To Know or to Do?

9 11 2005

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.”

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6 responses

11 11 2005
Peter

Whether we are doing science for understanding or for practical ends has enormous consequences for the type and nature of science we will do. This is because a practical end allows us to validly impose values on the scientific process and output, which an understanding end should not.

For instance, there is a debate raging in Britain at the moment about whether a compulsory triple vaccine for children leads to an increase in autism when compared with taking the three vaccines separately. The evidence so far is ambiguous, partly becuase the medical establishment and the Government have resisted undertaking proper studies of the phenomenon. They have done this, I am sure, because they do not want parents opting out of vaccination programmes (indeed they have said as much). From a social perspective, their actions are laudable; from the perspective of a parent concerned with the health of their own children, their actions are reprehensible. It is because values differ that reasonable people may disagree on such issues.

A science devoted to doing, rather than to understanding, would stop or discourage research on this issue (as has happened). A science devoted to understanding would not.

11 11 2005
Ian

Very interesting post. It’s good to hear that philosophers are interacting with chemists. I want to clarify a few things:

“It’s generally hard… to understand the world without using various aspects of technology to change small parts of it.”

Interesting. This is literally true. But “doing useful things” is different from changing the world. By “useful”, I suspect that your friend means something like “trouble-saving”, “increases lifespan”, “treats disease”, etc.. Consider the technology that increases our understanding – particle accelerators, MRIs, and so on. These machines both help us to understand the world and (occasionally) are useful in (what I take to be) your friend’s sense. But this is a contingent fact. It might have been the case that these machines help us to understand, but be “practically” useless. So, it happens to be the case that we need the very technology that cures diseases to understand the world, but this is one of a couple of possibilities, which we discovered after the fact. Given that it is necessary to “change small parts” of the world to understand the causal relationships between things. But it is not clear that these changes are necessarily “useful” in the sense your friend (allegedly) prefers. The kind of technology that is useful for scientific discovery might not be useful for “practical” purposes. So it’s not clear that a general purpose “to understand”, as you say, “licenses” the whole enterprise of trying to be useful. I acknowledge that you’re trying to argue for a position which isn’t your own, which is always tough. But still – trying to understand does not entail trying to help. I mean, I think it’s great if people want to help others, especially if they’re scientists. And I also think that your final paragraph still holds true. But isn’t this a matter of values? And furthermore, wouldn’t a move in the direction of your friend radically re-orient science itself? That is, if the purpose of science is to help people, then wouldn’t modern research not intended to help people not count as science? This would conflict the central claims of physicists as well as philosophers of science. For me, this is reason enough to adopt your original view.

“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.”

Of course, whether or not the pharmacologists have discovered the “underlying mechanisms”, they certainly have discovered an overt mechanism, namely the capacity of drug X to cure Y. And this is surely a scientific discovery whether or not they or we understand everything X does while it works.

11 11 2005
Kenny

Ian – stating that the goal of science is to make the world a better place (or something similar) wouldn’t mean such a drastic re-orientation of science. Research not directly intended to help people might still be part of the larger project of helping people, even if it’s not known how. We could justify almost all current science in this purely pragmatic way by pointing out that much science of the past that seemed useless led to understanding, which in turn was valuable for creating later technological advances. Some instances of research never led to that, but as we can’t tell ahead of time which ones will and which won’t, we should support many of them, in hopes that we will get enough payoff from the ones that do provide payoff eventually. They all count as science, because they’re all licensed through that same project, even if some types of research would turn out to have been ineffective science.

However, I’m not sure if that was quite the vision of science that my friend had in mind, which I might not have fully understood myself. I think his idea is that the goal of science might be abilities and powers rather than understanding and knowledge. Some of these abilities are the abilities to save trouble, increase lifespan, and treat disease, but many others include the abilities to grow non-spicy jalapenos, to create nanometer-sized billboards, and block the speech facility of voluntary lab subjects (among other useless things). Scientists produce many of these kinds of things just to show that we can – one might reasonably argue that a theory that doesn’t allow anything like this is non-scientific. (Even with a science as abstract as formal syntax, we can do cool things like make garden-path sentences (“the horse raced past the barn fell down”) and various other puns and puzzles.)

I think this vision of science as devoted to expanding our powers rather than our knowledge avoids Peter’s worry as well.

As for the version of science on which understanding is the basic aim, it’s true that this model wouldn’t necessarily license all useful technologies as scientific. Certainly we’d get the particle accelerator and the MRI, because of their instrumental use in helping us understand the world. We wouldn’t get the Honda Civic Hybrid, because that doesn’t really do much to help us understand the world. However, we probably would get at least working prototypes of many of the parts, because they help us understand aspects of the material science and whatnot involved in different types of combustion under different conditions. And this seems right – building prototype engines might count as science, but building a consumer vehicle doesn’t. (This doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to do it, just that it’s not the goal of science.)

12 11 2005
Greg

I think this is a great question, and I’ve probably spent too much of my time during grad school thinking about it (or closely related questions). But some days I wonder whether there is anything approximating a well-posed question here — Why think science (whatever that varigated beast comes to) has exactly one goal? I don’t think that, e.g., human life has one and only one goal (sorry Aristotle), so why operate on the assumption that science must?

13 11 2005
Kenny

Perhaps stating it as a question about the goal of science is presumptuous, as you point out. (Alan Hájek has trained me to always be suspicious of supposed definite descriptions.) But if there are to be criteria as to what makes a theory better or worse, or makes a piece of work more or less scientific, or better or worse science, then it seems that we should be able to isolate some set of goals. And if there are multiple incommensurable ways to measure these things, that would hurt a whole lot of the old questions in philosophy of science. It seems plausible therefore that in at least some cases we’ll be able to compare these two goals. And to the extent that there might be two or more goals rather than just one, that hurts the traditional conception in terms of a quest for knowledge (rather than a quest for power or whatever) even more.

13 11 2005
Peter

In response to your most recent comment, Kenny, I’m not sure that having goals is a pre-requisite for being able to define criteria to assess an activity as scientific or not. I have in the past (in 2000) argued that for an activity to be scientific it must satisfy two conditions:

– Any claims arising from the activity must be defeasible.

– Contestation of claims must be possible by anybody.

I don’t see application of these criteria as being dependent upon knowing the goals of the activity, or even knowing that it has any goals, let alone there being a single goal.

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