Leonard Finkelman: Making sense of scientific facts

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. Find more News-Register stories about Linfield College here.


April 17, 2015
By Leonard Finkelman, guest writer

Leonard Finkelman, philosophyBy drawing conclusions from observations of the world, philosophy cannot help but be irrevocably connected to science.

Here is a headline that you won’t see, but probably should: “Science proves that dogs are better pets than cats.”

British scientists Victoria Ratcliffe and David Reby made a discovery last year that should have settled this age-old debate. They found that dog brains process human speech in a region different from the brain region that processes other sounds. OK: as announcements go, that might seem less earth-shaking than perhaps earth-nudging, at best.

But consider the facts. The brains of domestic dogs have evolved in response to human speech. This is because prehistoric humans bred dogs as hunting assistants and domestic companions. By contrast, we have no evidence of how cat brains process human speech because too few cats will submit to our tests. Cats are uncooperative because prehistoric humans kept cats as a sort of night patrol for rats and other vermin. Dogs evolved to be kept as insiders within human social groups whereas cats evolved to be kept as outsiders from human social groups.

These facts have all been demonstrated to scientists’ satisfaction. Nevertheless, statistics suggest that at least 33 percent of readers are likely to dispute the claim of dogs making better pets than cats. Those readers have to believe the facts I’ve given aren’t enough to prove the supposed conclusion.

It turns out that those readers are correct. Science has not proved that dogs are better pets than cats. Why, then, would I say that you should see a headline that claims otherwise?

Here are some things that “science has proved” in the past year: that greed is good; that hugs are effective medicine; that babies are racist. Science proves these claims just as well as it proves that dogs are superior to cats. A headline like the one I suggested would certainly go too far. My point is that some scientists have already gone too far. Science can prove some things, but not everything.

I should specify what science is. Scientists make observations to test hypotheses. Science is the practice in which scientists collectively engage. It is not a collection of facts or a body of ideas. It is, rather, a method for revising belief as we share with each other more and more observations of the world.

This method alone cannot resolve the debate between dog lovers and cat fanciers. Observations will not change the minds of anyone involved because the debate also depends on definitions and value judgments. Participants in the debate don’t want to pass off to a scientist the work of defining terms and making judgments because the work is too personally important. It is the sort of work someone does in developing a personal philosophy.

What is philosophy? Philosophy is the proof of conclusions through arguments. An argument is an arrangement of facts suggesting information different from the facts themselves. I may use facts discovered by scientists to try to prove that dogs are better pets than cats, but my argument will depend on how I’m using words like “better” and “pet,” and whether or not the facts can be put together in a way that fits the use of those words.

Someone else might take the same facts and arrange them differently, according to different definitions and judgments, to reach the opposite conclusion. Science alone can’t prove my conclusion, but adding philosophy to science might do it.

And so it must be for the claims about greed and hugs and babies, too. Depending on how invested you are in debates over social justice or health or childcare, you won’t want to entrust to someone else the responsibility of defining terms or making judgments. What is “good,” that greed can be considered good? What is a “medicine,” that hugs can be considered medicinal? What is “racism,” that babies can be racist? These are philosophical questions.

Scientists may answer them, of course, but those scientists are acting as philosophers when they give their answers.

Sometimes the distinction may be difficult to see. That is why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and public intellectuals like Sam Harris have convinced millions of people that science is all we need to answer meaningful questions. They think that if a scientist answers a question, then the answer must be scientific.

Public figures rightly praise the achievements of scientists with one breath and ignorantly denigrate the work of philosophers with the next.

And so many scientists and their followers have come to believe Richard Feynman, who said that philosophy of science is “as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

Of course, ornithology would be incredibly useful to birds if birds would take the time to understand it. But no one blames ornithologists for the birds’ stubborn refusal to read an introductory textbook.

Scientists often stray into philosophical territory, and justifiably so.

I may try to define the term “planet,” but my definition is unlikely to help an astronomer who studies planets for a living. Nevertheless, when the astronomer redefines the term “planet” to exclude Pluto, the astronomer is acting like a philosopher: he is drawing a conclusion suggested by, but different from, the facts.

And if excluding Pluto from the definition of the term “planet” helps to resolve problems with theories of planet formation, then philosophy has helped with scientific progress. The important thing is to recognize that philosophy has done valuable work in the process.

Science benefits from philosophical reasoning. Sometimes arranging the known facts in new ways helps scientists answer previously intractable questions. Scientists can do this without studying philosophy, of course, but it’s unfair to say that means philosophers have nothing to offer.

One can finish a job without using the best tools, but that doesn’t mean that the best tools were useless.

Here is a headline that you should see, but probably won’t: “Scientists leave dog-cat debate to philosophers.” You won’t see it because it isn’t news. It’s just the way the facts fit together.


Guest Writer

Guest writer Leonard Finkelman is assistant professor of philosophy at Linfield College. His lifelong fascination with dinosaurs led him to study the philosophy of paleontology and evolutionary theory. Anyone interested in philosophy is invited to join his monthly discussion group, the McMinnville Thought Laboratory. He lives in McMinnville with his fiancée.