A Rundown of Philosophy That Every Scientist and Technologist Should Know

  • History is full of examples of great scientists who have belittled the work of philosophers.

  • Why? Because they’re unaware of how much philosophy can contribute to their theories and methods.

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Many prominent science communicators often express disdain for philosophy. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that philosophy isn't a “productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world.” For his part, in a dismissive YouTube video, the famous engineer Bill Nye says that “philosophy is important for a while.” Even Stephen Hawking himself once claimed that “philosophy is dead.”

What conclusion can we draw from this? It’s possible to be highly skilled in one area—such as being a great communicator or a gifted engineer—and yet still be fundamentally mistaken. There’s a William Shakespeare quote that encapsulates this idea well: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.” Although neither DeGrasse or Nye seem to have noticed, they too live in a nutshell and struggle to find their footing when they step outside of it.

To navigate this complex terrain, the best guide is philosophy.

Risky Endeavors

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The relationship between technology and philosophy has improved in recent years. Despite the somewhat naive idea that people can change the world by writing code and securing venture capital, scholars and technologists have come to realize that the world is much more complex than previously thought.

You can pursue science without philosophy, just as you can develop technology without it, but both are risky endeavors, especially when it comes to real-world applications beyond the laboratory or testing phase. As Subrena Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, points out in her essay, "Why philosophy is so important in science education," both science and technology brim with “important conceptual, interpretive, methodological and ethical issues” that fall within the realm of philosophy. She emphasizes that “far from being irrelevant to science [and technology], philosophical matters lie at [their] heart.”

The article aims to defend the need for philosophy in science and technology. As such, my first goal is to describe what philosophy is and in what ways it can assist scientists and technologists.

Secondly, I'll aim to present you with a guide on how to enter the world of philosophy. While whether philosophy is crucial or not may be debated, there’s no argument that it's difficult. Philosophy is challenging, and it can appear as an ideal pastime for people with a lot of free time, or as a collection of obscure jargon that no one understands.

Therefore, the idea of writing an article covering all the “philosophic concepts every scientist and technologist should know” is more ambitious than it might seem. This is why the second part of this article isn't a manual or a summary but rather a reading guide for scientists and technologists.

Part One: That Useless Thing Known as Philosophy

What is philosophy?

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In her study, Smithes says that “philosophy addresses issues that can’t be settled by facts alone.” It’s a simple definition, but it can help us understand what philosophy is. Let’s imagine for a moment that reality is a huge puzzle that we want to complete.

Science and technology are activities dedicated to finding individual pieces and putting them together to form small groups. Philosophy, on the other hand, is in charge of looking for systematic methods to understand the overall picture. Thus, philosophy helps unify the work of the sciences first and help them go beyond their small fields later. In that sense, it goes beyond the facts (or beyond the puzzle pieces we've identified).

Throughout the history of mankind, we’ve not only discovered many things about the world and ourselves, but we’ve also developed powerful ways of going beyond our knowledge. It’s important to emphasize that while science is the highest standard of knowledge available to us, it’s unfortunately limited to specific contexts, more so than we tend to believe. In other words, we have reliable scientific knowledge of only a very small part of the reality around us–those ever-changing “facts” Smithes is talking about.

The issue is that human existence extends beyond the areas that have been scientifically studied. Philosophy tackles problems that can’t be solved solely through science, approaching them from a systematic, technical, and precise perspective. According to Spanish philosopher Jesús Zamora Bonilla, philosophy involves reasoning to test the reliability of our conceptual frameworks.

Philosophy creates analytical tools to assess our understanding of the world. It serves as a substantial “stress test” and a rigorous “quality control,” based on the belief that we can surpass our current scientific knowledge and shed light on complex problems to understand them better. It’s no coincidence that in history’s earliest philosophical text, Parmenides’ On Nature, the term for truth is “aletheia,” which means to uncover what is hidden or to unveil: an attempt to discover what the reality’s puzzle looks like.

Neither Science nor Technology Live in a Vacuum

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The previous section describes a very simple definition of philosophy. We could make several adjustments to it and even entire amendments. However, philosophy isn't confined to the past or to a fixed system. It’s an ongoing intellectual endeavor shaped by scientific and technological progress. Its main aim is to question this progress to ensure it’s truly solid.

From this perspective, it becomes evident that while philosophy may not seem directly relevant to the daily work of scientists and technologists, the world in which they operate is full of philosophical questions that significantly impact what they do. Science and technology don’t exist in isolation.

Deep down, we need philosophy because, as science journalist Angela Saini says, we naively believe in science. Moreover, we think that the technologies we use are neutral and we tend to believe that our ideological vision of the world is a realistic representation of what is out there. But, in the words of journalist Javier Salas, although “scientific data is not debatable, just as the number of seats won by each party or the percentage of the vote obtained is not debatable; the importance of those seats or that percentage is debatable.”

Scientific facts may not be open to opinion, but their implications fall into the realm of philosophy. In this sense, climate change isn't just a scientific issue. Its impacts and our response to them prompt us to consider our place in the world, our relationship with the environment, power, freedom, and justice, and the kind of world we want to inhabit. Similarly, the distinctions between men and women, the sentience of animals, and the emergence of effective artificial intelligence aren’t solely scientific questions.

Part Two: The Philosophy We All Need

Must-Read Books on Philosophy

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When creating a must-read list, it’s easy to include classic works covering philosophy’s fundamental areas. However, my recommendations will focus on contemporary, relevant, and accessible texts, whenever possible. Additionally, we’ll only focus on a small set of topics: the most important ones for scientists and technologists.

The Philosophy of Science

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Where should I start? Samir Okasha’s Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction is, as the title suggests, a good introduction. I would avoid Alan Chalmers’s classic What Is This Thing Called Science? (it’s entertaining but somewhat biased on some topics).

We could discuss epistemology or gnoseology, which are areas of philosophy focused on the study of knowledge. However, these areas have faced challenges in recent decades as psychology has taken over topics related to perception, memory, and learning. As a result, contemporary epistemology focuses on the concept of knowledge and justification. While these are interesting and relevant topics, we can explore them further in texts like Jonathan Dancy’s Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology.

Of particular interest within this classical branch is the philosophy of science, a field that emerged in the late 1920s with The Scientific Conception of the World, a manifesto by the Vienna Circle. This work raised a fundamental question that has vexed experts for almost a century: What sets science apart from pseudoscience, non-science, and bad science?

Besides the Vienna logical empiricists, four key thinkers, with their strengths and weaknesses, explored various possibilities: Karl Popper (The Logic of Scientific Discovery), Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), Imre Lakatos (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes), and Paul Feyerabend (Against Method). If I had to choose, I would pick the last two, as they encapsulate the essence of the debate between supporters and critics of contemporary science.

What ensued can only be described as nonsensical. Some good ideas, such as the Science, Technology and Society study, turned into theoretical nonsense like “strong sociology.” At the same time, necessary approaches like Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodernism, with its several flaws, attempted to de-politicize science during the Cold War era. This led to a series of Intellectual Impostures.

Two relatively recent books that are very interesting are Representing and Intervening by Ian Hacking, which provides a philosophical view of scientists’ actual practice, and Philosophy of Pseudoscience by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry, which offers insight into the current state of debate on the demarcation criterion.

Philosophy of Technology

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Where should I start? Philosophy of technology is a relatively young (and relatively technical) area. Perhaps that's why there’s no standard reference text. The closest thing, in principle, is Val Dusek’s Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction. An acceptable introduction, though not as thorough as I would like.

The field of philosophy of technology is quite peculiar. Throughout the 20th century, most philosophers who delved into technology were critical of it, such as Arnold Gehlen, Jacques Ellul, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. However, in recent decades, another wave of philosophers associated with transhumanism (or accelerationism) have erred in the opposite direction, becoming technology “fanboys.”

Over the years, there has been much debate over whether science and technology are the same thing (Henryk Skolimowski vs. Mario Augusto Bunge), the role of design in technology, and the nature of artifacts. However, what is most interesting are the ethical and social aspects of our relationship with technology.

Issues such as the neutrality of technology, the responsibility of the designer, and the risks of technological development are recurring themes in the philosophy of technology. These themes are particularly relevant in a world increasingly filled with artificial intelligence, genetic engineering techniques, and autonomous cars. New Waves in Philosophy of Technology (Berg Olsen, Evan Selinger, and Søren Riis) covers the latest trends, while Dusek’s Philosophy of Technology: An Introduction provides a good but not perfect introduction to the field.

Ethics, Politics, and Justice

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Where should I start? Michael Sander’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is a good introduction to current debates on justice and ethics. For something more focused on ethics and technology, books such as Ethics and Technology by Herman Tavani or The Ethics of Science: An Introduction by David Resnik may be of interest.

There’s no doubt that the central book of ethical and political reflection of the 20th century is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Almost everything important that has been written about this field in the last decades has been written for, against, or with Rawls’ work in mind. A Theory of Justice may not be the most enjoyable book to read, but it’s the best way to get a fundamental outline of the debates about justice that shape our society today.

Numerous books have been written on the topic, from the right (Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick) to the left (Rescuing Justice and Equality by G. A. Cohen). Other books aim to defend classical ethics (After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre) or challenge modernity (Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Young). However, I recommend starting with Sander’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (or one of his YouTube courses). Sander is an excellent teacher, and his work serves as a great introduction to the essential questions of contemporary ethics and justice.

Half introduction, half manual, Peter Singer’s A Companion to Ethics is a great resource. However, ethics is a vast and specialized field, encompassing everything from privacy concerns on the internet to the ethical boundaries of scientific research. For insights into the ethics of technology, you can refer to Tavani’s Ethics and Technology or Resnik’s The Ethics of Science: An Introduction.

Mind, Biology, And Much More

I could go on and on and on. There are many other important areas to consider. For instance, the rise of AI requires us to delve into the philosophy of the mind and, particularly, the philosophy of AI. Secondly, the discovery of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) and genetic enhancement techniques compels us to think about bioethics, anthropology, and social philosophy. Finally, the dominance of programming in public life prompts us to explore logic in its broadest sense.

However, simply listing all the philosophical issues relevant to technology would turn this into more of a book than an introductory article. This is not our intention; sparking an interest in philosophy and the humanities is more than enough.

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