Personal case study on the usefulness of philosophy to biology

At the start of this month, one of my favourite blogs — Dynamic Ecology — pointed me to a great interview with Michela Massimi. She has recently won the Royal Society’s Wilkins-Bernal-Medawar Medal for the philosophy of science, and to celebrate Philip Ball interviewed her for Quanta. I recommend reading the whole interview, but for this post, I will focus on just one aspect.

Ball asked Massimi how she defends philosophy of science against dismissive comments by scientists like Feynman or Hawking. In response, she made the very important point that for the philosophy of science to be useful, it doesn’t need to be useful to science:

Dismissive claims by famous physicists that philosophy is either a useless intellectual exercise, or not on a par with physics because of being incapable of progress, seem to start from the false assumption that philosophy has to be of use for scientists or is of no use at all.

But all that matters is that it be of some use. We would not assess the intellectual value of Roman history in terms of how useful it might be to the Romans themselves. The same for archaeology and anthropology. Why should philosophy of science be any different?

Instead, philosophy is useful for humankind more generally. This is certainly true.

But even for a scientist who is only worrying about getting that next grant, or publishing that next flashy paper. For a scientist who is completely detached from the interests of humanity. Even for this scientist, I don’t think we have to concede the point on the usefulness of philosophy of science. Because philosophy, and philosophy of science in particular, doesn’t need to be useful to science. But it often is.

Here I want to give a personal example that I first shared in the comments on Dynamic Ecology.

To see this, I think it is better to turn away from the grand theories and ‘big’ questions and instead look at more local impacts. Especially if we want to see “progress”, it is useful to have a fine-grained view.

For example, Massimi talks about the proliferation of modelling approaches in the sciences. This is extremely important to read about: especially because specific scientists (or sometimes even subfields) get locked into a particular approach to modelling and can’t make sense of how others operate. I had the benefit of seeing modelling from inside a few fields in quick succession: physics, computer science, and biology and I’ve found that philosophical reflection on this, for example by building a taxonomy of the types of mathematical modelling (three types: insilications, heuristics, and abstractions), has helped me be a better modeller. This classification also became one of the most popular posts on TheEGG. More importantly, running the blog helped me see that my classification was incomplete: Ishanu Chattopadhyay pointed out that I was missing abductions.

Since then, much of the focus of my scientific work has shifted to abductions. To figure out how to operationalize useful theoretic constructs. More concretely, and recently, I’ve tried to figure out how to properly abstract objects like evolutionary games so that they can be operationalized. Philosophy wasn’t the only push in this direction, being at Moffitt and reacting to how different modelling was done there compared to my previous positions was a big incentive. But if I was not reading philosophy of science, I would not have been able to make a distinction between the perspective of ‘operationalizing’ versus ‘having reasonable assumptions’ — or at least it would have been much more difficult.

Eventually, I was able to make this distinction more concrete by looking at the contrast between reductive vs effective evolutionary games as linked to different conceptions of fitness. But on my own, I could only express the difference in the clunky and confusing language of individuals versus populations, which was easy to conflate with discussions of the level of selection. Only by going into the philosophy of biology literature, and learning a bit about how philosophers have divided the conceptions of fitness they saw in scientific practice, could I find the right language: token vs. type fitness.

Now all this might seem like idle theory building on idle philosophy. But it isn’t. It allowed my colleagues and me to define a new kind of game assay and directly measure games played by cancer as first-class objects instead of as a background theory. By abstracting in the right way, we were able to make something that we could actually hold closer to experiment that last abstract approaches. In the process, no grand theory was built and no huge claims about the basis of reality were necessary (although I might have made some in my blog posts). But nuts-and-bolts science ‘progressed’ because I was able to take advantage of ideas developed, clarified, and refined by philosophers of science.

So at least I am personally in debt to philosophy.

But I suspect my experience is not that atypical — or at least doesn’t have to be. Jeremy Fox has a wonderful old post on eleven reasons how ecologists can benefit from philosophy of science. Together with Brian McGill, they even have a set of recommendations on how to get started in reading philosophy of science as an outsider. I’ve tried giving similar recommendations but focused on Feyerabend in particular.

Do you, dear reader, have examples or recommendations of your own?

Overall, I think that the key feature is to focus on ‘small’ questions (both for science and philosophy) instead of ‘grand puzzles’. Then even the tunnel-vision scientists that are only focused on their next grant can get a direct benefit from philosophers. Of course, this is all in addition to the other benefits to culture and society that philosophers provide and Massimi discussed.


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.

3 Responses to Personal case study on the usefulness of philosophy to biology

  1. I must admit that, while not in the camp of Feynman, I used to be of the idea that philosophy of science is useful to philosophers and society at large but not scientists themselves but your dissections of modeling approaches have been useful to me in whats that cannot be easily measured.

    • Thank you, David! My secret goal is to slowly move you far from the camps of Feynman and into the warm embrace of Feyerabend.

      Given your extensive experience with modelling in MathOnco, it’d be interesting to read how your views of modelling have changed over the years. Maybe I should try to interview you sometime.

  2. Pingback: As a scientist, don’t speak to the public. Listen to the public. | Theory, Evolution, and Games Group

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