theory controversy is exactly about the fact that string theory may explain the world, but it doesn’t help us do anything. It might just be a prejudice of philosophers to say that understanding is the more fundamental goal of inquiry, and ability is only secondary – after all, in our profession, epistemology is central, while philosophy of action and even ethics are somewhat secondary.
Of course, to switch from a view of science as aimed at explanation to a view of science as aimed at practical results would mean a radical change in a more pragmatist direction. But it’s not clear just how we can argue that such a shift would be wrong.
In unrelated news, Kansas has changed the definition of science “so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.”