Photograph by Wenting Zhu

Crossing Science with Philosophy

How science intersects with philosophical thought.

by Vi-An Dang. Published on November 21, 2019.

World Philosophy Day, set on the third Thursday of November, was first established in 2005 by UNESCO. It is meant to underline the importance of philosophy for the progress of human thought and to celebrate the value of critical and independent thinking. While its commemorative day is a mere 14 years old, philosophy is arguably as ancient as human thought. The term was most likely coined by the Ancient Greek Pythagoras and means “the love of wisdom”. Nowadays, it is viewed as the study of knowledge, or “thinking about thinking”, encompassing:

  • metaphysics (questioning reality, the self, being),
  • epistemology (questions of knowledge, the limits of belief and opinion),
  • ethics (reflecting on right and wrong),
  • and many more sub-fields.

One major sub-field is the Philosophy of Science, though the term might feel like an oxymoron. It’s reflective of a division that exists in places such as our education system, where Arts and Science are traditionally taught as two contradicting streams of learning. The 1965 Nobel physics laureate Richard Feynman even famously claimed that “philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. But science would neither exist nor continue to grow without philosophy. In fact, its origins lie in philosophy: Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, or lesser-known women such as Émilie du Châtelet, are all responsible for major scientific discoveries, and all considered themselves philosophers. Some centuries later, their closest equivalent might be today’s philosophers of science, who exist in this intersection of thinking critically about the human-made industry of Science in order to define its scope, its principles, its objectives. As scientists, we are encouraged from the earliest stages of our education to ask questions about the natural world around us. But it is critical to also take an introspective look at our work in itself.

A good question to start with is, what makes good science? Can Science even be qualified in that sense? It could be “good” from an ethical perspective: in Canada, any research project involving human participants has to follow specific ethical guidelines in order to proceed. Questions of bioethics are heavy, complex, and would require an entire separate article to discuss. “Good” might also refer to methodology. The scientific method is taught at the beginning of any introductory science class: a question, hypothesis, collect your evidence, is it significant?, draw a conclusion. Then do it again—good science is replicable. And beyond these rigorous rules, the science needs to be objective. Experimental controls, double-blinds, randomisation, all serve to remove bias from results in order to communicate facts rather than opinions. Philosophy of Science asks whether science can provide truly objective observations.

Feminist philosophy of science doesn’t think so. While the movement began sometime in the 1960s, the first publication exclusively featuring the multidisciplinary work of feminist philosophers of science was issued in 1978 by the academic journal Signs. From this publication, feminist epistomology grew to challenge the conventional models of science that have historically silenced women and other marginalised voices. These scholars argued, and continue to argue, that striving for complete objectivity dismisses the important role context plays in building scientific knowledge, which is inevitably shaped by the social and cognitive biases of the scientists who circulate it. A few notable cases of gender bias in science research include: the initial assumption that the X chromosome is male-determining; the tendency to identify prehistorical tools as belonging to the male-hunter rather than the female-gatherer; the still-contended origins of the female orgasm; the standardised use of male participants for research.

One solution, they argue, is standpoint theory. This approach fully embraces its own subjectivity by highlighting the diversity of perspectives and acknowledging their social, political, and economic contexts. It is especially applicable in research involving marginalised groups and vulnerable populations. To put this into context, take for example the recent study that identified genetic markers for same-sex sexual behaviour. Standpoint theory would push for our political context to play a larger role in the article, in a world where countless news headlines declared “No Gay Gene!” while many people still consider homosexuality to be a lifestyle choice, or Southern Baptist leaders urge their followers to use these biological markers as a potential prenatal “cure”. The politics of this topic are an integrative part of both the investigation and the reporting of these findings.

Unlike what traditional streams of education, or 1960s Nobel laureates, might lead us to believe, science and philosophy are not incongruous bodies of knowledge. Feminist philosophy of science, in particular, can bring attention to the persisting inequalities experienced by minorities in science—like how abstracts from male authors, as opposed to female authors, are generally perceived as being of greater scientific quality. It should be scientists’ responsibility to look critically at their own methods of practice, in order to keep up with the social context in which their field of study exists. Though these questions rarely lead to clear answers, a conversation might be a good place to start.