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Science vs Philosophy

Recently, a number of people have opened their mouth to deride Philosophy. Notably, they tend to be people who are well-placed academics such as Krauss and Dawkins. Likewise, Atheistlogic has stuck their oar in too, though much more articulately. Atheistlogic spells out the general objection quite well, I think, so I’m going to focus on their comments as a stepping off point.

In a post titled “The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth”, Atheistlogic claims the following:

There are some really hard-to-grasp concepts out there. Relativity: time doesn’t move at the same rate for all observers. Quantum mechanics: photons may be polarized in two different directions at once. Evolution: tiny changes in individual specimens result in large changes in a population over time.

These concepts are not intuitive: nobody is going to figure them out by sitting there and thinking about them really hard. It takes observation and concrete data. But once we have the data and observations to demonstrate a hypothesis, it’s ridiculous to cling to some point like “something can’t come from nothing” just because the observations are counterintuitive. This is why philosophy is not a method to truth, and fails especially spectacularly when you compare it to something like science. There’s no better way to figure out how the world works than going out and checking it for yourself.

That’s not to say that philosophy doesn’t have it’s uses: it’s great for ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… But when it comes to working out how the world actually is by using metaphysics, ontology, theology, etc… philosophy can’t really hold a candle to science. And when you cling to axioms that you came to from an armchair in the face of actual scientific discovery, then you’re an idiot.

At the core of this analysis lies a false dichotomy, and some faulty assumptions. Or, to put it less strongly, a dichotomy that I do not believe is actually real and some assumptions I think I can demonstrate to be false.

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

Assumption 5: Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

False Dichotomy: Either you are doing Science, or you are doing Philosophy. In any case, that which is Science is not Philosophy, and that which is Philosophy is not Science. An individual can blend the two together (c.f. Massimo Pigliucci), but that’s just doing two different things at the same time, it doesn’t imply that the two things are related (e.g eating dinner and watching tv).

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

I’ve seen this bandied about a few times, and this seems to be the primary, pervasive misunderstanding of Philosophy in North America. I say North America, because it is not the (mis)understanding of Philosophy that I experience here in Japan. (Here, when I mention my degree, people react with indrawn breath and a sudden deferential tone of voice. The difference between this and the contempt in North America is striking)

It would likewise be a mistake to assert that intuitions have no place in Philosophy. It’s as mistaken as saying that ‘intuitions have no place in Science’. Of course they have a place in both Science and Philosophy: that’s where the process begins, with our intuitions. That’s how we starting looking for ideas, that’s where the ‘huh… that’s odd’ kicks in (this being an intuitive response to something). But neither Science nor Philosophy end at intuitions either. Anyone believing that one can simply babble on about ones feelings in Philosophy has zero experience with the academic discipline. Have a read over Samuel Clarke, a philosopher/theologian in the 18th century who babbled on about god (if you’ve heard William Lane Craig, Clarke will be eerily familiar), and you can clearly see the role that intuitions play in his work. And Clarke’s arguments were torn to pieces on that basis. They fail, because they are nothing more than Appeals to Intuition, an informal fallacy.

If you really do feel that Philosophy is nothing more than people talking about their intuitions, then 1) please let me know what Philosophy you have been reading, as I’m curious and I’d like to check who is currently babbling nonsense and 2) please ask someone with expertise in the area to recommend some introductory texts. I’d be more than happy to do so (some are linked at the bottom of this article).

Pigliucci has a whole podcast dedicated to this particular topic.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

This is one of those troublesome assumptions that is false, but true. It’s complicated.

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as axiom-free Science. Science consists of a whole bunch of axioms (I’ll elaborate on this later, Empiricism). So the question really hinges on what is meant by “actual scientific discoveries”.

Are we talking about data? Are we talking about basic facts about the world? If so, it’s almost impossible for them to ‘trump’ axioms, as most Philosophical axioms are not directly about objects in the world (Spinoza). There may be a rare case, for example if someone were so foolish to claim that “all swans are white” is an axiom, that is definitely a case where a ‘scientific discovery’ vis a vis ‘data’ definition trumps an axiom. On this reading, the claim is false.

Are we talking about ‘scientific models that have turned out to have a lot of data to support them’ (e.g. Evolution)? Does this trump the axiomatic view that Humans are Humans because of some intangible ‘human-ness’ (i.e. Essentialism)? Absolutely. But… Those scientific models are collections of axioms themselves, so it’s not really correct to say that the “scientific discovery” has trumped the axiom; it’s more accurate to say that Set of Axioms A has garnered more support than Set of Axioms B. But to follow that through to reject Set of Axioms B, one has to have a precommitment to another set of axioms (aka Empiricism. More on this later). On this reading, the claim is kinda, sorta true, but not exactly a damning indictment of Philosophy…

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

This is one of those statements where, hopefully, the writer rereads their work and facepalms. And yet, I hear variations of this all the time: claims that we have to observe the world to understand it, and that we need data to reach the correct conclusion.

Sure, all of that is definitely true, but it still involves a whole bunch of ‘thinking really hard’ as well. It’s absolutely true that one can’t understand the world if one merely sits at home and thinks really hard: Philosophers don’t do that. Go read Descartes, or Hume, or Spinoza, or Leibniz, or any of them. All of them lived in the world, observed the world, and attempted to explain the world by ‘thinking really hard’ about what they had seen. Yes, many of them were terribly, terribly wrong. That sounds exactly like Science to me.

Observations can be interpreted in multiple ways. ‘Data’, in and of itself, is meaningless. Only in the framework of a theory (aka “thinking really hard”) does data actually mean anything.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

The list above are a list of disciplines that are the theoretical underpinnings of action. You are absolutely welcome to operate in the world without any concept of Ethics. You are absolutely welcome to try to understand the world without any concept of Epistemology. Likewise, you are welcome to try to write music without any knowledge of music composition, and you are welcome to design a rocket without any training in Engineering.

Without a theoretical education in the arena in which you operate you may still be effective. By some magic of happenstance, your actions might just fit in with the people around you such that you don’t need guidance for your actions, and you don’t need to worry about resolving conflicts. Being lucky, however, doesn’t mean that the study of Ethics is useless. Fortunately, Hobbes never contributed anything to political science, and Rawls certainly didn’t contribute anything to social justice.

Oh… Wait…

Assumption 5: Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

I’ve mentioned Empiricism a couple times above, so I’ll get into it a little more here.

First though: what the hell is Philosophy? In order to distinguish Philosophy from, say, Science, one has to at least try to sketch an outline of what you’re talking about. Y’know, rather than just relying on your intuition and the intuitions of your readers…

In the broadest sense, Philosophy is about ‘what we think’. It is not about ‘how we think’ (as in the physical process of our thinking), as that is Psychology. It is, perhaps, about ‘how we should think’ (as in the best methods of thinking that we are biologically capable of employing). In that sense, Philosophy is about the analysis of ideas, the critical dissection of ideas, and arguments, and hypotheses. It is about taking some things that we know, and attempting to logically extrapolate things that could be true to varying degrees of certainty. It is about acknowledging that, given the prior things that we know, some things simply cannot be true.

This practice, in and of itself, does not require ‘new’ data, insofar as we are merely sketching out the possibilities. In this sense, Philosophy can determine The False, which is certainly useful. It is also fair to say that, given no new data, Philosophy cannot distinguish between the various possibilities to identify The True.

So what is Empiricism? Empiricism is that idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.

This sounds suspiciously like Science. Which leads me neatly into:

False Dichotomy: Either you are doing Science, or you are doing Philosophy.

This is simply false. The tools of Philosophy are the tools of Science, though not all of the tools of Science are the tools of Philosophy (and, conversely, not all the tools of Philosophy are the tools of Science). I contend (and I am not alone) that Philosophy and Science are neither antagonistic, nor are they seperate in any meaningful way. Science is merely Philosophy plus Empiricism. I believe that the best way to view this is as a continuum, with Philosophy at one end, and Science as the other, and one moves from one to the other depending on ‘how much’ (so to speak) Empiricism one is using.

Sure, it may be the case that someone is doing ‘pure’ Philosophy, in terms of studying Ethics, but Utilitarianism is all about the outcomes, and outcomes can be measured. If we start predicting Utilitarian outcomes for communities, and subsequently measuring those outcomes (by whatever metrics are determined to be relevant), are we not doing Science? Are we doing “Applied Philosophy”? Is there a meaningful difference between those two terms? (I think not)

 The idea that data can be used to either validate a theory or falsify a theory is an idea with Philosophical roots. The idea that certain conclusions are justified given certain kinds of evidence is a Philosophical idea. Philosophically-blind Science is terrible science: it is data with no understanding of warrant or justification, or how to create a model, or any of those things that turn ‘a science’ into Science.

Likewise, Scientifically-blind Philosophy is limited, insofar as that Philosophy is about the world. I’m all for a spewing forth heaps of theories and ideas about how the world works, but there comes a point where one must apply those theories, and test to see which bear fruit. Philosophers like Kripke drive me nuts, as does the whole ‘Philosophy of Language‘ subdivision.

So, I don’t think that folks like Dawkins, Krauss or Atheistlogic should shut up about Philosophy, or should cease commenting on the relevance of Philosophy to life in the real world. But I do think they would do themselves (and everyone else) a favour if they took the time to become educated on the subject prior to speaking…

An overview and critique of Krauss’s nonsense can be found on Jerry Coyne’s site, and if you don’t read Massimo Pigliucci’s blog, you should dip in from time to time.

Intro texts:

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

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Comments

  1. Robert B. says

    I think what a lot of people are objecting to is not really philosophy as such but the idea that one can prove things about the world from logic and first principles. I’m very pro-philosophy, but this kind of a priori reasoning is thoroughly discredited in my view – basically it’s a great way to “prove” the prejudices you had when you started, even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. (There’ve been a lot of a priori “proofs” of God, for example.) The human brain isn’t reliable enough to work over long stretches without “reality checks” against the evidence.

    But that’s not philosophy in general, that’s a specific kind of philosophy. In fact, objections to “philosophy” on the grounds that it’s a bad way to find truth are themselves philosophy, specifically epistemology.

    There might be criticisms against certain schools of philosophy, or of professional philosophers as a community, but not of philosophy itself. Unless you find a code for “PHILOSOPHERS ARE MORONS” hidden in the fine structure constant in the digits after the decimal point, how would you even go about criticizing philosophy without using it?

  2. Jean says

    Having a scientific background, I associate more readily with the opinion of people with a similar background. I don’t want to dismiss the usefulness of philosophy but it seems to me to be so prone to being misused.

    The best example I can think of is the ontological argument. How can you actually believe that you can think something into existence. Of course, it’s more complex than that and it has been refuted but I am baffled by it. And I am not equipped to argue with or even understand the jargon used in most philosophical discussions and argumentation. And I am not uneducated.

    Of course, science has a lot of jargon itself. But there is an effort made to popularize certain ideas and concepts that I don’t see for philosophy. Of course, that could be my own failure to see it and look for it and I admit I am biased.

  3. eric says

    Related to your ‘assumption 2,’ it certainly seems like Krauss’ critics are treating “something can’t come from nothing” as an axiom.

    AIUI, the response to Krauss was basically that Krauss’ starting point [void + QM laws] is not what philosophers mean by ‘nothing.’ That’s a fair enough critique. But it does then beg the question of why they started with [void + law 'something can't come from nothing']. It appears they are giving primacy or preference to their own variant of a conservation law, without good justification. I would defend Krauss’ position like this:

    Step 1: its perfectly fair to point out that [void + some law] is not a ‘true nothing’ or ‘metaphysical nothing’ or whatever you want to call it. But the origin of the universe from the metaphysical state [void + no laws at all] isn’t a philosophical problem, because there’s no conservation rule to prevent it from happening. Its only a problem at all if you are starting with a rule-governed nothing. And not just any rule-governed nothing; yo uhave to start with a specific rule-governed nothing with a conservation law like ‘something can’t come from nothing.’

    Step 2: of the infinite variety of possible of rule-governed nothings, we have to decide which ones to pay attention to. Individual philosohpers and theologians are welcome to explore any model they want, but most models are going to provoke a “so what?” from other people, if the philosopher doesn’t have at least some credible justification for the rule set chosen. Historically, we can probably say that the standard justification used is some form of empiricism: philosophers and theologians chose the [void + "something can't come from nothing" rule] system to study because that rule conformed to their experience with the world. Its how they thought the world worked.

    Step 3: if our justification is empiricism, however, we must admit that 20th century empiricism has shown that this historical conservation rule is wrong, or (more charitably) too simple and dated. We have more information now about how the world works, and it doesn’t work that way. So there is really no justification for preferring this historical conservation rule over newer, more empirically supported versions. Namely: QM, which says that something can come from nothing so long as certain conditions are obeyed (forces and particles must balance).

    ***

    TL:DR version – Krauss’ critics are starting with exactly the sort of system they’re complaining he’s starting with [void + rule], just with a different rule. The only real difference is, their rule is no longer supported by the best empiricism, his is.

  4. quietmarc says

    I have no training in philosophy and only a bare minimum of training in science (eg some university), but I’ve been interested in history my whole life and especially over the last few years have been especially interested in European history, which has broadened by perception of philosophy immensely.

    It seems to me that science is a -branch- of philosophy, that it evolved out of it, and that it is an incredibly, almost mind-blowingly (when you think about it) useful branch of philosophy. Not all philosophy is science, but all science is philosophy.

  5. smrnda says

    My field was mathematics and logic, which I consider different from what I would term ‘empirical disciplines’ that deal with real-world data. (Mathematics can be a tool to interpret real world data but you don’t test hypothesis by experience or observation and such.) To me, both something like chemistry and sociology are different from what I do for the same reason – I can’t just sit in front of a piece of paper and make progress independent of observations about the real world if I want to know about chemistry or sociology. I can’t have an informed opinion any issue without making a systematic study of something I’d find in the real world.

    To me, philosophy always seems to occur kind of in addition to some other discipline – ethics kind of requires an understanding of sociology, psychology and economics, and a decent amount of history and cultural anthropology as well.

    Philosophy can become an arrogant, irrelevant disciple when people pretend that it’s a source of ultimate knowledge without any need for empirical data. I mean, Ayn Rand comes to mind of a philosopher- and not a religious one – who seems to think that her intuitions of how things should be run are fine without data. She wrote a comical refutation of Einstein’s relativity, along with the fact that she didn’t really seem to bother looking into facts in some of her books before writing Witless Thugs, she should have done some research on how railroads are actually run. Just because a train isn’t scheduled to be on the track does not mean that the track is clear and the driver is an ‘idiot’ for not listening to the person who wrote the schedule. Getting that fact wrong kind of defines her as a person to me – someone who feels the world inside her head is realer than the one outside. Just felt for balance I’d bring up an atheist philosopher who goes to far in the pure thought direction.

  6. slc1 says

    There seems to be some confusion about what “nothing” means. Nothing, as it is currently understood in physics is not the same as nothing was understood before the advent of quantum mechanics. Today, nothing refers to the quantum vacuum, with is not something but it’s not nothing either. Or to put it another way, the quantum vacuum exists and at the same time it doesn’t exist. A contradiction? Not a bit of it. Just one of the reasons why Prof. Krauss can state that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

  7. Brian Lynchehaun says

    You should take a look at the two links I posted at the bottom of the article. They are extremely readable.

    The issue of jargon in Philosophy is largely an issue of mid-20th century philosophy. Some notable exceptions to oneside (Kant, Heiddegar), most philosophy is pretty jargon-free.

  8. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Related to your ‘assumption 2,’ it certainly seems like Krauss’ critics are treating “something can’t come from nothing” as an axiom.

    That’s because it’s been around for a long, long time in theological/philosophical debates. Some folk treat it as axiomatic. Others (like myself) require justification it’s inclusion as a premise.

    AIUI, the response to Krauss was basically that Krauss’ starting point [void + QM laws] is not what philosophers mean by ‘nothing.’ That’s a fair enough critique. But it does then beg the question of why they started with [void + law 'something can't come from nothing']. It appears they are giving primacy or preference to their own variant of a conservation law, without good justification.

    Because the common understanding of ‘nothing’ in this context means ‘absolutely nothing, at all, no frameworks, no matter, no energy, nada, zip, zilch, nothing’. This is what ‘nothing’ has meant, in this context, for the last several hundred years. Of course: this is not an empirically derived concept. It could be the case that this kind of ‘nothing’ has never (and could never) exist. That, however, is not the argument that Krauss has chosen to make. Instead, he’s wandered into a several-thousand-year-old debate and proclaimed ‘y’all are wrong, this is what ‘nothing’ actually means’.

    He is welcome to explain the science, but he has no basis to proclaim that [void+laws] is ‘nothing’. The minimal state of the universe, perhaps, but that’s a different argument.

    Step 1: You understand that you’re making a philosophical argument here? In an attempt to claim that this isn’t a philosophical problem?

    Step 2: yup.

    Step 3: nope. In order to demonstrate that the assumption “something can’t come from nothing” is false, then you need to start from the nothing being used by the people who make that assumption and demonstrate how you can get something out of it.

    If you tell me that we can’t make wine from vegetables, and I present you with a grape and say “actually, I have defined *this* as a “potato”, and we can make wine from it, therefore you are wrong”, you are rightly going to call me an ignorant fool. This is what Krauss has done.

  9. Brian Lynchehaun says

    To me, philosophy always seems to occur kind of in addition to some other discipline – ethics kind of requires an understanding of sociology, psychology and economics, and a decent amount of history and cultural anthropology as well.

    In my opinion, this is precisely how Philosophy generated all the other disciplines, because good philosophers realised that they couldn’t justify their positions without looking at the world. They each looked at the world in the relevant way, and those disciplines were born. Overly-simplistic, but I believe that that’s the gist of it.

    Ayn Rand comes to mind of a philosopher

    For the love of god: no. Rand was not a philosopher. She was a writer. A bad writer.

    There seems to be some confusion, especially in the US, that she was a philosopher. Limbaugh is as much a philosopher as Rand.

    Just felt for balance I’d bring up an atheist philosopher who goes to far in the pure thought direction.

    Most (actual) atheist philosophers existed during times where people were killed for being atheists. David Hume (linked at the end of the article) is one such philosopher, such that he only admitted his atheism posthumously, and even then it was a very indirect admission.

    As such, most atheist philosophers tended to be extremely careful with their thought processes, and what they put down on paper. Both Spinoza and Leibniz were considered to be atheists (though they themselves didn’t think so), and Spinoza suffered greatly for it.

    But Rand: not a philosopher.

  10. Mclean says

    In Mathematics, where there are two camps of Applied and Pure, we’ve largely avoided this issue with public perception by being able to point out that the pure side, aside from being valid in and of itself (which is lost of some people), often informs the applied side a few years down the road.

    ]Begin Rant[

    I don't know why Philosophy has not yet taken this approach, and I can only assume it is from internal politics and a type of superiority complex.

    Philosophy definitely has applied components to it (critical thinking is part of philosophy), things that are really useful to society, but there seems to be too little use of philosophers or philosophers willing to get their hands dirty.

    Governments and the UN should hire ethicists, large education initiatives should consult with critical thinking and logic experts, governments and large corportations should consult semantics experts to improve marketing and communications, and universities should consider consulting applied philosophy of science people for more effective research. Traveling entrepreneurial philosophers should entertain and enlight the masses, with both children and adult specialists.

    Do this, and people will start supporting philosophy again, even the esoteric, head-in-the-sky pure varieties.

    Part of the problem to is that the training for applied philosophy is not there. Forgive my ignorance, but I've not heard of applied semantics programs, 'marketing with semantics' classes, 'critical thinking in business and policy' courses, public philosophy consultants (aside from ethics), children's philosophy, or philosophical troubleshooting gurus.

    Maybe this is a chicken and the egg problem, but really, it's far past time we have something like 'Applied philosophy' as a major section of our philosophy departments. Philosophy has a lot to offer, and high time both philosophers and the rest of us realize this.

    ]End Rant[

  11. Ysanne says

    Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

    This Atheistlogic person should meet a pure mathematician.
    Thinking about things really hard and actually understanding them is how we (i.e. mathematicians) do research. Then again, our “things” are very precisely defined abstract objects we made up ourselves, with the explicit purpose of making it possible to study them by “just” thinking hard.
    How well these abstract objects then correspond to things in the real world is an intriguing question, but not exactly our job — but hey, we have to leave something to work on for applied mathematicians, physicists, biologists, engineers and economists!

  12. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I largely agree with you, McLean.

    Recently, however, there has been a movement called ‘Philosophical counselling’. It’s basically a post-grad program where a blend of Philosophy and Psychology is taught, along with the basics of counselling, with the goal of helping people deal with life problems. There has, unsurprisingly, been some push-back from psychologists, although the Philosophical Counsellors do try to emphasize that they are not doing the same work.

    Companies are starting to hire ethics advisors. I think the Vancouver water board (some governmental group, anyway) has a professional ethicist on payroll whose job is to simply be an ethicist (and vocal).

    In my case… I would *love* to open up a Philosophy Consulting business, but I don’t imagine that the business exists, largely because of the chicken/egg problem, and the afore-mentioned problem of the perception of Philosophy as ‘useless’.

  13. says

    Anyone who thinks that philosophers try to prove stuff about the world ‘a priori’ in a way remotely analogous to ontological arguments for god, or whatever, simply haven’t read much academic philosophy.

  14. says

    I actually do have a bit of background in pure mathematics (and a much stronger background in logic, hence the name of the blog :) ) but to clarify, one can’t understand things about *reality* merely by thinking about them.

    Pure math (or logic) can come up with all sorts of models using only a priori reasoning. The real question is (as you say) “how well these abstract objects correspond to the real world”.

  15. says

    Hi Brian!

    Oh man, this is so cool, nobody’s ever responded to my stuff before! Especially not a blog I actually regularly read. :D

    Anyways, I responded here if you’re interested. http://atheistlogic.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/science-vs-philosophy-a-reply-to-brian-lynchehaun/

    Also, please feel free to refer to me with male pronouns, as I have a mild preference for them over gender-neutral ones (they/their/etc). If it’s too much work for you to worry about though, it’s not a big deal. :)

    -Zach (atheistlogic)

  16. Ysanne says

    Thanks Zach!

    [...] one can’t understand things about *reality* merely by thinking about them.

    This one little word reality makes all the difference. :-) Sorry for the nitpicking, but I think that precision in defining what one is talking about is essential to logically stringent thinking (and hence to maths; ideally also to philosophy).

  17. says

    I would say that those who are arguing for this ‘pure’ nothing without the laws of QM in place need to provide some reason to suppose that this nothing could ‘exist’*, let alone that it ever did. We have empirical reason to suppose that [void+QM] could be the ground state of existence, but none to suppose that pure void is such. Therefore, arguments that you can’t get something from this type of nothing are utterly meaningless in the context of knowing things about the real universe in which we reside.

  18. says

    @Ysanne: It’s a lot harder to be precise when other people are spelling out your assumptions for you. :)

  19. tort says

    Just to give some context from the other side of the fence. Most physicists are introduced to philosophy the same way I was, by someone in the Q&A section of a talk explaining how *insert basic physics concept* has been proved wrong by the work of *insert name of well known philosopher*. These people publish books and popular science articles and manage to infiltrate the wider scientific community. I know that they are doing shit philosophy as well as shit science but that’s because I took an interest in philosophy. It’s the same for other science disciplines as well as physics.

    Not trying to make excuses for these people just trying to give you an idea of what prompts these thoughts and what they are really complaining about. I think if there was a little more interaction between in particular in the popularization of science and philosophy then the science people might have a better understanding of good philosophy and we might be able to reduce the amount of garbage we have to deal with.

  20. Ysanne says

    Point. :-)
    However, the distinction between “difficult concepts in general” and “difficult ways in which the world works” wasn’t so clearly drawn in the original quote either. In the context of the whole article (and it would have helped to read it beforehand, I admit…) it makes a lot more sense.

  21. johnwalkr says

    @Schmott Guy:

    Well, no. If you are going to wade into a centuries old discussion, you should use the vocabulary as it has already been established within that discussion. By bringing your own definition of the term “nothing” into the discussion, you are simultaneously adding only noise to the philosophy discussion and straw-manning philosophers to your audience of scientists.*

    A much more useful dialogue would be a separate discussion of the word “nothing”.

    *I use the terms “scientists” and “philosophers” here as a convenience. I think in this discussion such a shortcut gets my point across. Historically, science is really a subset of philosophy.

  22. khms says

    Indeed.

    If all most people see of philosophy are the bad stuff from theologians, woo-ologists, and people who call themselves (or even are only called by others) philosophers but don’t have any training, then public perception of philosophy will be bad.

    If you add some famous sentences from famous philosophers that aren’t exactly designed to impress (“cogito ergo sum” anyone?), that doesn’t exactly help either.

    I don’t know how to fix this, but I do know who are the only people who can fix this: philosophers themselves. Figure out how you want the public to see you, then figure out how to make it happen. Hint: I don’t think complaining about critics is going to cut it. Oh hey, I think I even have a second hint: complaining directly and publicly about bad philosophy by people currently billed as serious philosophers – people like Platinga, for example – might actually help teach that public what philosophy, at least, is not. Preferably by people with easily verifiable philosophy credentials.

  23. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    I would say that those who are arguing for this ‘pure’ nothing without the laws of QM in place need to provide some reason to suppose that this nothing could ‘exist’*, let alone that it ever did.

    So, what you’re basically saying is that you’re completely ignorant of the history of this discussion within philosophy. Gotcha.

    But, of course, it is the responsibility of the philosophers to magically insert this information into your brain without you expending any effort, like using google, or perhaps reading any of the links I included in the article. Right.

    So how about you start with Aristotle, then maybe read a bit of Plato to get some context, then roll forward to the 18th Century and read some Kant (some commentary would be better, Kant is a dog to read), then spin forward a bit to get Russell’s take on the situation, and then maybe (just maybe) you’ll be prepared to read some modern 21st century writing on the topic?

    Or…. You’re going to sit there and continue to complain that you have no idea what philosophers are talking about?

  24. Brian Lynchehaun says

    @Ysanne: It’s a lot harder to be precise when other people are spelling out your assumptions for you.

    Um, not cool.

    For reference, the assumption was dug out of this phrase:

    These concepts are not intuitive: nobody is going to figure them out by sitting there and thinking about them really hard.

    A literal reading of this is that ‘nobody is going to figure out these concepts by sitting there and thinking about them really hard’, which is a really dumb thing to say. I felt I was giving you a fairly generous reading by substituting in “things”.

    I still disagree with your cleaned up version, mainly because it doesn’t change anything significant: we come to understand the limits of our models by thinking about them really hard. We can eliminate the models that contradict themselves by thinking about them really hard. We can speculate as to the ramifications of our models by thinking about them really hard.

    And then once we’re done speculating, we can go test and see which of our speculations (aka hypotheses) was closest to the mark. But a whole heap of work *is* done “merely by thinking about them”.

  25. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Tort:

    I completely agree. The thing that makes me cringe most at a Q&A is when some kid gets up to the mike and starts off with “I’m a philosophy major, so I’m going to ramble for a bit”. That should be a cue to 1) cut the mike, and 2) someone who is a philosophy graduate to go explain to the student what they did wrong.

    I think if there was a little more interaction between in particular in the popularization of science and philosophy then the science people might have a better understanding of good philosophy and we might be able to reduce the amount of garbage we have to deal with.

    I’d like to believe that that’s true.

    However…

    Krauss knows Daniel Dennett. As does Dawkins. As does Harris (who also apparently has a degree in Philosophy…). *Personally* knowing a damn fine philosopher didn’t seem to have any impact on their ability to publish crap.

  26. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Khms:

    I don’t know how to fix this, but I do know who are the only people who can fix this: philosophers themselves. Figure out how you want the public to see you, then figure out how to make it happen.

    Are you kidding?

    Are you familiar with Rationally Speaking, the blog and podcast that I linked to in my post? Are you familiar with Dan Dennett? How about John Searle? How about Bertrand Russell?

    Have you perused the Philosophy section of your local bookstore? Have you googled for any philosophy blogs? Are you familiar with The Stone section of the New York Times? That’s right: the NY Times has a section dedicated to Philosophy. (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/the-stone/)

    The water is in the trough. The general public knows where the trough is. Of the self-named four horsemen, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of televised interviews with Dennett. The public is largely happy with their (mis)perception of philosophy, and the media is largely happy to not deal with that (mis)perception. Hell, atheists are happy with their (mis)perception! Watch Dawkins babble on and criticise Philosophers! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9H2bxHIBfg

    I swear, Dennett has to have all of his free time used up just calling his buddies. “Hey, Rich… I saw you on TV last night. Do we have to have this conversation again?”

  27. Dunc says

    I must say, I do love how people argue that philosophy is useless because you can’t actually know anything simply by thinking hard and not actually looking at the world… simply by thinking not-very-hard-at-all and not actually looking at philosophy. Sorry, weren’t you just arguing that you need to actually study what you’re talking about before you can know anything useful about it? ;)

  28. Matty says

    it has been about ten years since I picked up some of my books, but if I remember correctly. The argument from evidence for how reality works is the underpinning of the Rhetoricians of the last three thousand years or so. One makes and argument about how the world works based on what one sees. That is philosophy and that is science. I never thought about them as a continuum I thought about them an important symbiosis. I think that is how I interpreted Russell. I have never read Spinoza or Kant though.

  29. Jesse says

    I’m going to defend the Atheistlogic-type position a bit. Bryan, you mention that there is a centuries-old debate about ‘something from nothing.’ And you bring up the analogy of defining a grape as a potato, which, as you say, is dumb.

    But the problem as I see it is that I, like most people, got my exposure to philosophy with Aristotle and the like. And Aristotle says things that are, physically, demonstrably wrong. Much of his philosophy stems from his physics, which is fine — I can’t fault the guy for not inventing Newtonian mechanics. But it’s wrong.

    Newtonian mechanics simply destroys huge chunks of Aristotle right there. And the same could apply to a lot of other philosophers through the ages. This isn’t their fault. But if you are beginning your whole system with “objects have a natural tendency to rest” then if that is factually untrue we have a problem.

    In science we all try to recognize when we screw up or have an incomplete system. Maxwell’s equations are great. But they don’t cover certain things and without quantum physics, for one, we wouldn’t have computers. (Computers are in fact quantum-mechanical devices, because that’s how semiconductors work). So we recognize that Maxwell’s equations aren’t complete. Philosophy doesn’t seem to work that way. I mean, no scientist says anymore that there’s an aether to transmit light, you know? Because that’s just wrong. (If it were not, none of our communications technology would function the way it does).

    Aristotle isn’t the only one who starts with a set of assumptions. Scientists do too. But the thing is, scientists try to see what the minimal set of assumptions is. I mean, I have had this discussion with Dan Fincke, and the thing that simply baffles me — and yeah, I got through philosophy past Aristotle and read a bit of Nietzche — is that there are parts of philosophy that don’t “affect the world.” That is, philosophy affects how humans treat each other, obviously, but when people talk about philosophy affecting the world I get the sense that usually they mean the way that physics does.

    No philosophy I’m aware of enables me to build an atomic bomb, you know? Different philosophies might argue whether it is morally ok for me to do it, but I’m talking about the physical act here — uranium is still radioactive no matter what my persuasion. Physical laws tell us something about the world because it doesn’t matter what your philosophy is — a Nieztchean and an Aristotelian will get the same result when they pour the bleach into the Windex. (Don’t do that :-) )

    But once you wade into philosophy, the situation is different. I mean, my philosophy classes were a fun intellectual exercise, but I never felt like I knew something about the world after the way I did after my physics class.

    So getting to ‘something from nothing.’ I don’t think it’s wrong, necessarily, for a physics guy to say “Look, the old philosophical conception of nothing is ill-defined and doesn’t describe the world as we know it, and the world as we know may well render the question meaningless.” Because it IS ill-defined. If you want to define nothing as no vacuum, even, as the complete absence of fields, as not even any QM flux, that’s fine. But it isn’t at all clear that something like that can exist at all. So to a scientist it becomes a bit of a red herring. It’s like asking what’s north of the North pole.

    That might be why a lot of scientists will say things (that aren’t right) about the ‘use’ of philosophy. To be clear, I don’t think it’s a useless discipline by any stretch. But I also don’t think it tells me much about the physical world around me. Nor should it, necessarily, any more than a doctor should tell you about electrical engineering.

  30. eric says

    Because the common understanding of ‘nothing’ in this context means ‘absolutely nothing, at all, no frameworks, no matter, no energy, nada, zip, zilch, nothing’.

    “Something can’t come from nothing” IS a framework. That’s the point. Why do philosophers start with this framework? Well, prior to QM they could justifiably say they had an empirical basis for doing so. But now they can’t. So what’s the justification for keeping it when your evidence for it has disappeared?

    Are you keeping it around as an interesting thought problem with no bearing on reality? Okay, I’m fine with that. I only have a problem when someone implies or asserts that the premises reflect reality (better than Krauss’ premises). That was true prior to the 1920s. Its no longer true.

    He [Krauss] is welcome to explain the science, but he has no basis to proclaim that [void+laws] is ‘nothing’.

    But that is what his critics are doing!!! Proclaiming that [void + their preferred law] is ‘nothing.’ The only difference is, Krauss’ law is supported by modern empiricism and theirs isn’t.

    Step 1: You understand that you’re making a philosophical argument here? In an attempt to claim that this isn’t a philosophical problem?

    Sure. I’m not discounting philosophy as a discipline or philosophical methods in general. I’m saying this particular philosophical problem is really a non-problem, or at least a problem that arises out due to a specific historical premise that was originally made because of its empirical support, but which is no longer supported by more detailed, modern observations.

    Step 3: nope. In order to demonstrate that the assumption “something can’t come from nothing” is false, then you need to start from the nothing being used by the people who make that assumption and demonstrate how you can get something out of it.

    Are you concerned with validity or soundness? I.e., do you want me to show that the starting premise [void + "something can't come from nothing"] leads to some inconsistency, or do you want me to show that there is no good reason to accept that starting premise?

    I’ll admit, I’m somewhat narrowly focused on the latter. I’ll concede the validity of the standard philosophical argument for sake of argument: if we start with [void + can't get something from nothing], then ‘how the universe arose’ is a tough problem. On the soundness question though: I think modern empiricism has undermined the historical empirical reasons for accepting this state as a good starting premise. Unless you have a counter-argument to that, or have some non-emprical justification for accepting this premise, I don’t see any need to do the former (try and disprove its validity).

  31. Brian Lynchehaun says

    “Something can’t come from nothing” IS a framework.

    Let’s try this again, really slowly.

    The nothing we are talking about is a complete absence of any framework, whatsoever. None. Nada. Zilch.

    Now.

    Given that complete absence of any framework whatsoever, what grounds are there to support the idea that ‘something’ (even a framework, such as quantum mechanics) can pop into existence?

  32. smrnda says

    Sorry, I gave her more credit that she deserves, and I concur that she’s a terrible writer. I tend to accept calling her a ‘philosopher’ simply because she’s popularly acknowledged as one by a lot of people in the States.

  33. Brian Lynchehaun says

    No worries.

    I was involved in a university Ethics debate competition in Seattle a few years back. In the final round, one of the opposition brought up Rand, and her position on whatever the hell it was we were discussing at the time.

    In my rebuttal, I slowly led up to it, but then simply explained that Rand, not being a philosopher never mind an ethicist, had no place in the discussion. The people within my eyesight brought their hands to their mouths in shock. The guy on the other team looked like I had physically slapped him. There was a chorus of indrawn breath around the room.

    At the time, I was stunned (and felt that I had flushed the competition down the toilet).

    Afterwards, people came up a tearfully shook my hand for saying that about Rand. It was, I think, one of the most surreal experiences of my life.

  34. eric says

    Because without any framework, anything can happen. You must impose a framework on your nothing to prevent certain events from being possible. Something can come from nothing unless there is some rule that prevents it from doing so.

    This is why its being treated axiomatically. You’re either implicitly or expliticly making the rule “something can’t come from nothing” part of your definition of nothing.

    Which is fine as a thought problem, but (i) its directly analogous to what Krauss is doing – starting with a rule-governed nothing – so its wrong to say that philosophers don’t mean a rule-governed nothing when they say ‘nothing.’ They do. They just start with a different rule. And (ii) the rule philosophers start with has historically had strong empirical support, but has since been supplanted. So why keep using it?

    What is your current justification for using [void + something can't come from nothing] as your starting assumption? Prior to the 20th century you colud make the claim that this rule is how the world appears to work. That’s a legitimate justification. Now, you can’t say that. So what’s your justification?

  35. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Because without any framework, anything can happen.

    What are the grounds for this assertion?

    You must impose a framework on your nothing to prevent certain events from being possible.

    What are the grounds for this assertion?

    Something can come from nothing unless there is some rule that prevents it from doing so.

    What are the grounds for this assertion?

    You’re either implicitly or expliticly making the rule “something can’t come from nothing” part of your definition of nothing.

    This is quite false.

    I have made zero assertions about the possibility of something coming from nothing. You are attributing this assertion to me.

    What is your current justification for using [void + something can't come from nothing] as your starting assumption?

    Please quote where I presented that starting assumption.

    I have, in fact, stated that my position is not this position. Read upwards, and you’ll find (if you choose to pay attention this time) that I explicitly reject this position.

    You are, of course, free to continue to attribute a position to me that I don’t hold. At which point you will be engaged in your own little thought experiment, with no connection to reality. Your call.

  36. smrnda says

    Rand is to philosophy what various Intelligent Design promoters are to science – someone who ought to be dismissed as a complete hack, but whom you sort of have to acknowledge because they have a rabid fan base who thinks that unless you have devoured every word their *idol* wrote, you have no business dismissing them.

    Most Randians can’t even translate their opinions into normal language – they seem to fall into the trap of using a jargon to force people to reach the same conclusions as them calling it reasoning.

  37. mynameischeese says

    I agree that Rand is not a philosopher. She was more of a writer who used philosophy in her writing (badly). Iris Murdoch is a much better example of a philosophical novelist.

    So I was shocked when I went over to that site, Ask a Philosopher, and read a question about whether or not Rand was a philosopher and one of the philosophers actually said yes. And then when I went browsing through other questions, I saw some other problematic answers. One of the philosophers is this really rich, sheltered captive of the ivory tower who seems to believe that most christians in America are really talking about a deist god when they talk about god. He also thinks there isn’t any bias against women in philosophy.

  38. mynameischeese says

    Best example: Stephen Hawking writing, “Philosophy is dead.” And then following it up with a load of philosophical musings.

    I wish Dawkins had rung up Dennett for a consult every now and then. Every time he says, “slippery slope” I cringe a little inside.

    Lastly, I like Dennett, but I understand that there’s a bit of rift between him and some other philosophers because he’s too science positive and he doesn’t like qualia?

  39. says

    If you want a literal reading of what I wrote, I was specifically referring to counter-intuitive concepts such as relativity, QM and evolution. These things violate our intuitions. It can be extended to say that I believe most (perhaps all) scientific discoveries at one point challenged intuitive assumptions we had made about the world (geocentrism, for example), and the discoveries won out over the assumptions.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be saying that my argument is “thinking really hard about things is not part of the process of discovering reality”. That is not my argument.

    What I am actually saying is the legwork of figuring out what things are true or not is not done by conjecture, but by actual observation and data collection. Of course “thinking really hard about things” is a crucial component, but it’s not the component that gets you the results.

    Suppose someone had sat down and come up with a mathematical model of quantum mechanics, merely through processes of reason and deduction, independently of any prior knowledge of even the existence of the field. That person would still have to test whether that model corresponded to reality in order to claim that it was true.

    Suppose someone had sat down and come up with a hypothesis about the physical world merely by introspection, such as “life cannot come from non-life”. If they then went and tested this and it turned out to be false, but that person still clung to this as an axiom, they would be wrong to do so.

    In both of these cases you can see how empirical results are the thing that actually nets you your determination of truth. “Thinking really hard about it” is important, but in my opinion it is much less important than actually going out and doing the work: that’s the part that tells you which of the things you’ve thought really hard about are true, and which are not.

  40. says

    Science definitely has a lot more jargon than philosophy these days. Further, the jargon differs between each scientific field, such that exactly the same term can mean two different things in separate contexts. Confusing but inevitable, I think.

    Philosophers are typically expected to define their terms very precisely, and when they fail to do so they’ll be criticized almost mercilessly. Lack of definition and bad definitions are an easy way to appeal to intuition and argue by assertion but they make for bad philosophy.

  41. says

    This sub-thread is a good example of why some people avoid philosophy :p

    It started pretty much as a semantic argument over the meaning of “nothing”, of which there is no correct answer because there’s no such thing as objective meaning.

    Then it devolved into an argument over an intractable problem, whether the lack of a governing framework indicates that (a) anything can happen or (b) nothing can happen. How would you prove either? That’s not an empirical question. It doesn’t seem to even be a well-formed question at all, as it lacks any definitions as to what a framework really is.

    I’m not going to bother arguing whether either is correct, because I think the question is meaningless and incoherent. Instead, I’ll take a look at something else that was said.

    [eric]: I’ll concede the validity of the standard philosophical argument for sake of argument: if we start with [void + can't get something from nothing], then ‘how the universe arose’ is a tough problem.

    I don’t think it is that tough a problem, but the explanation may be a bit long. Let’s look at this argument:

    P1 The starting state of reality is void.
    P2 A material substance cannot emerge from the void.
    P3 The universe is composed of material substances.
    C The universe did not arise from the void.

    This is a really awful argument, so it’s rather easy to challenge. The only premise that is sort of true is P3, and even that one is still partly false.

    Regarding P1, that is empirically false. No one alive has ever observed that all is void, and we cannot demonstrate to any useful degree that “void” is all that ever was at any time. If someone had evidence that “void” was the starting point, this might be interesting. What we have is evidence that we have no observations before a certain time T, and that is incredibly boring. There are too many consistent explanations for the lack of data and no means to meaningfully choose between them.

    P2 is empirically false as well, since it does appear that our understanding of the “void” (empty space) was wrong. Where we thought there was nothing, there is a kind of something. This implies that in general, we cannot safely assume that anything in reality is exactly nothing.

    P3 is also largely false, because it fails either to define what material substances actually are clearly enough to make proper sense, or it fails to include certain classes of things that are real and part of the universe. Is energy a material substance? Are the law of physics a material substance? The first is a maybe, in some contexts, but the second would generally be a no. These are definitely real aspects helping define the universe, though.

    Obviously, a conclusion drawn from entirely false premises is unsound.

    Going back to the original question, is the origin of the universe a tough problem? Only when it’s forced into the template above. There were certain hidden assumptions that caused the argument to be constructed that way.

    The main one is that there’s no such thing as an eternal object. We don’t allow for something to “just exist”. Everything has to have a cause. However, there’s not anything in particular to support this. It’s at least logically consistent to be able to assert the possibility that some things might not have a cause. Doing so to allow for the existence of entities unproven, like gods, would be foolish. However, in the absence of contrary evidence and better explanations, it does make more sense to assert a causeless universe than one that is caused by something even more unknown than the universe itself.

    A secondary assumption is present: that it “can’t just be turtles all the way down”. That is, we don’t accept an explanation that amounts to infinite recursion, for whatever reasons. Perhaps this is a rejection of infinity itself; I do not know the motivations.

    There’s even a tertiary one. Is there such a thing as an unanswerable question, and/or questions which can be formed but are inherently meaningless? If we accept that those questions exist, what is it that makes us think the origin of the universe doesn’t belong to those classes?

    From my perspective, the difficulty of answering the universe question is caused by specific presumptions about what the answer must be, or in other words, personal bias.

  42. says

    That’s simply not an answer to what you’re replying to. The approach you present, publishing blogs/books/podcasts and so forth, is not working. That would suggest a change of course. Saying it is the public that must change to accommodate philosophy is turning the whole situation upside down.

    You can take that approach if you want, though. Some people are just issuing fair warning that it’s a road to failure.

  43. Ysanne says

    I still disagree with your cleaned up version, mainly because it doesn’t change anything significant: we come to understand the limits of our models by thinking about them really hard. We can eliminate the models that contradict themselves by thinking about them really hard. We can speculate as to the ramifications of our models by thinking about them really hard.

    Sure, we can speculate and hypothesize and eliminate obviously self contradictory models by thinking, because without the thinking part the observations remain raw data with no predictive value for the next measurement.
    Then again, Aristotle’s ideas about how fast stuff falls down shows pretty clearly that thinking shouldn’t be the last step in the theory-building process.
    The point as I understood it in Zach’s corrected version (and original context), is that especially with mechanisms that work very differently to our current understanding, making those observations that contradict this understanding is necessary, because that’s what motivates the thinker to discard a bunch of their assumptions and enable them to come up with a new idea (which is then done by thinking hard. ;-) )

  44. Brian Lynchehaun says

    The approach you present, publishing blogs/books/podcasts and so forth, is not working.

    I fully agree that philosophers making major efforts to reach the public is not working.

    That would suggest a change of course. Saying it is the public that must change to accommodate philosophy is turning the whole situation upside down.

    So they should do………. what? Once public outreach has failed, what is left? This is a typically counter-productive argument: “nope, that didn’t work, try something else. No, I’m not going to make any suggestions, it’s all on you. No, that’s no good either. Try again.”

    If there were no public outreach by philosophy academics, I’d entirely conceed your point. However, there is, and you’re just blowing smoke.

  45. Brian Lynchehaun says

    This sub-thread is a good example of why some people avoid philosophy

    Because they get frustrated when it’s clearly stated that they are making multiple assumptions about what the other person is saying?

    It started pretty much as a semantic argument over the meaning of “nothing”, of which there is no correct answer because there’s no such thing as objective meaning.

    Fail.

    The position that I have consistently made is that that there is a given usage for this term, in this particular conversation, in Philosophy.

    If you want to ignore that position fine, but don’t expect to be taken seriously.

    Then it devolved into an argument over an intractable problem, whether the lack of a governing framework indicates that (a) anything can happen or (b) nothing can happen.

    I agree that Eric keeps arguing that.

    Would you care to quote where I presented either of those sides?

    From my perspective, the difficulty of answering the universe question is caused by specific presumptions about what the answer must be, or in other words, personal bias.

    Oh, so like Eric, you are largely ignorant of the philosophy on this topic. It would really save time if you could start your response with that.

    Perhaps people avoid Philosophy because they don’t have the inclination to carefully read what people are actually saying, and what they are absolutely not saying.

    And I’m snarky because the amount of people in this thread who have no damn idea what philosophy has to say on this, yet insist on claiming they know what philosophy has to say on this is fucking ridiculous.

    August 6th: intro to metaphysics 101.

  46. says

    So, what is the relevance of ‘nothing’, Brian? What are you saying? Because what others are saying is that the philosophical concept of nothing corresponds to nothing in the real world, and can therefore be dismissed when it is introduced into discussions about the real world. I personally am further stating that discussions about things that are not the real world have the same significance as arguments about the fine points of Star Wars: they have neither value nor relevance other than as a source of amusement for those engaged in the disputes.
    That includes Plato without reservation, pretty much all of Aristotle, and everything of Kant that I’ve ever bothered with, although that’s not much since the man couldn’t write worth a damn and had nothing relevant to say either.

  47. Brian Lynchehaun says

    What are you saying?

    I thought that I made my one and only point clear: Krauss is talking crap.

    Regarding whether or not the philosophical concept of “nothing” is useful is something I have said not a word about. People are constantly attributing an opinion to me in this, which is to say that people are constantly Moving The Goalposts. It’s somewhat depressing.

    Because what others are saying is that the philosophical concept of nothing corresponds to nothing in the real world

    I see.

    And their evidence in support of this position is….. ?

    can therefore be dismissed when it is introduced into discussions about the real world.

    This is fantastic: they have managed to exclude the philosophical concept of ‘nothingness’ as a logical possibility? As a physical possibility? Just the latter? Both? Could you indicate the evidence for this assertion please?

    I personally am further stating that discussions about things that are not the real world have the same significance as arguments about the fine points of Star Wars: they have neither value nor relevance other than as a source of amusement for those engaged in the disputes.

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    That includes Plato without reservation, pretty much all of Aristotle, and everything of Kant that I’ve ever bothered with, although that’s not much since the man couldn’t write worth a damn and had nothing relevant to say either.

    On Kant’s writing ability: philosophers are universally in agreement with you. I have, in fact, been told that German scholars of Kant prefer to read him in English, because someone has taken the time to clean him up (somewhat).

    As for Plato and Aristotle… Given how much of our modern concepts, predispositions, legal system, sense of morality, novels, and art trace a direct line to these two guys, I cannot help but assume that you have either read almost nothing of Plato and Aristotle directly, or have read absolutely nothing of Plato and Aristotle directly.

    Plato wrote *a lot*, on almost *everything*. To reject him “without reservation”, given that he wrote both for and against particular topics seriously implies that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    For the record, I disagree with the bulk of Plato’s position. To argue that he has “no relevance”… That implies an extreme level of ignorance regarding his work, and the relationship of modern civilisation to Plato.

    http://www.google.ca/search?sugexp=chrome,mod=3&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=all+of+western+civilisation+is+but+a+footnote+to+plato

    Scholars in a variety of disciplines sharply disagree with you. (This would be a relevant and valid appeal to authority)

  48. eric says

    [me] Because without any framework, anything can happen.
    [Brian] What are the grounds for this assertion?

    You need a framework to make the assertion that “x is impossible.” With no framework, no such assertion has support.

    Perhaps I should ask you what the properties of this philosophical nothing you’re describing are. Because I can’t figure out what position, concept, or claim you’re actually defending based on your last response. It was just a string of ‘I never said that’s.

    I have made zero assertions about the possibility of something coming from nothing. You are attributing this assertion to me.

    Okay, I apologize. I’m responding to the counter-argument against Krauss as described in my first post. If you don’t personally hold that counter argument, fine.

    At the same time, I’d like to understand what concept of nothing you actually support or offer as an alternative to mine.

    I’ve put my concept on the table. If you think its poor, what’s your alternative? Does it allow something to come from nothing, or not? If not, why not?

    Oh, so like Eric, you are largely ignorant of the philosophy on this topic. It would really save time if you could start your response with that.

    IMO its pretty bad form to insult me in a response to someone else.

  49. Brian Lynchehaun says

    You need a framework to make the assertion that “x is impossible.” With no framework, no such assertion has support.

    And we’re finally getting somewhere…

    I fully agree that the assertion “x is impossible” is unsupported.

    Now: how about the assertion that “anything is possible”?

    Because I can’t figure out what position, concept, or claim you’re actually defending based on your last response.

    Perhaps if you stopped focusing on me, you might begin to understand what we’re discussing. I’m not the one bringing me into it: you are.

    I’m defending one and only one position: Krauss is talking crap.

    You have repeatedly chosen to Move The Goalposts and discuss my (non-existent) assertions.

    It was just a string of ‘I never said that’s.

    Oh, I see. So… I should have just let a bunch of fabrications just sit there, unresponded to?

    Okay, I apologize.

    Thank you. (about goddamn time)

    If you don’t personally hold that counter argument, fine.

    The mind boggles. I explicitly said “Others (like myself) require justification it’s inclusion as a premise.”

    I mean… I said I didn’t hold that opinion. Then we have to run around in circles and finally get back to you recognizing what I actually said, in a backhanded “well, I guess, if you didn’t say that” sort of way.

    It’s the internet! It’s there, in text. There’s no “if”. If you think I *might* have said it, go quote me. “If”… Ffs.

    At the same time, I’d like to understand what concept of nothing you actually support or offer as an alternative to mine.

    August 6th.

    IMO its pretty bad form to insult me in a response to someone else.

    You’re totally right. It’s totally uncool for me to acknowledge your lack of knowledge in this area. That was clearly insulting. You are ignorant of this whole area of philosophy. This is not an insult. You may not like this being pointed out, but that does not make it an insult.

    Ignorance is a fixable problem. Ignoring it, or pretending that you’re not, does not solve it.

    Stop tone trolling.

  50. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Omfg, Crommunist…

    That’s it, we’re breaking up… I’ll leave your toothbrush in the yard, you can pick it up anytime…

    On a more serious note, I think this could be an interesting conversation once we’re physically in the same locale again. Of course, I may have to actually read some objectivism… /cry

  51. says

    Brian: your post is a nice read. But your inline replies to kagerato were

    1. an incredulous question
    2. an accusatory “fail” followed by an explanation of why the commenter shouldn’t expect to be taken seriously given that they missed a piece of your argument
    3. a pointless assertion that the way the discussion went wasn’t your fault
    4. an assertion of the commenter’s ignorance.

    It is problematic to use aggressive methods, without provocation, on a blog that I read regularly for anti-racism and discussions of cognitive bias. On other posts, commenters are usually treated with respect unless they haven’t bothered to read the post, are trolling, or say something hurtfully ignorant.

    I notice a reference to “tone trolling” elsewhere: the usual reason one should not say “I don’t like your tone” is that the person with the aggressive tone has reasons, such as a lifetime of oppression, for feeling that the subject being discussed is inherently violent. With all due respect, that’s not the case here, and it’s inappropriate to use that term to defend your lack of civility.

    I would raise these objections anyway, but what exacerbates the problem here is specifically that you’re a white guy being aggressive on an anti-racist blog. Crommunist may correct me, but I don’t see that it’s unreasonable to care about that.

    (I, for one, liked Kagerato’s comment; they laid out a nice interesting piece of logical philosophy, whether or not it’s in the standard framework.)

  52. says

    That makes sense. Though in my experience the lines of communication among mathematicians, academics in related fields and applied math, and people who are actually doing the applications, are woefully inefficient; they’re better as an argument for funding than an argument justifying mathematics. Pure math is great and beautiful, but any given piece of pure math will most likely never find an application even in a hundred years.

    More often it’s the skills of the mathematicians themselves (when they do switch fields or collaborate) that get applied to other problems. It sounds like that is what’s going on with the ethics advisors.

  53. Brian Lynchehaun says

    It is problematic to use aggressive methods, without provocation, on a blog that I read regularly for anti-racism and discussions of cognitive bias.

    Fair point.

    I will do my utmost to tone down the aggression in my responses to commenters.

    I can appreciate that my last few responses were unacceptably harsh. Not only in the context of this blog, but generally.

  54. eric says

    I fully agree that the assertion “x is impossible” is unsupported.

    Now: how about the assertion that “anything is possible”?

    If all ‘x is imppossible’ assertions are unsupported, that’s what you’re logically left with.

    I’m defending one and only one position: Krauss is talking crap.

    I don’t find the counterargumnets convincing. He’s proposed a [void + rule] starting point. AIUI (and I’m willing to be corrected if I’m wrong), the primary criticism is that he has no philosophical warrant for his rule; philosophers start with [void, no rule].

    But without any rule, the question “can something come from nothing” is answered: yes, it can, because there’s nothing to prevent that from happening, no rule requiring events to have causes.

    A second response to Krauss could be: [void + rule] is an okay starting point, but he’s got the wrong rule. In this case, I don’t see how any other rule set is better. Empirically, QM is the best supported set of rules we have. So if this is the counter (and I’m not saying it is, or that you make this argument, I’m just trying to cover the bases here), I think its fair to ask: what is the justification for starting with an alternate rule or set of rules?

  55. Brian Lynchehaun says

    First off, let me start by apologising for the earlier ‘ignorant’ remark. It was out of line. I appreciate you continuing the conversation the face of an asshole (i.e. me).

    That said, I’m still going to be fairly strict and straightforward, but I’ll be making an effort to not be an asshole about it.

    Secondly: I appreciate you quoting the points to which you are responding. This will help keep the conversation on track.

    If all ‘x is imppossible’ assertions are unsupported, that’s what you’re logically left with.

    No, that’s not true.

    Just because something is unsupported, that does not mean that it is false. If there is zero evidence in support of “x is impossible” and there is zero evidence in support of “x is possible”, then the honest rationalist does not commit to a position.

    He’s proposed a [void + rule] starting point.

    You are filling in his blanks.

    But without any rule, the question “can something come from nothing” is answered: yes, it can, because there’s nothing to prevent that from happening, no rule requiring events to have causes.

    You are proposing a dichotomy where a trichotomy is warranted: the correct answer is “I don’t know what this completely ‘empty-of-rules’-void entails”.

    In this case, I don’t see how any other rule set is better.

    It’s not a question of “better”, it’s a question of “which position is justified”. That Krauss’s position is unjustified does not mean that someone else’s position is justified.

    Empirically, QM is the best supported set of rules we have.

    Irrelevant, and misses the point.

    I think its fair to ask: what is the justification for starting with an alternate rule or set of rules?

    That is fair to ask.

    There is no current answer to this problem.

    I’ll be writing a more detailed post on this topic, aiming for August 6th.

  56. eric says

    If there is zero evidence in support of “x is impossible” and there is zero evidence in support of “x is possible”, then the honest rationalist does not commit to a position.

    You can explore both ideas without committing to either, then make a decision about which is more reasonable based on the outcome of that exploration.

    So, let’s do that. If “x is impossible,” then it appears the original void had some rule or structure more limited than the current rules of our universe, because the current rules of the universe allow something to come from nothing under certain conditions. That seems philosophically problematical. The original pre-universe void – which, remember, is supposed to be less complex or rule-governed than Krauss’ model – had more stringent limitations on what could happen than our rule-governed universe? It produced a universe in which actions that were impossible in the pre-universe conditions are now possible? That sounds like we have a bad definition of ‘void’ or ‘nothing’ there. It shouldn’t be possible for this fundamental nothing to produce a universe which has less stringent conditions, because if it can do that, its not fundamental.

    Okay, there are some issues with the “x is impossible” void. How about the “x is possible” void starting point?

    Well; probably the biggest issue is that it flies in the face of our human-scale, common-sense, pre-20th century notions of causality and conservation of mass, energy, etc… But those don’t fit our 20th century empirical observations anyway. So, is this really a problem? I’d say no. Philosophically, the only thing wrong with this starting point is that most of us don’t like it. We find it absurd. It provokes an unconscious argument-from-incredulity response. But philosophically and empirically, there’s no real problem with it.

    Given that comparative analysis, I think the honest rationalist has warrant to accept that the latter void is a better philosophical starting point. A horse race analogy: I’d agree that you probably shouldn’t commit all your money to the ‘x is possible’ horse, but if you’re going to buy a ticket for this horserace, you should rationally bet on the “x is possible” horse. Which, to bring us all the way back around, is the horse Krauss is saying you should bet on.

    You are proposing a dichotomy where a trichotomy is warranted: the correct answer is “I don’t know what this completely ‘empty-of-rules’-void entails”.

    I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me that ‘I don’t know’ is the starting point, not the end point of the analysis. After saying that, we go on to compare our options and try to figure out which is more reasonable. We create hypotheses for what this nothing could be like and look at both the inductive evidence and deductive consequences of each hypothesis. It seems to me, both the current “inductive evidence for” and “deductive consequences of” analysis favors a void-hyopthesis or nothing-hypothesis in which something can come from nothing.

  57. eric says

    P.S. apology accepted, no problem. I wanted to say that, but also to keep it separate from the substantive discussion, so feel free to not-respond to this.

  58. DS says

    Lastly, I like Dennett, but I understand that there’s a bit of rift between him and some other philosophers because he’s too science positive and he doesn’t like qualia?

    I don’t know about that. Philosophers of mind, by and large, are very science positive. Naturalist philosophers – whose works are intended to inform and be informed by the natural sciences – are probably more prevalent than those who see philosophy as a parallel enterprise. So if there is a rift with Dennett it is not because of that.

    As for “qualia”, hardly any philosopher like that term either; it comes with a lot more baggage than mere “first-person experience”. It’s true to say, however, that many object to Dennett because he appears to deny consciousness altogether!

  59. Brian Lynchehaun says

    You can explore both ideas without committing to either, then make a decision about which is more reasonable based on the outcome of that exploration.

    Only if you’re Descartes, and are doing bad philosophy. ;)

    it appears the original void had some rule or structure more limited than the current rules of our universe, because the current rules of the universe allow something to come from nothing under certain conditions.

    You are making a large pile of assumptions here, all of which require justification.

    1) That the original universe had any rules.
    2) That those rules were more limited than now
    3) That the rules ‘now’ allow ‘something to come from nothing’.

    Further, you appear to have switched to Krauss’s definition of nothing*, which is not nothing, but a set of quantum fields. Let’s try it this way: drop the word “nothing”.

    According to Krauss, you can get something from a volume of quantum fields.
    According to Philosophers, the idea that you can get something from a volume where there are no quantum fields is problematic.
    Krauss says that Philosophers are stupid, because of COURSE you can get something from a volume of quantum fields.
    And here we are.

    Now. You are, in essence, arguing that quantum fields necessarily exist, that it is not possible for them to not-exist.
    This requires justification. Not imagination. Justification.

    It shouldn’t be possible for this fundamental nothing to produce a universe which has less stringent conditions, because if it can do that, its not fundamental.

    Why? This conditional statement requires justification. I have no reason to accept it.

    But philosophically and empirically, there’s no real problem with it.

    Really?

    Can you tell me what evidence that you have that says that quantum fields are a necessary property of the universe, and the quantum fields have (essentially) existed, without change, forever?

    Given that comparative analysis, I think the honest rationalist has warrant to accept that the latter void is a better philosophical starting point.

    Absolutely not. Telling a story is not supporting a position.

    I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree with me that ‘I don’t know’ is the starting point, not the end point of the analysis.

    Absolutely not.

    We create hypotheses for what this nothing could be like and look at both the inductive evidence and deductive consequences of each hypothesis.

    This is definitely the next step.

    It seems to me, both the current “inductive evidence for” and “deductive consequences of” analysis favors a void-hyopthesis or nothing-hypothesis in which something can come from nothing.

    I refer you to my earlier point: what evidence do you have that either quantum fields are the ground-state of the universe, and/or what evidence do you have that quantum fields can simply pop into existence in a place where there were no quantum fields before?

  60. says

    There are other approaches. Building private and personal connections, for one. Adjusting the discussions to target topics the public shows more interest in. Leveraging economic or political influence. Changing one’s tone and personality. Working directly on reputation issues, perhaps in conjunction with advice from sociologists and linguists.

    Now, it’s possible none of those methods would work either, but that’s no reason not to try.

  61. says

    Because they get frustrated when it’s clearly stated that they are making multiple assumptions about what the other person is saying?

    No, actually, because it devolves into arguments about semantics and premises which can’t be empirically demonstrated. I did mention this in my post, but you chose to ignore the substance to throw jabs.

    The position that I have consistently made is that that there is a given usage for this term, in this particular conversation, in Philosophy.

    I didn’t argue anything to the contrary. Of course there is a “given usage” for the term; that’s true of literally every word. In fact, there are multiple historical uses of essentially every last word in every language.

    When someone challenges whether a term was accurate, relevant, or meaningful, though, you don’t get to reply “but that’s how it was defined!”. You can define things that do not exist. You can define things that are logically contradictory. You can define things that actively defy all the available evidence. Acknowledging this means accepting that a definition might not have been useful or meaningful, and thus improper to bring into the argument.

    I don’t support Krauss’ argument. He pulled some stupid rhetorical tricks with definitions. I don’t respect that.

    In any event, if you’re not going to take a position or discuss the matter in detail, don’t become defensive when someone else does so. That’s counterproductive and disruptive.

    I agree that Eric keeps arguing that.

    Would you care to quote where I presented either of those sides?

    You claim to have no position, and therefore don’t have to defend what you say. Convenient. Shuts down the discussion very fast, too.

    Oh, so like Eric, you are largely ignorant of the philosophy on this topic. It would really save time if you could start your response with that.

    Would you like to address something substantive I said, instead of merely insulting me and attacking my opinion?

    It’s interesting that you pigeon-holed me with Eric here, even though I explicitly disavowed the discussion you were having with him as meaningless and incoherent. That applies to you both, and I am amazed that I need to say this.

    It does show something, though, when a person responds to broad criticism as a personal matter and ignorance of their profession.

    Above all else, stop the hypocrisy of claiming to be misrepresented while misrepresenting the clear meaning of what others wrote. That is disturbing to a degree you apparently have not considered.

  62. mynameischeese says

    Oh good. I’m glad qualia are going out fashion. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the consensus among the real philosophers (when there is one) from the commentary of internet philosophers (some of whom are really first years).

    There needs to be like a philosophy populariser, a Carl Sagan-type person, who can dumb down philosophy and make a flashy BBC series like Wonders of Epistomology or something.

  63. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Now, it’s possible none of those methods would work either, but that’s no reason not to try.

    You appear to be assuming that these ‘other approaches’ have not been attempted.

    You are incorrect in your assumption. I have named several noteworthy folk (from the last 100 years), nevermind Sarte, Camus and the other existentialists who certainly popularised a lot of Philosophy. Alain du Botton (as much as I dislike him) is another one.

    There are plenty of Philosophers out there attempting outreach, even now. Feel free to google.

  64. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I did mention this in my post, but you chose to ignore the substance to throw jabs.

    For that, I wish to unreservedly apologise. It was out of line.

    I didn’t argue anything to the contrary.

    This is false.

    You mischaracterised the discussion thusly:

    It started pretty much as a semantic argument over the meaning of “nothing”, of which there is no correct answer because there’s no such thing as objective meaning.

    If you misread the discussion to be that: fair enough. But “it started” with my post, in which I made it quite explicit I was referring to the usage of the term in a specific context, a context which Krauss has opened his mouth.

    It is entirely irrelevant how the term is defined elsewhere: the term, in the context of this particular conversation, has a specific and alread-defined meaning.

    In fact, there are multiple historical uses of essentially every last word in every language.

    Irrelevant.

    Or if you belief it to be relevant, state how. As a throwaway comment, it’s meaningless.

    In any event, if you’re not going to take a position or discuss the matter in detail, don’t become defensive when someone else does so. That’s counterproductive and disruptive.

    You (the generic you) are fully entitled to discuss whatever you like.

    I get defensive when people attribute positions to me that I do not hold, especially when I have explicitly stated a differing position.

    You claim to have no position, and therefore don’t have to defend what you say.

    1) This is a contradiction.
    2) I absolutely do have to defend what I say.

    Above all else, stop the hypocrisy of claiming to be misrepresented while misrepresenting the clear meaning of what others wrote.

    If you are referring to the unacceptably sarcastic and aggressive responses I made earlier, I wholeheartedly apologise for my behaviour.

    If you are not referring to those responses, please quote where you believe that I have misrepresented the “clear meaning of others”, so that I can either apologise for my mistake, or we can discuss the topic.

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