Friday, April 30, 2010

Reflections on the 2010 Sydney-Tilburg conference

The Sydney contingent is now all back home, having been variously delayed by the Icelandic ash cloud. The third Sydney-Tilburg conference was extremely successful - the most exciting so far, at least for me. The conference topic was 'The Future of Philosophy of Science' and on the last day of the conference we held an open discussion of this issue for all conference participants. Here are some of the themes from that discussion:

There was general agreement that the increasing specialisation of philosophy of science (hereafter PoS) is a problem. This is in part a consequence of the increased attention to the actual science in recent PoS. Hence work in philosophy of biology, or of economics, now assumes the kind of detailed knowledge of the actual science that philosophy of physics always has. But now, of course, we do not now all share the common background in one science (selected areas of physics) that earlier philosophers of science could draw on.

Jan Sprenger suggested that statistics and probability could act as unifying themes for PoS, given their importance right across the sciences, and their place at the heart of current models of confirmation, explanation, etc in PoS itself. But some participants argued that these formalisms were simply not that important in the sciences with which those participants were concerned. For example, although statistics are very important in bioinformatics, it is unclear that this is an important focus for work in the philosophy of the molecular biosciences, and recent work on that field has certainly not focused on issues in statistical inference.

Michael Friedmann and others pointed to the increasing importance of HOPOS (History of Philosophy of Science) as a part of the discipline of PoS. There was general agreement that this is the case, and, indeed, there were a remarkable number of papers looking at the ideas of Carnap at this conference. I myself wondered if PoS was not starting to work as many areas of philosophy traditionally have, analysing core problems through reading and interpreting earlier philosopher's work on those problems. Carnap in particular might play the role in future PoS that Kant or Hume do to general epistemology. The HOPOS approach has obvious potential to act as a unifying theme for the discipline.

Friedmann also pointed to the ambitions of early 20th century philosophers of science to do much more than offer a specialist philosophy of science, and in fact to reshape the whole of philosophy into a new, 'scientific philosophy'. Philosophy of science would thus be a central topic in philosophy because science matters to philosophy - to all of philosophy.

Another recent 'movement' within PoS had been so-called 'integrated History and Philosophy of Science' or iHPS. As I understand it, the idea is to repair the near-divorce between recent work in history of science and recent work in philosophy of science by encouraging philosophers of science to make historical research on the sciences they study an integral part of their own work. This sort of approach was not much in evidence at the actual meeting, so I asked for a straw poll of people in the room who saw historical research as an integral part of their own work in PoS. About half of the participants thought this was true of themselves.

One more strand of discussion concerned the role - and obligation - of PoS to interpret science for broader audiences. In the conference itself Massimo Pigliucci had outlined a role for PoS as 'science criticism', and there was some support in the room for the idea that PoS should seek to critically expound the significance of science to wider audiences.

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