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January 28, 2020

Night Owls Talk Asks, “Does Science Leave Room for Philosophy?”

Philosophy professors Anubav Vasudevan and Tom Pashby debated whether “philosophy of science is philosophy enough” on Thursday as the latest installment of the Night Owls discussion series. The question of the night was, “Does Science Leave Room for Philosophy?”

The room was packed, with many attendees having to sit on the floor.

At the start of the talk, Vasudevan acknowledged that his and Pashby’s statuses as philosophers made it unlikely either would argue that science left no room for their discipline.

“Tom and I are both colleagues in the faculty of the philosophy department,” he said, “which I think should suggest to you that neither of us are likely to be inclined to answer that question with a sort of categorical ‘no.’”

Instead, the two professors outlined different visions of what the relationship between science and philosophy should be.

Pashby’s argument drew heavily on the writings of the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, who famously sought, among other things, to dispel the notion of a “first philosophy” that proceeds natural science and is capable of justifying it and to ground philosophical pursuits in scientific evidence.

In Pashby’s view, the value of philosophy is in its ability to apply a critical lens to scientific findings in order to produce a more profound understanding of their significance, “sort of starting from science and working outwards.”

Quine and Pashby see philosophy as the next step in the scientific process following the acquisition of self-justifying empirical results.

“We’re going to just sit there and tidy up what the scientists have been doing,” he said.

One reason to put scientific discoveries ahead of philosophizing, he said, is science’s ability to use evidence to answer questions for which philosophy could not provide conclusive answers.

He cited the question of whether time had a beginning. “Here’s a traditional philosophical question,” Pashby said. “Philosophers made zero progress,” debating it for centuries, only for it to be conclusively answered by scientists with the development of the Big Bang theory.

Vasudevan, on the other hand, saw philosophy as much more separate from science. He cited the quote, wrongly attributed to physicist Richard Feynman, that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

In Vasudevan’s view, scientists and philosophers are actually engaged in very different tasks, to the point that their work is of limited relevance to one another.

“For people who are neither scientists nor philosophers,” he said, “it’s easy to say that philosophers and scientists look like they’re both just annoying nitpickers, or at least they can. But I think if you look at it a little more closely you see they’re picking very different nits.”

Vasudevan believes there are “superficial and obvious reasons” that demonstrate that the two disciplines are distinct from one another, including their divergent histories, unique methods and the distinct psychological needs that each pursuit fulfills.

Both speakers were pleased with how the event went.

“It’s very hard to get unguarded conversations between philosophers. You can’t read them in journals,” Pashby told The Maroon. The Night Owls series, he said, provides an opportunity for students, including philosophical novices, to hear philosophical issues explored in a casual and low-pressure environment.

Their philosophical disagreement concluded, Vasudevan agreed with Pashby on the event’s merits.

“It’s a non-threatening environment for students to start to think about philosophy in a way that doesn’t have the pressure of the classroom,” he said. “And yet at the same time, I think, the conversations are serious. They’re not flippant. So I think it sets a good model for students for how these kinds of conversations should go.”

The next talk in the series, titled “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence,” will take place on February 6.

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