Does it still make sense to read science-philosophy classics?

This question arguably bears an assumption: that reading philosophy classics has been useful to science before, whereas now reading them for use is dubious. Granted, many first-rate physicists dismiss philosophy. An assumption that philosophy has no value to offer ‘actual’ science today is common. Stephen Hawking said, “Philosophy is dead”. And Richard Feynman and Lawrence Krauss agree. Research funding favours technology over thinking; armchair speculation is literally less valued. The success of science, however, owes a debt to armchair speculation: natural philosophy became a victim of its own success; its philosophical positions a minority practice. Philosophy is about debate. Authorities, like above, do not have the final word. And anyway, heavy-weight authorities like Albert Einstein entertained philosophies in their discoveries. Quantum physicist David Deutsch is even a Popperian. The answer to whether it ‘makes sense’ to read these classics is yes, and no. (Besides, in a liberal country people decide for themselves.) Arguably reading classics rewards A. in methodological dialogue with contemporary scientists B. in solving scientific puzzles and C. in ordering science policy and practice.

The axioms of science come from philosophy. Scientists like Hawking are akin to the monsieur in Molière, who never knew he spoke in prose. Scientific method and testing is close to heart, and one prototype comes from philosopher Francis Bacon. Without even reading Bayes, Bacon, J.S.M, Popper, Kuhn, or Lakatos scientists follow many of their prescriptions. The sign of their success is their being taken for granted. In that sense, no it does not make sense to read the classics. Reading the classics is as irrelevant as reading the constitution – so long as it is followed it works. Kuhn reasons similarly for a paradigm is the bed of assumptions scientists work locally within, seldom to upend. New paradigms like new constitutions are rare. Yet to know what – how and why – one is doing, yes, reading science philosophy classics helps. The supposed ‘replication crisis’, for instance, rests on assumptions which begrudge an ir-replication rate as somehow aberrant to science, when in fact they match Popper’s falsification criterion. The replication assumptions, too, ignore how Liptonian triangulation makes more reliable causal inference. Multiple effects, require multiple causes and methods to reliably explain them. Yet ‘tests’ for causes underplay effects beyond the procedure. Studies, for example, that identify moderate drinking is positively correlated with healthy people, ignore the very long-term effects on life expectancy and the confounder that already ill people are forced to quit drinking. Meanwhile, in A.I research hard-nosed scientists who cherish replication and evidence-based practice, speculate ‘superintelligence’ and ‘The Singularity’. A dose of Popper would tame the contradiction between belief in research from plain facts and their practised speculation and thought-experiments.

Whereas Kuhn would support their speculation: an A.I ‘revolution’ leads normal science into a new worldview not from deducting objective facts alone but inducting fashionable theories across scientific communities; to excoriate, new, anomalies. A revolution comes from scientists who have imagination, biases and tastes. Feyerabend, too, can illuminate A.I research. He says the powerful scientists inflate their roles and accrue power for themselves rather than to the special end of betterment or elusive truths. He says one could substitute “normal science” with “organised crime” and its demarcation remain. Too provocative, but A.I researchers indeed do research in their interest. Programmers seldom choose no-programming for a solution nor admit irrationality. Which is problematic given that humanity, as a whole, is techspeak illiterate and code innumerate—inequality is inbuilt with artificial intelligence today. (Virginia Eubank’s book Automating Inequality documents this well.) Scientists are self-interested and humanly irrational more than is presumed, performed, or admitted.

Helen Longino stresses how values permeate science. Contrary to a paternal narrative of previous philosophers’ objectivity claims, she offers contextual empiricism. Which comfortably counts thinking and evaluation within science; marginalised ethnicities and women within science; and how science emerges from communities with gender, race, class, (and ableist, she herself misses in these texts) disparities rather than follow any Great Man narrative. Longino works ‘with’ Kuhn to create criteria, upgraded for today. Late-Kuhn suggests science ought to be accurate, consistent, general in scope, and be progressive in solving problems: “disclose new phenomena or previously unnoted relationships among those already known”. Longinio stresses “shared standards” in lieu of vague ‘consistent’ and “uptake of criticism” to stress gradualist worldview change rather than dramatic and rare ‘revolution’. Key however is that social context precedes scientists and guidelines. Hence a contextual empirical science with feminist principles, with value ladenness and intellectual equality, does “not just make philosophical sense of the notions of feminist and/or oppositional science, but that also deepens our understanding of mainstream science.”

Without equal intellectual authority, science goes (ethically, unusefully) awry. Scientific puzzles puzzle more. Without women psychologists stress responses would be misunderstood; without women neuroscientists, neurological differences would be read in sexist ways. Indeed, both are male-biased and sexist still. But without women scientists, it would be more so. According to some women researchers ‘fight or flight’ is skewed toward males’ behaviour. Brain differences are fabricated for sexist motives. Without the enforced criteria of Longino, such anomalies would be vacant from our scientific map. Other potent arguments hold for LGBTQ+ and diverse ethnicities among genetic researchers—pseudoscience for bad ends becomes harder.

Note Longino does not bin Kuhnian texts but deftly incorporates social context and values into contemporary guidelines and procedure. That a persons’ worldview is acknowledged as paradigm relative actually enables better communication, or ‘translation’, between paradigms. Science is more productive in a dialogue rather than in what Feyerabend calls the tyrannous “rule of rationality”. True, authority from expertise does always have an important role. Longino could go further, though. The generosity granted to ‘contexts’ does not figure nonindustrial societies or art within her scheme. Longino claims “the equality of intellectual authority” and “diffusion of power” but it remains fixedly within institutional and discipline borders—in a world where knowledge abounds regardless of profession.

Reading these philosophers of science helps to decide what counts. Even if a proposition is axiomatic—and STEM has axiomatic prestiges, its funding never ending—it is essential to question it lest people forget what justifies their beliefs. Debates and problems in science become easier with classics at hand; if not to agree with, then to know what you disagree with. Reading classics benefits in contemporary dialogue (like Deutsch, and A.I); in honing scientific puzzles (like neuroanatomy, and stress); in ordering policy and practice (like prejudice, and pseudoscience). Especially when and where scientific future-futures are taken for granted to be better, progressive and always profitable.


Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum. Clarendon Press, 1878.

Deutsch, David. “How Close Are We to Creating Artificial Intelligence? – David Deutsch | Aeon  Essays.” Aeon. Aeon, October 3, 2012.

Einstein, Albert. The World As I See It. Open Road Media, 2011.

Eubanks, Virginia. Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018.

Feyerabend, Paul. “Consolations for the Specialist” In I Lakatos and A Musgrave (eds), Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge.” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1970.

———Against Method. Verso, 1993.

———Farewell to Reason. Verso, 1987.

Goll, Apollonia Elisabeth, and Dagmar Stahlberg. “Tend-and-Befriend vs. Fight-or-Flight–The Cognitive Architecture of Sex-Specific Stress Responses.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2014.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2012.

———.J. A, Martin Curd, and Christopher Pincock (eds.). Philosophy of Science: The Central Issues, Second International Student Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Longino, Helen E. Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University Press, 1990.

———. “Taking Gender Seriously in Philosophy of Science.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1992, no. 2 (January 1, 1992): 333–40.

Mill, John Stuart. “OF THE LIBERTY OF THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION.” On Liberty, n.d.

Munafò, Marcus R., and George Davey Smith. “Robust Research Needs Many Lines of Evidence.” Nature 553, no. 7689 (January 25, 2018): 399–401.

Popper, Karl R. “Science as Falsification.” Conjectures and Refutations 1 (1963): 33–39.

Rippon, Gina. The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain. Random House, 2019.

Saunders, Murray. “A Political Economy of University Funding: The English Case.” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 34, no. 4 (August 1, 2012): 389–99.

Stockwell, Tim, Jinhui Zhao, Sapna Panwar, Audra Roemer, Timothy Naimi, and Tanya Chikritzhs. “Do ‘Moderate’ Drinkers Have Reduced Mortality Risk? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 77, no. 2 (March 2016): 185–98.

Warman, Matt. “Stephen Hawking Tells Google ‘philosophy Is Dead.’” The Daily Telegraph, May 17, 2011.

Warman, Matt. “Stephen Hawking Tells Google ‘philosophy Is Dead.’” The Daily Telegraph, May 17, 2011.

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