George Polya, the famous Stanford math professor, once quipped " I am too good for philosophy and not good enough for physics. Mathematics is in between". Amongst the many implications of this quote, Polya implies that there is a relationship between philosophy and physics.
The intersection of philosophy and physics is an admittedly escoteric subject but a great example of interdisciplinary thought. However, as physics advances and becomes increasingly complex, the challenge is for the philosophers to understand the physics and identify the philosophical questions that must be considered. The discipline that addresses such issues is the philosophy of science.
The philosophy of science deals with "what science is, how it works, and the logic through which we build scientific knowledge". Building scientific knowledge requires a theory of epistemology, albeit a somewhat specialized epistemology or theory of knowledge. Philosophers were doing a good job of keeping up with the physicists until recently.
The Guardian newspaper has a great article on the three possible roles for the philosophy of science, as physics and perhaps all science gets increasingly complex. The three possible roles, as defined by Peter Godfrey-Smith, are:
- an integrative role, whereby philosophy can assess and connect various fields with an emphasis on generic categories and perspectives;
- an incubator role, where philosophy develops new ideas in a broad and speculative form, which are then pursued in a more focussed and specific way within an individual science;
- an educative role, where philosophy teaches various general skills, including critical and abstract thinking
I will leave it to to your own deliberate thinking to decide which role you believe is the right course for the philosophy of science to pursue, although the Guardian writer argues for one particular role.
Now you may be wondering why I wrote this post on a subject for which the term "esoteric" might be an understatement. My three reasons are:
- To demonstrate that philosophy is still relevant in the modern world
- To show that the complexity of science has many implications, to which I think we are paying insufficient attention
- To highlight a great example of interdisciplinary thought--the philosophy of science