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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A dose of philosophy can validate doctorates in science | The Australian

Photo: Ee Ling Ng
"The modern doctor of philosophy is generally devoid of philosophy. Perhaps you started searching the meaning of the P in PhD midway through completing it, as I did." insist Ee Ling Ng independent scientist at the Future Soils Laboratory.

‘We need a little more philosophy in science.’
Photo: Michael Perkins.

It is precisely the time when you feel the need to wax lyrical — yet you are deprived of philosophising because that is not really what your PhD is about.

According to know-it-all Wikipedia, backed up by additional commentaries from the worldwide web, the academic degree uses philosophia in its original Greek meaning, which is translated into English as “love of wisdom”. This brings more head scratching because what, after all, is the meaning of wisdom? Given that a PhD in science and technology is focused on knowledge, I prefer sophia to be translated as knowledge. This is not totally baseless: Socrates is believed to have said that the artisans were wise, in so far as they knew how to practise their art. Besides, is it not such a relief to think of the PhD as love of knowledge, which is abundant in academe, while one cannot say quite say the same with equal certainty about wisdom?

One may argue that philosophy is irrelevant romanticism and unnecessary to one’s primary subject of study. I would argue that it is necessary, perhaps even more now in our competitive world.

But it seems inappropriate to propound the virtues of philosophising without dealing with the fundamental questions of “What is philosophy?” and “What has it got to do with science?”

It would be brazen to try to explain these questions in a few lines, so instead I would recommend an excellent summary in A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by philosophy professor Luc Ferry. Failing that, you may take the words below as an abstraction of his explanation of the relevance of philosophy to science. I will also include direct pickings of wisdom from other philosophers along the way.

Science is the fruit of critical spirit and scientific method nourished at its birth by philosophy. Initially, the project of scientific mastery is about understanding the world and, if necessary, being able to exploit it, to dominate nature or society so that human can be happier and more free.

But we have now moved on from that to scientific advancement for its own sake — domination for the sake of domination.

Why? Because the nature of today’s society, governed entirely by competition, makes it an imperative to “advance or perish”.

At the core of scientific laboratories and research centres, the unceasing need to measure oneself against others, to increase productivity, to develop expertise and, above all, to apply the fruits to industry and the economy — consumption, in other words — has become the primary goal.

The modern economy functions like Darwinian selection — for instance, a business that does not “progress” is doomed to extinction but its advancement is devoid of any purpose other than to stay in the race with competitors. The conscious collective will of human beings is absent from this endeavour and, as a result, nobody knows the direction in which the world is moving.
This, to me, is the Victor Frankenstein reason why we need a little more philosophy in science.

In the research arena, it has become “publish or perish”. We can thank this system for flooding us with publications of varying quality. According to the STM Report by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, there were about 2.5 million articles published in 2014, and the quantity has been increasing by about 3 per cent a year.

In the process of narrowing down what to read, we are likelier to read a paper written by someone we know. This also means we are likelier to read something from someone whose views coincide with ours.

In this accidental, loopy manner of positive reinforcement of selective reading and negative reinforcement from the too many papers out there, science is a dance of one step forward and three steps back.

To make matters worse, the types of publication rewarded by academe do not coincide with what policymakers are reading, so you are compelled to draw discomfort from the knowledge that your work has no impact in the real world.


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