Philosophy as complementary science

Philosophy as complementary science

[P]hilosophy of science can seek to generate scientific knowledge in places where science itself fails to do so; I call this the complementary function of philosophy of science, as opposed to its descriptive and prescriptive functions. I propose taking the philosophy of science as a field which investigates scientific questions that are not addressed in current specialist science — questions that could be addressed by scientists, but are excluded due to the necessities of specialization.

A need for philosophy of science in the complementary mode, or complementary science as I will call it, arises from the fact that specialist science cannot afford to be completely open. (I speak of “specialist science” rather than “normal science”, so as not to distract those who reject Kuhn’s particular ideas about normal science or paradigms.) There are two aspects to this necessary lack of openness. First, in specialist science many elements of knowledge must be taken for granted, since they are used as foundations or tools for studying other things. This also means that certain ideas and questions must be suppressed if they are heterodox enough to contradict or destabilize the taken-for-granted items of knowledge. Such are the necessities of specialist science, quite different from a gratuitous suppression of dissent. Second, not all worthwhile questions can be addressed in specialist science, simply because there are limits to the number of questions that a given community can afford to deal with at a given time. Each specialist scientific community will have some degree of consensus about which problems are most urgent, and also which problems can most plausibly be solved. Those problems that are considered either unimportant or unsolvable will be neglected. All this is not malicious or misguided neglect, but a reasonable act of prioritization necessitated by limitations of material and intellectual resources.

All the same, we must face up to the fact that suppressed and neglected questions represent a loss of knowledge, actual and potential. The complementary function of philosophy of science is to recover and even create such questions and, hopefully, some answers to them as well. Therefore the desired result of research in philosophy of science in this mode is an enhancement of our knowledge and understanding of nature.


(For A.A. =)

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