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Philosophy's Kitcher Looks to Collective Good in Determining Scientific Research Priorities

By James Devitt

Columbia Philosophy Professor Philip Kitcher offers a democratic plan in order to establish priorities for scientific research in "Science, Truth and Democracy" (Oxford 2001), which the New York Times Book Review described as "a remarkable illustration of the sheer force of thought, the conceptual firepower, conferred by successful training in philosophy."

In explaining his work, Kitcher said he sees an "analogy between the practice of science and the making of maps -- just as there is not a universal atlas, there is no universal, complete science. There are only bits and pieces of science that respond to human curiosity and practical needs.

"There is no timeless standard for constructing the kinds of science we want. The challenge is to create well-ordered science -- that is science that promotes the collective good. That leads us to the basic philosophical question, 'What is the collective good that science should be trying to promote?' "

As a process for creating well-ordered science, Kitcher rejects the ideas of pure democracy, in which all citizens vote to determine the course of scientific research, and decision-making by scientists, policymakers or government leaders.

He instead suggests that the collective good would be defined by an "ideal discussion" among different parties informed about the possibilities of science as well as the needs and interests of society.

"The kinds of science that should be pursued are those that would be endorsed by that discussion," Kitcher explained. "How to get social institutions to mimic that discussion is a difficult empirical question. To address it, I advocate establishing a philosophical foundation to feed into empirical work in several fields, including political science and sociology. The result of this would be the construction of institutions that would determine the standards for the pursuit of scientific research."

"You can't get anywhere in answering fundamental question about the role of science in society until you have some clear idea of the goal," he added. "That's what my notion of well-ordered science tries to provide."

Kitcher's other published works include: "Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature" (MIT Press 1985), "The Advancement of Science" (Oxford University Press 1993), "The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities" (Simon & Schuster 1996) and "In Mendel's Mirror: Philosophy Reflections on Biology" (Oxford University Press 2002).

Kitcher is also an affiliated faculty member of Columbia's Center for Science, Policy and Outcomes, a Washington, DC-based center that aims to foster outcome-based policies for publicly funded scientific research.

Published: Mar 08, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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