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How Should We Understand Science?

An interview with Bas van Fraassen. Part 1: On the Danger of Popular Science

This is the first in a new series of posts, on “Science and Philosophy," featuring interviews with influential scientists and philosophers of science.

Bas van Fraassen leaving the philosopher's armchair.
Source: Princeton

Bas van Fraassen is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and the McCosh Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. He is a recipient of both the Hempel Award and Lakatos Award, the two most-renowned prizes in the philosophy of science.

WV: As the first philosopher of science to be interviewed on "Science and Philosophy," how would you explain to the public what it is we philosophers of science are doing?

BvF: As philosophers, we are still doing what Socrates did, when he called himself a gadfly, and his questioning constantly showed how our ideas needed clarifying. As philosophers of science, we join scientists in their attempts not just to understand the world but also to understand just how the scientific enterprise itself manages to achieve such immense progress.

Even excellent scientists sometimes struggle with their own subject or become too stuck in certain conceptions. For example, Leon Rosenfeld, who collaborated with Nils Bohr, famously maintained that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory was the only one possible. I am actually a fan of that interpretation, but he was wrong. Philosophers, physicists, and mathematicians collaborated later to construct quite different, incompatible, interpretations as well.

On another note, I think of the limited theorems of contemporary logic that show the limitations of computer modeling in cognitive science. They show that if such a model met all relevant criteria of adequacy with respect to our cognitive abilities, a scientist advancing that model would actually land in self-contradiction if she asserted that it modeled herself. By exploring such limitations philosophers can help to overcome some of the compartmentalization due to professional specialization

WV: Do you see a mismatch between practicing scientists and how the public perceives science?

BvF: I would look to sociology to find out just how the public, in general, perceives science. Even, within philosophy itself, there has also sometimes been such a mismatch. However, I would point to such philosophers as Nancy Cartwright and those in the current Philosophy of Science in Practice conferences, who have worked mightily to give us a more realistic understanding.

But I do want to point to imminent danger, here, that I’ve seen affecting some of my students: popular science writing, which often gives readers an illusory sense of understanding. It is natural and helpful for scientists, as it is for everyone, to think freely in metaphor, analogy, allegory, and images, and to explore way-out ideas when solving problems. Unfortunately, the actual solution may then take much work and study to understand, while the analogies are often presented as literal, to the unwary public.

WV: Are there limits to what science can tell us about the "ultimate nature of reality"?

BvF: To uncover the ultimate nature of reality was the ambition of the great metaphysical systems of the past. Science is sometimes portrayed as a continuation of that enterprise. But each metaphysical system had some way of explaining what could be meant by something like “ultimate nature”, but is there any effort by scientists to explain what that could mean?

Throughout the history of Western philosophy, there was also a recurrent rebellion against metaphysics, in the empiricist tradition, calling us back from speculation to experience.

It was mainly empiricists, of various sorts, who developed 20th-century philosophy of science. Logical empiricists like Rudolf Carnap in the Vienna Circle and Hans Reichenbach in the Berlin Circle, where Einstein also took part, worked on the philosophy of time and space as an investigation into the foundations of the theory of relativity. My own teacher Adolf Grünbaum, who first worked to extend their research in philosophy of physics, turned to the project of uncovering the empirical content of theories in psychoanalysis and other forms of clinical psychology. Others more recently have worked on the way theory, modeling, simulation, measurement procedures, and measurement scales, are all enmeshed with each other in empirical inquiry.

There are certainly still metaphysical approaches to science today, as well, but I like to draw attention to these more empirical ways.

Here is part 2

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