I am not alone!

I guess I’m not the only one bemused by the recent weird backlash among some scientists against philosophy. Michael Krämer also defends philosophy.

So then, should we physicists listen to philosophers?

An emphatic "No!", if philosophers want to impose their preconceptions of how science should be done. I do not subscribe to Feyerabend’s provocative claim that "anything goes" in science, but I believe that many things go, and certainly many things should be tried.

But then, "Yes!", we should listen, as philosophy can provide a critical assessment of our methods, in particular if we consider physics to be more than predicting numbers and collecting data, but rather an attempt to understand and explain the world. And even if philosophy might be of no direct help to science, it may be of help to scientists through its educational role, and sharpen our awareness of conceptional problems in our research.

Unfortunately, he also sounds like he’s got the physicist’s disease of sounding like physics is the only science in the world. Every word also applies to biology, chemistry, psychology, you name it…

Comments

  1. Ichthyic says

    well, technically, he’s actually saying that a scientist doesn’t need philosophy to do science, and emphatically notes that (as has been noted by many scientists over the last hundred years), philosophy has little place in dictating methods used in experiments themselves, or the statistics used to measure the results.

    he’s saying that if one is concerned about the wider role the results of research take, whether on the field of endeavor you’re involved in itself, or on society in the larger sense, then philosophy begins to play a role there.

    seems pretty clear to me.

    also not terribly controversial.

  2. Ichthyic says

    …I’d also add that it appears that brief bit you quoted is dealing with moral philosophy for the most part.

    If he were talking biology, I would guess something like stem cell research would be a prime example of where philosophers should not “impose their preconceptions of how science should be done.”

  3. says

    I remember Dennett tackling this by making a reasonable claim that the science philosopher’s job is to ask questions, while it’s the scientist’s job to answer them. If we keep in mind that they can be the same person, at a sacrifice to the expertise of one or both, I have no argument against this.

  4. Maureen Brian says

    So, we’ll never gain see someone citing William of Ockham on this blog. How sad. He was a philosopher.

  5. robotczar says

    Well, if M. Kramer says so…. Arguments from authority are at least arguments.

    The point missed is that philosophers have failed in explaining the world by any meaning of “explain” that is scientifically valued. They have “explained” quite a bit but it never seems to have any practical value or testable nature. Philosophers cannot provide valid criticism of scientific technique because they don’t know about it. By what reasoning does anyone assume that philosophers have some special knowledge when they do not apply the empirical standard that is the foundation of the scientific way of knowing? Assuming philosophers have some special knowledge seems similar to claims of religious knowledge. Religious prophets claim knowledge from a supernatural source. Philosophers claim knowledge from their own minds plus a touch of logic. Both lack the test of evidence and therefore are of little use in informing science.

  6. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    he also sounds like he’s got the physicist’s disease of sounding like physics is the only science in the world.

    You mean this physicist’s disease?

    I think part of what’s happening is that too many philosophers imagine themselves standing off panel to the right. It can create a dynamic of insufferability, for sure. Both among physicists and also among philosophers. That doesn’t mean that physics and philosophy shouldn’t talk, it just illustrates why it can be hard sometimes.

    That and the fact I know pretty much zero philosophy outside of logic and ethics.

  7. mudpuddles says

    I’ve started a 2 year course in philosophy. Not philosophy of science, but general philosophy. Our reading list includes 7 items – the first three on the list are Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and extracts from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. My tutor – not a scientist herself – tells me this is because “good philosophy is steeped in the sciences, and good science is informed by philosophy.”

  8. Ulysses says

    The problem is not philosophers philosophizing about science. It’s when philosophers makes wrong statements about science to bolster their philosophical arguments that scientists (and others) dismiss philosophers. Alvin Plantinga uses a caricature of evolution in his arguments against materialism. Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini wrote a particularly stupid (sorry, Dan Fincke, but there’s no other word to describe it) book called What Darwin Got Wrong in which they prove they don’t understand how natural selection works. Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, in their review of What Darwin Got Wrong write:

    They do not have new data, new theory, close acquaintance with the everyday practice of evolutionary investigations, or any interest in supplying alternative explanations of evolutionary phenomena. Instead, they wield philosophical tools to locate a “conceptual fault line” in contemporary Darwinism. Apparently unshaken by withering criticism of Fodor’s earlier writings about evolutionary theory, they write with complete assurance, confident that their limited understanding of biology suffices for their critical purpose.

    All too often, philosophers confuse their expertise in philosophy for proficiency in other branches of of knowledge. (This fault is not limited to philosophers.) So when philosophers pontificate about science and get that science wrong, it’s not surprising that philosophy is dismissed by scientists. These scientists are actually indulging in the mirror image of the philosophers’ fallacy by claiming lack of scientific knowledge means lack of any knowledge at all.

  9. tsig says

    Hate to see you heading to the dark side PZ with your embrace of philosophy. Once the idea gets into your head that talking about things beats doing things the woo can’t be too far behind.

  10. crowepps says

    The problem is not philosophers philosophizing about science. It’s when philosophers makes wrong statements about science to bolster their philosophical arguments that scientists (and others) dismiss philosophers.

    I have more of a problem when philosophers insist the insights of their ‘pure thought and logic’ should be preferred to actual observation, as in Aristotle’s claim in History of Animals that human males have more teeth than females.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    So, is string theory physics or philosophy? Glashow thinks the latter (well, a bit more nuance than yes/no);

    That is to say, there ain’t no experiment that could be done nor is there any observation that could be made that would say, “You guys are wrong.” The theory is safe, permanently safe. I ask you, is that a theory of physics or a philosophy?

    Actually, the discussion of how much time/effort should be spent on a discipline that may never be testable is sort of philosophical as well, no?

    At the very least, it’s an interesting interview.

    More from Lawrence Krauss here.

  12. garlic says

    I think it comes from different understandings of the word “philosophy”.

    IIUC you were saying that gathering the data is never enough, at some point you must interpret it. Ideally, your experiment would be designed in such a way that this interpretation will be as mechanical and constrained as possible: a simple yes-or-no (or rather no-or-maybe) question that is unambiguously answered by the results.

    Sometimes it’s just not the case. Hence the need for judgment, which you call ‘philosophy’ – at which, apparently, the ENCODE guys failed badly.

    People who diss on philosophy seem to associate “philosophy” with weird discussions of Ideal Forms, Final Causes and “we are all living in a simulation”.

  13. garlic says

    Also there’s something in Feynman’s lectures that people often forget to quote:

    Mathematics is not a science from our point of view, in the sense that it is not a natural science. The test of its validity is not experiment.

    If you believe maths are science, then you automatically accept that science cannot be defined as mere experimental test of ideas.

  14. Sastra says

    I think that a lot of scientists who rail against ‘philosophy’ fail to understand how very broad that category really is. It includes all the theoretical underpinnings of science, for one thing.

    It would be like a professional philosopher attacking ‘science’ by bringing up a past error or a pseudoscience. Just as you correct bad science by better science, you correct bad philosophy by better philosophy. And advocates of science are perfectly free to defend the view that good philosophy must always comport with good science. You can’t learn from mistakes unless you can figure out how to catch them.

  15. tomh says

    My favorite description of the relationship between science and philosophy is from the brilliant Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski,

    “The relation between science and philosophy is like the symbiotic relationship between the countryside and town. The former provides the latter with food receiving garbage in return.”

  16. robotczar says

    It really doesn’t matter what philosophers claim. They don’t get to decide what knowledge they have or how useful it is to others. It also doesn’t matter that some philosophers try to be more scientific. Philosophy is not a science because it doesn’t use scientific method, more specifically it does not rely on empirical data or tests of hypotheses. (Again, that some do makes them scientists, it does not make philosophy a science.)

    Post-modern philosophers stepped over a line when they took it upon themselves to tell science what it is, what it can and can’t do, and what mistakes it is making. Philosophy is not testable so their conclusions are invalid from a scientific perspective. (And practically, I would argue they they never have usefully answered any question about the the nature of the universe including human nature.)

    Philosophers do address morals and values questions. But, they don’t do so scientifically. So letting philosophy inform science is really no better than better religion doing so because their way of knowing is not empirical.

    Of course math is not science.

  17. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    garlic: “If you believe maths are science, then you automatically accept that science cannot be defined as mere experimental test of ideas.”

    Except…

    There is all that messy business of the Incompleteness Theorems, which ultimately imply that mathematics even as simple as arithmetic reduce to empirically derived hypotheses.

  18. okstop says

    There’s a couple of things going on here that I think need to be addressed.

    {I urge you all to read this, but the tl;dr is this – I doubt very much that the people talking trash about philosophy here know much about how it is actually practiced today.}

    First, a LOT of people in this thread are making broad generalizations about “what philosophers know” and “what philosophers do.” I suspect that few, if any, of these people have a good education in recent philosophy. I suspect this for two reasons.

    First, these comments show a lack of familiarity with contemporary philosophy. I know many philosophers of science, all of them extremely well educated in the sciences. The claim, for instance, that philosophers “don’t know” science is risible if we’re talking about philosophers of science, especially the leading ones. One could only reach the conclusion that philosophers “don’t know science” by confusing the contents of the local Bookworld section labeled “philosophy” for actual, academic philosophy. What most people mention when they talk about philosophy as a discipline would be like judging science by the collected works of Gallileo, Dr. Oz, and some episodes of Mr. Wizard. Some good, some bad, but none – even taken together – representative of the field and its accomplishments.

    Second, these comments are confusing two very different disciplines when they talk about “philosophy.” Feyerabend is one of the bogeymen I hear science-types talk about when they ridicule philosophy, but what they don’t understand is that professional philosophers in the English-speaking world generally don’t agree with Feyerabend, either. In fact, he doesn’t even really do the same thing we do. Philosophy, you see, is divided into two different traditions that are, in many ways, really two wholly different disciplines that infelicitously have the same name. In the French- and German-speaking world, “philosophy” is largely “Continental philosophy,” which is, at base, a sort of literary criticism that is not aimed at generating substantive answers so much as trying to provide a hermeneutic framework for experience in general. It tends to be vague and wooly and – in America – mostly found in English departments. Meanwhile, Anglo-American philosophy is largely “analytic philosophy,” which pursues answers to questions science cannot answer by definition through analysis of concepts and logical argumentation. It is precise, rigorous, seemingly obsessed with minutiae… in other words, very like science. Most importantly, the Continentals and the Analytics take themselves, broadly speaking, to be “up to” very different things, and there’s little communication between the two camps. I took several graduate classes in philosophy of science and was never once assigned to read Feyerabend. His work just wasn’t relevant, his “conclusions” and methods at right angles to anything we considered germane to our discussions. So pointing to Feyerabend to indict philosophy is like pointing to Dr. Oz to indict medicine. Just because you’ve heard of him doesn’t mean the experts care one whit about what he said.

    The biggest problem, though, seems to be that people just don’t understand what philosophy is doing. robotczar lambastes philosophy for not using evidence, which is both wrong and beside the point, so the comment is irrelevant in two ways. Philosophers certainly use evidence, because we want our arguments to be sound and not merely valid, but in the end, while evidence plays a role in supporting certain premises, evidence cannot *decide* questions in philosophy because ex hypothesi philosophical questions are not decidable on the evidence. That is their nature. If we could just measure or test for the solution, the question would be in the realm of science, and to the extent that it is amenable to such solutions, it leaves the realm of philosophy, and all philosophers know this. No one has argued since the Rationalists that we could determine empirical questions through a priori reasoning, and the fact that some in this thread seem to think that this is what philosophers are up to is my best argument that they don’t actually know anything about philosophy.

    Philosophy’s explicit purview is those questions that are NOT amenable to testing and measuring, such as “what is a moral good?” There are no “good-o-meters.” You can measure for “good.” The way we reach our conclusions, such as they are, is to try and clarify the terms of the discussion as much as possible (rigorous analysis of concepts) and advance the best argument for a given thesis that we can (logical argumentation). Having a really good argument for something by no means guarantees it is true, but if the best argument we can come up for something appears to be a bad one, then we have no rational justification for believing in THAT. In other words, we play a game of “last man standing.” We don’t hold out our “last men” as truth. They are simply the best answers we have at the moment to questions that cannot be answered with any more direct means.

    Not understanding this is a major cause of confusion about philosophy. Just because some philosopher said something doesn’t mean we believe it. Hell, that someone said something is reason to argue against it. Why? Because it’s what we do. It’s what we have to do – it’s the analogous operation to scientists trying to replicate results. When a bunch of labs replicate Scientist X’s experiments and get the same results, Scientist X’s conclusion is strengthened. When a bunch of distinguished philosophers dog-pile on Philosopher X’s thesis, trying to break his argument, and he’s able to refute each objection, then Philosopher X’s thesis is thereby strengthened.

    I could go on, but, instead, let me suggest this. For all those out there who are skeptical as to the role of philosophy in science, or just philosophy in general, pick up a copy of Ian Hacking’s “Representing and Intervening: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science.” It’s a short, lucidly-written book that is suitable for the layman with only a little difficulty. Read that, and if you still think that philosophy has nothing to say to science, get back to me.

  19. cuervodecuero says

    Maybe the scientists get frustrated when mainstream media leap on a philosopher as the newest, bravest voice on a scientific topic, aka poopoohing the science and evidence.

    This got front page above the fold many column inches priority in the print version of the ‘right wing’ big paper this weekend. I was flabbergasted.

    What’s Happened to Thomas Nagel…National Post

    Does anyone know of any fisking done on the original idea presented by Nagel? The news article seemed to be full of creationist buzz words and dog whistles.

  20. okstop says

    And… I got Hacking’s book title slightly wrong. “Representing and Intervening: Introductory Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science.” It’s been a while since I read it. Sorry.

  21. okstop says

    One last thing: most professional philosophers think Nagel’s work is shitty philosophy. Again – stop using our version of Dr. Oz to attack the whole profession. You don’t stop believing in medicine because some whacko with a television show tells you that homeopathy works.

  22. yubal says

    I do not subscribe to Feyerabend’s provocative claim that “anything goes” in science, but I believe that many things go, and certainly many things should be tried.

    I don’t fully subscribe to Feyerabend’s “anything goes” (meaning, scientist rather do what makes them successful on the market of publications than actually working under a strict philosophical framework to identify true statements about nature) but there is something to it when you look at certain publications from certain people in certain institutions. Sometimes it is really about having more fancy stuff to show than others.

    “Throw a lot of money on an important problem and use every possible fancy new technique, publish your data before your competitors, explain little to nothing about the nature of the problem, use your publication record to out-compete others for funding and go back spending money on expensive experiments nobody else can do. Rinse and repeat. Great career ahead of you.”

    If you are up against someone operating like this, and against all odds you manage to produce your data a little earlier than them, you almost have to publish without thorough analysis and interpretation or else they beat you by those few weeks you would spend on that. You could also step back, do the right thing and keep publishing second row and keep grinding little grants for the rest of your career. Investing time in data interpretation becomes more and more the tough way to tenure these days.

  23. tomh says

    @ #19

    Philosophy’s explicit purview is those questions that are NOT amenable to testing and measuring, such as “what is a moral good?” There are no “good-o-meters.”

    It sounds like you’re saying that philosophy is concerned with matters of personal opinion, after all, that’s what a question like “what is a moral good?” is. What is it that makes a philosopher’s personal opinion on such a question more valuable than anyone else’s opinion? And you claim that philosophers ” certainly use evidence” yet their purview is questions that are not amenable to testing and measuring. Just how do they use evidence to advance these vague questions that are not amenable to evidence?

  24. unclefrogy says

    I disagree that
    “Philosophy’s explicit purview is those questions that are NOT amenable to testing and measuring,”
    in this way it is used in areas where we “do not know how to measure or test” reliably. It shares that with the “god of the gaps” it has a use in trying to find an approach to understand some phenomena or other. Some of the subjects of inquiry seem to only exist as philosophical concepts and as yet unproved to exist. It is often speculation rational but unfounded on much but more speculation. like a small flash light in the dark space helpful but by itself not very useful to fully understand what the dark space encloses. one needs all the measuring devices of science plus reason to fully understand.
    without them it is opinion maybe well founded or not but opinion none the less.
    uncle frogy

  25. Asher Kay says

    It sounds like you’re saying that philosophy is concerned with matters of personal opinion, after all, that’s what a question like “what is a moral good?” is.

    That’s only if you suppose that anything non-empirically based is “just a matter of opinion”.

    But think about this: the supposition you have to make to get to your position is a philosophical position. Philosophers construct moral theories that make assumptions, just as mathematicians do. Just because a philosophical position can’t be proven logically beyond the shadow of a doubt doesn’t make it useless. A good framework can be accepted and used provisionally. Scientific theories work this way too.

    Just how do they use evidence to advance these vague questions that are not amenable to evidence?

    Not all evidence is empirical evidence.

  26. Asher Kay says

    One last thing: most professional philosophers think Nagel’s work is shitty philosophy. Again – stop using our version of Dr. Oz to attack the whole profession.

    Seriously. Sometimes it feels like the worst philosophers get the most press.

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    tomh @25:

    What is it that makes a philosopher’s personal opinion on such a question more valuable than anyone else’s opinion?

    You missed a sentence from okstop @19 that followed shortly after this;

    The way we reach our conclusions, such as they are, is to try and clarify the terms of the discussion as much as possible (rigorous analysis of concepts)

    We are a lazy species, and we tend to use terms without thinking too much about what they mean. Like “space”, “time”, “consciousness”, etc.

    If you don’t think philosophers have helped us to stop and think about such matters, you might want to take it up with Albert Einstein and Ernst Mach.

  28. Rob Grigjanis says

    that followed shortly after this

    Sorry, I meant “that followed shortly after the quote from okstop @19″.

  29. okstop says

    @tomh (#25) and unclefrogy (#26):

    Philosophy isn’t about opinion, as Asher (#27) and Rob (#30) have pointed out; it’s about argumentation. If we are trying to understand what constitutes the good, we can first try to agree on some starting premises or assumptions and construct the best case we can for a given thesis. If an argument suffers from a logical flaw, that’s not a matter of opinion – a logical flaw is a matter of fact about that argument, and it renders the argument nugatory as a reason to believe the thesis. Again, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with what analytic philosophy looks like as actually practiced today (by which i do not mean that you take an Intro course, unless you think an Intro Astronomy course qualifies you to comment on the state of art in astrophysics today).

    Also, unclefrogy, whether you “disagree” that philosophy takes up the questions that science cannot answer is immaterial. I wasn’t advancing an opinion on the matter. That’s what we do, that’s what we take ourselves to be doing (mostly – philosophers will argue about anything), and that’s what others in the academy who actually understand our department take us to be doing. It’s a fact, and one can actually see the progress of certain disciplines – like psychology – out of the fold of philosophy and into the fold of the sciences (the special sciences, in this case) as tools both conceptual and material were developed to properly investigate the phenomenae in question.

  30. David Marjanović says

    robotczar, science theory is a branch of philosophy.

    Philosophy, you see, is divided into two different traditions that are, in many ways, really two wholly different disciplines that infelicitously have the same name. In the French- and German-speaking world, “philosophy” is largely “Continental philosophy,” which is [...] – in America – mostly found in English departments. Meanwhile, Anglo-American philosophy is largely “analytic philosophy,”

    That’s an extremely bad sign for philosophy. If what you think depends on where you learned it, you’re doing it all wrong. You’re having a fatal failure to communicate.

    For much of the 20th century there was a “Swedish”/”Stockholm school” of evolutionary biology. Fortunately we got over that. There’s still a “Moscow school” of historical linguistics, the Africanists routinely do things the Americanists would loudly decry, and the Australianists routinely do things the Americanists wouldn’t even recognize; the historical linguists are very slowly getting over that, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the field is in such a bad state, though the question of which is the cause and which the effect isn’t easily answered.

  31. okstop says

    @David Marjanović (#33):

    Well, it’s annoying, but since we’re not even up to the same project, it’s less bad than it looks. The splits in historical linguistics and evolutionary biology are not usefully analogous because in those cases, everyone took themselves to be chasing the same fox, as it were, only using mutually derided methodologies. Continental philosophy and Analytic philosophy are actually suffering the opposite problem – generally speaking, we are mutually uninterested in/able to make sense of each other’s projects, but we are lumped under the same disciplinary title. It’s not a problem within the discipline at all, but is a rather large problem for how we are perceived by the rest of the world, who tend to associate “philosophy” with what they’ve heard some English professor say about Derrida. The only real problem here is that the English department should stop touching our stuff.

  32. tomh says

    Rob Grigjanis:

    If you don’t think philosophers have helped us to stop and think about such matters, you might want to take it up with Albert Einstein and Ernst Mach.

    Estimable authorities, no doubt. Is that supposed to mean something?

    Asher Kay:

    Not all evidence is empirical evidence.

    Perhaps you could give examples of real, non-empirical evidence. It sounds related to “other ways of knowing.”

    okstop:

    Philosophy isn’t about opinion, as Asher (#27) and Rob (#30) have pointed out; it’s about argumentation.

    You make it all sound so civilized, as though everyone works through a problem logically and comes to a conclusion. But when Nagel, a respected philosopher for 50 years, works through a problem and comes to a conclusion that you disagree with, it’s shitty philosophy and you compare him to Dr. Oz. That sure sounds like an opinion to me. And when I read other respected philosophers who agree with Nagel, it sure sounds like they are giving their opinions. You may name it philosophical positions, or argumentation, rather than opinions, but that is certainly a distinction without a difference. What is so hard about admitting that when philosophers argue, they are simply trying to convince others of the truth of their opinions?

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    tomh

    Is that supposed to mean something?

    Helps if you click through the links.

    As a philosopher of science, he was a major influence on logical positivism and through his criticism of Newton, a forerunner of Einstein’s relativity.

    ——————————————————————————————-

    And when I read other respected philosophers who agree with Nagel

    Respected by The Weekly Standard and National Review? Game over, then.

  34. Azuma Hazuki says

    @19/20/32/35 (OKStop)

    Thank you for this :) That was brilliantly written. I am a scientist (geology/earth sciences) but I understand that logic, math, philosophy etc are at a more basic level and have spent a lot of time studying them for this reason.

    @Dave M/33

    It’s not DEEEEP RIIIIFTS or anything, just that they’re basically two different disciplines with some common tools in their toolkits, as OKStop already said. The problem is less that the differ than that those differences are not properly articulated. I suspect the reason so many people dump on philosophy is they think it’s all continental, not analytic.

  35. Ulysses says

    okstop @19

    I took several graduate classes in philosophy of science and was never once assigned to read Feyerabend.

    So here’s a philosopher playing the No True Philosopher Scotsman. “I didn’t have to read Feyerabend in grad school so he’s not a philosopher.”

    So pointing to Feyerabend to indict philosophy is like pointing to Dr. Oz to indict medicine. Just because you’ve heard of him doesn’t mean the experts care one whit about what he said.

    In my post 9 I didn’t mention Fayerabend once. I talked about Plantinga and Fodor, both of whom are Americans and both of whom misuse science to further their philosophical agendas. Plantinga is Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame in Indiana and Fodor is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers in New Jersey. It’s just a guess but I suspect they are part of the Anglo-American school of philosophy rather than the Franco-German “Continental” school.

  36. okstop says

    Okay, I’ll respond to two of you, one at a time:

    @ tomh (#36):

    First things first – stomping your foot is not an argument. The fact that you say argumentation is just opinion, with an air of indignation, means absolutely nothing. It’s really quite simple: on issues where there is no empirical evidence to guide us (such as, to continue our example, “what is the good?”), we ought still wish to be rational and to only take substantive positions for what we consider good reasons. Suppose, then, that we agree on certain premises, which we establish through dialogue. If it can be shown through logical argument that this set of premises {p} lead to conclusion {c} it would be irrational to believe {~c}. This is not a matter of opinion.

    An extremely simple example of this goes as follows: if you believe that pure, unregulated capitalism leads to the most efficient distribution of resources, and that an efficient distribution is the one that produces the most good for the most people, and that the maximally good outcome is the most good for the most people, then it follows that you should support unregulated capitalism. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of logic. To the extent that you believe the three premises to be true, failure to endorse the conclusion is simply irrational. Professional philosophers deal in much, much more extended, complex, and nuanced arguments, but the methods are basically the same – we try to clarify exactly what is being claimed in each premise, the better to understand if it is plausible and ought be endorsed, and analyze the logic of the argument, to see if it is valid. Anyone who is familiar with the terms ought to be able to see that this is not a discussion of opinions – it really is the case that some things do follow from other things, or are contradictory, etc.

    As for Nagel, yes, he did shitty philosophy and we called him on it. It has nothing to do with opinion. Dr. Oz was once a legitimate scientist – he was hired as a professor of surgery at Columbia. That’s not nothing. He did good science – good medicine. When he started doing bad science and promoting bad medicine, people rightly called him on it. Nagel wrote a terrible, awful book, and many, many professional philosophers have called out the egregious methodological and substantive errors in this book. Your judgment that this is merely a matter of opinion is clearly influenced by your prior assumption that there are no “methods” to speak of in philosophy, which is the result of being poorly informed on the subject of your criticism.

    Please take the time to learn something about the field before you criticize it. When you don’t, you wind up coming off like the the idiot creationists who badmouth evolutionary biology without knowing the slightest thing about that. We – and I mean the people who frequent this blog – are supposed to be more reasonable than that.

    @Ulysses (#39):

    My comment was not a No True Scotsman claim; it was meant to be read in context with the point that Feyerabend is part of a tradition that is doing something wholly different from “philosophy” as it is known at Anglo-American research departments. The analogous claim in the sciences would be that you don’t read Deepak Chopra in your bio classes because he’s not really doing biology, even though he uses a lot of the same words and *seems* to be talking about the same things.

    Plantinga and Fodor are indeed analytic philosophers and have done some good work in philosophy, but it’s absurd to suppose that just because A philosopher said it that ALL philosophers believe it. Do you mean to suggest that no respected scientist, anywhere, has ever come out with anything absurd? Of course you don’t, because you know that some, somewhere, have. Jerry Fodor did some good work and then did some bad work. There’s nothing unusual about that, and it is a claim that can be called bizarre in the extreme to suggest that all philosophy is unreliable because a philosopher respected in area (A) got something badly wrong when he strayed into area (B). Plantinga is an odd case, because he’s very well respected, but mostly in philosophy of religion, which isn’t in the mainstream of analytic philosophy at all. He’s done some good work in mainstream philosophy, but I wouldn’t take anything Plantinga said as representative of analytic philosophy. Of course, even if he wasn’t in philosophy of religion, the comments regarding Fodor would apply anyway – he’s one man, not the embodied personage of Philosophy itself.

    Again, I urge you to actually educated yourself on the subject. You would ridicule anyone rube who came after medicine because Dr. Oz believes in quack therapies, or anyone who came after astronomy because Dr. Hynek believes in UFOs. And you’d be right. This is a frankly stupid objection to mount, but it only comes to hand because you don’t know anything else of substance about the field. Please, do us all the favor of acknowledging what you do not know.

  37. tomh says

    Rob Grigjanis:

    Helps if you click through the links.

    In other words, you have no point, simply quoting ancient authorities. Meaningless.

  38. okstop says

    To clarify about the reply to Ulysses (#39) and the No True Scotsman charge: if a given author A proposes something apparently ground-shaking that purports to be in field F, it’s reasonable prima facie evidence that A’s work is not actually a part of the body of work that constitutes field F if the graduate training in field F never engages with A’s work. This is, of course, subject to provisos about the obscurity of the work, the narrowness of its focus, and so on, but I doubt anyone could call Feyerabend’s conclusions “narrowly focused.” Thus, if graduate training in analytic philosophy of science never so much as even name checks the guy, that’s prima facie evidence that he’s not particularly relevant to analytic philosophy of science. Again, ceteris paribus.

  39. Azuma Hazuki says

    Apropos of not much, “Azuma” is a surname, something along the lines of “eastern” (same character as the To in Tokyo and the word higashi which is east in general). Super common, like Johnson in the US. The ideograph almost looks like the sun peeking out from behind a tree (nichi/hi + moku/ki), which makes sense given where the sun rises :)

    “Hazuki” is a bit archaic, being the old word for the month of August, composed of ha (leaf) and ts–>[d]zuki (moon/month). Occasionally you see Satsuki (May), U[d]zuki (April) and Yayoi (March), and sometimes Kisaragi (February) or Kanna[d]zuki (October) as surnames.

    Weirdly, tsu–>[d]zu and su–>zu sound basically identical in modern Japanese; I wonder if they sounded different a few hundred years ago, where oddball missing kana like “-wi” were in use…

    This has been tonight’s episode of pointless linguistic trivia =P

  40. rayndeonx says

    Not every question is amenable to scientific modes of reasoning. Much of modern analytic philosophy attempts to tackle such questions. Concerns like “Does free will exist and what is its nature” or “What is the good” do not cease to be important questions just because the scientific facts cannot completely adjudicate upon them. Now, you could argue that only scientific evidence could possibly be considered and that some of the above questions are meaningless or ontologically empty. However…. this itself is a philosophical position. And it has been most strongly argued by philosophers, not scientists viz. James Ladyman, Don Ross, Rudolf Carnap, and others. However, I’m not very sympathetic to that view at all.

  41. Asher Kay says

    @okstop: thanks!

    @tomh: what okstop said.

    @David Marjanović

    That’s an extremely bad sign for philosophy. If what you think depends on where you learned it, you’re doing it all wrong. You’re having a fatal failure to communicate.

    I think a lot of scientists see philosophy this way. But while it would be a bug in science, I think it’s more of a feature in philosophy. There are a number of essentially unprovable assumptions that you can start with, so it’s useful to see how things pan out. I suspect that Continental philosophy will continue to narrow into social and political issues while analytic philosophy develops a more cozy relationship with science.

    I’ve heard Massimo Pigliucci is working on a book about whether philosophical progress is possible. That should be interesting.

  42. Ing:Intellectual Terrorist "Starting Tonight, People will Whine" says

    Concerns like “Does free will exist and what is its nature”

    Um that is a scientific example. Any philosophy on its nature is rendered moot by the answer “No”

    Also to just be a jerk about it all discussion of free will seems to be “Free will exists so let’s come up with a definition for it that fits reality”

  43. tomh says

    Asher Kay:

    @tomh: what okstop said

    Good for you. I’m still waiting for your examples of non-empirical evidence.

  44. Asher Kay says

    Good for you. I’m still waiting for your examples of non-empirical evidence.

    Pointing out that an argument leads to an inconsistency is evidence that the argument is probably not correct.

  45. okstop says

    @Ing (#47):

    “…all discussion of free will seems to be “Free will exists so let’s come up with a definition for it that fits reality””

    Please refrain from using ‘all discussion’ until you have familiarized yourself with the canon of writing on free will, which is quite large and quite technical. Mind you, I agree – as do many philosophers – that there is no free will, but, as rational people, we like to actually have reasons to believe our conclusions, rather than relying on uninformed, knee-jerk intuitions. The best and the brightest have fielded their best arguments for free will and others have tried to tear them down, which is how we do things. There’s still division on whether certain of the current arguments are viable or not – I come down on the “no” side, but it’s hardly my specialty.

    @John Morales (#50):

    Thanks!

  46. okstop says

    @Asher (#49):

    I’m starting to get the impression that tomh doesn’t understand the actual use of the term “empirical.” Or, for that matter, how logic works.

  47. okstop says

    @Asher (#46):

    You have a much more hopeful outlook regarding Continental philosophy than I do, which is probably the better stance to take. I’m somewhat curmudgeonly. What can I say?

    I think I’ll look into that Pigliucci when it comes out. Have you read Gary Gutting’s “What Philosophers Know?” I haven’t, and I’m trying to get a sense of whether it would be worthwhile.

  48. robotczar says

    An inconsistency in an argument is “evidence” that math rules (i.e., logic) have been violated. If we change the math rules, then we can change the evidence (math is a human construction); which makes “non empirical evidence” suspect or less valid from a scientific perspective. Divine revelation is also an example “non-empirical evidence”.

    What this example really illustrates is that philosophical arguments are about semantics (often the case in the humanities). We can simply label some things as “non-empirical evidence” and proceed to use many words to justify our label. We can make many arguments using logic or appealing to morals and ethics (more words). I suggest that a better label is “non-scientific evidence”, which is why philosophy is not a science and cannot inform science.

    Philosophy historically does no refer to evidence. Yes, philosophers like to feel they are scientific and some attempt to use evidence (the actual kind), but that makes those philosophers like scientists. So, to be valid, a philosopher would have to use science, not philosophy, to validly tell scientists how to do better science. Thus, philosophy cannot improve science. QED

  49. Asher Kay says

    @okstop

    I’m glad I managed to sound positive. I should admit that my eyes do involuntarily roll when I hear the words “Badiou” or “Deleuze”.

    I haven’t read Gutting’s book, but it was recommended to me (after I complained about an article he wrote on the NYT’s “The Stone” blog). The project of the book seems worthwhile to me, and I like the idea of doing “case studies”.

  50. Asher Kay says

    @robotczar

    Yes, philosophers like to feel they are scientific and some attempt to use evidence (the actual kind), but that makes those philosophers like scientists. So, to be valid, a philosopher would have to use science, not philosophy, to validly tell scientists how to do better science.

    You realize, don’t you, that you’re making a philosophical argument? And that a discussion about valid sources of knowledge is a philosophical discussion in which empirical facts don’t play a part?

  51. tomh says

    Asher Kay:

    Pointing out that an argument leads to an inconsistency is evidence that the argument is probably not correct.

    That’s your idea of evidence? Clever definition. Is there anything that isn’t evidence of something under this definition? I suppose personal revelation is evidence also, since it shows an overactive imagination.

  52. daniellavine says

    Ing@47:

    Um that is a scientific example. Any philosophy on its nature is rendered moot by the answer “No”

    I’ve never seen an evidence-based argument for this, though. I’ve only ever seen philosophical deconstructions of the term “free will.” For example, Jerry Coyne’s objections to the concept of free will are entirely philosophical. I’ve never seen an empirical, scientific result brought to bear on this question.

    Which makes it a great example of why philosophy is often useful where science is not.

    @everyone citing Fodor and Plantinga as evidence that all philosophy is terrible:

    Please acknowledge the existence of Daniel Dennet and Victor Stenger and the fact that the majority of academic analytic philosophers are atheists.

  53. Ulysses says

    I must admit that I’d never heard of Feyerabend before yesterday. I’m not au courant with philosophical fashions or who’s in and who’s out in philosophy. I also admit there are philosophers doing significant work in whatever it is they’re working on. My point, which has not been refuted, is there are philosophers who don’t understand science and use this lack of understanding to make philosophical arguments. Not all philosophers do this, I suspect mainly because they realize they don’t know enough science to use it to bolster their arguments. However there are some philosophers, Plantinga and Fodor for two, who don’t know science but don’t let their ignorance keep them from making scientific statements which are flat-out wrong.

    Most scientists pay no attention to philosophers. Philosophy generally involves itself in different topics than scientists study, it uses a completely different jargon, and otherwise doesn’t have any obvious influence on science. But when Fodor attacks a well-established part of science because it appears that part (natural selection) offends some theorem of philosophy dear to him that scientists take notice. A few scientists make the effort to show that (a) Fodor is wrong and (b) Fodor doesn’t understand the basis for the bit of science which annoys him and what does Fodor do? Nothing. It’s like the refutations never happened because they weren’t presented by card-carrying, licensed members of the Philosophical Guild LLC (not to be confused with the Philosophical Guild GMBH, a completely different group of philosophers whose existence is never mentioned in Anglo-American philosophy grad school courses). And philosophers whine when scientists think that philosophers should keep out of science and spend their time worrying about the existence of good and god and other stuff.

  54. daniellavine says

    tomh@57:

    That’s your idea of evidence? Clever definition. Is there anything that isn’t evidence of something under this definition? I suppose personal revelation is evidence also, since it shows an overactive imagination.

    Please define “evidence”.

    While you’re at it, have you ever heard of the concept of a “theory-laden observation”? If you have please briefly define it and discuss how it problematizes the concept of “empirical evidence” and how scientists and philosophers of scientists account for this difficulty. If you have not heard of this concept, why are you mouthing off on a subject you know so little about?

    Very relevant to this discussion.

  55. Asher Kay says

    @tomh

    Is there anything that isn’t evidence of something under this definition?

    I’m starting to suspect you’re just having me on. I didn’t provide a definition — I gave you an example.

  56. tomh says

    okstop:

    Please take the time to learn something about the field before you criticize it. When you don’t, you wind up coming off like the the idiot creationists who badmouth evolutionary biology without knowing the slightest thing about that. We – and I mean the people who frequent this blog – are supposed to be more reasonable than that.

    Nice to know you speak for the people who frequent this blog. My opinion is that you have a bright future in philosophy. You already have the basics down – bury the subject in verbiage, claim to use evidence without giving any evidence of such, redefine words, such as opinion, evidence, so that they now show how logical and objective your position is, and most importantly, the sine qua non of philosophical argumentation, demand that others read six abstruse treatises before breakfast in order to discuss such sophisticated matters with you. At that point you can patronizingly dismiss them as not understanding logic, or some such. Yes, you’ll go far in the philosophy trade. You may not get anywhere, but you’ll go far.

  57. daniellavine says

    @tomh:

    What if you supported your arguments instead of casting aspersions and making sarcasting one-liners.

    I haven’t seen you try that yet.

  58. Asher Kay says

    It seems really ironic that a lot of the comments disparaging philosophy actually reflect the need for it. Well-defined terms, formal structures, background knowledge, etc., etc.

  59. Rob Grigjanis says

    Stephen Hawking also thinks that philosophy has outlived its usefulness. Christopher Norris responds.

    These thinkers [Hawking and others] appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification as required by Karl Popper and his followers. After all, it is the peculiar feature of such theories that they posit the existence of that which at present, and perhaps forever, eludes any form of confirmation by observation or experiment.

    Hawking unempirical? Unpossible!

  60. robotczar says

    Again, philosophers don’t have special knowledge any more than the divinely inspired do (from a scientific perspective). The claim that “theories are incapable of proof or confirmation” (which indicates ignorance of scientific method) really has no scientific basis as science does not make that assertion. It just proceeds and works. No debate required.

    It is sort of amusing to hear the defenders of philosophy strenuously attempt to engage in debate (without reference to evidence). Yes, I understand why you want to do that. But, please focus on the issue. That issue is not that Philosophy is bad or worthless (though it may be). The issue is whether philosophers can tell scientists how to do better science. As their philosophical knowledge lacks the support of empirical evidence, it is very hard to see how philosophers obtained the knowledge that lets them do that. Scientists generally do not accept such information as valid (except, apparently, PZ and the guy he quotes).

  61. daniellavine says

    robotczar@66:

    It is sort of amusing to hear the defenders of philosophy strenuously attempt to engage in debate (without reference to evidence).

    Funny. I don’t see where you’ve countered a single argument by any “defenders of philosophy” by making your own argument or by bringing to bear your own evidence. I also thought it was interesting that you called the arguments of philosophers “appeals to authority” in this thread when in the last thread on this subject you blatantly made a fallacious appeal to authority by invoking the opinions of non-experts to support your position. (You offered no arguments or evidence on your own behalf.)

    Could it be that perhaps you are a hypocrite?

    Again, philosophers don’t have special knowledge any more than the divinely inspired do (from a scientific perspective).

    Define “knowledge” and then defend this statement with an argument; perhaps evidence since you are so stuck on the superiority of science.

  62. daniellavine says

    BTW, attitudes like robotczar’s and tomh’s lend credibility to de Waal’s arguments that atheists are ignorant dogmatists. Thanks for ruining our reputation, guys.

  63. Rob Grigjanis says

    robotczar @66:

    The claim that “theories are incapable of proof or confirmation” (which indicates ignorance of scientific method)…

    Did you read the linked article? You (tellingly?) left out the “their” before “theories”. The theories referred to are string theory and other conjectures. Do tell how the scientific method applies to string theory.

    It [science] just proceeds and works. No debate required.

    Hilarious.

    The issue is whether philosophers can tell scientists how to do better science.

    That issue is focused on in the link I provide @65. Do please read it rather than quote-mine.

  64. john3141592 says

    Well, everything but physics is stamp collecting, of course. And evo/devo is of the infusoria of science, in the medieval sense of the word — sludge to small to be seen or considered.

  65. okstop says

    @Asher Kay and daniellavine:

    Yeah, this is getting a bit ridiculous. Claims about how philosophers “historically” are unconcerned with evidence, or how “philosophy” has this or that characteristic… citation needed, most assuredly.

    @Ulysses (#59):

    Your most direct substantive claim, specifically, was “[a]ll too often, philosophers confuse their expertise in philosophy for proficiency in other branches of of knowledge.” And this is something I deny you have adequate evidence for, especially if, by your own admission, you’re not up on current philosophy (though I note you refer to it as “philosophical fashions,” again indicating you’re likely thinking of philosophy in the Continental mode). From someone known to be an expert in the field, I could tentatively accept such a claim, though of course I would require more support for the statement if anything hung on its truth or falsehood. From you, it’s meaningless. It carries as much weight as any generalizations I might care to offer about what is usually done or not done in, say, genetics research – which is to say, precisely none. You don’t know the literature, so you’re in no position to make generalizations about it. You want to convince me of your thesis? Provide a lit review. Until then, cram it.

  66. daniellavine says

    okstop@71:

    Considering that philosophy is the study of how and how not to make a coherent argument and defend it you can’t expect someone who believes philosophy is useless to be able to make a coherent argument.

  67. says

    okstop wrote

    “First, these comments show a lack of familiarity with contemporary philosophy. I know many philosophers of science, all of them extremely well educated in the sciences. The claim, for instance, that philosophers “don’t know” science is risible if we’re talking about philosophers of science, especially the leading ones.”

    You’re right. What we should have said is that those authors who are writing books about science and judging it by what they call philosophy don’t know science.

  68. daniellavine says

    Here’s a review of “What Darwin Got Wrong” featuring a great quote from Daniel Dennet about Fodor:

    “Most philosophers are like old beds: you jump on them and sink deep into qualifications, revisions, addenda. But Fodor is like a trampoline: you jump on him and he springs back, presenting claims twice as trenchant and outrageous. If some of us can see further, it’s from jumping on Jerry.”

  69. okstop says

    @daniellavine (#72):

    That is brilliant. And meta. So I have two reasons to love it. Thank you!

    @Markita Lynda (#73):

    “…those authors who are writing books about science and judging it by what they call philosophy don’t know science.”

    I can’t tell if you mean to restrict this to some subset of the group you actually name, but ‘authors writing books about science and judging it by what they call philosophy’ sounds as though it would apply to all philosophers who critique any scientific program at all, which is surely too broad a claim.

    The core confusion that I think prevails here is a failure to grasp what philosophy of science is DOING when it critiques a given program (which does not, I should note, exhaust the purview of philosophy of science). Scientists are the best suited to critique a program on substantive grounds; i.e., whether the science itself is being done right. This is obvious. Philosophers of sciences, when critiquing a program, generally do so at a step removed – in other words, a formal critique. A laundry list of perfectly performed experiments and reams of data reaped therefrom are still useless if the question is ill-formed, the interpretations non-sequiturs, and/or the logic of the project itself fallacious. PZ frequently demolishes evo-devo “conclusions” on just such grounds. We don’t determine whether the questions being asked are well-formed by doing experiments, or taking measurements, or consulting an instrument. That process is not, in itself, scientific investigation, it is (an aspect of) philosophy of science.

    And, of course, philosophers of science have to understand the science well enough to understand the claims being made, or else they cannot give a full evaluation of the argument. It’s worth noting that some randomly selected leading phil science people (i.e., I Googled the first few specialists in the area whose names I could recall off the top of my head) are well versed in science: Dave Albert (Columbia) has his PhD in Theoretical Physics, not phil; Branden Fitelson (Rutgers) used to be a research scientist at NASA; Nancy Cartwright (UCSD) and Gordon Belot (Michigan) have degrees in math; Ian Hacking (ret.) has degrees in math and physics; and Chris Hitchcock (CalTech) not only has a degree in math but was hired by that bastion of the hard sciences itself, CalTech, which apparently thinks him qualified enough to talk about science. In other words, while they are not and do not pretend to be research scientists, these people are often, maybe even generally, a lot better qualified to talk about science than probably 90% of the people commenting that they don’t know enough about science.

    In other words, if you expect me to listen to a bunch of unqualified internet yahoos making noise about how philosophers of science don’t know anything about science, you must first demonstrate to me that (a) said yahoos are familiar with the work of the indicted scholars (they aren’t) and (b) said yahoos are qualified to say word one about these individuals’ comprehension of science or lack thereof (likewise).

  70. v0idation says

    Unfortunately, he also sounds like he’s got the physicist’s disease of sounding like physics is the only science in the world. Every word also applies to biology, chemistry, psychology, you name it…

    Aw, c’mon PZ! Everyting is physics. Chemistry is molecular physics, Psychology is brain and nervous system physics, and even Biology is merely the physics of life :)