Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Philosophy isn't useful for science? Don't be crass.

Richard Feynman once quipped, "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." Dr. Feynman is one of my scientific heroes, but this quote often tempers my admiration for the man. I respect him because he appreciated what was good in many different things, from the simple aesthetics of a flower to the intricate mathematics underlying quantum mechanics. He was not one to dismiss ideas simply because they were "artsy" or not of pure science. This is why I often puzzle over how he could have made such a statement concerning philosophy.

Without philosophy, I would not be the same scientist that I am, and I would venture that I would not be as good of one, either. Philosophy is the art of critical analysis; the philosophy of science examines the methods and logic that form the foundation of our field. The result of this investigation exposes the mental machinery that powers our work. But this knowledge has also produced a number of practical applications throughout history. The following are two examples.

E. T. Jaynes and R. T. Cox, among others, re-examined the long-held rules of inference. A simple redefinition of probability led to an explosion of techniques for drawing conclusions where information was limited, from signal processing to economics. This is the well known Bayesian revolution. As another example, Henri Poincaré established a daily routine that complemented his work as a scientist. He postulated that the subconscious was at the focal point of discovery, and so he took steps to nurse its well-being. A modern day analog to this is the development of programming philosophies that are intended to increase a software engineer's productivity by tailoring work methods to the structure of the mind.

My justification of philosophy to science was to make a point, but I don't think it was necessary. It is unfortunate that we must always find utility in our work. As I've stated before, science is ultimately a creative process that is powered by our primal nature and instincts. To remove its basis from the romantic mindset and place it solely in the context of practicality is a fallacy. I do science and philosophy because I like to, and no better justification is required than that.