Why is Philosophy Important to Science Education?

The essence of philosophy is to examine assumptions.

This is done by asking questions about what we believe we know, and how we know it. Our assumptions shape our experience, and how we engage with the natural world.

It seems (to me) that the word philosophy in contemporary usage refers to three main things:
1. The institutions and canons of philosophical thought, representing past and present ideas and their development.
2. The philosophical attitude, or the process of asking questions, or inquiring about our basic assumptions and the nature of our perceptions and values and beliefs.
3. A framework of assumptions that guide our perceptions, processes, and behaviors, such as an ideology.

The practice of philosophy laid the foundations of all academic disciplines (Plato’s Academy being the first formal institution of learning, and where we derive the word “academic”). Every academic institution and every field of study today has its origins in philosophical thought, even if the thinkers were not formally trained philosophers. Their contributions were the genesis of philosophical inquiry for every subject, from mathematics, to physics and astronomy, to biology and chemistry, and psychology and sociology, etc. Even science is a formalized branch of the philosophy known as epistemology (knowledge), which just has formalized methods and practices of inquiry.

In modern times, the practice of philosophy is relegated to experts in their developed respected fields, such as physics and chemistry and biology etc, also known as PhDs, which (not coincidentally) stands for Doctorate of Philosophy.

Unfortunately, modern philosophers, inhabiting academic institutions and departments of philosophy, fail to make their contributions relevant to world, leading to esoteric discussions and theoretical abstractions inaccessible to the public. These modern philosophers only appeal to their peers, and the problems they wrestle with typically fail to solve any pressing problem that would advance humanity (there are exceptions for those philosophers specializing in consciousness, philosophy of science, intelligence, etc). The problems many modern philosophers devote their attention to are problems generated by a philosophical practice with no clear end game or purpose, and so the discipline is reduced to non-sensical word games.

Every scientist who wishes to make a significant contribution needs to possess and practice a philosophical attitude; this is critical thinking. Challenging assumptions, thinking outside the box, being comfortable with uncertainty.

Philosophy is more important than ever. Why? Because people in these modern academic fields have fallen prey to pride: thinking that that the assumptions that brought us here are sufficient to take us there. This is a grave mistake.

As this article points out, our modern schools teach facts are truth, which is a dangerous. Any reading of Locke, Hume, or Kant will point out the nature of how it is we know anything about the world: through the collection of a posteriori sense data, which is then interpreted via a priori reason. It is the a priori that allows us to interpret effectively, to organize our sense data into meaningful knowledge, using induction or inference. Reason is not some inherent faculty, and humans are not some perfectly rational creature. Reason is cultivated through reflection and education: reason informs our assumptions, which in turn allow us to make meaningful conclusions about our experiences, i.e. our sense data derived from the world.

Facts are not truth. And they should never be taught as such.

Facts are hypothetical statements about the world that have been justified by data and evidence. Facts become facts only after substantial data is collected. As anyone who has taken statistics knows, the margin of error is dictated by the sample size of data. Unless you can collect all the data in the world, at all times, a fact will only exist in probabilistic terms. If a factual claim is tested and remains unfalsifiable (Popper) in every test, it may then become law, depending on its predictive ability.

Facts are the best probable answer we have for the evidence given and weighed. (for example, the statement, “All swans are white” may be a fact, considering that all the swans documented in the world are white at that given time, but as soon as a black swan is born, that statement ceases to be a fact.)

The world is in constant change, and our statements about the world as only as good as the quality of the evidence available today.

Regarding science, one only needs to read Thomas Kuhn to discover how powerful assumptions are in guiding our perceptions, and enlarging our phenomenal experience with the world, which makes acquiring new evidence possible. Paradigms are stories embedded with assumptions and beliefs about how the world works. Being aware of these (often) unconscious paradigms allows us to appreciate their inherent limitations.

If we never challenge the current paradigm, we will become trapped in erroneous thinking.

This is where philosophy steps in.

Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The task of philosophy, specifically as it relates to science, is to question assumptions, and develop new ways of thinking about the world, so that the fundamental frameworks or paradigms with which we approach and engage the world provide us with as much utility and explanatory power as possible, in order to yield new insights and access new knowledge and understanding.

(In response to this Aeon article)

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