Tuesday, February 24

Meeting 7 (3/3) — What Role do Values Play in Science?

Last time we asked whether science (particularly biology) could tell us anything about value — where it comes from, what its nature is, whether it is in some sense objective — and concluded (I think) that there are lots of problems with a fully naturalistic approach to ethics and value generally. But perhaps it's worth thinking a bit more about whether some naturalistic approach to ethics could shed some light on the nature of value or on our acceptance of certain particular values. Kitcher, for instance, has not been just negative in his contributions. See his 1993 and 1998 papers on the evolution of altruism (for an overview of work on this topic, I recommend the SEP entry) and a more historically-philosophically oriented 2005 lecture on naturalistic ethics in general: "The Hall of Mirrors".

Next time, we shall begin to consider the particular role that values play in science. A bit more background is in order. As I indicated at the end of our last class, the scientist-turned-historian/philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn was deeply influential in this regard. He noted on the first page of his epochal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that "History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed": and indeed it did. Rather that viewing science as a pristinely rational and disinterested pursuit (after something like the, perhaps charicatured, manner of Francis Bacon or Galileo), Kuhn offered a picture of "Normal Science" in which investigators simply took for granted much of the framework within which their investigations were carried out. Not everything was up for test. Good thing too, for if it were, chaos would probably result (you see this kind of chaos in the very early stages of scientific investigations where investigators are divided on the basic foundations of their field). Scientific revolutions are sudden changes in these "paradigms" of doing science which are not fully rational affairs. There's much more to say about this — at least a book's worth, it turns out —, but the crucial point for our purposes is that Kuhn turned the light of critical analysis on previously ignored social and value-laden aspects of scientific theorizing. Kuhn's investigations into the structure of scientific revolutions thus paralleled more general work conducted by some sociologists of science, in particular Merton (discussed in the Godfrey-Smith reading), who inquired into the norms of science and its reward structure in particular.

Much of this work is very interesting and enlightening. It's of course plainly true that science is conducted by people and people have all manner of normative, social, and political commitments. It's then natural to ask what influence these commitments might have on not just the general structure of scientific progress, but on the products of science. Here, the "Strong Program" in the sociology of science suggests that the image of science as a privileged form of inquiry is misguided. Science is instead "just another way of knowing" and perhaps relative to cultural values and norms. This salvo initiated what has been referred to as "The Science Wars", rumblings of which still echo. We won't be reading any sexy post-modern relativism, however (hilarious reading though it often is). Here's what's on tap for 3/3:
The Peter Godfrey-Smith reading surveys some of this work and the Kuhn and Longino papers represent very modest attempts to identify a role that values play within science, Kuhn repudiating the sexy-relativist interpretations of him that became quite popular. For background on Kuhn, the SEP entry is characteristically excellent. And you could, of course, take PHIL 351: Philosophy of Science with me in the fall.

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