Evolving Thoughts

I have just sat through one of the most teeth clenchingly bad philosophy talks, given on phylogenetics by a philosopher who has never read anything sensible on phylogenetics to phylogenetic systematists. One of the last mentioned leant over to me and asked “Does this guy know anything?” I had to say no. I am protecting the guilty for reasons of manners, but people: If you are going to lecture professionals about what they do as a philosopher, at least try to learn the science first. Whatever you do, don’t think that because you’ve read a book by a critic of the topic that you understand the topic. Simpson didn’t get phylogenetic systematics, OK?

This is part of a general phenomenon I think of as arrogant airheadery. BiologistsPhilosophers have used biological examples for two millennia and more but until fairly recently they tried (like Mill, for example) to get the biology right. It seems that analytic philosophers particularly think they can a priori determine what must be right and what not. I’ll give it to the speaker, he braved the lions’ den, but he got mauled.

At least one honourable exception to the rule is Michael Devitt, a philosopher of language who has tried very hard to get what the biologists are talking about in his work. There are others. It can be done, without the hubris and snide tones when quoting those who, like Sterelny and Griffiths, actually do know what they are talking about as philosophers of biology.

I’m on a rant streak, it seems…

Comments

  1. #1 Brian English
    March 13, 2008

    Rant away. It makes PZ jealous.

  2. #2 Jason
    March 14, 2008

    Go on, go on, tell us who.

    I’ve seen similar things in philosophy of maths, although not quite as bad from the sound of it.

  3. #3 Ian H Spedding FCD
    March 14, 2008

    Is it my imagination or is there a phenomenon where people with expertise – often in largely unrelated fields such as law, computer programming or engineering – feel competent to criticise theories in biology, where they would not do the same so readily for theories in other sciences such as physics? Yet biology, it seems to me, is a far more complex subject than physics which, you would have thought, would have made anyone with any sense much warier of speaking about that of which they knew so little.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    March 14, 2008

    I’ve often wanted to make a similar rant about physicists. Some just wander into biology and make arses of themselves. In fairness, a fair few wander in and talk to biologists first. They’re much more likely to make a contribution.

    Biologists have used biological examples for two millennia and more but until fairly recently they tried (like Mill, for example) to get the biology right.

    I think you may have confused a biologist with a philosopher somewhere in there. The biologist will have t be decontaminated.

  5. #5 Thony C.
    March 14, 2008

    If you are going to lecture professionals about what they do as a philosopher, at least try to learn the science first.

    where they would not do the same so readily for theories in other sciences such as physics?

    There are whole libraries full of books about Newton and Newton’s physics written by philosophers (many of them very famous) none of whom have ever read his Principia because they are incapable of understanding it so they don’t bother. Just one of many examples. How many of the philosophers who pontificate about Copernicus have actually read De Revolutionibus? Not knowing the science has never stop philosophers from talking about it!

  6. #6 Brian English
    March 14, 2008

    Not knowing the science has never stop philosophers from talking about it!
    Oh great! I just bought Popper’s Logic of scientific discovery. It’s probably tripe. :(

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    March 14, 2008

    Biologists have used biological examples for two millennia and more but until fairly recently they tried (like Mill, for example) to get the biology right.

    I think the first word of this sentence should be “philosophers”.

    Yet biology, it seems to me, is a far more complex subject than physics[.]

    The basic concepts of biology are not much more complicated than physics. Biology, however, has much more elaborate detail in the particulars.

  8. #8 Soren
    March 14, 2008

    I sometimes post on a christian apologetics blog. He thinks that natural science is just a subset of philosophy – and he often declares references to empirically supported knowledge as inferior to his syllogisms, since they are based on irrefutable premises and uses impeccable logic.

  9. #9 ropty
    March 14, 2008

    AS someone that knows nothing about phylogenetics, except what was part of biology 101 college courses a decade ago. What kind of things did the philosopher say that were so off? I really am curious.

  10. #10 John S. Wilkins
    March 14, 2008

    If I were any more specific anonymity would be lost. Suffice it to say he couldn’t read a phylogram.

  11. #11 Benny
    March 14, 2008

    Thony C: Who are you thinking of re: Newton?

    I don’t doubt you though; I’m a philosopher and I have always been embarrassed by the fact that I hear the following phrase so often in seminars: “I haven’t read this, but…[enter mind numbingly uniformed and, often, entirely unrelated critique of work which has never been read].” A priorism at its worst!

  12. #12 Benny
    March 14, 2008

    Thony C: Who are you thinking of re: Newton?

    I don’t doubt you though; I’m a philosopher and I have always been embarrassed by the fact that I hear the following phrase so often in seminars: “I haven’t read this, but…[enter mind numbingly uniformed and, often, entirely unrelated critique of work which has never been read].” A priorism at its worst!

  13. #13 paiwan
    March 14, 2008

    Benny: My dear philosopher, please lower down your tone a bit. We are talking about life; and not constantly in seminars. Thony C is my teacher; one of the most valuable style in this blog plus his life experiences to guide me, perhaps u…

    I am a biologist, so I am a good listener here. Would you elaborate more about a priorism and its harm?

    Nowadays, I am pretty disturbed by several evolutionary biologists in the United States who are lecturing philosophy so loud. What a tragedy that this world is full of half baked philosophers!