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Natural Philosophers and Seekers of Truths: The Missing ‘Ph’ in ‘PhD’


Inset of Dispute of Queen Christina Vasa and René Descartes by Nils Forsberg after Pierre-Louis Dumesnil the Younger via Wikimedia Commons. US Public Domain.

The History of the PhD

While many students aim to earn their PhDs, few know the philosophical history of the degrees they are pursuing. The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil)  began as the degree awarded in recognition of advanced scholarship and acknowledging that recipients had expertise needed to teach at a university level. These degree holders were considered philosophers of their particular fields. For example, early scientists were considered “natural philosophers” as they expounded and intellectualized on the matters of the natural world. In fact, the term “scientist” was not used until William Whewell coined the term in 1833. 

The modern PhD in natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc.) requires completion of original research in the discipline of interest. Students are trained to be specialists in their fields of interest, but often do not know the philosophical context of the scientific method (formalized by René Descartes in his treatise Discourse on the Method) which research science is based upon. 

The Science Split

As Jennifer Zieba explains, it was not until the late 19th-early 20th century that a separation between the natural sciences and humanities/social sciences (art, history, theology, etc.) began to form. The split between natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences was built on the premise that there is a fundamental difference in the worldviews of those who study and practice these disciplines, largely due to each group considering the other to be too broad or too narrow in their scope. Scientists are often considered “realists” who objectively search for answers using what can be observed and measured, while those who study humanities or social sciences are often considered “relativists” who consider cultural and social contexts of information and might consider the concept of truth to be much more complicated than “scientific truth” may imply.

Stephen J. Gould has previously described this conflict and proposes that we ought to find a “golden mean” between these schools of thought, which would promote the inclusion of new perspectives in both and ultimately aim towards higher human achievement. Students and trainees in the natural sciences would benefit greatly from participating in more discussions challenging them to think about big picture issues within science and encouraging critical thinking across disciplines. Many programs seem to agree, incorporating course elements focusing on rigor, reproducibility, and responsibility. Gundula Bosch of Johns Hopkins has been a leader in this initiative, starting the R3 program and advocating for incorporating critical thinking skills into doctoral curricula. If you’re interested in learning more, the Philosophy of Science Association (which has links to archives of published papers as a starting point) and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which includes entries on scientific method and observation) are both excellent resources.

The Skeleton by Leonardo da Vinci via Wikimedia Commons. US Public Domain.

Seekers of Truth, Seekers of Beauty

Scientists, philosophers, and artists alike are all, as Descartes describes, seekers after truth. Someone studying biology, someone studying psychology, and someone studying theology are all inspired by curiosity about the natural world. Each discipline uses different processes and approaches to answer questions motivated by the mysterious, complex, and beautiful world in which we live. Further, each discipline adheres (to varying degrees) to the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics, which seeks to understand the nature of beauty. Consider the colors of a sunset: a poet may be inspired to write about the memories of a lover, an artist might create a fantastic representation of what they’ve seen, and a scientist might consider how these colors are the result of small particles in the air changing the direction of light

Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most famous examples of the “Renaissance man” concept, was an artist, inventor, engineer, and scientist – among many other things – who used a combination of his skills in an attempt to understand more about the truths of the natural world. What resulted were beautiful drawings of flowers, animals, and humans that have greatly contributed to the fields of botany, zoology, and anatomy and physiology.

Despite the differences between the natural and social sciences, there is far more in common between the two than one might believe. Acknowledging these shared values has been a major component of the shift of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) perspective to the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). STEAM encourages collaboration between these fields by using fine art, data visualization, and even poetry to deepen understanding of scientific, technological, or mathematical concepts.This merging of worlds is an important first step to ensure that the next generation of scientists embraces the return to the scientist as the natural philosopher, the seeker of truth, and the appreciator of beauty. 

About the Author

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Audrey Ward is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. She is currently studying domestication and environmental adaptation of the non-model yeast species Lachancea thermotolerans. Outside of the lab, Audrey enjoys embroidery, board games, and podcasts.

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