Science, or at least the language of “science,” was long ago conscripted in the service of politics of one kind or another. Of this, few need to be reminded. The problem is that as long as The Science™ is advancing the political preferences of one’s choice, it may not be seen for what it is.
And when those preferences are the dogmas of the prevailing ruling ideology—the vision that pervades the dominant institutions of the culture—it’s that much more difficult to recognize the extent to which science has been manipulated, if not corrupted, in order to supply the pretext for the promotion of a political agenda.
Within the popular Western imagination there lies, deeply ensconced, a caricature of science as an infallible body of knowledge, progressively accumulated over time, or an inerrant instrument (“the scientific method”) for procuring such knowledge. This endemic misconception of science is exploited and reinforced by partisans whenever the latter’s interests are facilitated by it.
Anyone remotely familiar with the history, philosophy, and practice of science, however, knows that science has anything but the invincibility that it possesses in the popular consciousness.
One such person who knew better is none other than Albert Einstein.
Einstein, whose name has all but become synonymous with science, was also a philosopher of science. And he was a philosopher of science because he knew from his own experience that being as accomplished as one could be as a scientist required familiarity with and appreciation for philosophy.
Specifically, Einstein knew that it is with epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, that the best scientists needed to come to terms.
In 1944, Robert Thornton, a newly minted Ph.D. who was about to embark upon his teaching career at the University of Puerto Rico, wrote Einstein to solicit advice as to how he could persuade his new colleagues to allow him to incorporate the philosophy of science into his introductory courses in physics. Einstein’s response is revealing of both the high esteem in which he held philosophy as well as the indispensable value he assigned to it for the scientific enterprise.
Einstein informed Thornton that he “fully agree[s]” with him on “the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science.” He expresses incredulity regarding how “even professional scientists” are “like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest,” for they’re lacking “knowledge of the historic and philosophical background” that “gives that kind of independence from [the] prejudices of” one’s “generation from which most scientists are suffering.”
Einstein adds that this “independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”
Elsewhere, making this same point—a theme to which he had been committed throughout this career—Einstein wrote of the “reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science,” characterizing it as one of a particularly “noteworthy kind.” More exactly, the two are mutually dependent upon one another. “Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is—insofar as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled” (italics added).
The extrication of epistemology from science, Einstein suggests, isn’t really conceivable at all.
In a correspondence with the distinguished physicist and philosopher of science, Ernst Mach, Einstein expresses shock over what little value many fellow scientists appear to attach to epistemology. As for Einstein, he is unequivocal in eschewing “this sentiment.” He explains: “When I think about the ablest students whom I have encountered in my teaching, that is, those who distinguish themselves by their independence of judgment and not merely their quick-wittedness, I can affirm that they had a vigorous interest in epistemology.”
Those scientists who are trained in philosophy, in epistemology, possess the ability to recognize that just because certain “concepts” “have proven useful in ordering things” doesn’t mean that they are “necessities of thought” or “a priori givens.” The philosopher-scientist is aware of the “earthly origins” of the concepts of successful scientific theories, and is “practiced in analyzing” them “and exhibiting those circumstances upon which their justification and usefulness depend, how they have grown up, individually, out of the givens of experience.”
The scientist who is also a philosopher is in a position to discern when those concepts figuring crucially in a scientific theory have outlived their usefulness, when they can no longer “be properly legitimated.” They can then be “removed” or “corrected if their correlation with given things be far too superfluous, replaced by others if a new system can be established that we prefer for whatever reason.”
What Einstein seems to be confirming is that to a far greater degree than even many scientists are willing to concede—and wildly at variance with the popular conception of Science referred to above—science, real science, is akin to critical respects to art, for it demands the exercise of imagination and creativity. At another place, he reiterates this, when he cautions against attending to the “words” used by the theoretical physicist in describing his own work. Rather, Einstein insists, we should “examine his achievements.”
This is because, Einstein explains, “to the discoverer in that field [physics], the constructions of his imagination appear so necessary and so natural that he is apt to treat them not as the creations of his thoughts but as given realities.”
This review of Einstein’s philosophy of science isn’t meant, necessarily, as an endorsement. It’s meant to emphasize that, as no less a figure than Albert Einstein himself attests, science is always underwritten by some philosophy or other. Bearing this in mind can immunize people against the seductive appeals to The Science™ for which political opportunists are known to make in advancing their designs.