Associate Professor Howard Sankey Appointed to the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences

In 2019 Associate Professor Howard Sankey was elected to the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences (AIPS) in Brussels. This election marks his recognition as one of the world’s leading philosophers of science. To celebrate this achievement, we introduce Howard Sankey’s work below, in an interview conducted by Philosophy PhD candidate Adam Govers.

When did you first develop an interest in the philosophy of science?

I was an undergraduate student of philosophy at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Initially, I didn’t have an interest in the philosophy of science. If anything, I was more interested in literary aesthetics and French philosophy.

The turning point came when I took a class on the philosophy and history of science taught by Alan Musgrave and Martin Frické. Both Alan and Martin had studied at the London School of Economics. They were deeply influenced by Karl Popper, the dominant figure in philosophy of science at the LSE. So, I was presented with Popper’s ideas, especially his falsificationist view that the method of science is not to inductively establish theories but to rigorously test theories in the attempt to show them to be false. At the same time, I learned from Alan and Martin about Imré Lakatos, a colleague of Popper’s, who developed a sophisticated form of falsificationism known as the methodology of scientific research programmes. I was also exposed to the debates that Popper and Lakatos entered into with the other main figures and tendencies in the philosophy of science. Popper was a leading critic of logical positivism, which was one of the major movements in early twentieth-century philosophy of science. He objected to the positivist view that only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful, since that would make scientific theories meaningless. Popper and Lakatos were both critical of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn about the lack of a rational basis for the change of theory that takes place in scientific revolutions, as well as the “epistemological anarchist” suggestion of Paul Feyerabend that there is no scientific method, so that “anything goes”.

I found all of this quite exciting, and went from having no particular interest in the philosophy of science to being very much interested in it indeed. The influence, especially from Alan, and, thereby, indirectly from Popper, has stayed with me throughout my career. It has provided me with the realist outlook that underlies all my work. As a commonsense realist, I hold that the ordinary, everyday world is an objective reality that exists independently of us and of which we are able to have knowledge. Further, as a scientific realist, I think that the advance of science provides us with a continual increase of genuine knowledge of aspects of reality that we may be unable to directly perceive using our senses unaided (e.g., atoms, genes, etc.)

Though I no longer count myself a Popperian in the strict sense of rejecting induction, I have continued to see the philosophy of science through a Popperian lens. I can’t count myself a Popperian in the strict sense, since I have written two papers in which I attempt to provide a justification of induction, whereas a strict Popperian must reject the very existence of inductive inference.

Why is the philosophy of science an important field of research and what benefits does research in the field provide society and our understanding of scientific practice?

I have two takes on this question. The first take is in a sense the obvious one. It should be perfectly obvious to anyone who thinks about it that science plays a tremendously important role within modern society. Given the central importance of science to modern society, any discipline which seeks to understand the nature of science, scientific inquiry, and the place of science in our culture is an important discipline, since improving our understanding of something that plays such an important role is an important task.

The second take on the question relates to how I see philosophy of science in relation to philosophy. Science is one of the main (perhaps the best) sources of genuine, reliable knowledge of the natural world, as well as of the social world. Thus, science is of tremendous epistemological significance. I see epistemological questions about the nature, scope and limits of knowledge as among the most important philosophical questions that we can ask.

But, apart from that, for me, personally, these are the questions that I find most interesting to explore. As for the benefits of the philosophy of science, it seems to me that having a more refined critical understanding of the nature of science, especially the epistemological aspects of scientific research, is of great benefit, since it means that we have a more balanced and refined conception of what science is and what it can do for us.

Since the science wars of the 1990s, public trust in science has eroded. This issue is a factor in many current crises, including climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement. The topic has received interdisciplinary interest. How has research in the philosophy of science influenced and responded to these changes?

I wouldn’t want to place the blame for the loss of trust in science on philosophy of science. But it’s clear that some of the ideas about science that emerged in the aftermath of the post-Kuhnian ‘historical turn’ in the philosophy of science might be seen as encouraging such a loss of trust. The ideas that observation is theory-laden, that there is no fixed scientific method, and that choice between scientific theories (or Kuhnian paradigms) cannot be based on rational grounds would certainly seem to raise a challenge to the authority of the sciences. The reaction to these ideas among philosophers has been fairly critical. Philosophers have sought to show that there may be good objective grounds for choice between theories, and that, whether or not there is a fixed scientific method, methodological considerations can provide an objective basis for such choice.

In addition, those of us who have sought to defend a realist interpretation of science have tried to defend the idea that scientific research is able to arrive at the truth, or, at least, increasingly approximate to the truth, and that moving closer and closer to the truth about the world constitutes scientific progress. It’s difficult to say, though, whether the philosophical reaction to some of the relativistic and anti-realist themes of the historical turn have had an influence outside of academic philosophy of science.

The Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences has a long history with the tradition of philosophy of science. How do you see your work fitting within this tradition and the questions it has sought to answer?

My work is located in the tradition of scientific realism, which, in its current form, arose with the demise of logical positivism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the same time, I have been involved in the attempt to respond to the historical turn by combatting inflated claims about the incommensurability of paradigms, as well as various relativistic and irrationalist tendencies that emerged from the historical turn.

If we think of traditional philosophy of science as being either logical positivist or logical empiricist, then I wouldn’t see myself as falling within that tradition. However, if we think of traditional philosophy of science as being devoted to questions about the nature of the methodology of science, the rationality of science, and knowledge-producing nature of scientific inquiry, then I fall squarely within traditional philosophy of science.

On top of that, the sort of philosophy of science that I do is what is nowadays called ‘general philosophy of science’, as opposed to the philosophy of some specific science (e.g., philosophy of biology). Traditional philosophy of science was general philosophy of science which raises and seeks to answer general questions about the nature of science. I definitely fall into that tradition.

What research are you involved in today?

I’m currently working on an exploratory project on the nature of objectivity. I’m particularly interested in epistemic objectivity, by which I mean objectivity in relation to knowledge and justified belief.

I distinguish three main forms of objectivity. The first is ontological objectivity, which has to do with how reality exists in its own right, independently of what we think about it.

The second is the objectivity of truth. A claim or belief about the world is true or false as a matter of how the objective world is, again, whatever we think about it.

The third type of objectivity relates to the basis of our beliefs or knowledge about the world. A justified belief has an objective basis if it is appropriately based on good grounds, such as solid empirical evidence, or satisfies appropriate norms of scientific methodology.

I come to this topic based on earlier work that I’ve done on the nature of the warrant of methodological norms. Following Larry Laudan, I adopt what’s known as a normative naturalist approach to the warrant of methodological norms, though I have modified Laudan’s approach to make it fit within a realist framework. The basic idea is that methodological norms are to be conceived as tools of inquiry which can be empirically evaluated to determine whether they conduce to truth in a reliable manner.

Turning, then, to epistemic objectivity, what I want to say is that a belief, or the acceptance of a theory, is objectively warranted to the extent that the belief or theory-acceptance is based on (or complies with) methodological norms which have been or can be empirically shown to lead to truth.

The problem that I’m concerned with relates to the choice of methodological norms. I assume that there is a multiplicity of such norms, so that a choice between applicable norms may need to be made. The fact that a choice may need to be made suggests that there is a subjective element that must enter into the scientist’s choice to apply, or appeal to, a particular norm or set of norms.

The hunch that I am currently exploring is that contemporary work on virtue epistemology, which deals with the epistemic role of cognitive skills or virtues, can provide an account of the choice between epistemic norms. My hope is that it can be shown that an appropriate use of the skills or virtues in judgements involving a range of methodological norms may inject an element of objectivity into what might otherwise be a subjective decision. At any event, that’s what I’m currently thinking about.

The Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences was founded by the philosopher, theologian and mathematician Stanislas Dockx in 1947 thanks to the encouragement of prominent scientists and philosophers at the time such as Einstein, Carnap, Popper and Schrödinger to establish an international institute for theoretical sciences. This celebrated organisation bringing together the world’s leading philosophers of science and scientists with an interest in philosophy, to discuss fundamental questions of the philosophy of science in a spirit of free inquiry and open dialogue. Current members include Noam Chomsky, Ian Hacking, Steven Pinker and Bas van Fraassen. The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies congratulates Howard Sankey on this prestigious appointment.

Howard Sankey teaches into the following undergraduate Philosophy subjects: Philosophy: The Big Questions (PHIL10002), Science, Reason and Reality (PHIL20001), Knowledge and Reality (PHIL30024), and Topics in Contemporary Epistemology (PHIL40018).

Feature image: Associate Professor Howard Sankey