If you spend any significant amount of time doing science or mathematics then some amount of philosophical reflection is inevitable. At some point you are going to take a step back and wonder what it is you are actually doing. I think it is good that there are people out there who ponder such things professionally.
That said, I think it is also true that scientists and mathematicians tend to view the philosophers of their disciplines as a bit eccentric. As far as I know, I have never met a mathematician who finds it interesting to ask whether numbers exist, or who enjoys debating the relative merits of Platonism versus formalism. I have no doubt that in some vague, unquantifiable way the world is a better place because clever people have written at length on these questions, but I just cannot work up any professional interest in them. For that matter, I have the same reaction towards many of the other esoteric things academics sometimes obsess over.
Of course, the relation between scientists, especially physicists, and philosophers of science has sometimes been a bit chilly. Richard Feynman famously quipped, to nods of approval from many scientists, that the philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. In his recent book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking was decidedly unkind toward philosophers of science. And most recently we have Lawrence Krauss saying this:
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.
Krauss’ statement is obviously absurd. After all, the philosophy of religion is a far bigger black hole than the philosophy of science could ever hope to be.
Now, I can understand why Krauss was feeling a bit vexed on this subject, since his book had just received an unkind review from a philosopher in The New York Times. Still, his sentiments were so exaggerated and over the top that the criticism directed at him is largely deserved. For example, his charge that only philosophers of science read work in the philosophy of science could be leveled (appropriately revised) at virtually any academic discipline. Moreover, I would think the philosophers could argue that it reflects badly on other people that they don’t take a greater interest in philosophy, just as Krauss would no doubt lament the unwillingness of so many nonscientists to read more about science. Krauss ought to have calmed down a bit before taking such broad swipes at his fellow academics.
On the other hand, I also have moments when I understand the exasperation. These are the moments when I see the truth in the adage that a philosopher is someone who kicks up a lot of dust and then complains he cannot see. For example, when it comes to anti-creationist writing I have generally found the writings of scientists to be more lucid and convincing than the writings of philosophers.
I was led to think about these issues by this post from Jerry Coyne. He embeds a video of philosopher Elliott Sober delivering a colloquium talk on the subject of whether it is logically possible that God could be subtly directing the mutations that arise in the course of evolution, even though biologists routinely describe those mutations as unguided. After forty-five minutes of close argumentation and minute philosophical reasoning he arrives at the answer all of you came to right after finsihing the last sentence: Yes, obviously that’s possible. Who says otherwise?
We have seen this argument before. In this post from February I discussed an interview with Sober that appeared in The Philosopher’s Magazine. Both in that interview and here he presents his argument as a corrective to some pervasive logical error he thinks has been committed by someone or other. But who are these scientists that actually need his philosophical services on this point? Who ever claimed that science has shown that it is flat-out logically impossible that God could be directing the mutations in a manner that is invisible to science?
(Just to head off an inevitable retort, Richard Dawkins (who has argued that the existence of God is a scientific question) and Victor Stenger (who subtitled one of his books “How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist”) are not counterexamples. As far as I know, neither one of them argues that any set of scientific facts does, or even could, logically refute the idea that God exists.)
By itself this would not be so terrible. There are worse crimes than belaboring the obvious. It’s just that there’s a clear context for these remarks. Near the end of his presentation Sober states his two goals for the talk:
- My goal is not to defend any theistic position, but to point out that the science does not rule out some of them.
- There may be good reasons to reject theism, but these are philosophical reasons, not consequences of evolutionary biology.
With regard to the first goal, I think this comment, left at Jerry’s website, is exactly right:
There’s no way to demonstrate conclusively that the telephone system works purely through the application of technology; there’s no inconsistency in supposing that certain elements of the phone system would cease to work if it weren’t for the daily intervention of some benevolent deity. We can’t look for God in every relay every second of every day, so we can’t prove He’s not at work there.
Should we suppose such a thing? Should we argue such a thing? I must conclude that you think we should, given that there’s no real philosophical difference between your arguments applied to evolution and your arguments applied to the telephone system.
I’m more interested in the second goal, since it illustrates another annoying tendency of certain philosophers. I am referring to the endless turf protection. The relentless nattering not about the arguments themselves, but about classifying the argument within the proper academic discipline. Obviously to go from the facts of science to nontrivial conclusions about God you are going to have to add to your argument some assumptions about God’s nature and abilities. If that transforms the argument from scientific to philosophical then so be it. Can we please now move on to the more important question of determining whether the arguments are any good?
Yes, there’s a gulf between scientific facts and theological conclusions. But it’s a very small gulf, readily bridged by assumptions about God that are very common. The millennia of suffering entailed by the evolutionary process does not by itself rule out God, but add the standard assumptions (among Christians at any rate) that God is all-loving, knowing and powerful, and suddenly the problem is obvious. Moreover, the conflict isn’t logical, but evidential. The numerous ways that evolution challenges Christianity (challenging the Bible on the age of the Earth and on Adam and Eve, refuting the argument form design, exacerbating the problem of evil, and diminishing human significance) amount to a strong cumulative case against the possibility of reconciling evolution and religion. They don’t logically disprove theism, but that is neither here not there.
But even here I might still be inclined to let it go were it not for a point Sober made both in his earlier interview and in the colloquium. Near the end of the question and answer period he remarked that he thinks that so much of the perceived conflict between evolution and Christianity is unnecessary. The science, properly understood, does not directly refute any central Christian claim.
Truly, though, it is the height of ivory tower nonsense to think that Sober’s argument makes even the slightest contribution to allaying the concerns of religious folks with regard to evolution. They are not worried about logical possibilities. They are worried about plausibilities, and Sober is quite up front that he himself does not find it plausible to think that God is directing the mutations. He points out there is not a shred of evidence for believing any such thing. He could have added that there are grave theological problems with such a suggestion, some of which I discussed in my previous post.
As a final point I would note that there is nothing new in Sober’s argument. The suggestion that God is subtly directing the mutations is commonplace in the literature of theistic evolution. Late in the session, Michael Ruse points out that physicist Robert John Russell has long argued for this general view. Ken Miller has made similar arguments. I am not aware of anyone who has responded to these gentlemen by saying their arguments are logically impossible.
In short, Sober’s presentation reminds me of John Hodgman’s “You’re Welcome” segments on The Daily Show. Sober struts in claiming he’s going to correct a logical fallacy absolutely no one has made, takes forty-five minutes to establish an utterly trivial point, is keen to remind us that we need philosophers to explain these things to us, and then coolly dismisses the idea that there is any necessary tension between non-fundamentalist Christianity and evolution. A bravura performance.