Sunday, February 1, 2009

Philosophical Solutions to Scientific Problems

So a couple of days ago I went to a talk by this guy:

It turns out that it is not only possible to have three Ph.D.'s in different disciplines, but to actively research in all those at one time as well. Unless you're a Nobel Laureate, this guy likely makes anyone feel like an underachiever. "You only have two Ph.D.'s? That's nothing. Massimo Pigliucci has 3."

Dr. Pigliucci's talk was on the intersection of philosophy and science. He talked on scientific versus nonscientific disciplines, the limits of science, the application of philosophy to scientific ideas.

An important thing that I took away was an understanding that I really do not know very much about philosophy. I guess that is the price I pay for taking intensive science-based courseloads to expand my depth of knowledge in the sciences, specifically molecular sciences; I've sacrificed breadth. Most of my knowledge concerning critical thinking and logic have come from sources outside of my academic career, and of course these don't get nearly as in-depth as postsecondary courses would into the subject matter.

An interesting example that I took away from his talk, while not unknown to the scientific community, was largely ignored by myself until present. The definition of species is in fact quite a difficult task for scientists to concretely do. In fact, scientists remain divided on this seemingly innocuous concept. While intuitively we can know that two different organisms are different species, no one definition is concrete, because every criterion that has been suggested has been broken somewhere in the living world. There is no point trying to ascribe rules to nature, because nature finds a way, somewhere, to break them. And then nature mocks you for being so crass as to tell Her what she is.

We learn in grade school that a species is a group of interbreeding organisms that are mutually compatible. However, by this definition all bacteria would be considered a single species as they can generally swap genetic information with any other bacterium. The definition is not useful in this case. Similar exceptions are observed for any other criterion you may suggest. Dr. Pigliucci suggests an intuitive, though not scientifically rigorous solution, in that of any number of criteria one could use to define a species, if a certain amount are satisfied then a species is present. This thinking comes from the philosophy side of things, and probably won't gain acceptance any time soon by the scientific community, it is much more inclusive than previous methods.

The point is that not everything scientists look at can be completely explained by science. While many a scientist (sadly, myself included) will scoff at the humanities, they are necessary to our understanding of the world. Dr. Pigliucci calls for more discourse and mutual exchange between the presently divided disciplines. I couldn't agree more.


Greg Baute said...

First off I want to point out that anyone, impressive as it may be, could get 3 PhD's. You can get them on the internet if so desired.

That aside I found his talk very unconvincing. His main premise is that when science has difficulty defining or explaining something, like 'species' or a subject in evolutionary psychology, it means that it cant and so the topic belongs in the realm of philosophy. This does not mean science cannot! it only means that it has not YET. I could go into more detail but i will simply say that anyone one who wants to take on a massive topic, such as Consilience (or any of EO Wilsons ideas for that matter) should make a lot stronger case.

(Unlike Pigliucci, E O Wilson only has one PhD. Also unlike Dr. Pigliucci, E O has two Pulitzers, which no one else in the world has, and a Crafoord Prize, which is equivalent to a Nobel. He also coined the word 'biodiversity')

Tarun Deep Singh said...

After reading your blog, I will like to share my work. I have written a book, Man Is A Thought.

This work tries to establish relationship between scientific theories and theological beliefs. Author explores if thoughts, their behavior, existence and interaction with mind can be explained with in scientific domain.
Further to this, book also provides insight that why artificial intelligence fails to mimic man's ability to think, what limits rational intelligence to attain the status of pinnacle, how thought space can be perceived by humans etc.

At the end it has been suggested that it is a new beginning for mankind. And I reach at a point where I say:

"A man is an oscillation of an image of thought in Real Time Space."

Shane Caldwell said...

Ah yeah, I didn't get to talk to you after the talk Greg, but I wondered what you thought of his opposed views to E.O.

All I'm saying is it's a good idea to keep informed by the humanities and bridge the gap a little; there is relevance to philosophical ideas in some places in science. Even if something may eventually be scientifically explained, a logical way of dealing with things at present may be via non-scientific methods.