What are science and technology? How do they work? Why do they require values?

Graduate Section: January 13 Undergraduate Section: January 14


No required readings, but it is recommended that you have a look at the books by Dusek and Barker & Kitcher. A good introduction to traditional ways of thinking about science is Stephen Carey’s A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method. An alternative to Barker’s & Kitcher’s introduction to philosophy of science is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. For more on the philosophy of technology, Carl Mitcham’s Thinking through Technology is a more thorough and historically oriented introduction. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice overview as well http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/technology/.

Lecture Notes

There are many ideas out there about these questions. Though the question “What is science?” (or technology) may seem innocuous, philosophers, historians, and scientists themselves have been wrangling over the question for centuries. We will start with a basic approach, but it would be misleading to describe it as entirely uncontroversial. Throughout the course, different authors will raise some serious trouble for some of the following ideas. Nonetheless, we must start the discussion somewhere.

Science is concerned first and foremost with explaining, predicting, and controlling various phenomena in our world. Such phenomena include various physical objects and their behavior, chemical reactions, living organisms, the mental or cognitive capacities of sentient creatures, the operation of society, and so on. It is tempting to call the domain of science “natural phenomena,” which is fine if you understand the “natural” to include human and social phenomena.

Science accomplishes its tasks by attempting to identify, clarify, and stabilize natural structures. Science generally presupposes some sort of unobserved connections between those phenomena we experience. Its tools are, on the conceptual side, theories and models, and on the empirical side, instrumentally-mediated observations and controlled experiments. Even going back to ancient Greece, the essence of science (then inseparable from philosophy) was the proposal of models to explain what they saw. A major shift between ancient Greece and contemporary science is the move from natural observation to observation by way of complex instruments, and a move from speculation and explanation to prediction and testing by experimentation. Indeed, generating and testing predictions is regarded by many scientists and philosophers as the essence of modern science.

Technology is the invention, refinement, and deliberate deployment of tools and artifacts for the support of human ends.^[This definition is heavily influenced by Larry Hickman’s reading of John Dewey, which we will discuss in a few weeks.] Unlike science, whose domain is natural phenomena, technology’s domain are the artificial products of human ingenuity. It is a bad bit of metonymy to call artifacts and tools “technologies,” on this definition of technology, e.g., to say that my computer is a technology. It is an artifact or a tool, while technology (the logos of techne, the study of tools) is the cognitive process that creates, improves, and teaches us how to use such tools.

Like science, technology also requires structures that can be stabilized and relied upon, and eventually packaged and made habitual. While the focus of science is the discovery and clarification of those structures, the focus of technology is to make them reliable and package them for use. (That does not mean that science always precedes technology. Often technological inventions are generated by trial-and-error without any plausible scientific explanation.) Technology involves principles of design, techniques of construction, explicit theories and models of how systems should behave, and so on. Technology, as cognitive, is different from the habitual use of tools and artifacts, which we can call “technique” or “technical” rather than “technology.”

Science and technology form a continuum and are reciprocally involved with one another. Technology relies on relatively stable structures that can be used to control parts of the world, and sometimes those structures are discovered by science. Science relies on various tools and instruments for observation, experimentation, calculation, modeling, and theorizing. Scientific knowledge can itself be understood as a set of tools for explaining, predicting, controlling, and inquiring. The metaphor of a “machine” or “mechanism” plays an important role in the scientific analysis of natural structures. Technology can be understood as a science of the artificial.^[See Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.] The obviously important field of medicine seems to straddle the fence. For these reasons, it has lately become fashionable to talk about technoscience rather than science and technology. Nonetheless, for the most part theorists still rely on separate terms, often engaging in inquiries into science and technology separately.

One thing that unites science and technology as defined above is that both are forms of systematic inquiry. Inquiry is the process of investigating situations that perplex and frustrate us, raise uncertainty and doubt in us. When the perplexity in question arises in our deployment of explanations and predictions of about world, or our attempt to intervene in natural phenomena, we tend to call that inquiry “science.” When the frustration in question involves tools or artifacts, we tend to call that inquiry “technology.” Inquiry proceeds by taking those relatively inchoate perplexities or uncertainties and forming them into a clear problem-statement. We make that statement on the basis of our prior knowledge and initial observations of the situation, though it is certainly up for revision in the course of inquiry. (As John Dewey once put it, “a problem well-put is half solved.) We propose a solution to our problem, and in science that solution is called a hypothesis. And we test the solution by a variety of experiments, using what we learn to revise the solution or give us the confidence to accept it.

The general fields of study that address these general questions about what science and technology are, how do they operate, and what do they mean in the context of human life are the fields of philosophy of science and philosophy of technology, and these are the main academic fields that will inform the course. The origin of the term “philosophy” can be traced to ancient Greek, “philosophia” from “philos” meaning love, and “sophia” meaning wisdom. Philosophy as the love of wisdom is connected to but distinct from science, the production of theoretical knowledge. Unlike empirical science, philosophy is not primarily concerned with collecting, explaining, or predicting facts, nor does it produce general agreement on theoretical principles. Wisdom goes beyond facts or knowledge to insight. Philosophy is also not a formal discipline like mathematics; the order of learning is not vital, and there is no natural progression of topics. Axioms and deductive arguments can only get one so far. Philosophy is also unlike the rest of the humanities; though we do spend a lot of time reading and discussing texts, texts are not the subject-matter of our analysis. Philosophical texts are means of communication, and their authors are our interlocutors.

Philosophy is engaged in general reflections about the most important things, including truth, knowledge, justice, the self, freedom, the Good, and god. These are central human concerns, but not the domain of any particular science. The philosopher Wilfrid Sellars put it this way:

The aim of philosophy is to understand how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term. (Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man.”)

The main branches of philosophy are metaphysics—the study of the nature of things in general—, epistemology—the study of how we think and what we know—, and ethics—the study of what should be, how to act, and what to value, broadly understod to include political philosophy and aesthetics. Philosophers ask questions, analyze possible answers and their implications, think through the possibilities, critique existing ideas, and synthesize new thoughts. Philosophy is dialectical in nature, based in a dialogue that takes place in person—in classrooms, lectures, and conferences—as well as in print—through journals and books.

Philosophy of science and philosophy of technology include all three major branches of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. It helps us understand, evaluate, and criticize science and technology in general, and particular developments of science and technology. In terms of metaphysics, we want to know what science and technology teach us about what exists. In terms of epistemology, we want to know how scientific and technical knowledge work, how it is produced and justified. In ethics, we want to know how our values should govern and are shaped by developments in science and technology. Besides philosophy history of science and **history of technology* are also important to understanding the nature of science and technology, and we will have many occasions to engage with history of science and technology as material for analysis.

Having had something to say about what science and technology are, how they work, and how we study them philosophically, we now come to the question, why “values?”

First, what are values? By “values” we mean that which we care about, desire, approve of, take as an ideal, and evaluate as worthy. Ethics, politics, culture, and religion are some of the major sources of values in our lives, but so are practical concerns and personal preferences. We value beneficial consequences and we disvalue harmful ones. We value rights and duties, and we value virtue and good character. Our values are connected to the way that things, objects, and people have value, e.g., commodities have economic value, actions might have moral value, an artwork might have aesthetic value, and so on. As you can see, “values” are a complex and varied thing, a fact that discussions of values in science and technology can sometimes sadly ignore.

To say that we value science and technology is to say that they have a certain relationship to our lives and our society. We show how we value science and technology economically, by how much we spend on it, politically, by the authority we grant it in political processes, educationally, in the emphasis we put on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, and so on.

One way to think about why values are necessary considerations in science and technology because of the pervasive element of choice in each. We know that we value science and technology because we choose to fund, participate, and use them. Furthermore, scientific inference or technological design involve inherent uncertainties. Scientists, engineers, and designers must make choices in the face of those uncertainties. Choice implies judgment and responsibility. If I make a choice, I ought to judge carefully and be held responsible for the consequences of my errors. A failure to consider values at all when making such choices would be reckless or negligent.^[This way of thinking about the role of values is heavily indebted to the work of Heather Douglas, which we will read later on.] In other words, we make judgments in science and technology about which hypothesis or model, tool or technique, experiment or data analysis is best for the job. Those evaluations of what is best (or good enough) are not value-free, subject to merely rational or technical criteria. Such evaluations must be sensitives to our purposes, goals, and ideals, as well as the consequences that follow from making those choices.

Historically, this way of thinking about the role of values in science and technology is rather controversial. Scientists and philosophers have long defended an ideal of science that we might call “the ideal of epistemic purity” or simply “the value-free ideal.” Scientists and policymakers have likewise defended a model of the relation of pure and applied science (or science and technology) called “the linear model,” according to which pure science produces a store of knowledge, which can then be applied to the problems of policy, technology, and so on. Likewise, technology has often been conceived as a neutral tool, an instrument to any end, with no value in and of itself. Hence, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The role of choice in science and technology is either downplayed—in which case the results are seen as inevitable—or restricted to a very narrow set of scientific and technical values. Yet the idea that science or technology are value-free has slowly eroded over the last half-century, to the point where few philosophers of science and technology who think about these matters find it plausible in its starkest form.

When we think about the role of values in science and technology, we must then think of it in the variety of choices that we make in scientific and technological inquiry, in all the different parts of inquiry. The first part of this course will be structured according to those questions. We will look at relatively general and abstract philosophical versions of those questions, as well as questions about particular scientific and technological developments. We will also consider related questions such as the role of who is doing or backing science and technology (and what their values are) has on our evaluations of science and technology, and how future technoscience might proceed in a more ethically responsible fashion.

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