Philosophy of science is currently working in close connection with the sciences. In addition, the philosophy of science has drawn on resources from the research on the history of science. Despite many complications in such collaboration – some of which I will probably discuss later -, it seems that we understand more and more about science and its development. Surprisingly, very little has been said about the possible futures of science (or sciences, to be exact) on the basis of our improved understanding of science and its development. Only fragmented lines of thoughts concerning estimates regarding the future of science are present in the literature.
This state of the field is not what one would expect: Science has changed considerably during its history. Not only have the contents, methods, goals and assumptions changed but so have its technological, social and cultural settings. Moreover, at least some aspects of science are dependent on these settings. The technological, social and cultural settings are in a constant flux and it seems reasonable to conjecture that the rate of technological, social and cultural change will increase in the 21st century. The conclusion, that (at least some aspects of) science will therefore also change in the future, follows immediately. Even though history and the philosophy of science have deepened our understanding of science, explicit conceptual tools to understand the estimating of possible futures of science are missing from its repertoire.
The estimating of possible futures of science require a distinct philosophical treatment because science is a human practice that is distinctively difficult to analyze, not least because we cannot study scientific activities without the resources and insights of that very science. Even though the future of science and technology are constantly discussed and estimated in many contexts, for example in discussions about technologies that could be available in the battle against climate-change, the goals, prospects, limitations and problems of such estimations have not received the systematic attention they deserve. This is a serious problem since the complications in the estimating of possible future of science are opaque and profound. I will discuss this “hard problem of future of science” in the next post.
The driving force in the project is the tension explicated most clearly by Karl Popper. He once argued that
“The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge. [However, we] cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.” (1957, ix-x.)
In the project, I reject the all-or-nothing approach that Popper exemplifies, and study to what extent the possible futures of science can be estimated (even if the future of science cannot be predicted). There are three reasons for this. First, the possible futures of science is too important a topic to be left without attention. Secondly, there have been genuine explanations of developments of science. To mention just one example, we understand how technological and political environments shaped the finding of the W boson (Krige 2001). In the light of these explanations, it seems difficult to understand how the possible future of science could be, in principle, impossible to estimate. Why would the close connections between explanation and prediction/estimation break down completely in the case of science? Of course, we cannot get estimations of future directly from explanations of the past processes but we “can learn from the past even while acknowledging that it does not repeat itself in the same way every time similar events occur” (Bradfield et al. 2016). At least, we can compare, contrast and debate possible future changes against causal framework of the past (ibid). Moreover, “history’s value to consideration of the future lies in its ability to tease out conflicting viewpoints, misunderstandings and biases” (ibid). By understanding how we explain the past, we can understand how the future is estimated, and by understanding the limits of such explanations (see Virmajoki 2019), we are in a better position to understand the limits of estimations of future. In the third place, philosophy of science has produced analysis that are relevant for estimating the futures of science. For example, these analyses has clarified the nature of scientific development (Donovan et al. 1988), the epistemic challenges (Stanford 2006) and the nature of scientific explanation (Wooward 2003). For these reasons, we should approach futures of science in a systematic manner. Such a systematic approach is explicated in this project.
Bradfield, Ronald & Derbyshire, James & Wright, George (2016). “The critical role of history in scenario thinking: Augmenting causal analysis within the intuitive logics scenario development methodology”. Futures 77. 56-66.
Krige, John (2001). “Distrust and Discovery: The Case of the Heavy Bosons at CERN”. Isis 92 (3). 517-540.
Popper, Karl (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge.
Stanford, P.K. (2006). Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives, New York: Oxford University Press.
Virmajoki, Veli (2019) Cementing Science. Understanding Science through Its Development. https://www.utupub.fi/handle/10024/147334
Woodward, James (2003). Making Things Happen. A Theory of Causal Explanations. Oxford University Press.