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Heavyweights defend philosophy in science at PNAS

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Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

A number of heavyweights have co-authored an op-ed defending the role of philosophy in science. The late Jerry Fodor is a philosopher they cite as exemplifying a continuum of science and philosophy:

Philosophy has also helped the field of cognitive science winnow problematic or outdated assumptions, helping drive scientific change. The concepts of mind, intelligence, consciousness, and emotion are used ubiquitously across different fields with often little agreement on their meaning (16). Engineering artificial intelligence, constructing psychological theories of mental state variables, and using neuroscience tools to investigate consciousness and emotion require the conceptual tools for self-critique and cross-disciplinary dialogue—precisely the tools that philosophy can supply.

The above examples are far from the only ones: in the life sciences, philosophical reflection has played an important role in issues as diverse as evolutionary altruism (17), debate over units of selection (18), the construction of a “tree of life” (19), the predominance of microbes in the biosphere, the definition of the gene, and the critical examination of the concept of innateness (20). Likewise, in physics, fundamental questions such as the definition of time have been enriched by the work of philosophers. For example, the analysis of temporal irreversibility by Huw Price (21) and closed temporal curves by David Lewis (22) have helped dispel conceptual confusion in physics (23). Lucie Laplane, Paolo Mantovani, Ralph Adolphs, Hasok Chang, Alberto Mantovani, Margaret McFall-Ngai, Carlo Rovelli, Elliott Sober, and Thomas Pradeu, “Opinion: Why science needs philosophy” at PNAS

The thing is, scientists do philosophy whether they admit it and try to be coherent or don’t admit it, with distressing results. For example, one can certainly argue that a coffee mug is in some sense conscious or that consciousness is a material substance. Or that fish show self-awareness or that robots are people too. Or that an intelligent AI apocalypse is upon us. But what are the philosophical underpinnings and implications of such claims, given that we don’t even have a clear idea what consciousness is?

Identifying with a specific philosophy on which an argument is based sounds more limiting than saying, in essence, I’m a scientist, hear me roar! But it certainly makes for more credible discussions in difficult areas.

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See also: Consciousness studies is a bizarre field of science The question of whether machines can be conscious is bound up with attempts to study immaterial things while denying their existence


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