What Is Science? What Is Philosophy?

An interview with Bas van Fraassen. Part 2: How I became a philosopher.

Posted Apr 16, 2019

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

This is part 2 in an interview series with Bas van Fraassen. For part 1, click here.

Bas van Fraassen
Source: 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. 

Walter Veit: What is Science? And what is Philosophy?

Bas van Fraassen: I suppose I mainly know philosophy in the way a fish knows water, intimately but inarticulately.  Though I have thought about what philosophical positions are like, at least in Western philosophy.  Usual examples seem to be theses or beliefs about what there is, or what the world is like.  For example, realism about abstract entities is the position that not just concrete individuals but also abstract entities, like properties or relations are real, and mind-body dualism is the position that there are distinct a mental and physical things or processes, and so forth.  But I think those examples are misleading, though theses of that sort tend to be part at least of positions in metaphysics.  More generally, I think that a full-fledged philosophical position is what I mean by a stance: a cluster of attitudes, values, commitments, as well as beliefs.  For example, empiricist positions typically involve disdain for speculation or explanation by postulate and values that favour empirical inquiry, epistemic modesty, and logical clarity.

As to science, the scientific enterprise, I see that as a paradigm of rational inquiry into what the world is like, but with empirical adequacy as its bottom-line criterion of success.  That is an empiricist position about what science is, and it contrasts with scientific realism according to which the aim of science is to achieve a true account even of matters that are beyond our empirical access. 

Walter Veit: How did you become interested in philosophy and later philosophy of science?

Bas van Fraassen: When I was a teenager, soon after we had immigrated to Canada, I had a part-time job in the public library in Edmonton, Alberta, and I was reading a lot there, but especially in the Dewey Decimal 100 and 200 categories. That was a mishmash of religion, psychology. psychoanalysis, and occultism, but also real philosophy. At some point, I had gone from Freud, yoga, and flying saucers to a book about St. Paul's debt to Plato, and that prompted me to read Plato's Phaedo.

That was an incredible discovery for me. I realized with a shock how different it was. In this dialogue, Socrates is running a sort of seminar on the mind-body problem while he is preparing to die.  Every view his friends and students offered was scrutinized, weighed, and found wanting, until finally only one argument for immortality was left standing.

I was not yet able to deal with it very well. For one thing. I assumed that any argument by Socrates himself had to be right,  Now I figure that Plato wrote these dialogues to train his students to evaluate arguments wherever they came from.  In any case, reading the Phaedo was what originally made me want to be a philosopher.

My high school advisor was not in favour of that – he said: “it won’t put butter on your bread”.  So to begin I chose a course in mathematics and physics, but then I had a wonderful teacher in a philosophy course, Karel Lambert, who was a logician. So I opted for philosophy with a math and physics minor.  Then in my second year, I had another epiphany.  I was working part-time in the university library, and there  I came across Hans Reichenbach's Philosophy of Space and Time. There are really deep philosophical questions about space and time, and here they were approached as problems in the foundations of the theory of relativity!  This was fascinating, and in the next year I found Adolf Grünbaum’s articles on that subject, and I formed the ambition to go study with him.  Happily, through a graduate fellowship, I was able to do that. 

Stay tuned for part 3

Follow the author on facebook and twitter to receive the latest updates!