I never realized how important philosophical thinking was to the natural sciences until I decided to take the philosophy class Rational Choice taught by Patrick Forber. For those of you looking for a humanities class that will challenge your thinking and improve your decision-making, look no further. Rational Choice covers the basic concepts and classic paradoxes of decision theory and game theory. Patrick Forber studies the philosophy of biology. Philosophy of biology is a subset in the field of the philosophy of science that focuses on applying philosophical concepts to biological questions and arguments. While the class Rational Choice does not focus explicitly on philosophy of biology, I recently sat down with Professor Forber to further discuss how the connection between philosophy and biology can lead to better scientific reasoning.
Philosophy of biology uses standard philosophical concepts and theories to evaluate the arguments and evidence produced in biology. Forber noted that the building of a scientific argument is like posing a choice to the reader to accept or reject the evidence supplied to them. One of the important factors in this choice is the constraint on the possibility space. In most cases in scientific study, there are several explanations that can be drawn from the evidence. However, not all of these explanations are considered to be plausible. By evaluating what is a true constraint on the possibility space and what is not, philosophers can evaluate biological arguments.
Another sector of philosophy of biology is evolutionary game theory. The basic concept of game theory is the decisions one agent makes against another agent as both act to maximize their potential gains. In biology, one philosophical challenge is how to mathematically and theoretically account for evolutionary mechanisms like spite in a population. How could the choice to hurt an opponent with no personal gain (and even a risk of potential loss) be astute? Through game theory models of values, population size, and probability, these questions can be explored.
Philosophy lends itself to biology because, as scientists, we want to build strong arguments with solid evidence to support. It is important that scientists keep in mind that, in the pursuit of knowledge, we look to prove something and provide a little better understanding of the world. Next time you are looking for an extra class, consider taking a philosophy class. The similarities between the goals of philosophers and the goals of scientists may surprise you.