Pharyngula

Philosophers are still grumbling about Lawrence Krauss, who openly dissed philosophy (word to the philosophers reading this: he recanted, so you can put down the thumbscrews and hot irons for now). This is one of those areas where I’m very much a middle-of-the-road person: I am not a philosopher, at least I’m definitely not as committed to the discipline as someone like Massimo Pigliucci, but I do think philosophy is an essential part of our intellectual toolkit — you can only dismiss it if you haven’t thought much about it, i.e., aren’t using philosophy at all.

So I’m pretty much in agreement with this post about the complementarity of philosophy and science. In fact, I’ll emphatically agree with this bit:

Scientists and mathematicians are really doing philosophy. It’s just that they’ve specialised in a particular branch, and they’re employing the carefully honed tools of their specific shard just for that particular job. So specialised, and so established is that toolkit, that they don’t consider them philosophers any more.

I’ll also agree with the flip side, where he defines philosophy:

Philosophy’s method is bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought. To the extent that something can be reckoned, philosophy can get there. As such, philosophy will never stop asking “why”.

But then I start to quibble (oh, no! I must be infected with philosophy!).

So what this is really saying is that science is a bounded domain of philosophy, while philosophy is unlimited, which sounds like philosophy has the better deal. But I’d argue otherwise: what’s missing in philosophy is that anvil of reality — that something to push against that allows us to test our conclusions against something other than internal consistency. It means philosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems (which may be essential for understanding more mundane concerns), while science is excellent at solving the narrower domain of real problems. Science has something philosophy lacks: a solid foundation in empiricism. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

I think that’s where philosophers begin to annoy us, when they try to pass judgment using inappropriate referents — which is also how scientists like Krauss can annoy philosophers. And philosophers are so good at rationalizing disagreement away while carping on others. For instance…

Because scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy.

Sam Harris’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for morality springs to mind, where he poo poos metaethics only to tread squarely in a metaethical dilemma. Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.

Or Krauss, who without a hint of irony, suggests that good philosophers are really just bad scientists, when in fact he’s a good scientist doing philosophy badly. His definition of “nothing” comes not from within science, but is a grope in the dark for a definition that conforms with his particular theoretical predilections. That’s not how one defines things in polite (philosophical) circles, as David Albert pointed out.

After stating that scientists are philosophers and that science is a branch of philosophy, we’re now told that scientists do philosophy poorly. So is he saying that scientists must do science poorly? I know who’s not going to get invited to my next cotillion, that’s for sure.

Rather, scientists do their brand of philosophy very, very well — philosophers seem to be playing a two-faced game here of wanting to claim science as one of their own when they like what it accomplishes, but washing their hands of it when they don’t like it. Nuh-uh, people, you want to call us philosophers, you have to live with the stinking chemicals and the high energy discharges and the reeking cadavers now too.

His examples aren’t persuasive. I’ll skip over Harris, I’m not particularly fond of his efforts to explain morality, but the Dawkins complaint is weird. He does not disregard the immense psychological and cultural roles of religion: in fact, those are reasons why he and I both detest religion, because we’re aware of all the harm it does and has done. That we think the physical and psychological harm is enough that we should change it is not a sign that we’re doing bad philosophy at all; it’s a sign that we scientifical philosophers consider reality and empiricism to be extremely important factors in our thinking…apparently to a greater degree than many non-scientifical philosophers.

As for Krauss, I thought the Albert review was awful — typical unbounded philosophy with no anchor to the truth. Krauss’s definition of “nothing” was not just a grope in the dark. It was a definition built on empirical and theoretical knowledge of what “nothing” is like. Krauss is describing the nothing we have, Albert is describing the nothing he thinks we ought to have. Krauss is being the scientist, Albert is being the philosopher, and the conflict is driven because the philosopher is unable to recognize the prerequisites to doing science well.

I think that appreciating the boundaries of both disciplines as well as their strengths is important for getting along. Krauss may not have appreciated what philosophy has to offer, but a substantial reason for the friction is the smugness of philosophers who disrespect the functional constraints required for doing good science. Scientists don’t get to be “bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought”. We also have to honor the physical nature of reality.

In my head I have the capacity to flap my arms and fly. In the real working world…not so much. You don’t get to complain because I’m not jumping out of the window.

Comments

  1. #1 Wesley Dodson
    February 26, 2013

    As far as philosophy is anthropocentric, like psychology (Freud!) it reveals much about its author, and if not scientific itself at least a worthy subject for science from which we can learn a great deal.

    Psychology is still highly philosophical (as psychiatry is pharmacological). All philosophy ultimately falls under anthropology (or perhaps neuroscience) as a subject of study. But even science is like a quilt whose patches don’t quite line up. And plenty of former “sciences” have been tossed into the bullshit bin (by scientists, of course).

    What’s your philosophy?

  2. #2 Tom
    February 26, 2013

    Good analysis in general.

    My only worry is about the question of the connection with reality. Philosophy is largely an a priori discipline, but I would deny that this means philosophy requires nothing more than internal consistency.

    Much of the evidence philosophers claim is from reason, or self-evidence, or intuition. Now, we can certainly argue about the conditions under which intuition is reliable, and so on, but in general, these a priori sources of evidence are very vigorously defended. So that’s where the connection with reality is alleged to come in with non-scientific philosophy: we are using intuition (or something like it) to learn genuine truths about the world. Again, there’s room for a lot more debate, but at least that shouldn’t be discounted in principle.

  3. #3 Jim Galasyn
    February 26, 2013

    Steve Martin: “If you’re studying geology, which is all facts, as soon as you get out of school you forget it all, but philosophy you remember just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life.”

  4. #4 Attila Szegedi
    February 26, 2013

    FWIW, Hawking and Mlodinow made the same argument in the very opening page of The Grand Design (excerpt available at http://www.npr.org/books/titles/147212443/the-grand-design)

    “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

    Strangely, either there was no public philosopher outrage on that. Or I missed it.

  5. #5 cdav
    February 26, 2013

    First of all: the discipline of science did not magically come into being, ex nihilo. It developed out of the so-called Western philosophical tradition. I think this is important to keep in mind when discussing their relation.

    “Science has something philosophy lacks: a solid foundation in empiricism.” This (sort of) ignores the relation of empiricism to philosophy. It is almost like saying “Hollywood has something California lacks: a definite location in Los Angeles.” The claim would be better expressed like this: “Science, unlike philosophy, is solidly founded on empiricism.” But should you wish to avoid misleading people, I think it is best expressed as “Science is founded on empiricism, which is founded on (Western) philosophy, which is not founded on empiricism.”

    “[W]hat’s missing in philosophy is that anvil of reality — that something to push against that allows us to test our conclusions against something other than internal consistency.”
    Scientists use logic and mathematics in order to test their conclusions against reality. But what do logicians and mathematicians test their conclusions against, if not internal consistency?

    “[P]hilosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems … science is excellent at solving the narrower domain of real problems.”
    To say that philosophy deals with “imaginary problems” bothers me for two reasons:

    First, calling the problems within the purview of philosophy “imaginary” can give the impression that those problems are not actual problems. Such rhetoric potentially contributes to the harmful culture of dismissing philosophy and it potentially discourages people from attempting to learn and understand philosophy. (I won’t both arguing why more people should learn philosophy; I’ll leave it to others to find out for themselves.)

    Second, the statement just seems careless:
    In order to categorize a problem as a “real problem”, without relying on dogma or intuition, I must determine what “real” means. Should I use science or philosophy to solve this problem of determining what “real” means? Well, assuming that “philosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems” and “science is excellent at solving … real problems”, I should probably choose to use the discipline that is excellent at solving the category of problem I want solved. Therefore, I must learn whether the problem of determining the meaning of “real” is a real problem or an imaginary one. How shall I do that, without relying on dogma or intuition? Perhaps I should determine what “imaginary” means. Shall I use philosophy or science to solve the problem of determining what “imaginary” means? Which one is better at solving this type of problem? But which type of problem is it? I think there is a problem with stating “philosophy is excellent at solving imaginary problems”, but how shall I learn if it is an imaginary problem or a real problem, so that I may solve it?

    “I think that’s where philosophers begin to annoy us, when they try to pass judgment using inappropriate referents — which is also how scientists like Krauss can annoy philosophers.”
    In my experience, philosophers annoy everyone, including other philosophers- such as natural philosophers like Krauss. Why was Socrates sentenced to death? Because he annoyed the citizens of Athens. And why was Galileo brought before the Inquisition? Because he annoyed the Church. Perhaps sometimes people need to be annoyed.

  6. #6 Daniel Gitlesen
    New Brunswick
    February 27, 2013

    “After stating that scientists are philosophers and that science is a branch of philosophy, we’re now told that scientists do philosophy poorly. So is he saying that scientists must do science poorly?” No, I don’t think so. He has reverted back to the classic distinction between philosophy and science here. They do their branch of philosophy very very well, but not when they step outside their branch and into the philosopher’s philosophy branch. I don’t know enough about the Krauss example, and I tend to disabree with de Botton, so I will not be too dismissive of Dawkins there (though he has made several serious logical errors elsewhere), but let’s agree that Harris’ book is pretty rancid. That was a very large step outside of science and into philosopher’s philosophy, ethics is the one area where I feel pretty confident science will never do anything but inform philosophy. There are several other instances where philosophers have done the same mistake by trying to do physics.

  7. #7 Ça alors!
    Montreal
    February 27, 2013

    Stephan Lupasco is the perfect example of a philosopher whose ideas could change the way we think and do science. His logic based on a third middle included (non-aristolian) is still little known, mostly because he didn’t know english, but I’m sure he’ll get more and more famous with time…
    For the curious…
    http://www.logika.umk.pl/llp/193/2-193zw.pdf

  8. #8 Buck Field
    Patagonia, Chile
    February 27, 2013

    >you can only dismiss it if you…aren’t using philosophy at all.

    Failure to “think about philosophy” doesn’t mean you aren’t using any philosophy, it means you’re using bad philosophy.

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    February 27, 2013

    I think it is best expressed as “Science is founded on empiricism, which is founded on (Western) philosophy, which is not founded on empiricism.”

    Empiricism isn’t founded on philosophy, it’s founded on the argumentum ad lapidem, which philosophy considers a logical fallacy.

    The trick is that empiricism, or science anyway, only makes claims about reality, not about truth…

    In my experience, philosophers annoy everyone, including other philosophers- such as natural philosophers like Krauss. Why was Socrates sentenced to death? Because he annoyed the citizens of Athens. And why was Galileo brought before the Inquisition? Because he annoyed the Church. Perhaps sometimes people need to be annoyed.

    Whoa. A Galileo Gambit. I didn’t expect that.

    Failure to “think about philosophy” doesn’t mean you aren’t using any philosophy, it means you’re using bad philosophy.

    “If you use reason to argue against reason, you contradict yourself. If you don’t use reason to argue against reason, you’re being unreasonable.”
    – Reportedly contained in this book.

  10. #10 Dark Star
    February 27, 2013

    I look at ‘science’ as our attempt at removing known/identifiable sources of error, illogic, and bias from our conclusions (usually by grounding them in empirical measurement, but that’s not the SOLE tool in the shed). There is no area of human thought that can be improved by leaving in known errors, confounding it with illogic and ensuring your conclusions are biased.

    On this view, ‘science’ is ubiquitous and philosophy is a snake swallowing its own tail.

    Sure, different rules apply in different domains, because we don’t ponder the historicity of an electron. But neither did Human minds come up with ‘logic’ in a vacuum – they observed patterns in Nature for millennia and painful extracted out rules, because those rules made sense when used.

    Human Reason is a wonderful tool but any conclusions drawn from reasoning are only valid if the premises and axioms hold to reality. There is no way to avoid the measurement test when it comes to reality. If your assertions are without a yardstick then, however beautiful they might seem, they are just shadows without substance.

    Sometimes only centuries later do we find better yardsticks than we started with.

    We used to measure time largely on the rotation of the Earth, that was a reasonable yardstick to a point… but ultimately it measured things other than time, so now we use atomic jiggles to ‘measure’ time more accurately. Our yardstick improved. Today we measure morality in terms of concepts like empathy, harm, well-being — tomorrow, with the tools of science, we will probe the brain itself and slowly unravel what morality really is at the neuronal level, our yardstick will surely improve.

  11. #11 Magpie
    February 27, 2013

    Good philosophy is absolutely grounded in reality – it’s just willing to follow possibilities that are a waste of time in science, because although philosophical paths can be falsifiable, they don’t need to be falsifiable straight away, at conception, in the same way a scientific statement must be. They’ve got room to move that we don’t in science, but that room in not infinite.

    There are plenty of philosophical ideas that *have* been falsified. This one can be, too.

    Albert’s unbounded nothing *isn’t* unbounded. There’s plenty of room to eat away at it, and philosophical reasoning can do that. Seriously, the grizzled old anthropic principle goes a long way to answering most of what he said. Or point out the self-contradiction of decrying that “his” nothing doesn’t seem to exist according to scientists, when his whole argument rests on “his” nothing being a valid construct. Um, well, then maybe the simple answer is that your nothing isn’t a possible state, or a relevant argument? Maybe the problem is with your basic assumption, eh? Show us why your assertion is even valid, then come back.

    As much as he asks “why?” the best answer may be to ask “why not?” The question itself may be meaningless – and it’s on him to show us why it’s not.

    I think of philosophy’s relationship to science as analogous to good experiment design, but on a larger scale. Is science really telling us what we think it is? How do we know? Are we really justified in making the statements we make – and to what degree?

    Every scientist should be familiar with the problem of induction. Every scientist should, in my opinion, be very familiar with the underpinnings of fallibilism. That stuff isn’t just hand-wavy nonsense.

  12. #12 Scott Hagaman
    Notre Dame
    February 28, 2013

    Shame on philosophers for using the word “nothing” to mean what it means. If only we had more good scientists who used the word “nothing” to mean “something” we’d be able to make so much progress! Then would could, like you, talk about the “nothing we have”, which, of course, is to talk about something rather than nothing. What sort of progress would we be making if we engaged in this kind of linguistic nonsense? Well, it would, of course, help us sell books with misleading titles. So there’s that.

  13. #13 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    February 28, 2013

    Every scientist should be familiar with the problem of induction.

    Well, science doesn’t use induction anyway, so…

    Then would could, like you, talk about the “nothing we have”, which, of course, is to talk about something rather than nothing. What sort of progress would we be making if we engaged in this kind of linguistic nonsense?

    We’d figure out that Albert is the one who’s engaging in linguistic nonsense here: in reification. “Nothing” doesn’t exist, it’s an artificial concept – even though language fails to distinguish it from reality.

    thistleofconsciousness.blogspot.com.au/

    Beautiful background, if a bit dark. Why did you post the link?

  14. #14 Scott Hagaman
    March 1, 2013

    >>We’d figure out that Albert is the one who’s engaging in linguistic nonsense here: in reification. “Nothing” doesn’t exist, it’s an artificial concept – even though language fails to distinguish it from reality.

    I have no idea what this means. Perhaps if you tried to explain yourself more clearly it’d be possible to respond to you. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, however. For example, you wrote:

    >>We’d figure out that Albert is the one who’s engaging in linguistic nonsense here: in reification.

    And that’s not a sentence in the English language. If you can find a way to communicate what you’re trying to express using proper sentences, then perhaps folks will be able to understand you. I assume that you’re trying to communicate with speakers of English. If so, try to use English sentences.

  15. #15 Scott Hagaman
    March 1, 2013

    It looks like you might not be a native speaker of English. Fair enough. Perhaps we have some kind of language fail here. If you can better express what you mean in German, please do so. I can handle German just fine.

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    March 1, 2013

    Albert is engaging in reification. He reifies the word “nothing”, essentially assuming what it describes must exist because there’s a word for it. Reification fits the description “linguistic nonsense” far better than anything Krauss has done.

    If we talked about “the nothing we have”, we’d soon figure out that Albert’s concept of “nothing” doesn’t correspond to anything in reality.

    Clear now?

  17. #17 Ça alors!
    March 1, 2013

    It was clear for me since the beginning… But maybe it was because english isn’t my first language…

  18. #18 Scott Hagaman
    March 2, 2013

    @David Um, no. Albert does not assume (or does not need to assume) that the concept expressed by his use of the word “nothing” refers to something that exists. Suppose I say that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. What I’ve said is true, and I’ve deployed a concept, namely, the concept of “Santa Claus”. I can deploy this concept by uttering true and meaningful sentences in English despite the fact that Santa Claus does not refer to something which exists. Similarly, Albert can deploy the concept “nothing” despite the fact that there is no referent of the term.

    If you wanted to dispute this point, you’d have to engage in a highly controversial semantic, linguistic and philosophical debates, and your controversial semantic, linguistic and philosophical arguments against Albert would be the sort of arguments that nobody needs to be convinced by.

    As such, you shouldn’t be interpreting Albert in such a radically uncharitable and absurd manner. That’s just poor form.

  19. #19 Alice C. Linsley
    http://lcaspanish.blogspot.com/2013/02/a-pragmatic-approach-to-knowledge.html
    March 3, 2013

    It scientists and philosophers followed C.S. Peirce’s 3 rules, there would be less conflict. “Upon this first…rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.”–Charles Sanders Peirce, 1896

  20. #20 Arctodus23
    The Human Genome
    March 3, 2013

    Empiricism is philosophy. Science itself branched out from Western Philosophy. Krauss actually uses philosophy.

    Arctodus23

  21. #21 Empiricism
    March 5, 2013

    Wow everyone seems to be using someone’s philosophy here! So much Empiricism *Clap clap*

  22. #22 Empiricism
    March 5, 2013

    You suppress the clear truth which is foundational to an understanding of the world and
    of oneself, yet you affirm a position which is contrary to your better knowledge. You my friend are clearly intellectually schizophrenic.

  23. #23 Empiricism
    March 5, 2013

    David Marjanović: Reification? Linguistic nonsense? Interesting philosophy you have there…………..

  24. #24 Empiricism
    March 5, 2013

    “If you use reason to argue against reason, you contradict yourself. If you don’t use reason to argue against reason, you’re being unreasonable.” – Again another philosophy.

  25. #25 Peter Fessel
    Greensboro NC
    March 5, 2013

    Pharyngula:

    Reviewer Albert has a PhD in physics as well as in philosophy– did you know that? He may not be as good a physicist as Krauss, but he is most unlikely to be less able than Krauss (and you)to recognize the prerequisites of doing science well.

  26. #26 Empiricism
    March 6, 2013

    Socrates was not a scientist but a philosopher (“a lover of wisdom”) and although he never discussed
    astronomy, he believed it gave important training in abstract reasoning.

    Socrates invented the method of dialectic, whereby he would ask questions and examine the
    answers to make the other person see the weakness of an argument.
    Socrates thought that real truth exists and dedicated part of his studies to find valid definitions of
    right and wrong.

    His belief of free and open discussion in political questions (including the ideal qualities of the leaders
    of the state), made him many enemies and in 399 BC he was sentenced to death for “introducing
    new gods and corrupting the youth”.

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