From The New Atlantis, Fall 2012:
Biological sciences, much like physical sciences, have been stripped of philosophical concerns, of questions regarding the soul or the meaning of life, which have been pushed off to the separate disciplines of philosophy and theology. Much of modern biology seeks to emulate physics by reducing the human organism to a complex machine: thinking becomes merely chemical potentials and electric bursts, interest and motivation become mere drives to perpetuate the genome, and love becomes little more than an illusion. Such accounts can become problematic if we consider them the only ways to understand human nature — and not least because our answers to these non-scientific questions are at the foundation of how we view the world, and so also of how we interpret scientific findings.
Every model that social scientists use, whether it is derived from physics, biology, or ecology, embodies certain philosophical assumptions about human nature and about the optimal functioning of a society. Viewing social relations as movements of a clock implies a set of beliefs quite unlike those of perceiving the same relations as functions of a cell. Since the work of social scientists is so closely tied to these philosophical concerns on which we tend to disagree, we usually see a number of models compete for acceptance at the same time. And because these metaphysical assumptions are usually unspoken, they set the stage for the competition between models to take the place of what was once an explicit competition between differing philosophical accounts of the world — only now while largely denying that any philosophical debate is taking place.
. . . . Regardless of whether we view society as akin to a physical machine, or a biosphere, or an organism, it remains crucial that we recognize the limitations of each model. But what we learn from [Thomas] Kuhn is that any science that separates itself from its philosophical bases renders itself incapable of addressing such questions even within its own limited scope.
. . . . The lasting value of Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that it reminds us that any science, however apparently purified of the taint of philosophical speculation, is nevertheless embedded in a philosophical framework — and that the great success of physics and biology is due not to their actual independence from philosophy but rather to physicists’ and biologists’ dismissal of it. Those who are inclined to take this dismissal as meaning that philosophy is dead altogether, or has been replaced by science, will do well to recognize the force by which Kuhn’s thesis opposes this stance: History has repeatedly demonstrated that periods of progress in normal science — when philosophy seems to be moot — may be long and steady, but they lead to a time when non-scientific, philosophical questions again become paramount.