Dr. Peter Trnka - April 25

What may Philosophy (of science, of morality) contribute to the Life Sciences Today?


Interdisciplinary research work typically takes an unproductive political form – a territorial struggle over concepts, methods, and values – with each side (discipline, microspecialization) claiming priority over any other. Such has been the history of the influential natural sciences (physics, biology) on everything else, and, equally, such is the attitude of many philosophers of science and applied ethicists when approaching natural science. Rather than repeating a worn and anxiety-producing performance, my talk suggests a simple alternative: any philosophy of science and applied ethics worth doing must satisfy one simple criterion, namely, eliminate, or blur, existing divisions of labor and specializations of intellectual work.

The post hoc ‘rubber-stamping’ typical of applied ethics and the after-the-fact critical lessons of epistemology and philosophy of science do little or nothing to shape ongoing scientific research and technological innovation. If the profound challenges in the life sciences in the 21st c. concerning adequate and ethical methods are to be addressed, existing divisions of intellectual labor need to be overcome. My suggestion is, in effect, a big cheer for the science studies movement which has, for the past several decades, sought to place philosophers, anthropologists, and the like on the ground with scientists.

How such a simple idea holds radical promise will be developed in the talk by way of critical analyses of three central works of science studies in the 21st c.: Nikolas Rose’s The Politics of Life Itself (2006), Evelyn Fox Keller’s Making Sense of Life (2002), and Philip Mirowski’s The Effortless Economy of Science (2004). All three works focus on language and metaphor; each argues that it is specialist control of language and metaphor that produces misunderstanding and problems in science, and, further, that opening discussion of foundational meanings and metaphors in science to a broader intellectual community is the promise of the future.

The author’s interest in form matching content point to much more of an interactive dialogue than a lecture with questions. The author will also draw on his involvement in Genomics Atlantic a decade ago and his ‘The process of large-scale collaborative science’ (Neis and Lutz, 2008).



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