Change, progress, and philosophy in science

Bertrand_Russell“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” is a quote usually attributed to Feynman that embodies a sentiment that seems all too common among scientists. If I wish to be as free as a bird to go about my daily rituals of crafting science in the cage that I build for myself during my scientific apprenticeship then I agee that philosophy is of little use to me. Much like a politician can hold office without a knowledge of history, a scientist can practice his craft without philosophy. However, like an ignorance of history, an ignorance of philosophy tends to make one myopic. For theorists, especially, such a restricted view of intellectual tradition can be very stifling and make scientific work seem like a trade instead of an art. So, to keep my work a joy instead of chore, I tend to structure myself by reading philosophy and trying to understand where my scientific work fits in the history of thought. For this, Bertrand Russell is my author of choice.

I don’t read Russell because I agree with his philosophy, although much of what he says is agreeable. In fact, it is difficult to say what agreement with his philosophy would mean, since his thoughts on many topics changed through his long 98 year life. I read his work because it has a spirit of honest inquiry and not a search for proof of some preconceived conclusion (although, like all humans, he is not always exempt from the dogmatism flaw). I read his work because it is written with a beautiful and precise wit. Most importantly, I read his work because — unlike many philosophers — he wrote clearly enough that it is meaningful to disagree with him.

I think the opaqueness of academic philosophy is one of the reasons why even philosophically minded scientists often disregard the contribution of current professional philosophers despite evidence to the contrary. To some extent, this is an excusable mistake given the need of mathematicians and scientists to focus on the developments in their own fields. For example, during my undergraduate years, I only took three courses from the philosophy department: introduction to deductive logic, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of mathematics. The first was a nice relaxation during the summer term between calculus 3 and probability, and was meant as a technical course but I can’t say that I learned much from it compared to logic and discrete math courses I took in math and computer science. The second was an exercise in what Russell would call muddleheaded thinking. The third, however, was enlightening. For the philosophy of mathematics, there was a clear subject matter, and the philosophers were keen to be precise in their language and ideas. The historic development was well presented and discussion invigorating. The mathematics involved was simple, of course, but still introduced me to new ideas. For example, that course was the first time I really started to reflect on computer-assisted proofs, a discussion that is recurring recently with the computer assisted progress on the Goldbach conjecture and the Erdős discrepancy problem.

In seeking asylum in mathematics, I was mirroring Russell’s early development. For the early Russell, logic and mathematics provided a barque of reason in the ocean of insanity that is human life. To be sure of his vessel’s seaworthiness, Russell built on the work on Frege and Peano in an attempt to overcome Kant’s separation of math and logic. Russell searched for a reduction of all mathematical truth to formal logical deductions recently introduced by Boole in The Laws of Thought. Unfortunately, his inquiry discovered a leak in the naive set theory that held mathematics together. To plug this leak, he dedicated himself to writing along with his former supervisor Whitehead the Principia Mathematica and introducing the theory of types.

Among mathematicians and computer scientists, the Principia is probably Russell’s best known contribution. Not because he built a theory that was a useful way to think about sets (that honour went to Zermelo and Fraenkel), but because his presentation and associated philosophy was clear enough for others to meaningfully disagree. In the 30s, Gödel provided this disagreement and with his incompleteness theorems showed that the sort of solid formal logical hull that Russell was searching for does not exist; there is no unsinkable ship.

Given the violence Gödel’s results wrought to logicism, it might seem surprising how little Russell wrote about them. But this surprise is resolved because by the 30s that early Russell was long gone; exhausted by writing the Principia, and (more importantly) by the turmoil of the first Word War, Russell’s focus changed from the Pythagorian view of mathematics to the reality of human life around him. This middle Russell was optimistic, hopeful of reform and advances in education. For him, mathematics had become just a collection of tautologies “as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal”. I believe this sentiment came from his struggle with dynamics versus statics. Although he was aware “of the substitution of dynamics for statics which began with Galileo, and which has increasingly affected all modern thinking, whatever scientific or political.” He was unwilling to let this dynamics penetrate into logic and mathematics where we can see through his provocative debates with Dewey that he still viewed Truth more fondly than Inquiry.

The onset of the Second World War marks, for me, the late Russell. He fully embraced change but replaced much of his middle optimism with caution and a hope that mankind avoids the most devastating follies possible with modern war. His critiques became more scathing and beautiful in their ironic play; he stressed the difference between change and progress, and the importance of science:

Our own planet, in which philosophers are apt to take a parochial and excessive interest, was once too hot to support life and will in time be too cold. After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.

That summarize much of the hypocritical objectivity and false-detachment that I find in many scientists and science-lovers. Even in describing mere change, it is impossible to separate our ethics from our science, and to pretend otherwise is unproductive. No matter how much the cosmos inlittle us, and no matter how amoral and inhuman the universe is, it is still important to realize that in mere description and choice of subject, we introduce a human bias. To simply ignore this, can be dangerous.

Of course, to swing to the other extreme and to imagine our pleasures as somehow determining the universe is even more a threat. The threat of progress:

But this purposeless see-saw, which is all that science has to offer, has not satisfied the philosophers. They have professed to discover a formula of progress, showing that the world was becoming gradually more and more to their liking. The recipe for a philosophy of this type is simple. The philosopher first decides which are the features of the existing world that give him pleasure, and which are the features that give him pain. He then, by a careful selection among facts, persuades himself that the universe is subject to a general law leading to an increase of what he finds pleasant and a decrease of what he finds unpleasant.

Of course, when we hear “pleasant” we are eager to think that scientists are immune to this effect. Science is impersonal after all, and you need a person to be pleased. Unfortunately, science is a human affair and thus susceptible to pleasure. Without philosophical reflection, it is easy for us to believe that our observations are objective and our theories are approximations of some eternal truth. However, such a view can quickly lead to scientism and the establishment of dogma. If we focus only on the incremental development in our own little corner of thought, it is easy to succumb to the view that we have progressed. It is easy to jump from the reasonably established to the speculative and suppose that our speculations are not absurd. By studying philosophy, we can see how often certain thought proved wrong before, and how some of the things we believe to be established by science are actually artifacts of cultural or historic biases.

Whenever I am buried in the trenches of technical work, I find it important to occasionally take a breath, peer out, and ask myself: am I working on the right things? Am I aware of my assumptions? What prior work most closely resembles my own, and what have I changed? What is the current of thought are my assumptions in, and what are the main objections to this current?


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

12 Responses to Change, progress, and philosophy in science

  1. Nice piece Artem, back in the day when I was young and still have a brain I would try (and fail) to read Kuhn and Popper. I am quite familiar with Russell’s work as well but mostly on his take on ethics. I am a big fan of In praise of idleness. Not too sophisticated but certainly fun to read.

    Congrats on the Hockey BTW.

    • Thank you! My personal contribution to Canada’s hockey team is immeasurable (but I am glad the girls won Gold, three of them are McGillians). I actually usually root for Russia in these things, although I hear (from a quick search) we lost to Finland early on, but I am not watching this year.

      I enjoyed reading The Logic of Scientific Discovery , although I found the (rather large) part of the book that Popper dedicated to his theory of probability to be naive; of course, I have the power of hindsight and knowing that Kolmogorov was developing a much more convincing theory at the same time. But his theory-laden observation was very enlightening to me, and I still have trouble finding convincing responses to it and want to explore how it fits with Quine’s web of belief, but haven’t had the time. I’d also like to read Feyerabend’s (a student of Popper’s) Against Method, since from summaries, I suspect that it will appeal to my tastes.

      Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to read Kuhn, yet. I am familiar with The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but only second-hand, I hear it is a fun read!

      If you like In Praise of Idleness then you might enjoy throwing your hat into the G+ discussion Russ Abbott started on Frank Nestel’s post last night.

  2. Reblogged this on CancerEvo and commented:
    Completely agree with Artem’s post. Philosophy of science does not usually serve scientists directly in a measurable way. But having the right intellectual infrastructure is key if we are going to do proper science… otherwise we will keep doing the scientific equivalent of stamp collecting (badly paraphrasing Lord Kelvin).

  3. vznvzn says:

    have always wondered if the frege-discovered logical “leak” you refer to in principia mathematica was one of godels inspiration for proving incompleteness of mathematics. the diagonalization of “the set that is not a member of any other set” or whatever is basically very similar to a diagonalization argument.
    re philosophy of science, no acct could be considered much unless it mentions Kuhn who seemed to figure out more about how science really works than many scientists (because ultimately science is also about human psychology and intellectual progress/evolution). “hypocritical detachment and false objectivity of many scientists and science lovers…” wow those are fighting words dude. reminds me of Dawkins :p
    yes science at worst can take on all the worst aspects of religion… even exceed it at rare times maybe…
    (much more on Erdos discrepancy problem in my last blog.)

  4. Nice post. Made me realise I need to read more by Russell.

  5. I very much agree with you that we need to cultivate humility and should try to speculate responsibly. On the other hand, it’s a problem if we don’t speak up, telling a clear story about what we think is true, because otherwise we abandon the field to those who (either from ignorance or inclination) are excessively certain in their views. Speculating is fun too.

    I should try some late Russel. I love that quote about peace, though perhaps more for its biting humor than its deep insight into the human condition. I recently read his Education and the Social Order, 1932, and wasn’t impressed. It seemed very much in the form of today’s political bloviation, rather than being a thoughtful examination of education that one could call philosophy. His experience of his own education was interesting, though of course it was particular to the education of English elites around 1885. As of ’32, his views were very much shaped by Marxist ideas of social progress, which were then quite common in the intellectual elite. Though the idea of oppressive elites rigging the system has perhaps even gained in popularity, it is all to the good that people are no longer so optimistic about civil war as the answer.


    • Thanks for the comment and that reading. I don’t think I intended to write about the importance of humility and responsible speculation, but I definitely agree that both are very important. I was mostly just rambling about how I enjoy Russel, but I am glad you found some sense in the ramble!

      I quite enjoy what I’ve read of Russell’s speculation on education, although I’ve only read a few articles and not the book you mention. My only issue is that he promotes the old “speculate” instead of “test with experiment” mindset that is so common in education. However, I think his focus on the connection between education and state/society is very important (although a fundamentally Marxist view, I think). I also think his focus on molding desires instead of teaching knowledge should be heeded. I’ve had the fortune of experiencing several and drastically different teaching cultures, and agree with Russell that the most important part is shaping values and attitude toward knowledge and discourse. If you create the right culture among children then teaching them anything (including facts and techniques) becomes easy, if you create the wrong culture then teaching anything is a struggle. Of course, how that education translates into public responsibility and politics is not at all as clear cut as Russell dreams. Unfortunately, I don’t have experience with a nation that has both a history of democratic society and a strong primary/secondary education system, so I can’t judge Russell’s utopia. However, such examples do exist in say Finland, so somebody else can compare to Russell’s ideal.

      I’m not sure where in Russell you read that civil war was an answer. I’d be interested to read this since it doesn’t match my experience since I’ve never seen Russell promote such a stance. Although back when he was not anti-communism (he became anti-communist a little bit after his visit to Russia), he did occasionally say that if a socialist revolution happened then it could put in such an education system (and in many communist countries it sort of did). However, I can’t imagine Russell thinking that a civil-war is worth this outcome, especially since other ways forward exist.

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