Center for Interdisziplinary Research

Philosophy of Science: The Social Relevance of Philosophy of Science

Date: June 11 - 13, 2012

Convenors: Martin Carrier (Bielefeld), Don Howard (Notre Dame)

For the past half century, philosophy of science has mostly confined itself to the internal processes of science. Science has been considered as a largely isolated social system or intellectual process that proceeds according to its internal rules and regulations. As a result, philosophical reflection on science has lost its earlier impact on society and intellectual life.
In fact, science and society are strongly interlinked, and reflecting more systematically on these relations may pave the way toward a philosophy of science that rightly attracts the attention of society and politics. The conference provided a framework for exploring options to achieve this aim. In particular, such options for philosophy of science were compared with strategies pursued by sociologists of science who are much more successful in gaining influence on policy-for-science issues. The issue discussed was whether and how an increased influence of philosophy of science could make a difference for the good regarding science-related public affairs.
The following topical foci of socially relevant work in the philosophy of science were addressed at the conference.
First, analyzing the impact of ways of scientific thought on society. This concerns the clarification of what really follows from scientific propositions and how well extensions into the realm of the social are buttressed by hard evidence. Take claims within the biological sciences that human behavior is strongly determined by genetic and evolutionary forces. Socially relevant philosophy of science could attempt to reconstruct, clarify, and critically assess the appropriateness of the conclusions drawn from such approaches for social behavior at large. Philosophers could seek to lay open hidden premises and values involved in the argument and make the chain of reasoning more transparent.
Second, another matter is the clarification of the moral responsibility of science. Scientists are held responsible for the wider social impact of their work. This became visible recently when some scientists defended the publication of data about a genetically engineered influenza virus by appeal to the general commitment of science to openness, whereas other scientists and politicians recommended to withhold these data in order to prevent harm for society. The responsibility of scientists is said to be based on their ability to anticipate what their work might lead to. However, in view of the huge collectives of scientists that often cooperate on a project, the contribution of each scientist may not be essential for the endeavor as a whole, and he or she may not be in a position to see what might come out of it. As a result, some notion of collective responsibility is called for so as to fill the gap between individual impotence and collective clout.
Third, methodological and ethical reflections on particular fields of science (Begleitforschung). Philosophical work of this sort is typically directed at emerging fields such as nano research or climate science. It aims to clarify epistemic characteristics such as the structure and the role of explanations, the nature of experiments, or the viability of heuristic strategies and analogies. The focus is on analyzing the argumentative structure and reconstructing the reasoning by expounding, for instance, which questions are highlighted and which are eclipsed. With respect to nano research, one of the questions addressed is the appropriateness of using images as explanations in contrast to explanations of more traditional propositional form. In climate science, one of the problems tackled is how to evaluate a bunch of models that produce diverse and contrasting results and cannot be conclusively checked by experience because they refer to conditions that are not or not yet realized. In ethical respect, regulatory practices of dealing with risks are an important topic of such accompanying philosophical reflections. Such approaches can be pursued by "embedded philosophers" who are in the midst of the doing of science.
Fourth, philosophy of science can become socially relevant by participating in science policy and policy advice. For instance, exploring the impact of different patenting regimes on sustained creativity and their appropriateness for stimulating innovations is a highly relevant issue of this sort. Similarly, a painstaking evaluation of what is good science and what arguments are disqualified epistemically, is sorely needed in many contexts. Examples are the debates between evolutionary theory and intelligent design or between climate science and climate change deniers. It is a social merit to point out, for instance, that empirical confirmation does not amount to certainty and does not exclude future revision but that it also conveys a kind of reliability that cannot be undermined by imagining unrehearsed alternatives.
The participants agreed that philosophers of science have special competences and particular skills that are useful for improving the public perception of science and for educating scientific policy advice. This requires, however, that philosophers of science are prepared to actively focus on such issues and to pay more attention to the interlacing of science and society.


Daniel Andler | Paris | FRA, Justin Biddle | Atlanta, GA | USA, James Robert Brown | Sacramento, CA | USA, Matthew C. Brown | Richardson, TX | USA, Anke Büter | Hannover | DEU, Sophia Bylinovich | Bielefeld | DEU, Heather Douglas | Waterloo | CAN, Philip Kitcher | New York, NY | USA, Janet Kourany | Notre Dame, IN | USA, Maria Kronfeldner | Bielefeld | DEU, Cornelius Menke | Bielefeld | DEU, Nicola Mößner | Aachen | DEU, Alfred Nordmann | Darmstadt | DEU, Kathleen Okruhlik | London | CAN, George Reisch | Chicago, IL | USA, Julian Reiss | Rotterdam | NLD, Alexander Rueger | Edmonton | CAN, James P. Sterba | Notre Dame, IN | USA, Michael Stöltzner | Columbia, SC | USA, Adam Toon | Bielefeld | DEU, Nancy Tuana | University Park, PA | USA, Peter Weingart | Bielefeld | DEU, Torsten Wilholt | Hannover | DEU

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