What follows is an earlier version of the article “Why Policy Needs Philosophers as Much as it Needs Science” published by Briggle and Frodeman in The Guardian on 13 October 2016.
Image credit: Jef Safi, via flickr
In a widely read essay, Daniel Sarewitz argues that science is in deep trouble. While modern science remains wondrously productive, the results of science today are more ambiguous, contestable, and dubious than ever before. The problem does not lie in the lack of funding or of scientific rigor. Rather, Sarewitz argues that we must let go of a longstanding and cherished cultural belief—that science consists of uniquely objective knowledge that can put an end to political controversies. Science can inform our thinking; but there is no escaping politics. Scientific results rarely end political debates, which ultimately remain debates over how we should live.
Sarewitz, however, fails to note the corollary to his argument: that a change in our expectations concerning the use of science for policy implies the need to make something like philosophic deliberation central to decision making.
Philosophy relevant? We had better hope so. For the other option is value fundamentalism, where rather than offering reasons for our values we resort to dogmatically asserting them. This is a prescription for political dysfunction—a result increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic. As science has become more contestable, politicians retreat into intransigence, stymying the political process. Of course, deliberating over values is no more a magic bullet than science has turned out to be. But whether we are talking about scientific results, or ethical, social, or political values, the lack of certainty does not mean that evidence cannot be marshalled and reasons cannot be given.
Practically speaking, this implies placing individuals with philosophic training within a wide variety of institutions—in scientific disciplines across the university, and in institutions like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the European Environment Agency (EEA), the US National Science Foundation, and the EU Directorate General for Science and Research. Their role would not be as specialists whose job is to provide answers. Instead, their task would be to ask the questions to help to enlarge our conversations and increase our sympathies.
Granted, as it is currently constituted academic philosophy is not up to this task. The problem isn’t with this or that idea, but rather with the assumptions that underlie how philosophy is done. A premium is placed on theoretical rigor, even at the loss of social significance. This is an expression of the institutional form that philosophy has taken. Prior to the 20th century, philosophers could be found almost anywhere, in a variety of occupations both public and private. Since 1900, however, they have had only one institutional home—the university, and more particularly that peculiar institution known as the ‘department’. Philosophy departments ghettoize philosophy, steering philosophers toward problems primarily of interest to their disciplinary colleagues – at the cost of practical relevance to larger societal concerns. Even applied philosophers suffer from what can be called disciplinary capture.
Indeed, what Sarewitz says of academic science is painfully true of most philosophy and of the humanities generally: what should be the most relevant of disciplines has become “an onanistic enterprise worthy of Swift or Kafka.” Philosophers have mimicked scientists in all the worst ways, practitioners of a specialized discipline, speaking to fellow adepts and measuring their success with internal standards of progress and rigor. One telling sign of this: of the approximately 110 PhD programs in philosophy in North America, not a single one centers its attention on training graduate students to work outside of the academy.
This suggests the need for something analogous to the Open Science movement. Call it Open Humanities. Open Science marks a sea change in how science is done: open data, open laboratories, open peer review, and open access publication. Promoted by the European Commission as well as the US National Academies, Open Science emphasizes the importance of transparency from the design of research projects to the reporting of results, and of greater collaboration both across academic disciplines and between academia and various communities. An Open Humanities initiative could bring philosophy out of the study and into the community, where it could play a role in integrating scientific knowledge with the values we pursue.
Now, Sarewitz doesn’t speak in terms of Open Science. Rather, he revives Alvin Weinberg’s call for “trans-science,” a problem-oriented, stakeholder driven approach to inquiry that is judged by success in the real-world rather than by disciplinary metrics. In 1972, Weinberg noted that society increasingly calls on science to solve complex problems; but such problems “hang on the answers to questions that can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” Complex, open-ended human quandaries are “never absolute but instead are variable, imprecise, uncertain—and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.” They cannot be precisely described and unambiguously characterized by science. Thus, they require trans-science.
On our reading, trans-science is another name for what we call dedisciplined philosophy. Weinberg says that trans-science begins with an act of “selfless honesty” where experts acknowledge that an issue has exceeded the boundaries of their domain. Trans-scientists have to know when they don’t know – otherwise they’ll labor under the illusion (and perhaps fool others too) that they are capable of solving problems that they, in fact, cannot solve. But this is the stuff of Socrates. For Socrates, wisdom consisted in knowing that one does not know. His ‘method’, if you want to call it that, exposed the self-assured expert as a poseur, a sophist pronouncing authoritatively on matters outside his jurisdiction.
If trans-science is our new ideal, then Socrates is back in business. Philosophers working within the Socratic model can bring useful skills to our knotty problems, including hermeneutics (thinking through issues that admit of varying interpretations and framings), ethics (uncovering hidden normative commitments and analyzing our debates about values), and epistemology (assessing different claims to knowledge). But as important as these activities are, more crucial is the propagation of a distinctive mindset: a commitment to explaining one’s values and to giving a hearing to the values of others. Of course, bringing this to fruition will require philosophers to also let go of their cherished claims to expertise, and engage in humble collaborations with others. That is, they need to stop talking only to one another.
For at least the past seventy years, society has hoped that science could dispense with the need for politics, and for philosophy; that it could turn open questions about the good life, beauty, and justice into things that experts could seal shut with certainty. It turns out, however, that we are doomed to philosophize. So let’s find ways to do it well, in public venues that are open to all.