Dec 02 2013

Is Philosophy Stupid?

Photo of me behind the podium, hands raised in gesture, speaking. Red-silver tie on white shirt under a dark grey suit jacket. Hair shaggy. Glasses hipster.My Skepticon 6 Talk is now available for viewing. Check it out on YouTube: Is Philosophy Stupid? (Thankyou Hambone Productions!). Ad revenue goes to charity. Also for convenience here is the link to my ancillary materials for that talk, a page that includes a link to a non-animated PDF of the slideshow, a rough text for the talk (not exactly the same as what I spoke, but close enough in most salient points, and the text has a few gems I didn’t have time for in the speech), and two bibliographies for further reading, one on how to become a good lay philosopher, and another on popular recent critiques of philosophy.


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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    I can think of some pretty stupid philosophers. Alvin Plantinga comes immediately to mind.

  2. 2

    I’ll definitely check out “The Philosopher’s Toolkit.” Anyone can plug their own work, but what I really appreciate about what you do is you promote other people’s work as well. Watching your speeches has caused me to explore many different authors and I have learned a lot from doing that.

  3. 3

    It can be very hard to judge these things from personal experience. But nobody will pay for scientific surveys wil they? Absent that, I must say ithe orthodox position is that Plato is the de facto founder of philosophy (“footnotes to Plato” someone said…Russell?) Aristotle is a dead dog and, reading between the lines, rather more disdained because he wasted time (on what I would call science) and because Chrysippus was the true logician. (But Eudoxus doesn’t get the credit for Aristotle’s astronomy, which seems inconsistent to me.) . Massimo Piglucci and Stephen Law and such fallacy mongers are pretty much the outer limits of accessibility in popularization. And Mario Bunge is some eccentric who was given refuge from the Dirty War but whom no real philosopher pays any attention to.).

    These aren’t palatable conclusions. I have Mario Bunge on my Kindle. I’m even so retrograde as to think that the syllogistic approach can be superior for highlighting the importance of sound arguments, not just valid arguments. If I recall correctly, Descartes in the opening of his Method defined philosophy essentially as what gentlemen should believe. (My copy is hidden in my “library” which includes boxes and boxes in the attic.) Which makes me think that philosophy is a species of rhetoric, devoted to the appeal to reason, as opposed to the appeal to the emotions (rhetoric proper,) the appeal to authority (law,) and the appeal to revelation (theology.) I would prefer that philosophy would be the reflection on human activities (including the sciences and the arts,) scouting the frontiers and reporting the findings in natural language as best possible.

    The thing is, what I would like to think, just doesn’t seem to be the way it is, and what I don’t like, does. I must admit that your definition of philosophy is awfully close to a broad definition of science. In particular, it does seem odd to think that string theories similarity to metaphysics like Platonic forms or maya or the Tao or whatever is more important than its difference. Somehow I can’t picture a neoThomist facing string theory’s challenge to his metaphysics or a Leibnizian identifying a Calabi-Yau manifold with the monad. It really does seem that in addition to a very broad definition of philosophy you’ve assumed a very narrow definition of science as composed almost solely of measurements and facts, with concepts almost excluded. I’m not sure by your standard, for instance, “entropy” wouldn’t by a concept in physics, but a philosophical construct.
    That doesn’t seem right but I can’t see how I’m misunderstanding you.

    The ancillary materials have inspired me to order Fischer on interlibrary loan.

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      You have a strangely emotional and nonlogical take on things.

      Plato can no more be called the founder of philosophy than Thales centuries earlier, or Socrates immediately before Plato. But they did not turn philosophy into a systematic study. Aristotle was the first to do that. So calling Plato the founder of philosophy is like calling early healers the founders of medicine, when really the first to systematize medicine as a field of study was Hippocrates, which means really he should be called the founder of medicine as a systematic field of study.

      Chrysippus advanced on Aristotle (via the Stoic school), just as Theophrastus and Strato did (within Aristotle’s school); and Galen eventually improved on Chrysippus. And there were others who improved on Aristotle as well. Countless. Just as there were subsequent physicians, like Herophilus, who improved on the science founded by Hippocrates. That does not change the fact that Hippocrates started the whole project. Neither does the fact that later philosophers used the systematic methods developed or coordinated by Aristotle to improve on him change the fact that Aristotle started that whole project. So he’s still the founder of the program.

      Meanwhile, your veiled dismissal of Bunge for being a foreigner are just this side of ad hominem bigotry.

      As to the rest, I can’t fathom your point. I demonstrated that science is a branch of philosophy. Given that fact, your remarks make no sense, as anything other than just agreeing with me.

  4. 4
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    One of the reasons why Artificial Intelligence has few credited successes is that once a field is sufficiently understood it no longer calls itself an AI problem. So even though Expedia and Kayack use AI techniques to find your airfare and route it is not thought of as AI, it is considered to be just analysis.

    Philosophy suffers from the same problem. Russell and Whitehead considered themselves to be philosophers rather than mathematicians. Principia Mathematica set the logical framework on which all modern computer languages are based. But is it categorized as pure math rather than philosophy.

    Epistemology was one of the foundations of the Web. Steve Jobs built Apple on an aesthetic criteria.

    What people are really arguing about when they are talking about ‘philosophy’ like this is really just metaphysics and they assume that because metaphysics cannot provide any analytic answers, it is useless. But metaphysics can certainly rule out answers or at least establish that they are vanishingly unlikely. We don’t believe in Baal or the Inca Gods any more and nothing bad has happened as a result of refusing to worship them.

    Dismissing bogus metaphysical theories is a worthwhile exercise even if we cannot arrive at metaphysical certainty.

  5. 5

    Thanks Richard. Right on the Monet.

    1. 5.1

      Correction: right on the “money” – the blog was on philosophy with aesthetics getting only a bit part. There is beauty in knowledge, of course. Cheers

  6. 6

    You got to love youtube’s “watch later” button. Had a short look, looks promising.

  7. 7

    I liked this talk a lot.

    It brings up a question I’ve had for a while, though, about your prominent use of the term ‘metaphysics,’ a word I’ve never been able to understand. If I go to wikipedia, for example, I’m told that metaphysics is

    concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it…

    So my question is: how is this different from physics? The wikipedia article goes on to list 9 central questions, all of which I can immediately identify as matters of physics, so I have always been left scratching my head, wondering what the purpose of this word, ‘metaphysics’ is.

    Pending your explanation, I’d like to tentatively propose that all metaphysics is actually physics, which brings me naturally to an observation, concerning your diagram of Aristotle’s 6 point systematization of philosophy. We have both concluded that questions of ethics are empirical questions, thus ethics is a branch of physics. Aesthetics answers the question, ‘what is good?’ and so is the starting point of ethics, and is thus also physics. Politics is trivially a branch of ethics – physics again. Epistemology? Since answering any question about ontology necessitates at least an implicit answer to the question of what constitutes a valid procedure for answering such questions, we can say that epistemology is also a branch of physics. More directly, perhaps, we can consider epistemology as the study of machines for making valid inferences (inferences with measurably good correspondence with reality), and thus a study of natural phenomena.

    So, with the tentative inclusion of metaphysics, I’m inclined to think that all parts of Aristotle’s program fit inside physics, and that, therefore, all philosophy is science, and all science is philosophy. Of course, I’m making the same important distinction as you, between philosophy (1), the educated attempt to understand reality (my intended usage) and philosophy (2), a label applied to the activity of people traditionally termed philosophers. (A similar distinction should also be made for science, as emphasized by the famous motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba.)

    Could it be that failure to recognize this identity between science and philosophy is one of the greatest contributors to two things that we apparently both would like to see less of: (1) lousy philosophers and (2) scientists who dismiss philosophy as useless?

    I’m interested in your thoughts. And well done again on your great talk.

    1. 7.1
      Richard Carrier

      So my question is: how is this different from physics?

      Metaphysics is the whole program. Physics is just the tiny part of it that we have enough data to resolve with scientific certainty.

      But overall you are reductively correct: it can all be reduced to physics conceptually, just not in practice (or at least not yet). Even epistemology reduces to the physics of computation (a fact Christians find disturbing), and of course I’ve argued that ethics reduces to the physics of complex systems (in The End of Christianity) and aesthetics to neurophysics, and so on.

      But you would benefit from reading my discussion of the difference between methodological reduction (which cannot be performed here in practical terms) and ontological reduction (which is what you are actually talking about) in Sense and Goodness without God III.5.5 (pp. 130-34). This explains why in fact physics remains a subset of metaphysics and not the other way around. Although in any completed system of knowledge (which may never exist) they would merge into a single subject, along with everything else.

    2. 7.2

      Thanks for the reply. I’ve read that passage in SAG before, but even going over it again, I’m afraid I’m no wiser as to the function of the word ‘metaphysics.’ I get the point, of course, about methodological reductionism, and naturally, I wouldn’t advocate measuring and modeling individual atoms in order to predict matters of e.g. economics. But I think you agree that economics is nonetheless a physical phenomenon. Certainly not metaphysical (?).

      Anyway, one physicist will use data gathering and processing techniques that are as totally useless to another physicist as they are to a psychologist. What makes these techniques valid, however, across all fields of learning, is always the same basic set of methodological principles. All methodology sprouts from the same root. I’m afraid the relevance here of your point about methodological reductionism is somewhat lost on me. Are you suggesting that metaphysics uses a different methodology? Given what I currently know, and assuming that its methodology is valid, I’d have to reject that.

      You say

      Metaphysics is the whole program. Physics is just the tiny part of it that we have enough data to resolve with scientific certainty.

      I’m not a fan of this classification scheme. You seem to want to define science as a set of facts, but to me (and I’m not alone) science is defined by its goals and its methodology. Any procedure that permits the plausibility of propositions to be ranked reliably is science (to a degree dependent on that reliability), even if the outcome is that all propositions in some hypothesis space are equally probable – there is no requirement for ‘scientific certainty.’

      I suspect that for the most part we agree on all of this. I’m just puzzled about that funny word ‘metaphysics.’ What do we gain from using it? Is it conceivable that a lot of potential for confusion would be eliminated if we just didn’t use it, without anything being lost from our ability to process and communicate philosophical ideas?


      On the subject of methodology, and closer to the topic of your talk, are you aware of any studies into problem solving contexts outside nominal philosophy (my definition (2) from the above comment) where education in philosophy gives an advantage over a typical scientific training? Do we have concrete data about the benefits of a philosophical education? I suspect such benefits exist. Certainly, I often wish some scientists would think more philosophically.

    3. Richard Carrier

      I think you agree that economics is nonetheless a physical phenomenon. Certainly not metaphysical (?).

      But that magic spells don’t interfere in currency exchange rates is a metaphysical conclusion, since there has never been a scientific experiment disproving it. So it happens not to be a conclusion of science (i.e. physics). So where does the conclusion come from? Metascience (= metaphysics): we infer from what we do know from science, that magic spells are unlikely enough not to factor into our commercial and actuarial plans.

      Thus even economics is beholden to metaphysics.

      This is more obviously the case in Libertarianism, which holds the distinctly metaphysical belief in an invisible superpower called the “invisible hand” that magically solves all problems and perfects the free market without intelligent involvement from humans. There has never been any scientific paper proving the existence or efficacy of any such power. So they aren’t getting that notion from current physics (= current science). It’s metaphysics: something they are inferring from what they think science has proved. Most notably, they are wrong, because history and journalism and simple practical in-the-field experimentation affords nothing but evidence against their metaphysical theory. But that’s a discussion for another day. The point is, correct or not, Libertarianism is a metaphysical theory.

      Are you suggesting that metaphysics uses a different methodology?

      To the contrary, as I explain in the talk, good metaphysics uses the same methods. What it lacks is the same quality and quantity of data. Metaphysics is what you do when you don’t have enough data to publish a demonstration of your conclusion in a peer reviewed science journal. But just because you have less data doesn’t mean you have no data, nor does it mean you must use a different method–except insofar as you can’t use certain methods that can only function on large bodies of highly accurate data, e.g. large-scale double-blind statistical studies.

      Metaphysics is as I explain in the talk meta-physics, “after-physics,” physics meaning science, so meta-science, “after-science”: metaphysics is what you are left having to do when you’ve done all the science you were able to do. So, for example, atheism is a conclusion of metaphysics, a conclusion we reach after doing all the science we could do that’s pertinent to the question, none of which was able to answer the question itself (there is no science paper proving God doesn’t exist), but all of which allows us to infer in the meantime what the answer most likely is (there is probably no God).

      To be fair, of course, science could disprove all kinds of Gods, especially the most popular ones. There is more than enough data to prove, with scientific certainty, that a God who actively parts seas to protect the Jews from harm does not exist. But atheism is disbelief in all gods, including shy gods and sneaky gods and fickle gods and so on. And those are a lot harder to disprove with scientific certainty. But they can be disproved with meta-scientific certainty.

      Are you aware of any studies into problem solving contexts outside nominal philosophy (my definition (2) from the above comment) where education in philosophy gives an advantage over a typical scientific training?

      I’m not sure which studies you are referring to. See Dan Fincke’s analysis of the GRE study. (There have been similar results for LSAT and GMAT.) I concur with Fincke’s (including his caveats). In fact, I think philosophy would perform far better than even this, if it actually emphasized the skills involved more, which it now doesn’t (philosophy majors spend far more time on history of philosophy than actual philosophy, and do not take many courses in applied or practical logics or cognitive skills development, and even the straight up logic courses they take are often woefully few compared to, for example, computer science and math majors). But I think academic philosophy does emphasize them more (or stumble across practicing them more) than other departments tend to do.

    4. 7.3

      But that magic spells don’t interfere in currency exchange rates is a metaphysical conclusion, since there has never been a scientific experiment disproving it.

      On the contrary, there is overwhelming empirical evidence for the non-action of magic spells in the fixing of exchange rates. This evidence consists of (1) a complete lack of any positive evidence for magic, and (2) overwhelming lack of coherence between the magic hypothesis and any of our current best theories (in the same way that homeopathy, irrespective of any clinical evidence, loses credibility enormously due to its thorough lack of concordance with all known chemistry and physics). Both these forms of evidence exert their power via the agency of the Ockham principle, which has a perfectly solid foundation in probability theory. You cannot dismiss this conclusion as non-scientific.

      Ditto for conclusions about the non-existence of specific gods and about atheism generally. These are scientific conclusions.

      Again, I’m perceiving an overly restrictive definition of science, with a strong suggestion it’s only science if something is being falsified with ‘scientific certainty.’ Falsifiability, though, is a criterion for the usefulness of investigating a proposition, and not a requirement for the outcome of a scientific investigation. Falsification is not even the only direction science can go (something Popper most definitely got wrong).

      metaphysics is what you are left having to do when you’ve done all the science you were able to do.

      Seems to me there is nothing left at this point, assuming you limit yourself to valid (or approximately valid) methodologies.

      …libertarianism, which holds the distinctly metaphysical belief in an invisible superpower called the “invisible hand”…

      Is this philosophical blunder a valid metaphysical belief? If so, then I think I understand the distinction between physics and metaphysics. The only puzzle that remains is why you think metaphysics is part of philosophy. (Its not the incorrectness of the belief I’m concerned about, but the magnitude of the methodological failure that leads to it.)

      Sorry for being so disagreeable on your own blog (I feel like a rude guest), but of course, its the points of disagreement that are the most interesting.

      I’m not sure which studies you are referring to.

      Wasn’t referring to anything, just picking your brain for info. I’ve been aware for a while that this is an interesting question, but haven’t got round to investigating yet. Thanks for pointing out Fincke’s data.

    5. Richard Carrier

      On the contrary, there is overwhelming empirical evidence for the non-action of magic spells in the fixing of exchange rates.

      That’s a philosophical claim. Until you can identify the peer reviewed scientific study you are referring to.

      I’m perceiving an overly restrictive definition of science

      I’m using the definition scientists insist upon–the one they use to claim science is better than philosophy, but more importantly, the one they use to define what gets taught (and not taught) in science classrooms, and what gets published (and not published) in peer reviewed science journals, and science textbooks, and so on.

      The only puzzle that remains is why you think metaphysics is part of philosophy.

      For the same reason I think biology is a part of science.

      Hence I can’t fathom what’s puzzling about it. Unless you ignore the entire history of philosophy.

    6. 7.4

      So my question is: how is this different from physics?

      IMO the distinction between various academic disciplines owes as much to pragmatism as it does any conceptual difference. When a body of knowledge about a specific subject gets big and distinct enough, you spin it off into its own discipline. Natural philosophy becomes the sciences when it evolves so many specialized tools and techniques that a student can no longer be reasonably expected to master both (natural philosophy and other philosophy…and then natural philosophys splinters further…). Computer Science spins off from the applied mathematical research of Lovelace and Turing (and many other trailblazers) when there is too much of it to teach as a sub-discipline of mathematics. But physics is no more a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math. If you’re a grouper instead of a splitter, you could also reverse that and say physics is no less a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math. :)

      What I find interesting about this question is who it matters to and why it matters to them. I don’t generally find chemists arguing that environmental science is ‘really’ a sub-discipline of chemistry, or mathematicians discussing why computer science ought to be recognized as part of their discipline. I guess this is more a question for Richard than for you, but I do wonder why philosophers want to make this argument in the first place. What’s the point? Philosophy is the parent discipline that has spawned many successful daughters,and may continue to spawn many successful daughters in the future. Its a great accomplishment. It’s the Tracy Ullman Show to science’s Simpsons, or perhaps (more positively) many of the great philosophers may be thought of to science what Jules Verne is to science fiction – originater(s) of the entire genre of empirical, naturalistic studies which has since grown so much bigger than the original seed material. But why the need to insist that philosophy’s academic daughters are itself?

    7. Richard Carrier

      IMO the distinction between various academic disciplines owes as much to pragmatism as it does any conceptual difference.

      That’s one of the very points I make in SaG. Differing focus and methodological requirements create divisions of study.

      But physics is no more a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math.

      Except physics was wholly invented by philosophy and was wholly a part of philosophy for two thousand years. It’s only recently (literally within barely the last century) that any attempt was made to “split it off” from philosophy. And that attempt has no conceptual or logical basis. For all the reasons I explain in my talk.

      Thus, your analogy (even if it held up on the other end, which is questionable, too) does not hold here.

      I don’t generally find chemists arguing that environmental science is ‘really’ a sub-discipline of chemistry, or mathematicians discussing why computer science ought to be recognized as part of their discipline.

      It’s the other way around. We don’t see them trying to deny this (and then use that denial as an excuse to dismiss the entire legitimacy of the thus-disowned field).

      What you do see is chemists admitting their field really reduces to physics, and that biology really reduces to their field, chemistry. While simultaneously acknowledging the validity of all three as well as the different methodological requirements for each.

      Thus, the analogy impugns scientists’ attempt to pretend they aren’t doing philosophy. What they are doing was philosophy for two thousand years. And remains so, entirely. The only difference is access to data (and consequently the methodologies this allows or excludes).

      They are the ones fooling themselves by trying to insist otherwise.

      But why the need to insist that philosophy’s academic daughters are itself?

      Why the need to insist human beings are mammals?

  8. 8

    This is a great lecture. It really addresses most of the problems I’ve had with modern philosophy. Now If we can only get all the ivory tower philosophers to watch it.

  9. 9

    Thank you for taking this on, Richard! It’s clear that philosophy of science itself is very important and not stupid in the least. I’m happy you are also addressing the laments of scientists who complain about philosophy as being boring, useless, or an otherwise unworthy venture. Your insight and clarity is greatly appreciated!

  10. 10

    Re the founder of philosophy, I asked if it was Russell who said philosophy was a footnote to Plato? Perhaps it was Whitehead?

    As to Bunge, I own two of his books (the Mahner edited anthology and the one you also recommend.) This is not dismissal. I have never seen any work on philosphy even cite his work. Given his critique of Popper and his other work in philosophy of science, I concluded that he is indeed dismissed. I’d seen Philippa Foote get more attention. But yes, I speculated that being an Argentine had a lot to do with it. I’m glad to hear that Bunge is in fact widely regarded as a major philosopher. For what it’s worth, I think that’s the way it should be.

  11. 11

    Philosophy is not stupid, it just isn’t very useful. It is sort of like art that uses ideas and words, which makes it seem like poetry. Poetry with logic but no rhymes.

    Philosophy apologists, are like Christian apologists, defend Philosophy with arguments that you have to already believe intuitively to buy. Philosophers are fine if they stick to being a sort of debate club (that never resolves anything) but where they have gone very wrong is in assuming they have some sort of means to determine truth–specifically, when they think they get to criticize science and say what science is and what it isn’t, and what it can do or can’t do. They are not qualified to do that. That’s pretentious, and also wrong because philosophers have never resolved anything.

    Your personal situation is difficult because you clearly want to be scientific. But, you are a historian and while you can look at evidence, you can’t run experiments (much). History is not a science. It is traditionally included in the humanities department (along with English Lit., etc.). The humanities have no arbiter of “truth” like science does (empirical evidence). Basically, he who makes the best or most interesting or most creative argument tends to be accepted in the humanities. Ideology often determines truth (like “critical theory”). So, you must feel a bit confused at times. Philosophers are often held in esteem in the humanities, but clearly that is no longer the case in the sciences. This is so because philosophy does not follow scientific method and can not. It matters very little that some scientists criticize philosophy and then do it for fun or to sell books,. By what logic does scientists doing philosophy validate philosophy? The scientists are clear that what they are doing is not science and is not all that useful. Philosophers need to stick to defining love, beauty, virtue, freedom, and possible alternate universes and all those other things we make up- like poets do.

    1. 11.1
      Richard Carrier

      Clearly you didn’t watch or read the presentation. It pretty well refutes everything you just said.

  12. 12

    Half your presentation was about how science really is a type of philosophy. You support this assertion by saying that philosophy claims science (or at least Aristotle does) and that scientists were once called philosophers (or called themselves natural philosophers) and published in philosophy journals (of course, there were no science journals). These assertions in no way refute the idea that science is separate from philosophy and philosophy, as currently practiced, is not science. They are distinct, what people call themselves or claim to be part of does not matter. You admit that the word science was not invented yet, so Galileo could not call himself a scientist. What I say, that you did not refute, is that science has a arbiter of truth (empiricism) that philosophy DOES NOT. This is what distinguishes the disciplines. Science is not a philosophy with better data, it is a different process with different standards for establishing truth (or at least usefulness). The point is that philosophy has no method of establishing anything beyond deductive logic”, that is why it has never resolved anything. Logic does limit options, but it does not establish either empirical truth or useful principles. because it can’t establish the truth of premises. “Exposing assumptions” is not progress of knowledge unless we can determine if the assumptions are valid or not.

    Let me point out that Aristotle was wrong about most of his assertions about the natural world. Nobody was able to find out how he was wrong for 2K years because they did not employ scientific method (despite your claim that ancients used such method.) Your ideas about how to improve philosophy have no relevance to whether philosophy is distinct from science. Note your “progress” in philosophy has no useful value in the universe outside the context of “concepts” (i.e., mental structures). This “progress” has really not helped humanity except in the realm of mathematics. Mathematics, if considered a form of philosophy, has had some useful advances. The rest of your “progress” is an example of poetry and is likely largely culturally dependent. Please explain how humanity has benefitted from all this word play.

    1. 12.1
      Richard Carrier

      These assertions in no way refute the idea that science is separate from philosophy and philosophy, as currently practiced, is not science.

      I even say so myself in the talk. But what I point out is that the actual, and in fact only, difference is access to data. Period. Take that away from science, and it becomes philosophy. Add that to philosophy, and it becomes science. QED.

      The point is that philosophy has no method of establishing anything beyond deductive logic.

      This is easily demonstrated to be false. Philosophy relies extensively on empirical facts, including scientific facts, and routinely employs inductive and other logics. Even academic philosophy does all this. Even now. So I don’t know what you are on about. And the rest of your comment, depending as it does on this false assertion, is therefore nullified.

      “Exposing assumptions” is not progress of knowledge unless we can determine if the assumptions are valid or not.

      If you know anything more about x today than you did yesterday, you have made progress in knowledge.

      So, what you just said is literally false. If you did not know yesterday that you were relying on assumption x in reaching conclusion y, but today you now know that, and thus know you have to either justify, abandon, or allow the possible falsity of that assumption, you have made progress in knowledge (indeed, very significant progress). You do not have to resolve whether the assumption is defensible or not to achieve that advance in knowledge. Merely knowing you’ve been making an assumption you haven’t actually tested is a major advance in knowledge in and of itself.

      Let me point out that Aristotle was wrong about most of his assertions about the natural world.

      I’m not sure that’s true. Most of his assertions about the natural world were about biology, and most of those appear to have been correct. It is often overlooked that Aristotle was actually a biologist. His forays into other sciences were a part of his philosophical interest, but in terms of his actual knowledge specialty, biology was the only actual science he conducted (as in ran empirical experiments on and collected precise observations in). So accusing him of getting physics wrong is like accusing Darwin of getting physics wrong. Darwin wasn’t a physicist. So it’s a category mistake. What we would want to know are the conclusions in physics of Aristotle’s second successor, Strato. Because he extensively conducted experiments in basic physics and mechanics. But Christians saw fit to preserve none of his books, and we have barely a handful of even quotations from him–despite the fact that in antiquity, he was regarded as the most famous physicist everyone could name, for many centuries.

  13. 13

    The main problem with Philosophy as a distinct academic discipline is not that it is stupid, but that its advocates *are* often “stupid” in that they badly misidentify its value.

    It does not “answer questions like …”, and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration. (Religion makes the same claim but is is less irritating in doing so because in that case it’s clearly out of some kind of desperation for an answer rather than with the smug assumption of some kind of academic rigor.)

    What academic Philosophy does do very well is provide one (but not the only) source of experience and tools which help us to analyse reasoning about those and any other questions. It does not provide answers, but a trained philosopher may well be useful in helping people at an impasse to look more deeply at the assumptions and mental processes of their interlocutors in a way that may help to resolve differences or at least to increase mutual understanding and empathy.

    1. 13.1
      Richard Carrier

      It does not “answer questions like …”, and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration.

      If by “answer” we mean “determines what the most likely answer is on present information,” then not only does philosophy answer those questions, since everyone operates (makes decisions in life) as if they know what the answers are, it follows that everyone has already done philosophy and is relying on it throughout their lives–hence the only question is whether they have done it well or poorly. Exactly as I explain in the talk.

    2. 13.2

      If you read my second paragraph above, then you will see that I am not dismissive of the value of academic Philosophy as an aid in the doing of our daily philosophy where we constantly have to make decisions which would be facilitated by having answers to those questions (if only we knew what they meant , let alone what the answers were). But to claim that it (or we) will ever actually answer them (even in the sense of determining a currently “most likely” answer) is probably presumptuous. And offense at that presumed presumption is, I think, what drives the expressions of contempt for Philosophy that you are so concerned about. If you are offended by that presumption of presumption then it would be best to avoid characterizing Philosophy in a way that encourages it.

      With regard to some of the other comment threads it strikes me that whenever philosophy makes progress, that progress is identified by name as a new discipline, so whatever is left as academic Philosophy is indeed quite likely to be what Yudkowsky characterizes as “cognitive reductions that I regard as relatively simple” and not very likely “to build complex correct structures of conclusions”. The examples you give of “general advances made by modern philosophy” strike me more as expressions of your own preference and current fashion rather than genuinely and rigorously determined conclusions.

      To me, a better selling point for academic Philosophy would be “Philosophy is the study of those questions which we feel are important but which we do not yet really understand the meaning of (let alone having any real answers to). It addresses, but does not answer questions like (the ones in your list) and provides tools for interpreting and comparing the efforts made to date in dealing with them.”

    3. Richard Carrier

      But to claim that it (or we) will ever actually answer them (even in the sense of determining a currently “most likely” answer) is probably presumptuous.

      So it’s presumptuous to say that it is most likely true that murder is wrong, women should have the same rights as men, the state should not suppress free speech, beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, knowledge can only ever be probabilistic, minds do not survive the death of the brain, gods do not exist, the known universe had a natural non-intelligent cause, everything we know exists reduces to physics in one fashion or another, your lovelife has not been engineered by supernatural forces, personal autonomy and responsibility are compatible with causal determinism, causation can be defined and empirically detected in the manner Judea Pearl’s treatise on causality lays out, and Game Theory governs all social systems?

      I don’t think you’ve really thought this through. Or done much philosophy.

  14. 14

    What is presumptuous is to suggest that one has a version of any of those propositions which is both non-tautological and known to be true. Considering only the first for example, to say that “murder is wrong” presumes a definition of “murder” that goes beyond “wrongful killing” and the only real content of such a proposition is provided by addressing questions such is is abortion murder? or is killing in self defense (and if not, then what level of perceived threat qualifies a killing as defensive)? etc. etc. etc.

    And with regard to your last line perhaps the only appropriate response is to ignore it.

    1. 14.1
      Richard Carrier

      And to say that “that is a hill and not a mountain” presumes a definition of “mountain” that goes beyond “large bump.” As one would say, “So?”

      I fail to see your point. Maybe you just haven’t read my work on moral theory and the meaning of moral propositions?

      I do not claim to know anything more than what’s most likely given the information presently available to me. And I don’t need any more than that, just as that’s all we have in every empirical field, such as every scientific field, history, journalism, daily life, and so on.

  15. 15

    But Richard, identifying a particular object as hill or mountain actually has some content. To match the vacuity of “murder is wrong” one would have to claim that “mountains are large” is, by itself, the *answer* to a deep philosophical question.

    You are right that I haven’t read your work on moral theory and the meaning of moral propositions. Perhaps it does finally answer some of the questions that Philosophers have been addressing for thousands of years. If and when it becomes universally recognized as doing so, then I will have to withdraw my claim that Philosophy does not actually *answer* any of the many interesting questions that it does (often quite usefully) address.

    Please remember that, even though by “answering” questions you may just mean helping people to address them and to “determine what the most likely answer is on present information”, your claim to be answering will almost certainly be misunderstood by the untrained audience to whom you are using that claim as a way of promoting your discipline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called that oversight “stupid”, but I think it’s a blunder that diminishes the effectiveness of your argument.

    1. 15.1
      Richard Carrier

      But Richard, identifying a particular object as hill or mountain actually has some content.

      So does “moral fact.” See my chapter on exactly that in The End of Christianity.

      (If you are unfamiliar with the argument of that chapter, you need to catch up.)

    2. 15.2

      I didn’t deny that the expression “moral fact” has some content (in the sense, I presume, of being a label with a meaningful referent), but the *proposition* “murder is wrong” only makes sense to one who has knowledge of the intended definitions of “murder” and “wrong”. Perhaps your chapter includes definitions which make that proposition more than a tautology, and perhaps those definitions will one day be so broadly accepted that to challenge the unqualified statement “murder is wrong” as without content will be unreasonable.
      But that day is not yet here.

    3. Richard Carrier

      only makes sense to one who has knowledge of the intended definitions

      That’s true of all language, defining all science, and all empirical facts whatever. It’s therefore not a relevant point here. That’s like saying “patient survival” only makes sense to a surgeon who has knowledge of the intended definitions of “patient” and “survival.” Of course. So?

      But that day is not yet here.

      Then you haven’t read my chapter in TEC.

    4. 15.3

      My point was that most people have not yet read your book and so do not know in what sense you are telling them something non-tautological when you offer the proposition “murder is wrong” as an example of the kind of wisdom they will acquire by studying philosophy. If you told them that by studying philosophy they will learn about what it *means* rather than the (already known) “fact” that it is “true”, then I think they would be more impressed.

      I appreciate the compliment implied by your suggestion that just having little old me read your book will bring about “that day” when all the world understands and accepts appropriate definitions of “murder” and “wrong” (and much else I am sure) – but I assure you I have no such influence.

    5. Richard Carrier

      My point was that most people have not yet read your book and so do not know in what sense you are telling them something non-tautological when you offer the proposition “murder is wrong” as an example of the kind of wisdom they will acquire by studying philosophy. If you told them that by studying philosophy they will learn about what it *means* rather than the (already known) “fact” that it is “true”, then I think they would be more impressed.

      You do realize you just made no sense, right?

      I said if you study philosophy (= read a book on it) you will learn why (for example) murder is wrong, and you reply that someone who doesn’t read a book on it (= doesn’t study philosophy) won’t learn that, so I should say they will learn something else from philosophy instead, by not reading anything on it.


      You have to frackin read something to learn something, sillyhorse. “But people who don’t read won’t learn” is a truism (otherwise known as “duh!”).

      If you want to know why murder is wrong, you have to read up on the philosophy of why it is wrong. And as I explained in my talk, the hard part is figuring out what you should read, because so much philosophy is garbage that it hides the essential gems, and the academic field is doing nothing to help people find the gems. That is indeed a problem. But it’s already a problem I call out. Extensively.

  16. 16

    I apologize for joining the discussion late, but was only referred to this page by you (Dr. Carrier) recently. Once again, thank you for that! There are a few issues I had, however, that I thought might be worth broaching. The first and perhaps either most important or least is definitions. Defining what “science” is proves difficult enough (personally, I try never to refer to “science” but to “the science” because I think the conception of science as a singular concept categorized in the classical sense is misleading at best and just wrong at worst). Defining philosophy, part of which seeks answers to what it means to define (if this is possible) and how one should, seems such a nuanced topic that the simplifications necessary for a talk such as the one you gave make it easy simply include what you wish. For example:

    Major Specific advances made by modern philosophy include…Transfinite Mathematics (Cantor)…Game Theory…Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems….Bayesian Epistemology…

    How is game theory an advance “made by modern philosophy” when von Neumann, Morgenstern, Nash, Simon, Schelling, etc. were not philosophers per se and game theory is more a product of the social & behavioral sciences? If we are to ascribe set theory and Cantor’s contributions to mathematics as philosophy, why not theology (which he identifies much of his work as concerned with; ditto for Thomas Bayes’ and his successors and the philosophy of probability- hence titles like Games, Gods, and Gambling: The Origins And History Of Probability And Statistical Ideas From The Earliest Times To The Newtonian Era). The development of modern statistical inference had far more to do with eugenics than philosophy.

    Likewise, the list of questions from “Am I in love?” to “What should I do with my life” that delve into numerous fields of inquiry (ontological, ethical, epistemological, metaphysical, religious, etc.) are all, in your presentation, subsumed under philosophy. It seems to me that to make the subject matter so broad is to render it somewhat meaningless. And in the broad sense, philosophy is indeed simply the quest for knowledge (actually, my personal definition is that philosophy is the inquiry into the possibility of explanations and answers and the validity of instances of both). However, to define philosophy as “the quest for understanding” (among other things) casts so broad a net that one ends up categorizing pseudoscience, theology, naïve folk psychology, and fallacious inferences as “philosophical” (they all involve quests for understanding).

    A far more minor note: the word “scientist” was not the earliest nominal derivation of scientia. The English “scient” dates back to the 15th century, “sciencer” to the 16th, and both “scientman” & “scientate” to the 17th.

    Physics (physika, which at the time actually meant “Science,” i.e. all knowledge regarding the natural world, not just what we mean by “physics” today

    This is much akin to the statement made in your doctoral thesis:

    The words physika and physikos are so broad because they did not designate only certain fields of inquiry but all branches of the study of nature, just as our words “science” and “scientist” do today.

    However, this is not true of the words “science” or “scientist” today, because e.g., economics, sociology, social psychology, etc., have nothing to do with such fields of inquiry as (IMO) the LSJ and Greek literature make clear (φῠσικός, ή, όν, natural, produced or caused by nature, inborn, native, once in X.,Mem.3.9.1, not in Pl., freq. in Arist. (τὰ περὶ γένεσιν φ. Ph.191 3, al…of or concerning the order of external nature, natural, physical, ἡ φ. ἐπιστήμη…φ. φιλοσοφία…ἡ φ. …opp. μαθηματική…) and I think your far more lengthy discussion of the terms (and others), if it does not make this point explicitly, does not so far as I can see offer anything to the contrary (and I am not about to use Russo here or anywhere for that matter). Likewise, modern physics includes an entire framework (classical physics, including classical mechanics, classical electromagnetism, etc.) we know to be wrong. I do not think “theories and laws known to be wrong but which work” would satisfy classical natural philosophical notions or definitions. But, of course, this is your field of expertise, so perhaps I am way off.

    Finally, while your talk does get delve into numerous questions about the nature of philosophy and its relation to science, there is little about what science is as it is practiced today (apart from popular representations or well-known models/theories). Your treatment of hypotheses makes no reference to null hypothesis significance testing, for example, yet this is (unfortunately) central to numerous sciences from medical to marketing.

    While illuminating, amusing, and valuable, I think perhaps the cavalier treatment of definitions, classifications, and demarcations in your talk may present some issues. In the grand scheme of things, of course, this matters not. Thanks again for the link.

    1. 16.1
      Richard Carrier

      How is game theory an advance “made by modern philosophy” when von Neumann, Morgenstern, Nash, Simon, Schelling, etc. were not philosophers per se and game theory is more a product of the social & behavioral sciences?

      I explain that in the talk.

      When you can correctly paraphrase back to me what I said in my talk about this, then we can proceed with discussion.

      this is not true of the words “science” or “scientist” today, because e.g., economics, sociology, social psychology, etc., have nothing to do with such fields of inquiry

      You need to brush up on your Aristotle. What they meant by economics was recommendations for action. Which must be based on science. The Greeks did not distinguish economics as wholly separate from science, but as a theory of action based on science, and thus analogously medicine was also distinguished from physiology (economics is to social science as medicine is to physiology), and thus distinguished from science. But as Aristotle said, no doctor is worth his salt whose medicine is not based on science. Likewise an economist.

      These days we no longer continue the distinction. Recommendations to action are also enclosed within the sciences (medicine and psychotherapy and engineering, obviously; economics is under B.S. and M.S., degrees in “science”; etc.). But our categorization is only semantically different. Aristotle would have fully agreed with us.

      modern physics includes an entire framework (classical physics, including classical mechanics, classical electromagnetism, etc.) we know to be wrong.

      That’s incorrect. These are not wrong. They only don’t work in certain conditions. That’s not the same thing. To the contrary, for example, relativity theory explains why classical mechanics is correct (in the conditions it is obeyed). Likewise the rest.

      Even quantum mechanics consistently works and is thus correct, and therefore correctly describing something, whereas quantum theory, i.e. why QM works, is universally agreed to have no presently known solution, only a plethora of competing untested theories.

      When you describe the science correctly, you don’t get the description of it that you just provided.

      As to things like significance testing, you are expecting too much. I could not possibly have described all the methods used by all the sciences today in just 45 minutes. Nor would that have ever been relevant to any point I actually made.

  17. 17

    You need to brush up on your Aristotle. What they meant by economics was recommendations for action.

    Could you clarify what you mean by “they”? The Greeks (who are not represented by Aristotle)? Or Aristotle (who is not a they)?

    That’s incorrect. These are not wrong. They only don’t work in certain conditions. That’s not the same thing. To the contrary, for example, relativity theory explains why classical mechanics is correct (in the conditions it is obeyed). Likewise the rest.

    Is pi equal to 3.141? No. Does this give us accurate results in “certain conditions”? Yes. General Relativity explains the heart of Newtonian mechanics (THE force, gravity) via a system of equations or more simplistically by space curvature of a type that cannot exist in classical physics because it requires non-Euclidean 4D geometry (or the algebraic equivalent that Einstein actually developed; the geometry was Minkowski’s work). Likewise, as classical particles don’t exist in modern physics (nor do classical waves, including electromagnetic), you are simply stating that classical physics yields approximately correct results most of the time. This doesn’t make it right, any more than pi to the googolth decimal place is actually pi. Classical physics consists of statements about physical reality that cannot be true according to modern physics, from the treatment of gravity which isn’t accurate to the phase space of dynamical systems (or difference equations; either model systems in a phase space contradicted by general relativity).

    Even quantum mechanics consistently works and is thus correct

    Quantum mehcanics doesn’t work consistently. It isn’t relativistic, and even the relativistic version is not compatible with TGR:

    “General relativity is incompatible with quantum field theory.” Maggiore, M. (2005). A Modern Introduction to Quantum Field Theory (Oxford Master Series in Statistical, Computational, and Theoretical Physics Vol. 27). OUP.

    Even quantum mechanics consistently works and is thus correct, and therefore correctly describing something, whereas quantum theory, i.e. why QM works

    And quantum field theory? Quantum mechanics is a theory:

    “Even though quantum theory has several versions, e.g. the quantum mechanics of discrete systems and quantum field theory, and though the reduction of classical theory to it has not been rigorously demonstrated, none of the predictions of Quantum mechanics have been shown to be clearly false. Instead, or more precisely for that reason, its greatest difficulties appear in relation to the interpretation of its formal structure and its relation to space-time theory, the latter also being a very powerful theory and empirically well supported. In addition, the most important problems related to these, such as how best to understand the nature and process of quantum measurement, are shared by both the non-relativistic and relativistic versions even though the ways quantum objects are represented in these two cases are quite different.” Jaeger, G. Quantum Objects: Non-Local Correlation, Causality and Objective Indefiniteness in the Quantum World (Fundamental Theories of Physics 175).

    When you describe the science correctly

    I’d be describing what I do. I should brush up on my Aristotle (it’s been ages, and it’s important for me to read Greek or texts in any languages I know in order to retain my knowledge of the language). Please don’t tell me I can’t describe what I do because of your knowledge of history and philosophy. I will try to phrase better (or simply correct) what I said about game theory and so forth. In short, as I said it’s not that we can’t describe these things as products of philosophy but that we can define philosophy in such a way as to make everything a description. However, your point is well-taken and I will try to reform my issues more in clear context with your statements in your talk.

    1. 17.1
      Richard Carrier

      (1) By Aristotle I meant his discussion of what these words meant and how they were categorized in the Greek language. A language which was not spoken only by Aristotle. Nor contradicted substantively in any subsequent century (at least before the rise of Christendom).

      (2) I fail to see the relevance of your comment about pi. Even if you are claiming all mathematics is false because it has to use approximations (which would be a weird thing to claim), that’s not a relevant analogy to what we were talking about. A correct analogy would be claiming that what people mean by things like pi = 3.14 is that pi equals approximately 3.14 and therefore all statements of what pi is in mathematics textbooks are true, because it is understood (and sometimes even explicitly said) that they are stating approximations. So, too, science. Unless your point is that all science is false and always has been. But then I don’t understand your point.

      (3) Quantum mehcanics does work consistently. Every system to which it applies, its predictions have been verified. Without exception. I think you are confusing the fact that relativity cannot explain what happens at quantum scales (because gravity must be quantized), with the fallacious inference that quantum mechanics cannot explain what happens at macro-scales. QM actually does the latter perfectly well. It’s RT that runs into problems, not QM. Where there are quanta of energy, QM is true. So far, we have yet to find an exception to that statement. Maybe what you mean is that on some interpretations of QM (i.e. on some quantum theories, none of which yet are scientific fact), relativity is false even at macro scales (e.g. if entanglement entails superluminal communication). But that would be confusing quantum mechanics with quantum theory. Which would be exactly missing my point.

      (4) In the context of talking about “quantum theory,” no quantum theory has been scientifically established. None. Quantum mechanics is a set of laws, not a theory. That those laws are true is a theory (in the epistemological sense), and a proven one, but that is not what people mean when they talk about “quantum theory,” as opposed to quantum mechanics. Until you understand that, you won’t understand my point about it.

      (5) It is impertinent to pontificate about ancient philosophy, and then when someone with a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy points out you didn’t get the details right, complain.

  18. 18

    I’ve responded to this several times, and each time I have decided my response was too rude, too accusatory, and/or too much of a reply attempting to cut into and apart your response and your work. This is not something I would do to a colleague or any member of academia (particularly one whose work in certain areas I respect) in a public setting, still less his own blog. I will reply by email. Thank you once again for the link.

    1. 18.1
      Richard Carrier

      Well, no worries, I just met your discourse on equal terms. But I appreciate the dialback.

  19. 19

    Dear Dr. Carrier:
    I decided that anything I might put in an email should be approximately the same as I would say in person or on a blog. Thus, I have worked hard to try to express my beliefs and reasons for them without going off on irrelevant tangents, using accusatory or insulting words or phrases, and relying on technical sources rather than my own authority or reference to your own. I hope the results are, if nothing else, appropriate enough to pass moderation. If not, I will just have to do better.
    First, a rather trivial point:

    (5) It is impertinent to pontificate about ancient philosophy, and then when someone with a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy points out you didn’t get the details right, complain.

    Whether or not I did indeed “pontificate” about ancient philosophy, and to the extent it is accurate to say I “complain[ed]”, my complaints about your response were concerned with your treatment of science not ancient history or ancient philosophy. Also, according to you: “In fact, my degrees are in ancient history…” I know, of course, that your doctoral thesis was on ancient philosophy, because I read it, but your CV and your own words make it quite clear that whatever your majors may be, your Ph.D. is in ancient history. I realize how trivial this is. I have worked and do work with physicists, computer scientists, mathematicians, psychologists (with varying specialties), neurologists, and medical doctors (to get an idea of how broad the neurosciences and related fields are, simply check out the participants and subject matter of
    last year’s HCII (joint) conferences).

    So naturally I don’t doubt you are more than qualified to speak about ancient philosophy and philosophy in general.

    However, in your talk there are statements about the sciences that I do not think accurately represent rather fundamental aspects of the Nature of Science (NOS), the philosophy of science, and scientific methods. Perhaps the most important issues revolve around your use of “proof” and “proven”, such as your statement about whether or not we have sufficient data to “prove something scientifically”. Theorems are proven. Theories are not. Proofs are for formal systems, not the sciences (mathematics has for the most part lost its position as a science, let alone the “queen” science, ever since the development of non-classical logics, Gödel, and the death of logicism). This is related to what you say in your reply about quantum theory vs. quantum mechanics.

    In your talk, you mention a paper “How random is a coin toss?” published in the popular science magazine Physics Today. If you look at p. 46, you’ll find the sentence “Almost all physical theories—including quantum mechanics—are characterized by deterministic rate equations for continuum variables.” Contrary to your statement in your talk, “literally, they took a quarter and tossed it a bunch of time, and answered the question”, the author neither did this nor is interested in the answer. More importantly, we find here as we do everywhere quantum mechanics described as a theory. Before giving some other examples that aren’t from popular magazines, a (necessarily skeletal) definition of theory might help:

    Theory is generally understood as a systematic representation of a genuine problem, articulated as far as possible in mathematical terms in the natural sciences or logical (or strictly linguistic terms) in the life and social sciences. The systematic nature of theory is normally aimed at providing explanatory leverage on a problem, describing innovative features of a phenomenon or providing predictive utility. The empirical adequacy required of a theory is a controversial feature of theories and often differs radically across disciplines. As most research in the sciences and social sciences is theory driven, that is, is concerned with the refinement or refutation of theoretical claims, the design of that research will have an immediate impact on the nature of theory construction and the presumed relationship among theory construction, observation, and the outcome of empirical research.

    Stam, H. (2010). Theory. In Neil J. Salkind (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Research Design. (pp. 1499-1503). Sage.

    Let’s go back to the original context for my bringing up physics (that modern physics includes incorrect theories such as classical mechanics or classical electrodynamics) and your response:
    “That’s incorrect. These are not wrong. They only don’t work in certain conditions.”

    The problem is that theories are not intended simply to “work”, but to make accurate explanations, statements, and/or predictions about phenomena. Predictions made by classical physics don’t just “work”, “not work”, or “work approximately” but are contextual. Classical equations of motions aren’t just telling you the configuration state or a value of some relevant observable (like angular velocity or momentum), but are doing so by using equations that involve contextually “meaningful” variables. Perhaps THE example is “g” for Newtonian gravitation, which doesn’t exist but is required in Newtonian and other classical mechanics. Or they may describe the dynamics of entities like electromagnetic waves when strictly speaking there are no such entities, there are just things that approximate the classical notions of these in certain domains.

    In addition to predictions that are approximately correct but are wrong because of context, classical physics entails predictions that are simply wrong. According to classical physics, were the sun to suddenly disappear, we would feel the effects of this disappearance immediately (we wouldn’t). Any look in any university level physics textbooks that contains sections on quantum physics and relativity will give some set of examples of GENERAL failures of classical physics. For example:

    Thus Rutherford’s model of electrons orbiting the nucleus, which is based on Newtonian mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, makes three entirely wrong predictions about atoms: They should emit light continuously, they should be unstable, and the light they emit should have a continuous spectrum. Clearly a radical reappraisal of physics on the scale of the atom was needed.

    p. 1296 of Young & Freedman. (2012). University Physics with Modern Physics (13th Ed.). Addison-Wesley.

    However, it seems that part of the problem isn’t simply the nature of classical or quantum physics but what a “theory” is either in general or in these cases.

    (4) In the context of talking about “quantum theory,” no quantum theory has been scientifically established. None. Quantum mechanics is a set of laws, not a theory. That those laws are true is a theory (in the epistemological sense), and a proven one, but that is not what people mean when they talk about “quantum theory,” as opposed to quantum mechanics. Until you understand that, you won’t understand my point about it.

    When I want to understand how quantum mechanics is or is not a theory, I look at the ways in which the word is in physics literature (and of course my background and experience in the sciences). These conflict with your usage, as shown in my reply before, but other instances are easily marshaled:

    The postulates of quantum mechanics are the underlying assumptions on which the theory is built. They may only be justified to the extent that results of physical experiments do not contradict them. The postulates, which are a connection between mathematics and the physical aspects of the model, contain the strangeness of quantum mechanics…When one talks about the weirdness of quantum mechanics, one is usually struggling to come to terms with the physical aspects of the model and implicitly asking for a new, more complete theory.

    p. 52 of Levi, A. F. J. (2006). Applied Quantum Mechanics (2nd Ed.). CUP.

    Notice that no reference is made to laws but to postulates. These are not proven but assumed, and are correct only in the sense that they are not yet contradicted by empirical findings. This is what theories are (or rather one thing they can be). What you are saying about theories requires proof, which rules out basically every modern usage of “theory” in the sciences as they aren’t proven. They are frameworks and/or models within which other theories and hypotheses are developed, related to, developed from, etc. Some theories, like evolutionary theory, are so wide in their domain that the number of phenomena they explain and theories they involve (and even the number of fields, from astrobiology to evolutionary psychology, that require a theory like evolutionary theory to be correct from the start) are so great that they are “larger” than some scientific fields. They involve multiple (not always compatible) theories within them, they cross disciplines and sciences, and they are never very stable-some aspect is constantly being reformulated, more finely tuned, etc. Other theories, such as those of classical physics, are frameworks retained for their utility but are bankrupt as explanatory or predictive frameworks as they are not correct:

    The failure of classical physics to explain several microscopic phenomena—such as blackbody radiation, the photoelectric effect, atomic stability, and atomic spectroscopy—had cleared the way for seeking new ideas outside its purview…It was the dissatisfaction with the arbitrary nature of Planck’s idea and Bohr’s postulates as well as the need to fit them within the context of a consistent theory that had prompted Heisenberg and Schrödinger to search for the theoretical foundation underlying these new ideas. By 1925 their efforts paid off: they skillfully welded the various experimental findings as well as Bohr’s postulates into a refined theory: quantum mechanics.

    pp. 2-3 of Zettili, N. (2009). Quantum mechanics: concepts and applications (2nd Ed.).Wiley.

    The use of theory to describe QM doesn’t change when we switch from textbooks (including graduate) to monographs and journals:

    Like any physical theory, Quantum Mechanics has both kinematical and dynamical aspects. The former delineate what changes, and the later delineate how it changes.

    Wilce, A. (2010). Formalism and interpretation in quantum theory. Foundations of Physics, 40(4), 434-462.

    Even in treatments critical of the “laws” of quantum mechanics (which don’t really exist as such but are postulates) we still find QM described as a theory:
    “Quantum theory has been extremely successful in explaining results of experiments…The theory is not contradicted by any experiment. Yet there is one apparently innocuous observed phenomenon that the theory seems unable to explain, and in fact seems to contradict. This is the observed absence of superposition of different position states in a macroscopic system. Quantum theory, by virtue of the principle of linear superposition, predicts that a microscopic object such as the electron can be in a superposition of different positions at the same time, and this is of course observed, for example, in the famous double-slit interference experiment. Moreover, the theory in principle makes no distinction between microscopic and macroscopic objects and predicts that large objects can also be in more than one place at the same time. But this is not what we observe.”
    Bassi, A., Lochan, K., Satin, S., Singh, T. P., & Ulbricht, H. (2013). Models of wave-function collapse, underlying theories, and experimental tests. Reviews of Modern Physics, 85 (2), 471.

    the Schrödinger evolution together with the collapse rule is not a precise microscopic theory: the division between the microscopic world and the macroscopic world (where the collapse takes place) is not part of the theory. Thus, as Bell has suggested, we need to go beyond standard quantum mechanics: either the wave function does not provide the whole description of the state of a system, or Schrödinger’s equation needs to be modified…This does not mean that, even in the framework of a precise quantum theory like Bohmian mechanics, decoherence is irrelevant for the emergence of classical behavior.

    Allori, V., & Zanghì, N. (2009). On the classical limit of quantum mechanics. Foundations of Physics, 39 (1), 20-32.

    Quantum mechanics faces a strange dilemma. On the one hand, it has long been claimed to be an irreducibly statistical theory, allowing the calculation of measurement outcome statistics while being unable to predict the behaviour of individual microphysical processes. On the other hand, quantum mechanics has been increasingly used, with stunning success in the past few decades, to gain experimental control over individual objects on an atomic scale. The old philosophical debates among physicists over the interpretation of quantum mechanics have thus reached a new stage where conceptual questions have obtained more precise formulations and former Gedanken experiments have been turned into actual experiments.

    Busch, P. (2002). Classical versus quantum ontology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 33 (3), 517-539.

    You usage of “theory” that I must understand in order to get your point consists of a usage I find common among non-scientists but lacking among both scientists and philosophers of science. It is inconsistent with usage in technical literature in the fields I work in, have consulted in, or keep up with as a hobby and after teaching research methodology to undergrads in various fields for several years not to mention working as a researcher and research consultant, the consistency between my experience and the literature and the inconsistency between both and your usage leaves me little reason to think that your Ph.D. in ancient philosophy and/or ancient history warrants trusting your knowledge of methods you don’t use to formulate theories in fields you have no experience in over and against both the technical literature and my own experience. If I am incorrect, simply repeating this or doing so with added statements that I must take on faith isn’t particularly helpful, either to me or to the discussion. After all, even if I were simply to defer to your expertise, this isn’t an area where you have any so far as I can tell. Certainly, I can’t see a reason to defer to your expertise over and against thousands of papers I’ve read from peer-reviewed journals, proceedings, volumes (not to mention physics monographs and other reviewed texts). This is particularly so when I could point to the same in other fields regarding the nature of theories and “proof” in the sciences.

    (2) I fail to see the relevance of your comment about pi.

    Quantum mechanics and other quantum theories are incredibly successful when it comes to the microscale and TGR is likewise successful in the macroscale. However, in macroscale the difference between equations of state or dynamics that require inaccurate constants of a non-existent Newtonian gravitation and the same but with the accurate (so far as we know) account of gravitation given by Einstein’s field equations is negligible. The same is true in most cases for the treatment of small systems within classical vs. quantum physics, such as multicellular biological systems or subsystems. However, in both cases the more accurate theory is vastly more complicated and harder than the classical approximation. So we go with what works: an approximation. With pi, we can’t ever use its value to get an exact numerical solution, but approximations work very well just as the approximations provided by classical physics do. However, neither approximation is accurate just because it provides good, useful (even almost precisely correct) answers. Classical mechanics still describes systems we know don’t exist as such governed by forces that don’t either. It is contradicted by over a century of empirical findings and two superior theories which remain problematic but are “contradicted” mostly by one another (and not by empirical findings).

    Given the length of this reply, I have opted not to include my response to the question of Aristotelian economics and social sciences (not to mention the question of whether it makes any sense to speak of science in antiquity and, if so, to what extent). I may not ever re-write what I did about these issues, as here we leave my area of expertise and enter one of yours with which I have no equivalent level- period. Thus, while I believe I am right and have sources I believe support my view, I fear that 1) addressing these issues rather than just ceding the points you made would involve too much tangential discussion to the topic of the demarcation between philosophy and science (and the nature of both) and 2) would likely instigate more charged responses involving credentials or similar unpleasantness. This is unfortunate, as here you clearly ARE an expert and it would be good to get feedback concerning my ideas.

    1. 19.1
      Richard Carrier

      I don’t see the relevance of any of this to the actual points I made in the talk.

      (Except thanks for pointing out I linked to the wrong paper for the actual coin toss experiments. I don’t know why I plugged the Ford paper in there, it’s way too early.)

  20. 20

    My apologies. This is a complicated and nuanced issue, and I’m afraid what follows, despite its length, will nonetheless fall short. If you could point out specific issues you have, or specific points in which I fail to make clear the relevance of what I am saying to your talk, I would be very grateful.

    I was trying to simplify a vast number of diverse issues by building upon one example. I sought to use the example of QM to show how the nature of the sciences vs. how you describe science renders your argument problematic in some respects. This is, I think, seen in two related aspects of your talk: 1) the history of science and 2) how science differs from e.g., metaphysics, history, journalism, etc. in terms of the use and access to data, proof, and “certainty”. Rather than attack the whole of the history of the sciences, let us take as given your claim below:

    In actual fact…the scientific revolution…did not introduce any new methods for doing science.

    Granting this, we would then have to see whether or not subsequent centuries present challenges to the notion and reasons for believing that science is “just the best philosophy we have”. I chose QM because there is perhaps no better exemplar of such a challenge:

    What qualifies as a good experiment in physics? Clearly, the typical goal of the experimenter is to study a particular aspect of a phenomenon of interest in such a way that disturbances of this aspect by undesired influences are minimized…When quantum effects were discovered and quantum theory was formulated in the early decades of the twentieth century, it caused an enormous paradigm shift in our view of physics in particular and of nature in general.

    Schlosshauer, M. A. (2007). Decoherence and the Quantum-To-Classical Transition (The Frontiers Collection)
    However, to really understand the problems both with using the scientific revolution as any kind of argument about what science is as well as the ways in which you depict fundamental components of the science requires not only looking at both in some detail but also how they relate. To begin, consider the following in their respective contexts:

    [science] works on questions we have the best data to answer…if you don’t have enough data to prove something scientifically, that just means you have data insufficient to meet scientific standards of certainty…

    An example of this is superstring theory…It’s a theory that is nowhere near being proven yet so it isn’t officially science…

    less obvious examples…include scientific speculation and theorizing…[like] quantum theory- we haven’t explained why quantum mechanics is the way it is yet

    You refer to scientific theories as metaphysics when (and it appears because) they haven’t been “proven” or (in the case of QM) something about them hasn’t. The first problem is that scientists don’t prove theories or use proof as a measure of certainty (because we don’t use proofs to confirm anything based on any experimental/empirical data).

    The second problem is the inferences made based upon the (correct) statement that “we haven’t explained why quantum mechanics is the way it is yet”. This is very much related to developments within the sciences AFTER the 17th century that gave rise to the divisions between the sciences and philosophy:

    Die mechanische Naturerkenntis sah er [Emil Du Bois-Raymond]—sogar oder vielmehr gerade unter der Voraussetzung, dass sie einmal zur Vollendung gebracht sein würde—vor zwei Schranken gestellt, von denen nicht abzusehen war, wie sie überwunden werden konnte. Zum einen war sie nicht in der Lage, über ihre Grundbegriffe—Materie, Kraft, Bewegung—Rechenschaft abzulegen: Sie konnte sie nur setzen, aber nicht gemäß ihren eigenen induktiven Regeln gewinnen. Zum anderen stand sie machtlos vor den Erscheinungen der Empfindung und des Bewussteins…Dass es keine Letztbegründung für die Basisbegriffe gab, mit denen mechanische Wissensparadigma operierte, führte Du Bois-Reymond zu der einigermaßen radikalen Schlussfolgerung, mechanisches Erklärung liefere im Grunde…’äußerst nützliche Fiktion’.

    He [Emil Du Bois-Raymond] saw the mechanical knowledge of nature—even (or rather especially) under the assumption it would eventually be complete—as facing two barriers, which had no apparent resolution. On the one hand, it could say nothing of its basic concepts—matter, force, motion—which were only postulates, but not obtained through its own inductive rules. On the other hand, it was powerless against the phenomena of perception and consciousness…That there was no ultimate foundation for the basic concepts with which the scientific paradigm of mechanics operated led Du Bois-Reymond to the somewhat radical conclusion that mechanical explanations basically offer “extremely useful fiction”.

    pp. 16-17 of Rheinberger, H-J. (2007). Historische Epistemologie: Zur Einführung. Junius.

    It was partly in reaction to this criticism of mechanics, so foundational to physics it practically WAS physics, that Ernst Mach wrote his Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung: Historisch-kritisch dargestellt. In chap. 4, he examines in great detail the separation of physics and theology in the history of the development of the sciences, and compares the need or even tendency to question why physical laws or mechanical theories seem to accurately predict results to the theological motives of natural philosophers (e.g., Leibniz). For Mach, Laplace’s “Mind” (some intellect which, given sufficient knowledge of initial conditions and of mechanics, would be basically omniscient) and similar views of a physics weren’t science anymore. They constitudeted

    eine mechanische Mythologie im Gegesatz zur animistischen der alten Religionen.” [“a mechanistic Mythology in contrast to the animistic of the old religions.]

    Interestingly, Mach was reacting to those who, like you, sought from physico-mechanical (“physikalisch-mechanisch”) theory explanations of how, and proofs that they are, theories of nature. However, to him this was a vestige of theology, not some aspect of science or philosophy. It was to ask of physics what was wanted from religion, not the sciences:

    Die höchst Philosophie des Naturforschers besteht eben darin, eine unvollendete Weltanschauung zu ertragen, und einer scheinbar abgeschlossenen, aber unzureichenden vorzuziehen.

    the highest philosophy of the scientific investigator rests in the toleration of an incomplete worldview and its preference over an apparently complete, but inadequate one.

    Thus, long before Kuhn, we find philosophers of science not only recognizing that theories need be neither proven nor complete to be “officially science” rather than metaphysics, but also relegating the philosophy of science to historical inquiry (hence Mach’s title). Critics of this move, such as Émile Boutroux, nonetheless had to admit the same barrier: theories in the natural sciences were increasingly better at predicting and modeling the dynamics of natural phenomena, but could not explain these phenomena (and certainly couldn’t be proved). Rather than cede philosophy of science to “historical science”, however, Boutroux admitted indeterminacy and more importantly multiplicity:

    “la science n’est pas une, mais multiple”.

    This division of “science” into “the sciences” of the sort Boutroux saw was nothing compared to its modern, fundamentally interdisciplinary and divided nature. Also, the recognition that different sciences rely on qualitatively different methods and both formulate and use theoretical frameworks differently has long been truism for practicing scientists (not to mention increasingly frustrated educators who are tired an educational system promoting a 19th century positivist view of science). Yet it is not to such a multiplicity you compare philosophy to:

    The shift, this supposed break, which occurred only in the 20th century, was never justified

    How, then, are these different sciences with differing methods that use both theory, certainty, and confirmation in very different ways, all “just the best philosophy we have?” If they are not singular, what is gained other than mischaracterization by lumping them together as one type of philosophy?

    NHST nicely illustrates the diversity of the sciences, the lack of any such thing as “scientific certainty”, and the problems with claims that “science” can be understood as just the “best philosophy” asking questions for which exist the most/best data. THE central method for confirming hypotheses empirically in the social, cognitive, behavioral, psychological, and medical sciences is inexorably bound with measures of “certainty”. This method is known as Null Hypothesis Significance Testing (NHST). It is without empirical or logical support, there are three (mostly arbitrary) standard measures of “certainty” that at best determine how likely one explanation is to random outcomes (but not to any other explanation), and it can’t be used within many fields from particle physics and quantum mechanics to most of engineering and computer sciences.

    in the social sciences, the mindless ritual significance test is applied by researchers with little appreciation of its history and virtually no understanding of its actual meaning, and then—despite this alarming dearth of statistical insight—is held up as the hallmark of confirmatory evidence.
    Methodologists have attempted to draw our attention to the foibles of significance tests for generations—indeed since well before our obsession with them even developed—and yet the fad persists, much to the severe detriment of the social sciences.

    Lambdin, C. (2012). Significance tests as sorcery: Science is empirical—significance tests are not. Theory & Psychology, 22(1), 67-90.

    Over the past 70 years, null hypothesis significance testing (NHST), which is a dichotomous statistical inference technique for evaluating research hypotheses by assessing the probability of the observed data given that the null hypothesis1 is true (J. Cohen, 1994), has frequently been criticized on methodological grounds (summarized by, e.g., Anderson, Burnham, & Thompson, 2000; Kaufman, 1998; Rozeboom, 1997; Schmidt, 1996; Ziliak & McCloskey, 2008). At the same time, alternative quantitative methods have made NHST largely redundant (e.g., Diaconis & Efron, 1983; Gatsonis et al., 2001; Johnson, 1999; Kline, 2004; Schwab & Starbuck, 2009). Yet, despite this controversy, NHST continues to be widely used…

    Orlitzky, M. (2011). How can significance tests be deinstitutionalized? Organizational Research Methods 15(2):199-228

    So while certain fields tend to share much with one another, others are so different in the methods employed, the nature of theories, and the measures of success and/or progress that they differ from one another more than grand unified theories (M-theory, supersymmetry, etc.) differ from metaphysics or quantum field theory from mathematics.

    Also, given that a central method across many sciences for establishing certainty mathematically is logically flawed, what might that tell us about the claim below?

    science…works on questions we have the best data to answer. But that does not leave the rest of the world without data, as if you have only enough data to prove something scientifically…

    Once again, I think a central issue here is how you are describing the ways in which proof, data, and theory dictate what is “officially science”, whether it is determining that QM isn’t a theory or not recognizing how many scientific fields depend upon bad data and poor methods built upon self-sustaining theories. But we need not accept so radical a criticism of certain fields to find a sure counter-example if we accept that e.g., game theory or even “transfinite mathematics” is a product of progress made in philosophy.

    Cantor’s diagonal proof that infinities can have differing cardinalities is at the core of transfinite mathematics. There is no method, no data, no anything that allows scientists equipped with the most sophisticated modern technology to confirm any theory with the certainty Cantor achieved over a century ago. Mathematics exists in closed-discourse universes in which data can be used to prove things. The sciences do not. Thus mathematics and logic are vastly superior to the sciences in their capacity to make statements with certainty; one can prove things in math, but not in the sciences (except insofar as the proofs are mathematical/formal in nature, in which case they are tangential).

    To see why, and to link once again to the history of scientific development, consider the origins of QM. Simplistically, we had two mutually incompatible yet repeatedly confirmed hypotheses about the nature of light. Experiments from the early 1800s onward confirmed that light was a wave, and classical electromagnetism went beyond this by showing that light was just an electromagnetic wave and providing an entire theory in which to situate such waves. Work beginning especially with Planck and for which Einstein won the Nobel prize, however, confirmed the hypothesis (favored by Newton) that light was composed of parts. So which hypothesis was right? Neither.

    The important point about classical thinking is that ideas on the two sides remain apart from one another, even if they have sometimes competed, as, for example, in the varied attempts to account for the nature of light. Quantum physics on the other hand, as it developed in the three decades after Planck’s discovery, found a need for an uncomfortable fusion of the discrete and the continuous.

    Carmichael, H. (2007). Quantum Fluctuations of Light: A Modern Perspective on Wave/Particle Duality. in J. Evans & A. S. Thorndike (Eds.) Quantum mechanics at the crossroads: New perspectives from history, philosophy and physics (pp. 183-212). (The Frontiers Collection).

    Nobody was testing whether it was wrong to think that particles and waves existed. Nobody questioned whether we should instead imagine that neither did. It wasn’t data that made the difference. It wasn’t even really asking a particular class of “answerable” questions (after all, we are more certain of some historical matters than we are of what the theory of quantum mechanics tells us about reality, and we were more certain that the wave/particle notion in classical physics was right when it turned out wrong). There is always the chance that no matter how many times you confirm some theory, your confirmation is based upon experimental designs and outcome results that rely upon a theory that is flawed and/or methods for confirmation which are. It is usually not possible to determine whether this is so. However, even were it so, the following would still not, strictly speaking, be accurate:

    there are many degrees of certainty below the scientific- in history, in journalism…

    Two examples: 1) Questions about prehistory are often answered in the sciences. The nature of PIE (or Pre-IE) is a matter of linguistics. 2) Evolutionary psychology relies on a combination evolutionary theory, archaeology, and theories in the social & behavioral sciences for its foundation: how humans lived tens of thousands of years ago such that by understanding the way of life long, long before written records we can inform the design and interpretation of experiments today.

    Questions about proto-languages fall under the purview of certain scientific fields, while evolutionary psychology is one. In both cases, journalists and historians of recent periods have superior data and can usually be more certain of conclusions inferred from these data.

    All of the above can really be summed up in a few statements: if one does not recognize how diverse the sciences are or the fundamental components of the modern scientific endeavor, then one can’t really make equivalence statements about “science”. Instead, one ends up constructing something unrecognizable to scientists in which most of physics isn’t “officially science”, scientists “prove” things about theories as theories were understood (more or less) over a century ago despite the fact that they do no such thing, science exists in some unified way despite greater differences between some fields of science and others than between some fields which aren’t science and those that are, etc. One can then dub this “science”, but having done so, equating it with “the best philosophy we have” involves equating philosophy with an artifice of one’s own making.

    1. 20.1
      Richard Carrier

      The first problem is that scientists don’t prove theories or use proof as a measure of certainty (because we don’t use proofs to confirm anything based on any experimental/empirical data).

      This is a straw man. You are using the word “proof” and cognates in a different sense than I was. And in result you are not arguing against anything I said, but in fact reinforcing what I did say.

      It’s all just a scale of evidence: the more you have, the closer you get to science. Different sciences have different thresholds for when you have enough to call it “science” (physics requires a lot more than biology, for example; and biology more than anthropology; etc.). The threshold is arbitrary. It’s all philosophy. Sometimes we have more evidence, sometimes we have less. Sometimes when we have more we call it science.

      And that’s the whole point I made.

  21. 21

    Thank you for pointing to specifics, that helps a great deal. A few other notes could help more. For example, I went to great lengths in my last two responses to show that what you describe as “theory” is inconsistent with what both scientists and philosophers of science consider theory to be (granted, there is vast disagreement here, but there are still things that everybody has left in the dust). Different sciences don’t just have different “thresholds”; their entire structure and nature differs. This is why I pointed out that some sciences differ more from others than they do from non-sciences such as mathematics or history. Certain social sciences, for example, have more in common with history than particle physics. This isn’t simply a matter of certainty, data, or “proof”. The methods used in the social sciences cannot in general be applied to particle physics or quantum physics, but the methods used in history are similar to those in the social sciences while the methods used in mathematics are more important than empirical data for many fields in modern physics.

    The point you made, it seems to me (and again, I could be completely incorrect here) is that contrary to popular belief the division between the sciences and philosophy isn’t just modern, but is inaccurate. However, every description you give of the ways in which the sciences are in some sense philosophy rests upon mischaracterizations of the sciences (although I freely admit that at least some of these are not mischaracterizations but are simplifications; however, I can’t seem to divide the two such that I can reconcile them).

    The threshold is arbitrary

    Then why spend so much time speaking about the ways in which science differs from other areas of philosophy because of this threshold? If it is arbitrary, what distinguishes journalism from science? If my quotations of your use of “proof” are a strawman, what makes all the scientific theories (QM, string theory, etc.) that are universally recognized among scientists and philosophers of science as being scientific theories something that, in your words, aren’t “officially science” and/or are metaphysics?

    Basically, if it is just a scale of evidence, then the most scientific you can get is mathematics, the vast majority of physics doesn’t reach the level of a great deal of modern historiography and journalism (neither do much of psychiatry and a number of other fields either), and as game theory and logic belong to philosophy then they are vastly superior to the sciences, humanities, journalism, etc. Also, just an FYI- physics doesn’t require more evidence than biology. Physics tends to have more evidence in many cases than biology simply because the strides made in quantum physics, organic chemistry, nanophysics, etc., haven’t been matched with progress in biology. This has to do with the qualitatively greater complexity of biological systems. A swinging pendulum presents a chaotic 1-body problem. Rosen and his successors in systems biology have argued that living systems are closed to efficient causation and any models must be non-computable. Whether this is true is a matter of debate, but the qualitative difference is not. Furthermore, as theories within physics are not readily equated with theories in biology, the point is rather moot. Quantum mechanics and other theories of modern physics cannot even relate to in any known way to the objects of their domain. For the most part, fields in biology do. They are also not so based around prediction as they are correspondence.

    I don’t wish to blabber on more than I already have and waste more of your time. In short, the demarcation you seem to purport is based upon a conception of the sciences that unifies fields more distinct from those outside of the sciences which are more similar. For some reason game theory is not science but philosophy, quantum mechanics isn’t “officially science” (nor, apparently, is most of “science”), and I am unsure how you move beyond the relationship between 17th century science and philosophy to the radical shifts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    If there is one element of your talk that I might highlight (and tried but failed to) it is your categorization of string theory and QM as not “officially science”. This alone renders your demarcation of the sciences so distinct from that of scientists as to be incompatible (same with philosophers of science). If, like your use of proof, this was merely a way to get points across and I am taking you too literally, I will gladly admit to that (I tend to over-analyze). It’s just that at the moment I can’t determine where you are simplifying, and thus what you say should be loosely interpreted, and where you are not.

    If the above reads as nonsense, I plead sleep deprivation. I’ve been up for a few days, so I apologize for any (and all) incoherencies.

    1. 21.1
      Richard Carrier

      If there is one element of your talk that I might highlight (and tried but failed to) it is your categorization of string theory and QM as not “officially science”.

      Please pay attention. In the talk, and again here, I very carefully distinguished QM from Quantum Theory. If you don’t understand the difference, you need to go back and read what I said here about that. QT is what we propose to explain why QM is true. QM is established science. No QT (there are many) has yet to become so. Likewise string theory: not a scientific fact. Just a hypothesis, which string theorists believe is more likely than not true. And that’s called metaphysics. It’s also called science. And that is exactly the point of my whole talk.

      …the division between the sciences and philosophy isn’t just modern, but is inaccurate.

      The only correct division is that science has enough data to legitimately claim (albeit still tentative) certainty. It’s just philosophy with better data. When we don’t have that quality and quantity of data, we don’t meet the threshold to be popularly called science. So we call it philosophy. But in actual fact, it’s all philosophy. It merely differs in certainty.

      Where scientists decide to call the marker, that is, when they think something has enough evidence to also be “science” and not “just” philosophy, is an arbitrary decision of scientific communities, and different scientific communities have set the bar in different places, sometimes disastrously, sometimes aptly. If we want “scientific fact” to mean something special, then the bar needs to be pretty high. Medical science has not gotten that memo. Physics has. But this is all just a distinction of how certain we can be in a conclusion. Not a distinction between “philosophy” and “non-philosophy.” It’s all philosophy.

  22. 22

    Dear Dr. Carrier:

    I am aware that you make the distinction between quantum mechanics and quantum theory. The point, however, is that quantum mechanics is a theory. This:

    Even quantum mechanics consistently works and is thus correct, and therefore correctly describing something, whereas quantum theory, i.e. why QM works

    mistakes what QM and what “theory” is in physics simultaneously. QM doesn’t work consistently. There is no clear quantum to classical transition nor any clear (or at least agreed upon way in which the “classical” world we experience emerges from the quantum. For example:

    “According to the general wisdom, there should not be any problem with the classical limit of quantum mechanics…There are, however, several problems connected with this. The most serious one is
    that a wave packet typically spreads, and there is a definite time after which the classical approximation will break down. Even if it might appear that, for massive bodies, the wave packet will remain narrow for a very long time, it can easily be shown that interactions will typically generate very spread out wave functions, even for massive bodies (e.g., for the center of mass of an asteroid undergoing chaotic motion). But which mechanism should prevent the wave function from spreading?”

    Allori, V., & Zanghì, N. (2009). On the classical limit of quantum mechanics. Foundations of Physics, 39(1), 20-32.

    If you don’t have easy access to that journal, the abstract is quite clear. Also, as I have consistently shown, QM is a theory, regardless of whether you distinguish it from whatever you (as an expert philosopher/historian) seem to think “quantum theory” or even “theory” means. You cite nothing. You have no expertise. You ignore my citations of those who do. In your talk , you reference popular science literature, and in your replies, you make up definitions to support your demarcations without dealing with how e.g., physicists actually understand what it is they do. Theories need not be explanatory, and your conflation of the sciences into one mischaracterized entity as you present it in your talk simply make your conclusion an artifice built upon your personal misconceptions of the scientific fields you neither work in nor seem familiar enough with to understand the vital concepts, nuances, and other issues you gloss over. I am, however, tired, of replying when you have no interest, it seems, in anything other than repeating your personal views as a historian on e.g., what constitutes a “theory” in physics. If you wish to rely on your authority as an expert here, rather than dealing with real experts via expert literature, then I fear we won’t really get anywhere. If you want to actually discuss the nature of the sciences based upon the ways that scientists and philosophers of science understand it, I’d be happy to continue trying to understand where you are coming from and communicating where I do. If not, I’ll simply let whatever response you give stand as the last word on this matter. I still think it was an interesting and worthwhile talk, and am still grateful for the link.

    1. 22.1
      Richard Carrier

      The point, however, is that quantum mechanics is a theory.

      That’s irrelevant to my point. When I said Quantum Theory, I explicitly said I didn’t mean Quantum Mechanics.

  23. 23

    Dear Dr. Carrier:

    Quantum mechanics is a set of laws, not a theory

    You stated this. It is quite simply wrong. You have presented no account of theory consistent with those debated within the philosophy of science of the science, but have described as not being scientific theories that which every individual familiar with physics, the sciences, or even the philosophy of science agrees is quite obviously scientific theory. The best example is your description of QM as “not a theory”, although in general you description of theories and what does or does not constitute “science” or “scientific theories” is utterly inconsistent and ridiculously incompatible with how scientists and philosophers of science do. Despite your ridicule and dismissal as fallacious my reference to your use of “prove/proof” to define theories, were we ignore the ways in which you DO define science according to “proof” we’d be left with you defining scientific theories as NOT scientific contrary to basically every individual with any expertise in this matter (i.e., physicists and other scientists as well as philosophers of science). You dismissed me for (fair or not) my complaining about matters relating to your expertise. You have no expertise in any science, you have no experience as a scientist, and even though you once again have not addressed what I said you have continued to misrepresent what I said.

    When you can’t even accurately distinguish what scientists consider “scientific theory” or “science” as well as all others who don’t depend upon “a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy” to understand what does and does not constitute scientific theory, the fact that you refer to “quantum theory” in some nebulous sense unique to you couldn’t matter less. Your talk references QM and other theories of modern physics as not being scientific theories (and your reasons, despite your claims of my “strawman” argument, relate to “proof”), and you do not in general accurately depict what constitutes “science” or scientific theory. Instead, you define that which all experts acknowledge constitutes scientific theory as not being science, and fail to offer anything remotely resembling the admittedly contested demarcations between scientific theory and pseudoscience, metaphysics, or philosophy.

    Your “point” was the inaccurate 20th century demarcation between philosophy and science, but your talk doesn’t describe modern science accurately enough to make any such demarcation, and as you do indeed reference quantum mechanics and other CLEARLY SCIENTIFIC THEORIES and DO describe them as not science for reasons that you have continued NOT to defend (other than through your reliance on your own expertise as a historian), then it is entirely relevant. Your demarcation is based upon a failure to recognize what constitutes science and scientific theory.

    Please no not misconstrue what I have said. If you are unclear as to my points, I have requested that you ask me what I mean or intend if you don’t understand. I have stated (and maintain) that I am fine with you simply responding with whatever analysis you wish, providing that you are not interested in continued dialogue. This does not extend to misrepresenting me. I expect (indeed, I would hope) that you continue to correct me when you feel I have misrepresented your view. I only ask the same.

    Thank you.

    1. 23.1
      Richard Carrier

      You stated this. It is quite simply wrong.


      Take this scientific literacy test–developed by science teachers. Then read the grading commentary.

      Then stop arguing irrelevancies that have nothing to do with what I actually said. I said the theory of why QM is true is not settled science. That’s a fact. Get over it.

      And when it comes to QM being settled science, all that means is that there is more data supporting QM than (so far) for any theory of why QM is true. That’s what makes QM just philosophy with more data (and that is the only legitimate reason we call it “science,” Aristotle’s “physics,” in preference to the term “metaphysics”); and theories about why QM is true are philosophy with less data (which, in consequence, any honest person, aware of what these terms in philosophy mean, calls “metaphysics”). That’s just the fact of it. Everything else is a semantic game.

    2. 23.2

      The “scientific literacy test” link appears to be broken

    3. Richard Carrier

      Sorry! Thanks. Fixed.

    4. 23.3

      Richard, On that page you say “I have created here” the test which you refer to above as “developed by science teachers”. Can you say a bit more about the provenance of those questions?

    5. Richard Carrier

      It’s stated in the linked page. The source is in note 2.

    6. 23.4

      Well if the test came (qua test) from the paper then perhaps “I have created” should have been “I have copied”.
      But no matter. The points made all have some validity, but some of them could reasonably be challenged. There are two or three where I might actually differ with you and at least a couple more where I wouldn’t downgrade someone for disagreeing (so if I was grading the test writer on achieving suitable test items for actually grading others then I’d give it maybe a B- according to the posted grading scheme)

      Anyhow I doubt that anything in that discussion will be news to someone with anything like the exposure to real scientific literature of your commenter ‘messing’ and I have to admit that I share his or her puzzlement at your usage of the terms Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Theory.

  24. 24

    Dear Dr. Carrier:

    The inadequate knowledge of “science” by science teachers is widely recognized, and is referred to in e.g., the primary citation “in note 2″ of your source (by the NRC). Your little “quiz” asks questions about what scientists do, and aside from scientific research I have participated in I have also (and actually primarily) served as a research consultant not only concerning methodology but also research software for scientific labs around the world. You can’t defend your misuse of scientific terms or inadequate knowledge of scientific methods by citing yourself or random papers you can’t place in context (still less works on the philosophy of science of scientific methods that you end up contradicting). You rely on simplistic works that, while admirable in that their ability to communicate scientific methods to complete amateurs, are woefully inadequate to defend your own, personal understanding. Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science? You were so close to a much better work you might actually appreciate: Wolpert, L. (1994). The Unnatural Nature of Science: Why Science Does Not Make (Common) Sense. Harvard University Press. Both works, however, are intended for non-scientists and those relying on “commonsense” notions about what the sciences are. If you would like a real bibliography on what constitutes science, what scientific “theory” is, and what methods scientists employ I’d be happy to provide one.

    You did not say

    the theory of why QM is true is not settled science.

    . I quoted what you said in your talk above, and in your response here you even stated (clearly and clearly incorrectly) that

    Quantum mechanics is a set of laws, not a theory.

    I quoted several sources (including one you cited in your talk) clearly showing the above is simply wrong. Whatever your concept of “quantum theory” is, you have clearly stated that QM isn’t a theory, and this is quite clearly contradicted by everybody with relevant expertise because they do not define theory the way you do nor do they mistakenly describe the sciences and scientific methods. You do. And so far, your defense continues to be to either mischaracterize what I have stated or what you have and defend your view via reference to your own expertise as an ancient historian. If you can’t even acknowledge that the quote directly above is wrong and is your claim or, alternatively, produce something resembling actual evidence from some expert that QM isn’t a theory (which does NOT require that we know “how” it works as I explained in detail), then there isn’t any point in dialogue, is there? I am more than happy to refer you to any number of standard reference material, and even to the AAAS, NRC, and similar literature on the desired reforms in science education your source “in note 2″ refers to. I am happy to expand on any points I’ve made. But there isn’t really any point in you referring to your own online essays on NOS when you have no experience in any science research or any background in the sciences, is there?

    Again, are you interested in dialogue and, if so, can you do more than cite yourself (which is useless as you are an historian, not a scientist nor a philosopher of science), or not? If not, then once more I enjoyed the talk for what it was worth and think it is better in several respects than many a research methods course most undergrads are exposed to, and whatever are disagreements I appreciate your much needed insistence concerning the importance of philosophy in the sciences as elsewhere.

    1. 24.1
      Richard Carrier

      This is a good example of why scientists suck an philosophy outside their science.

      You are still stuck on the bizarre notion that words only ever mean one thing, and don’t vary meaning by context and application.

      Consequently, even when I was very clear that I was using Quantum Theory to mean theories of Quantum Mechanics, you refuse to listen to what I actually said and insist the word can’t be used that way, when sorry to say, yes it can. That QM can also be called a theory is irrelevant to what I was saying.

      As a result, you have burned thousands of words arguing an irrelevant point that has nothing to do with what I actually said.

      And still you don’t even get it.

  25. 25

    This is a good example of why scientists suck an philosophy outside their science

    You aren’t a philosopher. You have taken as an insult the suggestion that your degrees aren’t in ancient history:

    In fact, my degrees are in ancient history….


    You have published no research in sciences, your CV lists nothing that suggests you are aware of scientific methodologies (and I’ve read your doctoral thesis, in which you don’t use “Bayes’ Theorem” at all despite the fact that you claim to have lectured on it since 2003; in fact, your historical account is among the most credulous I’ve ever read) or really anything regarding the sciences other than the misunderstandings I have pointed out, and your expertise in ancient philosophy (belied by your own valid defense to Carrier’s critique by your assertion that your degrees are in fact in history) doesn’t make your comments about the philosophy of science anything more than an amateur who can’t defend her or his statement other than by reference to non-existent expertise and vindictive commentary. I’ve read everything you’ve published. I grew up in your field and the standard Greek reference you used and cited was written by my grandfather. I simply went into science and chose to make classics, classical history, and classical languages a hobby. And as far as these fields are concerned, you are an expert and I am not.

    You are still stuck on the bizarre notion that words only ever mean one thing, and don’t vary meaning by context and application

    No, actually I tend to favor a construction grammar model, but as you aren’t a linguist any more than you are a scientist or a mathematician I don’t expect you to be familiar with this. I am sick and tired of this idiotic nonsense you purport defends you positions:

    That QM can also be called a theory is irrelevant to what I was saying.

    Quantum mechanics is a set of laws, not a theory

    Given your blatant backtracking, why not return to what I had issue with to begin with? That is, you define theory and what is or isn’t “science” according to criteria that nobody in the philosophy of science or the sciences does. Your rejoinder that as a historian whose doctorate is in ancient philosophy (despite your own words) aside, there are those whose specialty actually IS the philosophy of science even if you do not respect the views of scientists regarding…well…science. They disagree with you too (and you can dismiss my personal opinions all you wish; that’s why I don’t rely on my assertions but on the expert literature).

    What you actually said amounts to this:

    Given that science is something it isn’t, then philosophy (which is what you say it is regardless of the views of ,many philosophers and scientists), then your understanding of the sciences that obviously conflicts in basic ways with what the sciences actually are or what scientific methods actually amount to somehow suffices to make conclusions about boundaries between the sciences and other field. You certainly have the intellect and the ability to make such conclusions. You simply haven’t done the work, and thus rely on an inability to cite anything other than your own expertise as an ancient historian.

    For the last time: are you willing to discuss what scientists and philosophers of science believe scientific theories to be and what scientific methods are, or will you continually cite yourself?

    1. 25.1
      Richard Carrier

      I am published in peer reviewed philosophy journals, I teach philosophy, I’ve written books on philosophy that have been cited by other philosophers, and my degree is in history of philosophy–and history of science (as my cv attests). I am a philosopher as ever there was. I also have a science background (even apart from honors courses across the subject in high school and college, I specifically studied electrical engineering and the science of sonar, and worked in both for a year). More on all that here. But that debate is a distraction.

      The issue is simply this: (1) I made a point that theories to explain QM are metaphysics–they are just good philosophy (being scientifically well-informed), and the refusal to call them that is a semantic game, corresponding to no substantive distinction between what philosophers mean by metaphysics and what physicists are doing when they propose theories to explain QM. (2) QM, meanwhile, is philosophy in exact the sense Aristotle meant as physics (per my talk), exactly as Darwin and Maxwell and Newton would all have agreed. It’s just philosophy with good data. (3) Once we exclude all bad philosophy (as I call it, pseudo-philosophy) and only count good philosophy, the methods are actually the same…it’s only access to data that differs.

      Now, you have yet to challenge any of those three propositions. You drone on and on about the irrelevancies of semantics that actually have nothing to do with anything I actually said. But you can’t change reality by changing what it is called. And you can’t win an argument by avoiding the premises you claim to be challenging.

  26. 26

    I am published in peer reviewed philosophy journals

    Peer-review is just a (often poor) method for ensuring that scholarly publications are at the very least worth reading. Your doctoral dissertation completely contradicts the historical method you’ve espoused for over a decade, it is about the most credulous historical account I’ve come across, your peer-reviewed publications are minimal and they are all representative of minority views of other peer-reviewed publications. I’ve read everything you’ve written, I know all the languages you know (and more), and have a background in fields you don’t,. You have credentials you obtained by compromising your own methods.

    Your books on philosophy contain basic logical errors and are published by specialty presses. Your knowledge of basic mathematics, as you’ve admitted here, is not even equivalent to that an undergradutate mathematics major would have. Your presentation of the philosophy of science isn’t just pathetic, it’s pathetically incompatible with expert literature and scientific methods. I’ve cited literature. You’ve blathered about your “doctorate in ancient philosophy” you don’t have. Not only don’t you such a doctorate, you’ve made a point of claiming that your degrees are in ancient history.

    Your references to scientific literature (those that aren’t simply wrong, such as your “coin flipping” reference) are popular science sources. You don’t cite or deal with real scientific literature and so far appear incapable of doing so.

    What, exactly, do you hope to gain by applying your “expertise” in “ancient philosophy” (established by a doctoral thesis using historical methods you claim are subpar and should be abandoned) to the philosophy and methods of the sciences? Other than demonstrating an ignorance of both and an inability to support your nonsense with references to expert literature (and a dependence upon arguments from your own “authority” as an historian)?

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