Motivating scientists for philosophy

In recent years, there have been a number of high profile scientists who have spoken dismissively about philosophy. There was a recent case, to which a philosopher responded in a public letter (actually, a blog post). On a different philosophy blog, there was the idea to crowd-source a “Philosophy cheat sheet” for scientists. I copy my reaction below.

Some suggestions for scientists who are already interested in philosophy can be found in this earlier post.


This is an interesting suggestion! To introduce a cheat sheet, a motivational letter could be useful too: tell them first why it may be relevant for them. This is my (incomplete) proposal for such a letter.

Dear Scientist,

You belong to a respected profession, that is nevertheless not very well-known by the general public. You may have wondered how to counter stereotypes like the “mad professor” or how to prevent common misconceptions about your particular field of research.

In Philosophy, we have a very similar situation: to people outside our field, it is typically not clear what we do. In addition, unlike Science, Philosophy is often mocked for being pointless, outdated, or worse. You may have similar opinions. However, as a scientist, you are probably open to falsification of your own prior ideas. Ask yourself how you came to this position. Maybe you heard it from your teachers or colleagues, but do you think they really delved into it themselves, or could this just be a myth that is being passed on? Or maybe you read a philosophy book once and really did not like it, but surely this body of evidence is too small for a general dismission of an entire field of research.

It would be nice if you refrained from dismissing Philosophy in public, but there is more: learning more about Philosophy might actually help you with your own mission.

  1. Philosophy, science, and art have a rich and intertwined history. Read up on it! Being a curious person you will find it fascinating. Textbooks on science tend to distort the history of the discipline due to the brevity with which the topic is discussed and because they copy each other rather than returning to the primary sources. Prepare to be amazed by what you will learn about your own field. :-)
  2. f you draw a Venn diagram of famous philosophers and famous scientists, you will find that the intersections contains many elements. Think about Pythagoras, Descartes, Newton, and Galilei, to name a few. Einstein was well-versed in philosophy, too. Maybe it is time for a reunion.
  3. Scientists are typically not trained to reason about science as a whole, its role in society, and the relation between science and other human endeavors (including philosophy). If you do want to address such meta-questions in a meaningful way, it will pay off to educate yourself about the philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, … of your field. As a scientist, you do not need to do this to be good at your work, but as a curious human being, you will probably enjoy it. In addition, it will improve your teaching and communication with a wider audience. So it may be worthwhile to look into it, if you engage in either of these.
  4. A lot of contemporary philosophy is analytic philosophy. It is more similar to science than to literature. It relies on formal models, such as logic and probability theory. Some of the logics (yes, plural) used by philosophers may not be relevant to your work, and that is fine. Yet, some parts of analytic philosophy address questions directly relevant to very active research fields in science. You might enjoy learning more about this.

a Philosopher of Science


Further thoughts welcome.

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