Philip Kitcher’s Science, Truth, and Democracy aims to give much-needed attention to those questions which, in his estimation, philosophy of science ought to be able to answer: “the ethical status of various kinds of scientific research, the impact that science has had on our values, [and] the role that the sciences play in contemporary democracies”(xi). These questions are, Kitcher thinks, both natural ones deserving to be posed and answered, as well as ones that are traditionally ignored by philosophers of science.
In the book, Kitcher is contending with two extreme perspectives on science, the “science enthusiasts” who believe that true science is the pure search for objective knowledge, to which questions of ethics, values, and politics are irrelevant, and the “science detractors” who deny that objectivity, viewing science as thoroughly infected by values and politics, in such a way that science tends to be an “instrument of oppression”(xi).
Kitcher’s via media is to provide a two-part account of the proper role of science in a democracy. In the first part, Kitcher argues against the detractors that science is, indeed, an objective, truth-seeking enterprise, but against the enthusiasts, he argues that the contents of science are contextual and interest-relative—both what we inquire into and the categories that structure are inquiry are sensitive to our interests and purposes. This part culminates in the claim that what science seeks is not mere truth, but significant truth, and scientific significance is a matter of the practical and epistemic interests served by various scientific ideas and projects, along with the myriad logical and empirical connections between them. Today’s reading covers this first part.
In the second part, this contextual representation of scientific significance is used as an input to an ideal democratic procedure—a deliberation between idealized representatives of the preferences of actual citizens take up this information, mutually inform one another about their preferences, with the goal of consensus at best, or a majority-supported compromise at worst—with the output being the ideal research agenda for science, a schedule of priorities for research meeting the interests and purposes of our society. Kitcher calls this ideal “well-ordered science,” and setting out this ideal, defending it, and tracing its consequences for the responsibilities of actually practicing scientists is the main goal of the second half of the book, which we will discuss next week.
To start off the discussion, let me just raise some questions about Part 1:
- How realistic are Kitcher’s pictures of the “enthusiasts” and “detractors” of science? Do they represent real positions in science studies? In our culture? If they’re realistic, who are some examples? If they aren’t so realistic, are they merely strawmen, or useful idealizations?
- Kitcher refers to his own image of science as that of the “scientists as artisan” (4), but he doesn’t do much to explain the metaphor (if metaphor it is). What do you think he’s on about?
- Kitcher defends a modest realism on the basis of the wide success of science, practical and explanatory. Does this seem like a reasonable conclusion to draw? Are there alternative explanations for the success of science that seem equally plausible?
- Kitcher insists that values don’t play a role in deciding between rival hypotheses. What do you think about his reasons for this? What would Longino or Kourany say to his argument?
- Kitcher argues that we “make” the world to some extent, through our choices of categorizing it in certain ways and the “mundane” causal consequences of those systems of categorization. How does he reconcile this modest form of constructivism with his modest realism? Is it a satisfying middle way?
- Are there any important ways in which Kitcher’s analogy between science and maps fails?
- The scientific significance of any part of science is said to ultimately hang on its contributions to practical consequences (technology, application, etc.) and its contribution to satisfying our “natural curiosity.” Does this seem a reasonable way of understanding the significance of science?
- Early on, Kitcher writes, “Besides its practical benefits or harms, [scientific] knowledge has intrinsic value, and that value typically overrides mundane practical concerns”(9). Later, we learn that, besides practical concerns, significance depends upon “natural curiosity.” Does satisfying our curiosity often override practical concerns? Does it ever? When and how?
Let’s hear your thoughts; I’ll post more later in the week.