I grew up in Vermont, a small state in the northeast corner of the United States. I enjoyed hiking and camping in the Green Mountains, sailing and canoeing on the state’s small lakes, and downhill skiing on the slopes of Mt. Ascutney. I also engaged in leftist leaning politics and experimented with states of consciousness. After high school, I moved to Vermont’s biggest city, Burlington (population, 38,000), to attend the University of Vermont. I planned to study biology, with the intention of becoming a veterinarian. I knew this would require leaving Vermont to attend veterinary school, but I planned to return to the Green Mountains to treat pets and farm animals after graduation. In my first semester at UVM, I discovered the world of science. I completed the undergraduate curriculum quickly, and started taking graduate level courses. Soon, I dropped the idea of becoming a veterinarian and decided to become a research scientist. I wanted to investigate how organisms work. This led me to pursue three majors at once (biology, biochemistry, and chemistry). But what I learned in my courses and from working in research labs with graduate students and postdocs led me to strange and puzzling questions, questions that no one else seemed to be asking. I found these questions so intriguing and so important that I felt driven to pursue them. These questions led me into philosophy and continue to drive much of my research today.
One of my favorite subjects at UVM was organic chemistry. In the undergraduate courses we learned how to apply a small set of simple principles to predict and explain the course of complicated reactions. Applying these principles made me feel powerful. It was so cool to learn about the hidden reality underlying chemical reactions and then use this knowledge to explain nuances of the biochemical reactions that I was learning about in biology and biochemistry. I wanted to learn more organic chemistry, so I talked my way into the graduate courses. In the meantime I studied physical chemistry and modern physics, and learned about quantum mechanics. When I returned to organic chemistry, I found myself confused. The principles that I learned about in the undergraduate courses in organic chemistry now seemed deeply flawed. They were incompatible with modern physics. But they couldn’t be! Could they? I first went to physical chemists and then to physicists thinking I was confused about quantum mechanics. But one after another said I had the physics right (and so much for organic chemistry!). I thought, if I understand the physics, I must be confused about the chemistry. So, I sought a meeting with the scientist who had inspired my interest in organic chemistry, A. Paul Krapcho. To my astonishment and dismay he said I understood the principles of organic chemistry. And then he agreed that these principles were not compatible with quantum mechanics. I can vividly remember sitting in his office hearing him say that the principles are used to “explain” reactions, but that the principles do not describe the way the world actually is. I was astonished because Dr. Krapcho was an accomplished scientist who was devoting his career to investigating and explaining organic reactions. Did he really believe he was working in fiction? I was dismayed because my passion for science was based on the presumption that I was learning about reality, the way the world really is. If organic chemistry was fiction, then what about biochemistry, cell biology and physiology?
I found time and again in my scientific studies, that science did not meet my expectations. Evidence always seemed inconclusive, apparently psychology was built on a foundation of sand, evolutionary biologists appealed to reasoning that was strangely elusive, and researchers in the labs I worked in were often straying from the scientific method. On the one hand, I was convinced that science was successful, that organic chemists were learning about how reaction mechanisms worked and that cell biologists were learning about the functioning of organisms. But science didn’t seem to be working in the way that scientists said it worked. When questioned, scientists retreated and either threw up their hands or suggested, as Dr. Krapcho had, that their theories and explanations were fictions. This couldn’t be! I had figured out that science doesn’t work the way people assume it works, but I was convinced that it nevertheless works. I realized that if I wanted to understand what science says about the way organisms work, I needed to first learn about how science itself works.
But how could I proceed? Scientists were not very helpful. They were like expert skiers incapable of explaining how they skied, when they shifted weight from one ski to the other, and dug in their edges around moguls. Some skiers were experts at doing it, but they were not good at describing how they did it or why their techniques worked. Scientists seemed to be the same, at least when it came to my questions about how science works. Then I remembered a philosophy course I had taken my second semester in college (to appease friends back home who worried that my obsession with science was ruining me). I thought the philosophy course would be a complete waste of time, but it turned out to be very interesting. I learned that grownups, in fact smart grownups, tried to answer questions that I had learned as a child not to ask out loud (e.g. Jim, are Mom and Dad really like us, or are they like alarm clocks? How can we tell?). And the philosophy professor seemed to know a lot about science. We even read a book about scientific revolutions, though I didn’t understand it. Perhaps the author was raising the kinds of questions I was now asking. It was a long shot, but I decided to set up an appointment with the philosophy professor to find out whether he knew of anyone who could answer my questions about how science really works.
When I talked with the professor, he told me that my questions were not crazy, and that there was a field aimed at answering them, the field of history and philosophy of science. The author of the book we had read, Thomas Kuhn, was indeed writing about the kinds of questions I wanted answers to! But the professor explained that the questions were extremely difficult and had not been answered. But progress was being made! I was delighted to learn that this was the professor’s own area of research. It was my good luck to have taken Introduction of Philosophy at my state’s small public university from Philip Kitcher. I switched from my three science majors to study the history and philosophy of science and stayed in Vermont for an extra year to study with Professor Kitcher. I decided to go to graduate school in history and philosophy of science so I could join the effort to answer questions about how science works, why it works, and what science can really tell us about the world. I have never looked back.