Why Scientists Should Study Philosophy

Theral Timpson

Since the first human genome was sequenced, there has been disappointment in and with the life science community over the fact that we haven’t figured out more of the big biology problems.  Cancer, for instance.  Oh, there’s been rapid technological progress.  Illumina announced this year that the human genome that cost $3 billion to sequence originally can now be done for the cost of a root canal, or $1,000.  

So why the disappointment?  Why were scientific expectations so high?  

At the turn of the 20th century, the British chemist and physicist, Ernest Rutherford said, “all science is either physics or stamp collecting.”   It’s a cute statement.  But how true is it?  Should scientists study biology in the same manner that they study chemistry or physics?    What is science, what really is the genome, and should we rethink our basic study of biology?  

To pursue these questions, we’re launching a new series this week, “Why Scientists Should Study Philosophy.”   We’ll be interviewing philosophers of science.

Huh?  Philosophy of science?  What has philosophy to do with science?  A couple years ago, the scientist Stephen Hawking went so far as to say that “philosophy is dead.”  He argued that philosophers had not kept up with physics well enough to even be relevant any more.  (I’ve enjoyed throwing this question to several of our guests here at Mendelspod.  None of them have  wanted to agree with Hawking.)  The boundaries between science and philosophy are not that clear.  In fact, what we call “science” today used to be called “philosophy.”  Francis Bacon, who came up with the “scientific method” and is considered the father of modern science, was most notably a philosopher.  

Last year, Steven Pinker, the well know neuroscientist, wrote a piece entitled, “Science Is Not Your Enemy,"  where he argued that those in the humanities need not be afraid of science.  For Pinker, science and the humanities can work well together; in fact, science can offer new ways of looking at the arts.    On the other hand, one might imagine the article, "Philosophy Is Not Your Enemy," aimed at the world of scientists.  In the spirit of Pinker's piece, this article might argue that philosophy could be used more to aid in science.   In fact, this is exactly what philosophers of science offer.  

In this new series, we'll be asking what is science, what is philosophy of science, and what can philosophy bring specifically to the study of biology.   I’ll preview some of the themes here:


Some philosophers question the notion that there is one science.   They’re known as anti-reductionists.   Reductionists argue in the vein of Rutherford that all things can be studied scientifically and this study will ultimately end up with the study of physics.  They would argue that this blog I’m writing today can be looked at in terms of sociology and my own psychology which in turn can be studied in terms of neuroscience, which can be studied in terms of biology, on to chemistry, and finally to physics.  Anti-reductionists refute Rutherford’s notion that all science is either physics or stamp collecting. These anti-reductionists such as our first guest in the series, the philosopher of biology, John Dupre,  assert that the study of biology presents its own problems and should be done differently than the study of physics or chemistry.  

Animals Are Their Own Animals

If all the subatomic particles that exist in an elephant are placed somewhere else in the universe, is the the "group" of particles still an elephant?  John Dupre argues, no.  Biology is more complex than that and depends to a great deal on context.  Dupre questions the popular idea, for example, that we can simply transfer the abstract principles of engineering to sythetic biology and reduce living things to “biobricks.”

Looking at biology from a philosophical perspective could yield great dividends.  How much of what we now realize was an overly gene-centric view of biology came from the scientific traditions developed within the study of physics where the race was always to find the smaller particle to explain larger structures?  Have biologists been too narrow in their focus?

The disappointment that has bloomed since the sequencing of the human genome perhaps shows a great naivety on the part of biologists that this single, albeit tremendous, undertaking would yield immediate understanding and direct connections to all disease.  Again, have biologists been thinking too much like physicists?

Language and Science

All science is actually done through the aid of language.  We think in language.  We use language to communicate and collaborate.  Of course, the scientific method itself is language.  Is it not fair to ask what limitations language imposes on science?  Does there have to be a shift in language, however small, before a new scientific discovery or breakthrough happens?

These are some of the questions we’ll pursue in this series.  We aim to stimulate more philosophical thinking and more questioning into the nature of science and the assumptions upon which our industry is built.