An Interview with Professor Howard Sankey

The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies is this year pleased to announce Howard Sankey’s promotion to full Professor. Since his arrival at the University of Melbourne in 1992, Howard’s research has remained at the forefront of epistemology and philosophy of science, his teaching engaging and reflective of his clear and ongoing enthusiasm. Howard’s interests and areas of expertise have been wide and varied, though his commitment to realism – which he describes as the ‘official position’ of Australasian philosophy – has remained a constant feature in his work.

In 2019 Howard Sankey was elected to the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences in Brussels, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of philosophy of science. In this interview with Eliana Horn, Howard discusses philosophy at Melbourne and in Melbourne since the 1980s, his own career, and the ongoing relevance of philosophy and philosophy of science.

How has Melbourne University’s philosophy ‘scene’ changed over your time here?

This will have to be impressionistic. When I arrived as a postgraduate student in 1982, I had the impression that a fair number of the postgraduate students in philosophy were working on theses on Donald Davidson. I attended classes by Barry Taylor on Davidson, as well as Frege. Taylor was deeply influenced by the Oxford philosopher, Michael Dummett, who defended a form of anti-realism.

At the same time, there was a sense that the department was broadly Wittgensteinian. Indeed, two retired philosophers who had studied with Wittgenstein, Douglas Gasking and Camo Jackson, were still actively involved in the department.

On the research front, there were more people working in ‘my’ areas then. In HPS, there were two philosophers of science, John Clendinnen and Henry Krips, and, in Philosophy, two epistemologists, Bruce Langtry and Len O’Neil.

Again, this is also impressionistic but I have the impression that Australian philosophy had a more distinctive ‘voice’ at that stage. The mind-brain identity theory defended by Jack Smart and David Armstrong, among others, was known as ‘Australian materialism’. Australian philosophy was characterised by being realist, naturalist, and materialist or physicalist. But Melbourne philosophy didn’t quite fit that mould. Michael Devitt spoke of how Australian philosophers tended to be realists, possibly because of the landscape and the sunshine. Things looked different to Barry Taylor from the cloudy and wet climate of Melbourne as compared with the warmer and drier climate of Devitt’s Sydney.

These days, I have the sense that Australian philosophy has a less distinctive philosophical voice, in part because so many Australian philosophers work overseas and so many philosophers working in Australian universities come from elsewhere. To speak for myself, I think something is lost now that Australian philosophy isn’t as distinctive as it used to be. I was quite fond of Aussie realism.

How have your own interests and research priorities changed over the course of your career?

I started out working on the problem of the incommensurability of scientific theories or paradigms, which was associated with Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul K. Feyerabend. My focus was the semantic form of the problem. The idea was that the meaning of scientific terms varies in the transition between theories, so that there are problems in translating from the vocabulary of one theory into the vocabulary of another theory. The apparent implication of that was that there may be difficulties in comparing what one scientific theory says with what another competing scientific theory says.  Donald Davidson had an important paper on this topic, called ‘On The Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’. So, I spent a good deal of energy working on Davidson.

But, at the same time, I worked on the causal theory of reference. Hilary Putnam, among others, had argued that a causal approach to reference would enable the challenge of incommensurability to be met, since it would allow one to show that reference remains constant through theory-change, which would permit comparison of the content of theories.

So, initially, I was interested in the application of ideas in the philosophy of language to the philosophy of science. But, once I had worked through that material, I turned my attention to non-semantic aspects of the problem of incommensurability, which relate to the variation of methodological rules or standards between theories. That is what ultimately led me to my current focus on epistemology, since I began to explore the possibility that the rules of scientific method might change without leading to epistemological relativism. A particular influence here was Larry Laudan, who was a visitor to Melbourne in the 1980s, and who lectured on the basis of the manuscript of his book, Science and Values. His lectures contained the first suggestions of his normative naturalist meta-methodology, which I later adopted into my more realist framework.

Once I began working on my response to the methodological form of incommensurability, it was just a matter of an evolution to my later work on epistemic relativism. This involved my sense that the basic argument for epistemic relativism was actually an argument – the problem of the criterion – that came originally from the ancient Greek form of scepticism known as Pyrrhonian scepticism. I combined my form of normative naturalism with Roderick Chisholm’s particularism to come up with a response to relativism. That work led me to take a more general interest in epistemology and to begin to lose interest in philosophy of science as such. I wrote a series of articles developing these ideas in detail. After I finished that series of articles, I found that I had become primarily interested in epistemology rather than philosophy of science.

One thing that hasn’t varied is realism. Because of the philosophers who most influenced me, Alan Musgrave, Brian Ellis, Michael Devitt, and, at somewhat more of a remove, David Armstrong and Jack Smart, I’ve been a realist throughout my career. In fact, I think of this as pretty much the ‘official position’ of Australasian philosophy. The view is realist both at the commonsense level of ordinary, everyday objects, but also at the scientific level, of realism about the unobservable theoretical entities postulated by our best scientific theories.

There have been sporadic interests as well. For a few years, I was fascinated by the topic of animal minds, especially by way of the research on chimpanzee language acquisition. I taught several classes on the topic, supervised a number of honours theses about it, but only wrote one paper about it. And, then, the issue of natural kinds and induction. I was impressed by Brian Ellis’s theory of laws of nature as being grounded in the essences of members of natural kinds. I drew upon Brian’s ideas and combined them with Hilary Kornblith’s approach to induction to argue that inductive inference is justified because the existence of natural kinds makes such inferences reliable. I wrote two papers on the topic, separated by twenty years.

In the past couple of years, I’ve written mainly about objectivity. This has been a matter of making explicit assumptions about the nature of objectivity that I made in my work on relativism and spelling these assumptions out in a way that makes them into an account of the nature of epistemic objectivity. I’d almost go so far to call it a theory of objectivity. In any case, it’s what I think objectivity is, even if it falls short of being a full-blown theory.

Do you sense a rise in ‘anti-science’ sentiment outside of academia? If so, do you think this is cause for concern? How might the philosophy of science challenge such sentiments?

It’s plausible that there is a rise of ‘anti-science’ outside of academia, though I wonder whether there is a rise so much as an increased manifestation of previously existing anti-scientific views.

In any event, I can think of two contemporary examples, of which we’re all aware. Resistance to claims that climate change exists and that it has a human cause appears to constitute resistance to science. In the context of the COVID pandemic, the resistance in some quarters to vaccination appears to be another form of resistance to science.

It’s possible that both climate scepticism and anti-vaccination are more complex than merely being anti-science. But, at face value, they appear to be anti-science, since they appear to reject what science is telling us about climate change and the efficacy of vaccines.

Is this a cause for concern? In both cases, yes. If resistance to the science of climate change makes the world slow to act to reverse climate change, then that’s a deep cause for concern. Similarly with anti-vaxxers:  if resistance to vaccination leaves populations vulnerable to the virus, enables it to continue to be spread, or allows new forms of the virus to emerge, that’s again a deep cause for concern.

What can philosophy of science do about this? There’s a range of things that it can do, from debunking myths about science that might lie behind anti-scientific thinking to critically analysing the science. One example that comes to mind is an article in Arena earlier this year by my PhD supervisor, Henry Krips, in which Henry points out a number of fallacies that were used in attempting to downplay the risks posed by the Astra Zeneca vaccine.

What should the goal of science be? Should we aim toward discovering objective truths or should we promote theories which promote, for example, the most social utility? How does philosophy of science deal with these questions?

This question touches on two different areas of the philosophy of science. The first area that it touches on is the debate between scientific realism and anti-realism. The second area is sometimes called ‘science and values’. The debates are distinct, though there is overlap.

As mentioned above, I’m a realist and, in the philosophy of science, I’m a scientific realist of a fairly classic sort. That is to say, I think that the aim of science is truth. If someone wants to disagree and say that the aim of science is knowledge, I won’t object, since knowledge requires truth. And, if someone wants to say that aim of science is explanation, I won’t object, since presumably we want true explanations rather than false ones.

The aim is truth at both the observational level and the level of the unobservable theoretical entities that scientific theories postulate or perhaps discover. I don’t say that truth is the only aim of science, just that it is the fundamental over-arching aim of science. There may well be other epistemic aims that science pursues, such as predictive accuracy, empirical adequacy, practical control of the environment, etc. But I’d say that these other aims are subordinate aims that sub-serve the over-arching aim of truth.

Where does that intersect with the value question, the question about social utility? In my view, it doesn’t make any sense to say that the aim of science is social utility, if that is taken to exclude the aim of truth. True theories can have a high degree of social utility. False theories can have a low level of social utility and may cause harm. I simply don’t see how we could wish for science to advance the aim of social utility without also advancing the aim of truth.

Where I see social utility coming into the picture is with questions about direction of research. For the last two years, the highest priority in medical research has been to find a COVID vaccine, develop drugs that can be used to treat patients with COVID and figure out how to treat such patients when they enter hospital. This is a clear example of social utility dictating the direction of research.

Do you think philosophers of science have a role to play in the context of a global pandemic and the way in which the scientific community has been called on (or perhaps impeded) to provide solutions? If so, what?

I can see that question as being understood in descriptive terms or in normative/prescriptive terms.  I’m not sure, descriptively, what role philosophers of science have played, though I’ve given one example of an article which raises concerns about the defence of Astra Zeneca. What role should philosophers of science play? Probably the role we should play anyway: analyse claims and arguments, clarify claims, make distinctions, point out fallacies. Just employ our critical reasoning abilities, basically.

If you were to design a new subject wholly from scratch, what might it be?

This would be about ten or fifteen years too late. I’ve been really struck by the work that X-phi [Experimental Philosophy] has done on intuitions. Whenever I teach epistemology, I am struck by the appeal to intuitions in relation to such examples as Gettier cases, fake barn country, Mr Truetemp, etc. By the way, I don’t see these kinds of cases in the philosophy of science, so this is a difference between the two sub-disciplines.

I have often thought that I would love to design a subject which involved empirical work on students’ intuitions about the cases that they encounter as they study epistemology. It would be wonderful both to be able to study their intuitions, but also have the students do their own work on intuitions.  But I don’t know how to design such a class, and I certainly don’t know enough about how to work with computers to be able to set one up.

What is the research area à la mode in the philosophy of science? What are people getting excited about? What are you excited about?

Not sure what gets other people excited. But I’m still trying to figure out how to give a halfway decent answer to Cartesian scepticism about the external world. I get excited by holding up one hand and saying, “Here’s one hand and here’s another” in the way that G.E. Moore did. And I remain fascinated by the fact that students are never persuaded by that simple proof of the external world.

For more on Howard Sankey’s work, see our previous Forum article on his election to the Académie Internationale de Philosophie des Sciences. 

In 2022, Howard Sankey will be teaching Science, Reason and Reality (PHIL20001); Knowledge and Reality (PHIL30016); and Topics in Contemporary Epistemology (PHIL40018).

Eliana Horn is a PhD student who is looking into the ethical considerations of using immersive virtual reality as a tool to realise social justice goals.