Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A few more cranky words about philosophy


There was a time in my life, many years ago, when I immersed myself in the philosophy of science. I wanted to understand what science was and on what basis it could lay claim to truth. I read everyone from Plato to Popper. I sat in on classes with Paul Feyerabend at the London School of Economics and wondered what the heck the great man was saying. I gobbled up Thomas Kuhn and Jacques Monad like candy. And when it was all over, I didn't know much more about science than when I started.

The history of science is infinitely interesting, but the philosophy of science is pretty much a yawn. Scientists are generally oblivious to the philosophical assumptions underpinning their work, which can be written down on a half-sheet of notepaper:

-- There is an external world independent of our perceptions.

-- There are quantitative patterns in the world; all is not chaos.

-- The patterns can be recognized and expressed with an ever greater degree of verisimilitude.

Class dismissed.

Scientific method? Here's what the biologist Lewis Wolpert suggests: Try many things; do what makes your heart leap; challenge expectation; cherchez le paradox; be sloppy so that something unexpected happens, but not so sloppy that you can't tell what happened; never try to solve a problem until you can guess the answer; seek simplicity; seek beauty.

Oh, yeah. One more thing on that half sheet of paper.

-- The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti, Parade Magazine.)