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As per title, I would like to hear your opinion on question that could be classified as part of the philosophy of science.

I know that there is a Philosophy SE site, but I think it is important to define the limits, as some questions that will be asked may border between the two domains.

I can think of various types of philosophical questions (please, feel free to edit my question and add other examples if you wish):

  1. Questions where science/biology is just the context, but for which some biological answer may be difficult to give. For instance:

    Clear mathematical patterns are pervasive throughout nature. Is that because mathematics is at the base of nature, or because it is the nature of our brains to look for simplifications in complex processes?

  2. Philosophical questions that can be, at least in part, explained biologically. For instance:

    It has been shown that our brain starts to process the information to make an action seconds before we become aware of it. Does that imply free will does not exist?

  3. Scientific questions that can also raise philosophical issues, such as:

    What are the advantage in the use of embryonic stem cells rather than adult stem cells for medical treatment?


My take on this is that question #1 belongs on Philosophy SE, it is not much different to ask "Are numbers real entities"?

As for question #2... that is a though one. Surely there is a huge amount of peer-reviewed scientific literature on the subject, and I am sure there is an even bigger amount of philosophical literature on it. I would say that I would ask to close that question if written as above, as it focuses on the existence of free will, but I would upvote the same question if focused on the processing of actions by the brain.

Question #3, would be on-topic, provided that the answers focus on the science rather than the ethical question of using embryos (which, however, could be mentioned).

So, what is your opinion on this type of questions?

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I don't think any philosophical questions would be on-topic here. Some philosophical questions might be the inspiration to ask about some specific biological mechanism, but the philosophy itself is off-topic.

So I'd say #1 and #2 are completely off-topic. For #2, a question purely about the processes in the brain would be on-topic, but I think it shouldn't even mention free-will.

A question like #3 would be generally on-topic, if not a bit broad. If a discussion about the ethics of this comes up in the comments, the moderators should stop it. This is not the place for philosophy, you can discuss the philosophy e.g. in chat, but not on the main site.

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  • $\begingroup$ Agree on #1 and #3 (ok, #3 is broad, but I couldn't come up with a better example..., feel free to modify it). Not sure I would agree on the point of not mentioning free will in #2, though, as that is how these studies are perceived, even in scientific press. Take, for instance, this news or this essay appeared on Nature. If we wish to discuss this type of questions we should also be ready to accept (but not necessarily solve) the problems they come with. $\endgroup$ – nico Dec 16 '11 at 9:46
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My thoughts on each:

  • #1 is probably off-topic. Biology is just a way to frame the question. You could have picked finance. Or photography. Or really anything where odd mathematical constructs appear a lot. It's a philosophy question at its core.
  • #2 is also probably off-topic, but it depends on how the question was phrased. Right now, as you've written it, it's a philosophical question - you've biologically established a premise, but are asking about a philosophical concept.
  • #3 is on-topic, although somewhat vague. That's a question about Biology - if someone wants to bring in the philosophical problems, that's up to them, but it is potentially on-topic.

An additional type of question that I do think is on-topic, and what I see a fair amount under the category of "Philosophy of Science" is the philosophy of doing science. Causal arguments, how evidence is constructed and used, etc. I personally think that that type of question - when its about the doing of Biology - is on topic.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point on doing science, did not think about that. $\endgroup$ – nico Dec 18 '11 at 9:50
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I really don't see a problem with overlapping with other sites. At some point, it becomes inevitable since it is impossible to define the boundaries so strictly that will avoid overlapping without leaving gaps in borderline topics. Unless it becomes the ground for flame wars, I would allow these kinds of questions and even encourage some. Let's be honest: how many of the biology.SE users will be routinely reading or writing in philosophy.SE?

  • For example, question 1 could be on topic. The main problem I see with its phrasing is the scope, rather than the issue discussed. The same question, but focused on one particular biological process, would be acceptable to me. If a discussion helps us to learn how we phrase our own questions (and thus, the kind of answers we'll obtain) in our every day experimentation, then welcome!
  • Again, free will is no less of an interesting process than walking or digesting. I don't see why we should not discuss it. The problem there is that the question is quite flawed. Question 2 could be rephrased to "what are the neurological mechanisms governing rational thinking and/or free will?", rather than proposing a logical construction based on an unproven (and most probably wrong) premise (i.e., "before our brain even starts to process it").
  • Lastly, I think we all agree in the broad scope of question 3. Which medical treatment? Which stem cells? Besides that, I do believe that ethical considerations should be evaluated together with its effectiveness and risks. As scientists we have a responsibility to perform ethical science and it is an issue we should be considering every day in every experiment we perform. IMHO, discussing it should be encouraged, but always in the frame of a very specific biological process or experiment.

To wrap up what I think, some philosophy, relating to a specific biological question, should be allowed. Broad, philosophical questions vaguely related to biology as a whole do not belong here.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for pointing out the error in question #2, I meant to write: "our brain starts to process the information before we become aware of them". I corrected it in the question. $\endgroup$ – nico Dec 22 '11 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's much better, although the question "do we have free will if we are not aware of our decisions?" is clearly not a biological one and thus off-topic. I think it's an important topic to discuss, but delimited to the biological processes involved. $\endgroup$ – Aleadam Dec 22 '11 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Aledam: that's exactly why I asked the question! :) $\endgroup$ – nico Dec 22 '11 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @nico yes, and it's a very good question, so we can define what are the boundaries of the acceptable questions. To wrap up what I think, some philosophy, relating to a specific biological question, should be allowed. Broad, philosophical questions vaguely related to biology as a whole do not belong here. $\endgroup$ – Aleadam Dec 22 '11 at 13:42

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