Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why science still needs philosophy

Tonight’s NOVA episode on PBS was about intelligence in great apes and what specifically, whether just by degree or by kind, separates their intelligence from ours.

That said, one of the research experiments, described in detail by the lead researcher, seems to have been highly overinterpreted.

The scientist said he had tested chimps’ counting ability by displaying blocks with varying numbers of dots on them, similar to dominoes or dice, then gotten them to match up what they saw on different dots, up to a count of 9, with a set of blocks from 1-9 on a string.

After working with individual dots, he got them to look at several dot-blocks in a row, and the chimps pointed out numbers in correct order. (As proper, the numbers, on blocks similar to child’s play blocks, were strung randomly rather than in numeric order.)

He then said he repeated the experiment, number blocks in the same order, while hiding part of the number blocks. He claims this is proof of how chimps can count.

I see it as proof of nothing of the kind.

Rather, it seems to be quite possibly nothing more than proof of chimp acuity in short-term visual memory. That itself might be worth more study, but it’s nowhere near earth-shaking.

I’d like to think that a philosopher, especially a cognitive philosopher, or a cognitive scientist well grounded in cognitive philosophy, would readily have picked that up as well. Perhaps many evolutionary biologists also would. But, are we sure?

And that is one evidentiary sample why, in my opinion, science still needs philosophy.

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