Steve Fuller

The Philosopher’s Battle

The first in our series on this year’s group projects by Science Communication students is ‘The Philospher’s Battle’, a radio package by Keeran Flora, Julie Gould and Annie Mackinder.

Science has often been described as a game, with many rivalries, influences and champion theories: this is mirrored in the philosophy of science. We  explored this idea by embracing the spirit of a tournament to discuss the different leading philosophers of science. We present a “live” radio commentary of a philosophy tennis tournament, with Aristotle and Francis Bacon in the first match, followed by Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper in the second. This is complemented by an expert analysis of each match by Professor Steve Fuller, a social epistemologist from Warwick University.

Our project focused on four key ideas that we touched on during the ‘Science and its social contexts module’ of our course. Firstly, despite their origins in the 16th century, many philosophers’ ideas have value in science today. Secondly, some ideas are considered more valuable, giving rise to a perceived rivalry between philosophers. Thirdly, the philosopher’s ideas were often in opposition, and finally, the prominence of each philosopher and mode of thought varies over time. A tennis tournament seemed like an ideal metaphor to portray these concepts as in both philosophy and tennis, a wide variety of methods and techniques can be used to “play the game”.

The idea was to flesh out the metaphors: “the ball is in your court” and “that’s a smashing idea!” These metaphors are ideal for communicating the philosophy of science, allowing us to explore the ideas of one philosopher by putting his ideas up against his “rival”. Obviously, there is the issue of time: Aristotle and Francis Bacon didn’t produce their theories in the same age, so the tournament is set in an abstract spatial and temporal dimension.

In this project, the game of tennis became like the game of science and the players approached it as if it were science. They use their philosophies to outsmart one another. Throughout the games each philosopher believes that their method of play is the correct and most worthy, therefore perfect for outwitting their opponent.

There are limits to this metaphor. Firstly, the choice of metaphor is not meant to suggest that the history of the philosophy of science is a series of battles. Instead, it is a never-ending tournament, where the key “players” are constantly progressing and developing ideas that build on the previous ways of thinking. Wimbledon is a tournament in which players progresses through the stages; there are winners and losers, and a sense that the champion is the best in the competition. And, of course, there are spectators and supporters at Wimbledon: in our metaphor, these represent the continuing influence that the philosophers have over the public.

We used the philosophies of the four philosophers as a portrayal of their character. For example, Popper is portrayed as bitter and angry as his ideas weren’t as popular as he would have liked. His philosophy is about challenging the norm, and how scientists should try to falsify their hypothesis. This brought to mind John McEnroe; a sultry, moody tennis player who was famous for challenging the umpire and criticising opponents. We therefore projected Popper onto a McEnroe like character and had Popper first argue with the umpire, and then shout McEnroe’s classic line “You cannot be serious!”

For us, this piece was incredibly enjoyable to make. We hope it provides a different way of looking at the ideas from four of the most famous philosophers of science.

Keeran Flora, Julie Gould and Annie Mackinder are all currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College.

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