Monday, March 18, 2019

Why science needs philosophy

I have always been in awe of the clarity and precision of the thinking of one of my Univ. of Wisconsin colleagues, philosopher Elliott Sober. He is one of the coauthors of a fascinating article on the uses science has for the tools of philosophers (for example, to clean up their fuzzy thinking.) The article might be a bit intense for many readers, but I recommend reading through it. Just a few clips:
...philosophy’s contribution can take at least four forms: the clarification of scientific concepts, the critical assessment of scientific assumptions or methods, the formulation of new concepts and theories, and the fostering of dialogue between different sciences, as well as between science and society.
An example of conceptual clarification:
The definition of stem cells is a prime example. Philosophy has a long tradition of investigating properties, and the tools in use in this tradition have recently been applied to describe “stemness,” the property that defines stem cells. One of us has shown that four different kinds of properties exist under the guise of stemness in current scientific knowledge (1). Depending on the type of tissue, stemness can be a categorical property (an intrinsic property of the stem cell, independent of its environment), a dispositional property (an intrinsic property of the stem cell that is controlled by the microenvironment), a relational property (an extrinsic property that can be conferred to non–stem cells by the microenvironment), or a systemic property (a property that is maintained and controlled at the level of the entire cell population).

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