Not All Physicists


Sean Carroll criticizes those physicists who say silly things about philosophy, answering three common, and erroneous, complaints from the ‘philosophy is dead!’ mob. It’s pretty good, and I was thinking that maybe this would finally sink in, but then I read the comments. Oh, boy.

My favorite was the guy who said philosophy is pointless and that there’s nothing that a philosopher can do that a good physicist cannot. If you ever wonder why physicists have a reputation for arrogance, there it is: do they really believe that the 4+ years of graduate work required to get a Ph.D. in philosophy involves doing nothing? That has to be the case. I took a look at the degree requirements for several doctoral programs in physics: Houston, Tulsa, Stanford, and NYU (just the ones that came up first in a google search). Despite the word “philosophy” in the title “Doctor of Philosophy”, none of them require any coursework in philosophy. Not one bit.

Physics isn’t the only discipline with this flaw, though; it isn’t a requirement in any biology program that I know of, and though I’ve tried to squeeze a little bit into our undergrad biology program, there’s considerable resistance to it. In general, science programs aren’t very good at giving any introduction to philosophy — so it’s always amusing to see graduates of these programs lecturing, from their enlightened perspective, on the uselessness of this discipline they know next to nothing about.

I feel the same annoyance at this know-nothing attitude that I feel towards all those people who claim to know everything important about evolution — it’s so easy, they’ve mastered it with a little casual reading on the side. And then I mention a big something like drift or founder effect, or some fascinating little thing like meiotic drive, and they’re completely stumped. Didn’t know that before. But they know all about evolution, yes sir!

Some of them are physicists, too.

Comments

  1. JohnnieCanuck says

    What does a PhD thesis in Philosophy look like these days? What sorts of cutting edge contributions to the field are doctoral candidates making? In my ignorance of research into philosophy, I wonder what can they discover that advances human knowledge in this area.

  2. NitricAcid says

    To renew my contract as a postdoctoral fellow at a university in Germany, I was required to show a copy of my degree. The HR person took one look at it and said, “This says “Doctor of Philosophy”! The job’s for a chemist, not a philosopher!” and tried to have my contract terminated immediately.

  3. neil says

    That something takes years to master is hardly evidence of value. I’m sure that an advanced degree in theology, homeopathy or chiropractic is a lot of work too. I don’t require equally advanced degrees to pronounce the subject matters nonsense. Lack of measurable results combined with extraordinary claims is sufficient. I’m not suggesting that philosophy is as useless as homeopathy, but philosopher’s habit of cloistering themselves in universities publishing only works that are not readable except by other philosophers (at least I’m assuming other philosophers can read them) is not helping the fields’ reputation.

  4. says

    @3 ” but philosopher’s habit of cloistering themselves in universities publishing only works that are not readable except by other philosophers”

    Like every other academic profession? Like say, history.

    On the other hand, I have been able to understand the thinking and ideas in philosophy papers much clearer than most physics papers I have read which are almost entirely gibberish to non-physicists.

  5. says

    @1 “What does a PhD thesis in Philosophy look like these days?”

    It’s a pretty broad subject.
    You might have a thesis about rape, justice and society.
    Or one about utilitarian thinking vs consequentialism
    It might be a different way of looking at an area of research (such as consciousness, or economics)
    The quantification (or impossibility thereof) of aesthetic judgements
    A restructuring of the scientific method
    What it means to say something is ‘historical’ and what it should mean
    Is the unattended really perceived?
    Meaning / language / logic

  6. robert79 says

    ‘Despite the word “philosophy” in the title “Doctor of Philosophy”, none of them require any coursework in philosophy. Not one bit.’

    I had to take courses in ‘philosophy of science’ and ‘physics, astronomy and society’ as a first year physics student. Both courses were given by the philosophy department, the first course was actually useful (the second I believe was mostly to justify government funding on the astronomy program to the taxpayers…)

  7. says

    It’s long puzzled me how Sean Carroll, who is usually right about everything, has so many commenters who are so off-base.

  8. madscientist says

    I’m with JohnnieCanuck – what have the philosophers ever done for us? They particularly irk me when it comes to the ‘philosophy of science’ since so many unsubstantiated post-hoc claims are made. I’m still waiting for philosphers to actually improve the world somewhat rather than simply pontificating from their chairs.

  9. Chris Mann says

    Another case of http://www.xkcd.com/793 ?

    Also, there’s the ethics of bioengineering, what it will mean to be human as more of ourselves are replaced by prosthetics and our consciousness becomes electronic, quite a bitofthought about how the political world is shaping up. And I’m mathematician with a bit of a physics background so I’m not even 100% sure of the reach of philosophy.

  10. sawells says

    @10 – philosophers developed science. Speaking as a scientist I think that counts for a fair bit. Just because philosophy can be done badly does not mean the discipline itself has no value, any more than an unlistenable piece of modern composition discredits all music.

  11. whiskeyjack says

    I wonder how many people who are down on philosophy (and liberal arts in general) are also down on “science for science’s sake”. I’ve heard the argument that, “Sure, [theoretical field X] may seem like a sinkhole of funding, but [theoretical field Y] also seemed that way until we discovered [technology with practical application Z]”. And you know — it’s true. Sometimes we have to just push at the boundaries of knowledge for knowledge’s sake until something useful falls out.

  12. doublereed says

    Why are people so judgemental about other people’s majors and degrees? I find it really strange. I’m from a mathematics degree background, and I’ve heard people denounce mathematics as boring and theoretical or something. People make some of the same “it’s so useless” argument about mathematics much of the time. Like they think math is “finding the next digit of pi” or whatever.

    I just find it really distasteful and philistine that people rag on the humanities or philosophy or whatever. Like you literally have no idea what you’re talking about. I certainly don’t. I have no idea what a philosophy major does. It’s not what I’m interested in, like psychology and sociology. That doesn’t mean I think it’s useless. Why would I think that? What kind of dumbass thinks like that?

    Apparently, a lot of dumbasses think like that.

  13. minxatlarge says

    It felt to me that every Biology program (switched schools during recessions, so there were several) required a Philosophy class of some kind. I think by the time I completed an MHSA I had 12 credit hours (at least half of which were Ethics of some kind, as if taking a class in ethics would prevent us from turning into Mad Scientists?)

    The grad certificate in Environmental Management on which I was working (before the Super Fund dried up and there were no jobs for Environmental Biologists) also required an ethics class. In the years since, my degree has been repackaged into “Environmental Science” with a Phil undergrad requirement that smells like the class that I took:

    PHIL 343 – Topics in Environmental Philosophy
    Credits: 3 (NR)
    An in-depth examination of selected environmental issues from a philosophical perspective. Such issues might include the value of nature, the moral status of animals, duties to protect wilderness areas, economics and environmental protection, environmental justice, and environmental aesthetics.
    http://catalog.gmu.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=25&poid=22133

    In my opinion, it’s easier to understand the impact of cognitive biases if you’ve studied philosophy (from the exercises, if nothing else). I can’t imagine being able to formulate public policy without a strong background in ethics (plus a good dose of anthropology somewhere along the way).

  14. Nick Gotts says

    Compare the sort of ignorant hogwash a brilliant physicist like Roger Penrose comes up with when he turns to the topics of mentality and consciousness (The Emperor’s New Mind), with the enlightening discussions of those topics by such as Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained, Freedom Evolves) or Andy Clark (Supersizing the Mind).

  15. Nick Gotts says

    I meant to add @18: Dennet and Clark both have an in-depth knowledge of the empirical research done in the areas they write about; Penrose seems to have thought this was beneath him.

  16. says

    Ah, the arrogance of those physicists! Who do they think they are, anyway, Sheldon Cooper? To really understand everything, you have to be a mathematician. Then everything else is just an application.

  17. johnhodges says

    Some decades back, Amory Lovins wrote about a house that was 100% solar heated using a large water tank for seasonal storage of heat, and a prominent physicist (IIRC, Hans Bethe) protested, citing his own back-of-the-envelope calculations to prove that Lovins’s description was absurd, any such house would require at least ten times that much storage, rendering it totally impractical. The physicist was willing to learn, however, and after further conversation granted Lovins’s point. The physicist had assumed that all the heat was collected only during the summer and was only used during the winter, and the house had then-contemporary average standards of insulation. Lovins pointed out an actual 100%-solar house in Denmark, built more tightly and better insulated, and collecting a lot of energy from winter sunlight.

  18. Adam James says

    I don’t think it would be too much to ask of a Doctor of Philosophy candidate that they take at least one course in Philosophy.

  19. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Spherical philosophy in a vacuum…

    Finally, I have been thinking about a presumed spherical sophist ever since I got home.

  20. Shatterface says

    I got into philosophy via science; specifically my reading on artificial intelligence lead me to the opposing camps of Searle and Dennett.

    25 years later and I haven’t committed myself to either side but I’ve now read enough philosophy to know its wrong to throw a fat man off a bridge, even to prevent a train hitting five other guys.

  21. says

    Philosophy does have it’s place in the world and is a viable resource, but like science when you have beliefs you just want to be true, it can suddenly fall right off the tracks.

    One of the advantages of learning philosophy is that you get a grounding in what is a good argument vs a bad argument. Occam’s razor is a great tool to minimize or evaluate more viable solutions.

    Without the philosophical history of our species, would we have ever had a need to build a telescope or look beyond our world for answers to why things happen the way they do?

    Classical Astronomy was a application of philosophy. Modern Astronomy is science with tools allowing a person to actively observe what is out there beyond the limitations of this world.

  22. says

    Philosophy isn’t just important. I would argue that moral philosophy is one of the two most important subjects that can be taught in school – even in grade school. In fact, alongside critical thinking, reason and logic, I would suggest it is a subject that should be taught – at the appropriate levels – from Grade One all the way through university.

    Many of the problems of USAnian society can be written down to a lack of this grounding by the educational system. Expecting moral judgment to simply develop out of thin air is unrealistic, especially among the poorly parented, and the fact that it isn’t happening is why USAnian society is showing serious signs of moral degeneration into serious incivility. Add sound moral judgment to a person who thinks critically, with reason and logic, and does so habitually, and I can hardly think of any problem that USAnian society faces that would not be hugely improved if not corrected outright.

    Shame on anyone, physicist or otherwise, who doesn’t understand the critical importance of philosophy to a civil society. Obviously, a Ph.D. is no guarantee of sound judgment.

  23. biogeo says

    Speaking as a biologist, reading Kim Sterelny (a philosopher of biology) really changed my perspective on my work. His textbook “Sex and Death: An introduction to the philosophy of biology” is engagingly written and introduces some perspectives on biology that I was not given in my standard biology curriculum which I have found very useful for thinking critically about the subject, and “Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the fittest” is a wonderful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments raised by the “gene’s-eye view” proponents (represented by Dawkins) versus what I might call the “lineage’s-eye view” proponents (represented by Gould) in understanding evolution. I think many biologists would be better off if they were acquainted with his work.

    Another example: Elisabeth Lloyd’s “The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution” is an excellent (if now somewhat out-of-date) critique of various adaptive explanations for the trait of female orgasm in humans, showing how the most well-accepted models within the field are clearly either internally inconsistent, or on poor footing based on the evidence available. Lloyd is also a philosopher, I believe, and her work is a great case study in what value philosophers can add to science.

    I also am of the opinion that if physicists had more philosophical training, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics would not be nearly as popular as it is now.

  24. Suido says

    It’s not uncommon for humans to be irrational egoists.

    I’m sure you could find an expert in the Dunning-Kruger effect who also arrogantly dismisses fields of knowledge they know nothing about.

  25. lochaber says

    I’m also reminded of all the people that would dismiss philosophy as ‘stupid’ and ‘a waste of time,’ and say silly things like ‘what do you mean are we real, what are you, dumb?’

    And then The Matrix came out. (unfortunately, people didn’t seem to loose any hatred for philosophy, but they seemed to get some understanding of questioning existence.)

  26. Enkidum says

    @NickGotts #19

    Actually Penrose knew a fair bit about some of the empirical work being done: much of The Emperor’s New Mind was a surprisingly broad, accurate, and fair-minded critique of the state of cognitive science as it existed at the time it was written. Shame about his own theory that takes up the rest of the book, and what he’s written on the topic since then, which is, as you say, just plain horseshit.

  27. Enkidum says

    Speaking as someone with an MA in Philosophy and a Ph.D. in Psychology (experimental/cognitive), yeah, I think there’s something to be said for philosophy. Philosophy is particularly important, I think, for subjects where the science is still taking shape. So it’s basically impossible to do psychology without some philosophy creeping in, and the further you get into fuzzy territory (say, consciousness or morality), the more philosophy you need. If you’re seriously trying to think about consciousness without delving quite deeply into philosophy, you’re doing it wrong.

    Same goes for other fields – where they get fuzzy, you need philosophy to help sharpen them.

  28. cartomancer says

    Having got my doctorate in Medieval intellectual History (which makes me about as useless as they come), following on from undergraduate studies in Ancient history, I can safely say that ’twas ever thus. Ever since there has been academia there have been academics trying to do down each other’s fields of study. It seems to be an unshakeable compulsion among the lettered and learned of all eras.

    In the Middle Ages the Theologians considered themselves the top of the heap. To their eyes practitioners of the Lucrative Arts (law and medicine) were intrinsically sullied by the fact their learning made them a large and direct income – Lawyers were venal and mendacious, too concerned with flawed human laws and not enough with divine justice, while Medics were worldly and ignoble, too concerned with the body and unmindful of the importance of the immortal soul. The Arts masters, meanwhile, were viewed as competent in only basic and functional disciplines with no intrinsic end or purpose to them – mere handmaidens to the only true and worthy field of study (which, would you believe it, just happened to be theology!). Canon lawyers thought that Civil lawyers were the junior arm of the profession. Civil lawyers had it the other way around. Predictably, scholars of English Common law also considered themselves to be the preeminent lawyers of their day. The arts masters, meanwhile, knowing that they would always occupy the lowest rung of the academic ladder, were constantly arguing among themselves as to which of the three trivial and four quadrivial arts was the best. Henri d’Andeli immortalised this contest in a poem of the mid 13th century.

    Occasionally an Arts master would champion his field over and above those of the higher faculties, by claiming that some important part of their studies was better addressed by his. Alfred of Shareshill was deeply dismissive of medics, for instance, calling them mere mercenary healers of disease and claiming that the Arts master’s study of Aristotle’s libri naturales (with Alfred’s own commentaries, naturally!) prepared him much better to understand animal physiology than whatever bits of Galen and Constantine Africanus the medics were using. Specialist astrologers like Roger of Hereford often got rather cocky, thanks to their aristocratic patronage and command of far harder mathematics than anyone else was using, and even made the occasional scurrilous claim that their field was just as vaunted as traditional theology, and just as all-encompassing.

  29. iknklast says

    Actually, my Ph.D. in Biology required two graduate level philosophy courses. My program was an Environmental Science program. Masters candidates were required to take one course; Ph.D. candidates two. And I must say, if that had been my only exposure to Philosophy, I would have had a very poor impression of philosophy. I don’t say they did nothing, because they were obviously very bright and capable. But it was rather off-putting. However I read a lot on philosophy, and have a great deal of respect for philosophy. I think philosophy has a lot to add to the discussion.

  30. loreo says

    I always liked what Daniel Dennett said in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking: “Philosophy is what you do when you don’t know what questions you should be asking.” (Paraphrased)

  31. says

    What has philosophy ever done for us? Well, everything of course — there would be no science without philosophy, science originally being what was called “natural philosophy.” What philosophy does, in its essence, is call us to question: How did this diversity of life come about? Why are some people subordinated in our present social order? What is time? How should I live my life? In the case of practical questions, philosophy may only succeed in framing a question for other disciplines to answer. In the case of value questions, philosophy provides the most powerful vocabulary for addressing them. The question “How should I live my life?” simply has no empirical answer. The question however, remains pernicious — the very absence of an answer gives rise to the multitude of perspectives that is the philosophical discourse. Philosophy as a discipline has long abandoned the pretense of offering and searching for definitive answers in favor of being an intellectual gadfly — helping to guide the quest for meaning by offering a vocabulary (or rather a set of vocabularies), tp refine that quest, as well as serving as an intellectual gadfly, refining and resolving foundational problems in other disciplines. The work of someone like Daniel Dennett is a great example; his work draws on and informs empirical research around consciousness. Scientists looking to underdtand how consciousness comes about would have a hard time even knowing what they were looking for absent the assisstence of philosophers in defining what consciousness is. It is the same in politics, for example, which is another field that defies empirical research, and so requires undergirdings from philosophy (whether that be Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hayek, Marx, or Rawls).

    Wherever you live, whatever you are doing, if you are reading this, you are living in a human society, founded on some set of principles informed by someone’s philosophical inquiries. If you are lucky, those inquiries yielded answers that suggested freedom of expression and some kind of institutionalized ethical concern for the well-being of others. If you ask me “What has philosophy ever done?” I need only point to the chair you’re currently sitting in, to the place of relative safety you presently occupy, and the sciences which support the material production that goes into the medium through which you are communicating the questiom!

  32. says

    Actually, wouldn’t it be more accurate to just say: any academic, looking at any subject which is not their own, tends to make faulty assumptions and act (in general) like a know-nothing a**hole? I’ve met and read blog posts by plenty of philosophers who are dismissive of science/math/what-have-you.

  33. consciousness razor says

    I’m with JohnnieCanuck – what have the philosophers ever done for us?

    The aqueduct.

    Maybe I’m just feeling lazy right now, but a stupid question does deserve a stupid answer.

    ——

    They particularly irk me when it comes to the ‘philosophy of science’ since so many unsubstantiated post-hoc claims are made. I’m still waiting for philosphers to actually improve the world somewhat rather than simply pontificating from their chairs.

    Are physicists standing or moving around while they pontificate? Does it work better that way? What exactly do chairs have to do with it, or if not actually that, what exactly do you think is different?

    ——
    Scott Bidstrup:

    Philosophy isn’t just important. I would argue that moral philosophy is one of the two most important subjects that can be taught in school – even in grade school. In fact, alongside critical thinking, reason and logic, I would suggest it is a subject that should be taught – at the appropriate levels – from Grade One all the way through university.

    I totally agree. And I wish people wouldn’t conflate “ethics” and “religion,” especially when it concerns the contents of courses in a public education setting, since people seem to love distorting what the first Amendment means and what it ought to mean in our modern society.

    People should learn about ethics, and it shouldn’t just be assumed that children will absorb it somehow by osmosis from their parents or other random people (who may not be good in the first place, who also never learned anything about it). I do not expect children to “just learn” how to read from their parents by accident (or that it’s treated as “optional” if they really like doing it), or to learn how to do math that way, or learn about history, art, music, literature, philosophy, science or any other subject that anyone takes seriously. They can actually study it in a school formally — the “good solutions” people come up with, as well as all sorts of common mistakes people have made over the years, and why those mistakes don’t work (or why they work very differently than what you might have suspected). You can learn from all of it. But you have to learn it, not just pick it up somehow (we hope) by accident, if you happen to be surrounded by the “right” sort of people who could “teach” it to you.

    ——
    Enkidum:

    Same goes for other fields – where they get fuzzy, you need philosophy to help sharpen them.

    Yes. It isn’t a kind of science “without data.” There are very few philosophers who just plain don’t give a fuck about data or empiricism or science or what-have-you, to derive their ideas from “pure thought.” That’s just a cartoon at best, not the reality which anybody ought to believe, if they’ve ever had any real contact with the philosophical literature. I think people in the atheoskeptisphere have this knee-jerk reaction to “philosophers” because apologists and theologians and assorted pseudoscientific cranks will appeal to some random “philosopher” who says whatever they want to hear. But if that’s the only kind of shit you’re ever exposed to when the “philosophy” comes up, it is not hard to understand you are not dealing with a representative sample. When you still try to push the issue even after that realization, you’re the one acting like an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific denialist. Yes that means you, Tyson, Hawking, Krauss, and the rest. It’s pretty fucking disappointing to see that.

    Anyway, everybody — physicists, philosophers, anybody — lacks a lot of data sometimes. That’s when your only option is to keep thinking about it, based on whatever you do have good reason to believe, if you’re not just going to give up on the subject. What have they ever done for us? They kept thinking. They didn’t just fucking give up. There have been lots of opportunities throughout history when “they” have needed to do that, and it seems to “work” just fine. “They” didn’t all label themselves as philosophers, sure; but I figure the rabid, die-hard positivists who make so much stupid, useless noise about this weren’t the sort to care so much about labels or “the meanings of words” or other trifles like that. Besides, come on — who really cares what anything means, anyway? How could that possibly “improve” anything about the world? Who wouldn’t be happy just plugging numbers into equations and fiddling with instruments? That’s enough for mindless scientist X to do his day job (we can assume “his” comfortably here, without philosophy) and “contribute” with some probably-wrong, probably-mediocre-at-best, probably-unimportant factoid that won’t do anything actually “useful” for anybody, except deliver a paycheck. So why isn’t that enough for you?

  34. yubal says

    #39 zb24601

    Physics will tell you that one fat man will not stop a train.

    In that case, physics is wrong and parachutes and emergency brakes still work.

    Go fat man!

    Also, even if he pulls that parachute stunt, maybe he will, maybe he won’t. Motivation issue? Psychology anyone?

  35. PatrickG says

    Everybody’s fond of linking xkcd, but I refute physicists thusly.

    Note that I’m not sure what I’m refuting. Send me a philosopher!

  36. Alex says

    I’ve listened in on some philosophy of physics events in the past, and remember being taken aback by some of the philosopher’s weak grasp of my discipline (which didn’t prevent them from writing and talking about it), both the technical details and the general approach. Of course I probably know no more philosophy than they knew physics. I am all the more in awe when I see a philospher who actually does understand the science, it is a formidable thing. I would like to see more of those!

    To renew my contract as a postdoctoral fellow at a university in Germany, I was required to show a copy of my degree. The HR person took one look at it and said, “This says “Doctor of Philosophy”! The job’s for a chemist, not a philosopher!” and tried to have my contract terminated immediately.

    I weep for my country. And here they wonder why Germany doesn’t manage to attract as much highly qualified foreign talent as they would like.

  37. says

    It’s something I’ve noticed in natural scientists before, especially when their native language is English*: While they are quick to tell people who are not scientists to stop talking bullshit about their area of expertise, they often think that they themselves are highly qualified to talk about each and every subject they have no clue about.
    It’s like they see knowledge as a ladder where you start with the lowly Arts and where the sciences are on top. Only that they didn’t actually do the arts and it’s not a ladder.

    *German, for example, calls the two “areas” natural science and “mental”* science

    *not really a good translation

  38. knowknot says

    @30 Suido

    It’s not uncommon for humans to be irrational egoists.
    I’m sure you could find an expert in the Dunning-Kruger effect who also arrogantly dismisses fields of knowledge they know nothing about.

    THAT.
    AND
    @40 consciousness razor
    EVERY DAMN THING YOU SAID.
     
    Gawds. What the hell is this incessant focus on every damn pretentious philosophy student everyone’s ever met, along with this incessant focus on every damn philosophy paper or post we didn’t have the freakng patience to read? This whole “what are they babbling about” thing is seriously juvenile, or at best lazy.
     
    Perhaps I have been spoiled by the fact that the only people I’ve known with any serious training in philosophy have been aware of how people think, aware of how words work (and don’t), aware of how we delude ourselves, and able to sift through the crap we all produce daily.
     
    But yeah. Screw ‘em. Even enlightened people are ennobled by having someone to call “eggehead.”

  39. madtom1999 says

    Philosophy – the love of thinking!
    Not the love correct thinking! You can never be wrong with philosophy.

  40. knowknot says

    @48 madtom1999

    Philosophy – the love of thinking!
    Not the love correct thinking! You can never be wrong with philosophy.

    Madtom! Saying shit! You can never be wrong just saying shit!

  41. Nick Gotts says

    Actually Penrose knew a fair bit about some of the empirical work being done: much of The Emperor’s New Mind was a surprisingly broad, accurate, and fair-minded critique of the state of cognitive science as it existed at the time it was written. – Enkidum@32

    That wasn’t my impression, but I admit it’s a long time since I read it; I was partway through my doctorate in cognitive science at the time, so it’s possible a degree of defensiveness crept into my assessment.

  42. says

    If you ask a mathematician in what sense numbers exist, you’ll suddenly find you’re talking to a philosopher. If you ask a biologist whether evolution occurs at the gene level or the species level, you’ll see a similar transformation.

    Try is. Ask a physicist about inductive proof.

  43. doublereed says

    If you ask a mathematician in what sense numbers exist, you’ll suddenly find you’re talking to a philosopher. If you ask a biologist whether evolution occurs at the gene level or the species level, you’ll see a similar transformation.

    Try is. Ask a physicist about inductive proof.

    So what you’re saying is that when you ask people philosophical questions, they try to give philosophical answers??? AMAZING!

    Seriously, what the hell are they supposed to say that isn’t philosophical???

  44. consciousness razor says

    Seriously, what the hell are they supposed to say that isn’t philosophical???

    I believe the customary response is “shut up and calculate.”

  45. gussnarp says

    In my master’s program I at least had to take a course in the history and philosophy of the discipline, which included a bit of the history and philosophy of science in general. I would hope that every PhD program in any field at least includes that…

    I also expect though that a single introductory course in philosophy given to people who don’t already find it fascinating, is likely to only deepen the problem. Imagine the physicist, convinced that philosophy is dead and useless, forced to sit through introductory lectures on Plato and Kant instead of crunching numbers or working in the lab. At the end there’s a good chance they’ll only hate philosophy more and still think the field is dead and musty and there’s nothing for it to do anymore. I still think the introduction is important, all scientists ought to understand some of the underpinnings of their work, and they ought to also be introduced to some current philosophical work as it pertains to their discipline, something my history and philosophy class didn’t really get into.

    I also think part of this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater of postmodernism.

  46. Enkidum says

    @NickGotts – actually, it’s been a long time since I read it too (and I’m not about to read it again!). And if I recall correctly, he’s much better on the computational/AI/Fodor side of things than he is on actual brains or psychology – but to be fair, at the time he wrote the book, so was most of cognitive science.

  47. consciousness razor says

    Enkidum:

    @NickGotts – actually, it’s been a long time since I read it too (and I’m not about to read it again!). And if I recall correctly, he’s much better on the computational/AI/Fodor side of things than he is on actual brains or psychology – but to be fair, at the time he wrote the book, so was most of cognitive science.

    Well, I’ve only ever bothered to skim through it (also a long time ago), and as I recalled, according to some Amazon reviews I just looked at, the majority of the book is about math and physics, not cognitive science as you said. I’ll quote part of a review here, which summarizes this mess of a book about as succinctly as it could be done:

    After extensively winding his way through everything from Turing machines, the big bang, general relativity, special relativity, complex numbers, natural numbers, irrational numbers, Fractals and the Mandelbrot set, Euclidean geometry, Fermat’s last theorem, Gödel’s theorem, recursively enumerable sets, non-recursive mathematics, Hamiltonian space, periodic tiling, quantum mechanics, P and NP completeness, the two-slit experiment, quantum spin, Riemann spheres, Lobachevskian space, the EPR paradox, Newton’s laws of motion, Schrodinger’s equations, quantum field theory, Galilean space-time, entropy, black holes, vector mathematics and vector fields, cosmology, time symmetry/asymmetry, Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, quantum gravity, Lorentz equations of motion, Minkowskian space time, Poincare motion, the tidal effect and many, many, many other subjects, the author finally spends a mere two chapters on the main topic.
    When Penrose does get back to discussing consciousness, most of his arguments are philosophical and many of his conclusions are drawn from observations of his own perception, which is then used to reason out larger principles. […]

    That is not “much” about “the state of cognitive science as it existed at the time it was written.” It was much about his own introspection (and the weird conclusions he drew from that), at the time he was feverishly scribbling it down, which is not what I’d call a broad, accurate, or fair-minded approach — or even a properly philosophical approach, never mind a scientific one. By the looks of it, cognitive science isn’t even “the main topic” of the book, despite the title. At best it’s an afterthought, which he thought he could pontificate about, after baffling everyone with his views on everything else but cognitive science. It would’ve been interesting to write a whole book about any one of those subjects, or even a few of them. There’d be space to actually consider other perspectives and carefully work through them on their own terms, not just push your own views to fit them into your agenda, whatever that is.

  48. Nick Gotts says

    consciousness razor@57,

    That corresponds pretty well to my memory of the book. I s’pose no-one actually has a copy handy? I can’t remember whether mine’s in store since my recent move, or no longer in my possession!

    he’s much better on the computational/AI/Fodor side of things – Enkidum@55

    I think Fodor was regarded as a bit of a crank even by most of the GOFAI people (“Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence” for those unfamiliar with the field – a semi-self-mocking description of symbol-manipulation approaches to AI), at least once he started saying that every concept anyone ever comes up with is innate.

  49. consciousness razor says

    I can’t remember whether mine’s in store since my recent move, or no longer in my possession!

    Perhaps you decided to commit it to the flames. Probably what I would’ve done. ;)

    But I can’t imagine how frustrating it was to be in cognitive science at the time (or even now) dealing with that crap.

  50. Nick Gotts says

    Perhaps you decided to commit it to the flames. – consciousness razor

    Would have gone to Oxfam bookshop if not in store!

    There was at least one hostile critic I read that in retrospect had a lot more going for him than I recognised at the time – Hubert Dreyfus, oddly enough a philosopher. While I still think his philosophical approach (phenomenology) is pretty woolly stuff, he laid a lot of stress on human reliance on “tacit knowledge”, and how it couldn’t be captured in symbol-manipulation terms. Whether this is literally impossible, I still doubt, but in practical terms, an artificial but human-like intelligence will need to be embodied and socially embedded.

  51. consciousness razor says

    Nick Gotts:

    Whether this is literally impossible, I still doubt, but in practical terms, an artificial but human-like intelligence will need to be embodied and socially embedded.

    I don’t know if I would even take it that far. Then again, needless to say, I’m not a Heideggerian, nor do I have much use for a lot of phenomenology or existentialism. It would need to be involved in an external world of some sort and have some relationship to things other than itself. I think that’s important, so there’s some merit to the idea, I guess. However, that could be a “virtual” world, meaning it’s not necessarily physically “embodied” like a robot (if that’s what you mean), and I don’t see why it would really need other intelligent beings to have social interactions. It could of course do more new interesting things that way and would be more like a human (if that’s the goal), but I wouldn’t call that a prerequisite for just bare intelligence or consciousness. It needs something external, to be “embedded” into a context of some sort — involved with it, thinking about it, being aware of it, caring about it — but it seems to me like that could be practically anything. Ethically, making such a beast would be a big problem, so perhaps we should never know; but practically speaking, I also have a hard time seeing what’s supposed to be impossible about that.

  52. karellen says

    I think gussnarp@54 is on the right track, and that it’s all those bloody postmodernists who’ve given philosophy a bad name. Claiming[0] you can never really be sure of knowing anything, and that there’s no such thing as an unbiased measurement, or an objective reality separate from the culture you filter your “facts” through, and what’s the point of it if you can’t prove beforehand that you’re not a head in a vat or stuck in the matrix?

    As a physicist[1], that seems like the most pointless sort of intellectual masturbation imaginable. Further, I strongly suspect that even if I were to take the time and trouble to counter it to one of its proponents, they would engage in hair-splitting, semantic tomfoolery, and attempt to “out-maneuver” me in as long-winded a fashion as possible, rather than trying to reach a shared understanding on the matter as quickly and clearly as possible. Therefore, my attitude is much more likely to lean towards “Oh, just stop wasting my time, fuck off, and let me attend to my measurements.”

    Once burned, twice shy…

    [0] Or, if that not what they claim, they don’t appear to be doing much to dispel this particular miconception about their sub-field.
    [1] Well, someone with a masters degree in the subject, even if I’ve not been active in that field in a long time.

  53. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Or, if that not what they claim, they don’t appear to be doing much to dispel this particular miconception about their sub-field.

    In my experience, they are doing nothing whatsoever to dispel this misconception except to grumble when someone explicitly voices it.

  54. consciousness razor says

    [0] Or, if that not what they claim, they don’t appear to be doing much to dispel this particular miconception about their sub-field.

    Or you don’t appear to be looking for anything that they may or may not be doing. If it’s your misconception, what exactly are they supposed to do anyway? If sorting that out means you’ll get bogged down into a discussion that’s longer than … what, a few pages? A hundred pages? A thousand pages? Is that when you can claim it’s taking too long or is too much trouble? Since when does anyone get any real “clarity” when you go through things quickly, without ever using jargon or thinking about the meaning of a statement or making very fine “hair-splitting” distinctions between different concepts? We’re talking about our understanding of reality itself, so wouldn’t you expect that to occasionally be a little complicated, and for people to often come up with ideas (sometimes bad ones) that don’t just make sense to you right away without even bothering to study the issue?

    Besides that, some people will tell you the problem is with classical philosophers. Or theologians like Anselm or Aquinas. Or it all went downhill after Avicenna or whoever the fuck. Or it’s rationalists or idealists or empiricists. Or Marxists. Or maybe postmodernists. Some will actually have no idea which group they’re referring to in their attempt at a criticism, or even what century they think they belong in. But they do manage to scrounge up some old (usually meaningless) term to label them that they’ve heard others whine about, with apparently no idea of how or when to apply the term. I don’t think that’s a very good start for a criticism.

    But if you just don’t particularly care about a specific issue, just say that. Don’t pretend that’s a good reason to denounce a whole field, or that it means you know what the fuck you’re talking about.

  55. Nick Gotts says

    consciousness razor@61,

    I’m dubious that a virtual world of sufficient complexity is a practical possibility, and the only intelligences and consciousnesses we know develop by interaction with existing ones.

  56. Enkidum says

    @NickGotts and @ConsciousnessRazor

    Keep in mind that TENM came out in 1989, which is really the very early days of cognitive neuroscience. Consciousness Explained comes out in 1991, and the extra two years may account for more of the difference between the two books than you’d think.

    Certainly there were a lot of coggy types up until the mid or even late 90’s who knew basically nothing about the brain and very little about behaviour, and who weren’t laughed at for this. Like, say, Douglas Hofstadter as one of the “good” guys and Fodor as one of the “bad” guys. Fodor was taken seriously by most of the field, I’d argue, until at least the mid-90’s. At the time, you could get away with pure computational stuff, or even worse you could get away with thinking about pure computational stuff (Searle being the most egregious example here, and a pretty good example of what scientists hate about philosophy in a vacuum – although lots of his non-Chinese-Room work is fine).

    So keeping that in mind, I think the description of the book that ConsciousnessRazor quoted is consistent with it being a reasonably fair-minded and broad look at the field as a whole, although I’m sure I’m giving it more retrospective credit than it deserves.

    That being said, let me just be clear that we’re all in agreement: it’s a stupid fucking thesis.

  57. says

    For everyone interested:

    See my amusingly thorough discussion of this topic and why scientists are both conceptually and historically uninformed (and just confuse bad philosophers, with philosophy being bad): Is Philosophy Stupid?.

    BTW, my Ph.D. is in the history of science and philosophy. And I delivered that speech in November of 2013.

  58. Nick Gotts says

    Enkidum,

    I think you’re out by at least ten years. In fact, David Marr was producing computational models of specific brain subsystems as early as 1969, and I came across his work (in a then very GOFAI-oriented department at Sussex University) as a grad student in the late 1970s. Michael Gazzaniga and George Miller coined the term “cognitive neuroscience” in 1976. Gazzaniga’s Handbook of Cognitive Neuroscience came out in 1984. Incidentally, I think the GOFAI phase of cognitive science, while it got many things wrong, was crucial in establishing the importance of specifying in detail some of the problems cognitive processes (allow us to) solve, and demonstrating (by its failures as well as its successes) which ones were really hard!

  59. says

    @68 reminds me of another troubling philosophical question:

    how do we know that Richard Carrier is the brilliant Renaissance Man he repeatedly tells us he is? I mean, self-assurance untroubled by even a hint of doubt, and a steadfast refusal to take oneself anything less than completely seriously–these should be enough. Throw in a numerical estimate of the probability that Jesus didn’t exist, and we should be completely assured; no mere poseur or lunatic would act like this, talk like this, apparently sincerely think like this. But still a doubt or two persisted–at least for me. At last, however, in addition to everything else, it was his almost preternatural intuitive mastery–which could, in an instant, perceive in the text of St. Paul things that Paul didn’t even say!–it was that which clinched the issue for me, so that my assessment of the worth of Richard Carrier is now unshaken and unshakeable.

  60. says

    @62
    ‘Claiming[0] you can never really be sure of knowing anything’

    Having read a couple of books about epistemology, that is very much not what they do. The conclusions that modern analytical philosophers (and their predecessors) tend towards is tentativity (all conclusions are tentative), fallibility (we can be mistaken in our knowledge/beliefs), and consequentially, falsifiability is better than verifiability (ie., being able to prove something wrong in principle, is better than being able to confirm it in principle…in general) and so on (obviously painting broad strokes to avoid length and ‘hair-splitting, semantic tomfoolery’.

    ‘and that there’s no such thing as an unbiased measurement’

    In my experience they are more likely to claim that there is no such thing as unbiased interpretation of measurement(s), but also many measurements can involve bias (such as selecting what to measure, how precise, what metrics etc., and what to ignore)

    ‘objective reality separate from the culture you filter your “facts” through’

    We know that culture can have profound effects on perception, attention, and hypothesis generation. For example, if you show a bunch of greenish squares and one slightly bluish-greenish square – certain cultures spot the difference immediately, whereas others cannot while the quick to identify cultures may have difficulty discriminating between red and yellow where we would not. Here we see where psychology and philosophy interact.

    ‘what’s the point of it if you can’t prove beforehand that you’re not a head in a vat or stuck in the matrix?’

    Since most philosophers agree that the matrix etc are unfalsifiable by their very nature, most of them agree that you can’t prove you aren’t in the Matrix. Yet they still carry on as if they actually believe their is a point.

    Cartesian scepticism is part of learning the field of philosophy as is learning some of the ways of handling the issues raised by Descartes and the merits and flaws of his own solutions (mostly flaws). If we raise the state of philosophy in 16/17th Century as a point against philosophy, we should point out that ‘science’ at this time had plenty of ideas that can be mocked…Phlogiston, Disease/spontaneous generation, Alchemy, elan vital, the four bodily humors,

    ‘As a physicist[1], that seems like the most pointless sort of intellectual masturbation imaginable. ‘

    This is a philosophical hypothesis though, not a physics one (for instance what would make it have a point, what is a point?). Just saying.

    ‘ Further, I strongly suspect that…’

    Rationalism from a rational empiricist/scientist? It’s an empirical claim, don’t try and reason your way to an answer!

    ‘Or, if that not what they claim, they don’t appear to be doing much to dispel this particular miconception about their sub-field.’

    Yet when they try (which is often, incidentally) you have the attitude of ‘ fuck off, and let me attend to my measurements’. Your measurements are important, and keep attending to them. But when you are off-duty, take a peek into subjects where measurements do exist, but where they are not always possible or reliable and where deciding which measurements to acquire and why we can draw certain conclusions and where research avenues are flawed because of some fundamental linguistic issue that gives the impression there is something interesting when there is not. Or whatever.

  61. says

    @70

    perceive in the text of St. Paul things that Paul didn’t even say!

    Interesting, I’m reading all manner of different things on this subject recently, to what are you referring?

  62. says

    @71 & 73:

    My argument with Carrier re Jesus and Paul is here: freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/749 [posts from 53 onward].

    If by priors, you mean credentials, I have a BA in Ancient History and a PhD in Classics. If that’s not what you meant, please let me know and I’ll try to answer your question.

    I do think it takes a good knowledge of Ancient Greek to critique Carrier on some of these points; however, it takes no special expertise to notice, and be troubled by, some other features of his reasoning: most striking to me, a penchant for talking as if he’s settled something with deductive certainty when he’s done nothing of the kind.

  63. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    f we raise the state of philosophy in 16/17th Century as a point against philosophy, we should point out that ‘science’ at this time had plenty of ideas that can be mocked… [such as] the four bodily humors,

    And even that was more sophisticated than modern Evo-Phrenology’s Two Bodily Humors.

  64. consciousness razor says

    Nick Gotts:

    I’m dubious that a virtual world of sufficient complexity is a practical possibility, and the only intelligences and consciousnesses we know develop by interaction with existing ones.

    Fair enough. I can’t argue with that. It is one possibility that wasn’t exactly being represented, so I put it out there.

    aaronbaker:

    If by priors, you mean credentials, I have a BA in Ancient History and a PhD in Classics. If that’s not what you meant, please let me know and I’ll try to answer your question.

    I’m betting it meant “prior probabilities,” not your own prior personal background. Carrier’s a Bayesian, so this would make sense, based also on what I know about Marcus Ranum.

    For what it’s worth, the talk he linked to is fairly amusing too, if you ask me. (But this is not unusual: all of his talks which I’ve seen amuse me.) And it’s actually directly and unambiguously relevant to the topic of this thread….

    I do think it takes a good knowledge of Ancient Greek to critique Carrier on some of these points; however, it takes no special expertise to notice, and be troubled by, some other features of his reasoning: most striking to me, a penchant for talking as if he’s settled something with deductive certainty when he’s done nothing of the kind.

    Yes, all of that talk about probability is totally supposed to make you think he’s talking “with deductive certainty,” whatever that means. A kind of certainty, no doubt, and deductions may be involved. Oh my, that’s awful enough — should I really go on? If he thought he had a deductive proof that it must be true or that Jesus could not have existed on the basis of these interpretations, but he didn’t really have any such proof, that would definitely be a subject that should derail this thread. Indeed, just seeing Richard Carrier post a comment should derail any thread in it, so we can talk about the Jesus that might or might not have existed — or if not that, so we can at least try to level some sarcastic personal attacks to smear his character. Obviously.

  65. consciousness razor says

    And even that was more sophisticated than modern Evo-Phrenology’s Two Bodily Humors.

    This is a funny statement, but I don’t know what you’re referring to. It’s not about “thinking fast and slow” is it? Because it is pretty silly that people think a dichotomy like that would be a very useful (much less revolutionary) approach for further research.

  66. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    No, the Two Humors of Evo-Phrenology are Testosterone and Estrogen.

  67. says

    @76: consciousness razor, if you take the trouble to read the discussion I referred to above, you will see Carrier repeatedly treating as deductive, arguments that are manifestly inductive, and treating as certain, conclusions that are anything but.

    As to his constant resorts to probability theory, rightly or wrongly (I’m no mathematician myself so I’m not competent to say) Carrier’s understanding of the math appears to be that the determination of a given range of probability is at least in part a piece of deductive reasoning. This would be fine, if the arguments you use in calculating your probabilities are any good, but in the one case I know the most about, they’re not.

    Incidentally, here’s no humility whatsoever in stating in precise terms the probability that Jesus didn’t exist, rather than saying he must not have existed, if you get to that statement of probability by way of the arguments I’ve seen–there’s just delusion.

    My point, vis-a-vis this thread, is that Carrier’s contribution to the subject in front of us–the value of philosophy in comparison to science–is of no more value than anybody else’s here, and probably of less value. I can’t disguise my irritation that a bunch of manifestly intelligent people find this aggressive campaign of ego-stroking so worthy of deference. If I let my irritation take me too far afield, my fault for sure–but what I have to say here is quite germane to this thread and these posts.

    As for “smearing” Carrier, since I find his comically elevated self-conception unconvincing, I’m left with limited possibilities (and probabilities). It’s no smear if it’s where the evidence points you.

  68. Kevin Henderson says

    Philosophy is the origin of most inquiry. Science provides the method to establish the veracity of hypothesis.

    Each day we make decisions, choices, that are not physics or science for that matter. I have a choice to regularly schedule data collection in the lab. How do I go about it? How do I organize it? How do I motivate myself to do the work? Which part of this is physics? If a physicists is willing to say how I create unique passwords for the eight computers in the lab then I must conclude this person is willing to say that everything I do is physics. That is silly. Feeding the cat is physics, then?? I will try to get that published in PRL.

  69. says

    @79 aaronbaker

    Your criticism seemed to be that he was using inductive conclusions as premises in a deductive argument. That’s pretty standard stuff. Indeed, in the standard first example learned:

    Major premise: All humans are mortal.
    Minor premise: All Greeks are humans.
    Conclusion: All Greeks are mortal.

    The Major premise is an inductive conclusion.

    Did you take the time to watch the talk or have you seen it? He criticises the field of philosophy as it is practiced today repeatedly, while arguing for the field of philosophy as a valuable, indeed invaluable pursuit.

  70. says

    @81: haven’t seen the talk. I feel I’ll have to watch the thing now, if I’m to be seen as being fair here; but my negative assessment of Carrier’s reasoning has another basis (as indicated above).

    I agree that many deductive arguments contain premises that are arrived at inductively. In the example above, the major AND minor premises are both inductive conclusions. So, maybe this syllabus is more accurately expressed by saying “if all humans are mortal and if all Greeks are humans, then all Greeks are (deductively) mortal. What Carrier did again and again in the examples I criticized was to treat a set of very debatable propositions as if they were as nearly uncontrovertible as “all humans are mortal” They were then encased in a deductive structure, giving an appearance of reliable conclusions that in fact bore no relation to reality.

  71. says

    Maybe I need to qualify a bit what I just said. When I suggested that with Carrier, a truly inductive argument was often presented as if it were deductive, I may NOT have drawn a sufficiently clear distinction between 1) an inductive argument presented as if deductive and 2) a deductive argument with some very dubious inductively derived premises. I’m beginning to think, though, that that’s because there really isn’t a significant difference between the two.

  72. consciousness razor says

    @81: haven’t seen the talk. I feel I’ll have to watch the thing now, if I’m to be seen as being fair here; but my negative assessment of Carrier’s reasoning has another basis (as indicated above).

    If you’re not going to make a fallacious argument about the contents of the video you didn’t watch, that is one thing I would expect if you intend to criticize it. Since he didn’t make any substantive argument here, I’m still left wondering what you might have thought you were doing besides poisoning the well. Just whining? That’s the most charitable assumption I can come up with at the moment.

    So, maybe this syllabus [sic — syllogism] is more accurately expressed by saying “if all humans are mortal and if all Greeks are humans, then all Greeks are (deductively) mortal.

    There’s nothing more accurate about that. The concept here, because we are dealing in empirical facts about reality, is that the premises might be false or they might be true. That ought to be assumed of just about any factual premise whatsoever (excluding tautologies), with no need whatsoever for the word “if”, certainly not contained within the premise itself. Are you going to use quotation marks to actually sort out what the difference is? The logic goes that if (and that is outside the quotations) the statement “all humans are mortal” is a true statement, as well as the minor premise, then (also outside) we can decide the conclusion is sound. If not, then not. What do you think you get if you make the premise itself contain the conditional word “if”? It doesn’t describe any specific state of affairs at all. The phrase “if all humans are mortal” is not even a statement. It just sort of wishes it were. In some system it may still be considered true (or even false), but what would that even mean when it’s supposed to be an empirical claim? That is why there is no problem whatsoever with not having it written explicitly in a syllogism like the one above. If you weren’t assuming that it’s there implicitly, you were just not even thinking about this clearly as an empirical claim in the first place.

    Besides, do you expect (other) people to put everything into subordinate conditional clauses without even finishing their own sentences? How would that help us make any more sense out of what they’re saying? What you do in reality is just say the damned thing, the whole thing, and readers are supposed to it interpret and criticize it, with at least some degree of charity and common sense. If they want to blunder through it like sophists, they can, but that’s on them.

    What Carrier did again and again in the examples I criticized was to treat a set of very debatable propositions as if they were as nearly uncontrovertible as “all humans are mortal” They were then encased in a deductive structure, giving an appearance of reliable conclusions that in fact bore no relation to reality.

    As #81 said, there is nothing at all which is even remotely suspicious or objectionable about having these kinds of claims “encased in a deductive structure,” nor with excluding terms like “if” from expressions when they are about empirical claims, because those are always conditional upon such facts being true in reality. The “appearance” that you think it has is entirely in your imagination. Giving an argument the strongest and clearest structure you can is usually considered a good thing, and I certainly think it is. I have no idea how or why you think you could construe it as something negative.

    Also, if you did in fact believe these are “very debatable propositions,” then you would not, by that very fact, be honest when you claim that they “in fact bore no relation to reality,” because you do not in fact know any such thing — you instead think they are debatable. (Internal contradictions, by the way, do generate extremely reliable conclusions: such things must be wrong.) If you didn’t do very well debating these things, because you’re confused about any of these points, that’s your own damned fault.

  73. Rob Grigjanis says

    consciousness razor @84:

    if you did in fact believe these are “very debatable propositions,” then you would not, by that very fact, be honest when you claim that they “in fact bore no relation to reality,”

    Try reading before accusing. ‘very debatable’ was applied to propositions, ‘no relation to reality’ was ascribed to conclusions. You quoted the full context yourself.

    If you can’t think of any debatable propositions that can lead to conclusions with no relation to reality, I’m sure I can come up with some. Off the top of my head – think Bell’s theorem.

  74. says

    @84: Of course “if all humans are mortals and if all Greeks are human, etc.” is a more accurate way to express the syllogism in question, as it makes clear what the more common form of the syllogism doesn’t, that, as you would put it, “the premises might be false or they might be true.” With the more common form, the person reading it could reasonably infer that the truth of the major and minor premises is being insisted on by the person who propounds the syllogism–which is sometimes the case, and sometimes not. So the conditional form removes an ambiguity. That it does remove an ambiguity doesn’t entail that we always use it–and so I don’t really see the point of the rest of your whining on the subject.

    Taking a bunch of dubious propositions and expressing them in a kind of extended syllogism (Carrier’s practice) is giving them an appearance of probative value that they don’t actually have. Look at the examples I cited. I’ve suggested “pseudo-deductive” for the procedure (what a professional logician would call it I’d be interested to know).

    As for “debatable” and “bearing no relation to reality,” I confess I was abbreviating my argument, perhaps too much. Some of the premises Carrier uses in his Paul/Jesus argument are debatable though quite possibly true, some debatable and unlikely (e.g. EVERY reader of St. Paul shared his adoptionist theology), others have no basis in any evidence whatsoever (e.g. “brother of the Lord” did NOT mean to Paul or his audience a biological brother). Given that mix of premises, the conclusion of any of Carrier’s syllogisms will be, much of the time, false and, at worst, completely divorced from reality.

    So, an author who reads into a text statements and/or facts that just aren’t there, who repeatedly assures us on the basis of a statement in St. Paul that EVERYONE who read St. Paul believed this as well, who repeatedly assumes (without evidence) that the debate has been settled in his favor, who assumes that a debate has been ended decisively by arguments packed with questionable or worse premises–is it well-poisoning to characterize this person as, well, nuts, or confused, or (perhaps) snake oil salesman? If it is, so be it. Given the high opinion that most people have here of their intellectual discernment and independence, why isn’t this guy being called on more of his bullshit?

  75. says

    I’ve reviewed what I’ve said here and, pretty clearly, I picked the wrong way to express my irritation. For that, I apologize.

    My opinion of the merits hasn’t changed, but there are clearly better ways to argue the merits than I chose.

  76. says

    @86 Aaron, deductive logic is generally not meant to be probative (exceptions apply, one example below, but in the context in discussion it is not), it’s just useful for making an argument simple to follow and the steps reaching the conclusions as explicit as possible. It means that the participants can now either attack specific premises or the way conclusions were drawn from them. That’s it’s only real use. Inductive arguments are much better (proven by induction: Science the king of inductive and abductive reasoning).

    Sometimes you can really get places in maths and by extension areas that use those parts of maths with deduction. Everywhere else, such as history or literary studies, deduction is all about making your argument understandable.

    Watch Carrier’s talk on philosophy if you get a chance. Even if you disagree with the way he argues about the meanings of letters, it doesn’t follow that he will be in significant error about his description of Philosophy as a field and modern philosophical academic practice. We are all imperfect reasoners, and most of us think we’re better than we are. I can understand dismissing him if he is consistently and wildly wrong, but you seem to be dismissing him even though you agreed with all the premises and most of the conclusions. You’re primary objection was seemingly that it should be explicitly ‘in the opinion of Paul’, but that seemed to me to be clear that was the scope in the first place. Your major objection in the conclusion seems to be a disagreement over 1 Cor 9:5 and other points. It’s not like he is actually, as you accused, putting words in Paul’s mouth, but instead he’s using his own method for interpreting what Paul was talking about, whether he was right to do so or not.

    In short, seems a minor academic disagreement the nature of which is quite common. Seems daft to randomly and blindly mock his other work based on such a disagreement. It’s not like he’s creationist levels of bad reasoning, even if you believe he makes mistakes. I’m confident that we could end up simply having to mock and dismiss almost every single scholar that has spoken if we apply your standards because it is unlikely that there are many scholars who agree with you completely on every point in this subject – after dismissing everything they’ve done because of the disagreements, we have a considerable confirmation bias/information bubble problem.

    I know you have other issues we didn’t discuss, but given their nature, and that you have essentially disowned them as far as being ways to express these views, I don’t expect much from them I’m afraid.

    @87 All that said, the ‘merits’ of what? The merits of dismissing Carrier, of Carrier’s view of philosophy? Philosophy itself?

  77. consciousness razor says

    Try reading before accusing. ‘very debatable’ was applied to propositions, ‘no relation to reality’ was ascribed to conclusions. You quoted the full context yourself.

    Yes, I did, and I read it that way. What difference would it make? The conclusions would follow from the propositions in question. If those are debatable, so is the conclusion. It simply is not settled as a fact. It may be true for some other reason — the premises might not be relevant or well-posed at all — but the point is that you just can’t there from here.

    If you can’t think of any debatable propositions that can lead to conclusions with no relation to reality, I’m sure I can come up with some. Off the top of my head – think Bell’s theorem.

    Bell’s theorem, the conclusion, is this: “No physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.”

    Are you saying that has no relation to reality? Or what are the “debatable” premises supposed to be there?

    There could be a further argument based on it, not Bell’s theorem itself, claims to the effect that physical theories are local, that they can or can’t have hidden variables, that quantum mechanics produces the wrong predictions, etc. Lots of options, really, but it isn’t clear what you’re talking about. Some of those are debatable right now, and they certainly can’t all be true (thus, the “false” ones in a sense have “no relation to reality”), but that means you can’t honestly state as a known fact that one of those is indeed false. The only one which is just a straightforward fact is that quantum mechanics produces the right predictions in the domain we know about now. If, however, there could be a future observation/experiment that it would get wrong, then it isn’t terribly straightforward either, is it?

  78. Rob Grigjanis says

    consciousness razor @89: I wrote ‘think Bell’s theorem’, not ‘e.g. Bell’s theorem’. Debatable propositions lead to the false conclusion that Bell’s inequality always holds.

  79. consciousness razor says

    consciousness razor @89: I wrote ‘think Bell’s theorem’, not ‘e.g. Bell’s theorem’.

    Yes, I know. I need some clarity about what specifically you had in mind, so I gave you the opportunity to do so. And if you read what I said, you’ll notice that I responded to all of those possibilities, not simply the one you pick out here, none of which seem to support your argument.

    Debatable propositions lead to the false conclusion that Bell’s inequality always holds.

    How would they be both debatable and (demonstrably) false? Please give me a concrete example. If that’s a false conclusion and you somehow knew it’s a false conclusion, then there’s no real “debate” to be had about it — because of the meaning of the word “debate,” as I understand it. On the other hand, the theorem specifies a certain set of things: it talks about local theories, hidden variables theories, and (specific) QM predictions. If you change those things around at all, you’re not talking about what the theorem says anymore. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t “hold” in those cases, because it doesn’t say it holds in such cases. So there’s no reason to debate something, ostensibly about the theorem (but not really), which isn’t relevant.

    You could pick a different example if you like, because my argument obviously isn’t specific to that — it’s just a general epistemic claim. You haven’t done anything with it yet, besides just assert that it’s not true.

  80. Rob Grigjanis says

    How would they be both debatable and (demonstrably) false?

    I get the feeling you would type forever rather than concede the obvious point; the propositions are indeed debatable, but the conclusion is demonstrably (by experiment) false. The debate then is not about the conclusion, but, still, as ever, the propositions. That is concrete.

    Here’s a trivial example. Any two propositions which are each debatable, but known a priori to be mutually exclusive. A conclusion derived from both would of necessity be false.

    So this, from your #89, is simply wrong;

    The conclusions would follow from the propositions in question. If those are debatable, so is the conclusion.

    I’m done typing.

  81. consciousness razor says

    Here’s a trivial example. Any two propositions which are each debatable, but known a priori to be mutually exclusive. A conclusion derived from both would of necessity be false.

    That is trivially absurd. You cannot “derive” a conclusion from mutually exclusive premises. That is not what a derivation is, regardless of whatever the fuck there might be to “debate.”

    I’m done typing.

    Good riddance, I guess.

  82. says

    Psychotic Atheist:

    When I said “on the merits,” I was talking solely about my dispute with Carrier. I think science and some kinds of philosophy are entirely compatible with each other. Again, I’ll stiffen my resolve and watch the lecture to see whether and how I agree with Carrier.

    Time now for me to eat some more crow. I went back to my tete-a-tete with Carrier because I thought I could not have made as boned-headed an error as saying deductive arguments with false premises couldn’t be valid. Then I discovered this sentence:

    “Nothing follows by logical necessity from a false premise”

    Oh well. I’m pretty sure I actually did know at one time that this was wrong, but my aging memory is no excuse; I should have reviewed the basics for this kind of argument before plunging in.

    Does this blunder wreck my argument? Not that I can see. What I was attacking first and foremost was Carrier’s treatment of his premises (more specifically his certainty or near-certainty regarding the truth of several of them).

    This is one version of Carrier’s syllogism:

    “P1. The evidence in Paul proves Christians called Jesus the Lord.
    P2. The evidence in Paul proves Jesus was the adopted son of God.
    P3. The evidence in Paul proves baptized Christians were the adopted sons of God.
    P4. By definition, sons of the same father are brothers of each other.
    P5. By definition, if P2 and P3, then Christians and Jesus were sons of the same father.
    C1. Therefore, (baptized) Christians and Jesus are brothers of each other.
    C2. Therefore, (baptized) Christians and the Lord are brothers of each other.
    P6. In the Greek language, when A is the brother of B, this is stated by saying “A is a brother of B.”
    C3. Therefore, in the Greek language when [a Christian] is the brother of [the Lord], this is stated by saying “a Christian is a brother of the Lord.”
    C4. Therefore, “a Christian is a brother of the Lord.
    Since this follows by logical necessity from P1-6, and P1-6 are all undeniable facts, this conclusion is undeniable.”

    Carrier repeatedly speaks of his (presumably empirically established premises) with descriptors like “undeniable” and “(virtually) 100% certainty.” See also: “No question is begged when every premise is proved and the conclusion necessarily follows.”

    So, I looked at a premise like P3 and asked what the evidence was in the surviving remains of Paul to prove that baptized Christians were (in their belief, presumably) the adopted sons of God. But the evidence in Paul proves nothing of the kind All that this evidence can ever establish with certainty or near-certainty (provided we assume it to be genuine) is that Paul believed in adoptionism himself. We can, inductively, infer that a figure like Paul probably influenced others to agree with him, but that is all.

    Carrier’s interpretation of 1st Cor. 9 is open to the same critique, which I went through at length and won’t bore people by repeating here—except to say that here I see no basis in the text for Carrier’s reading of it.

    As to Carrier’s syllogistic procedure:

    He is, very emphatically, using it to establish the truth of several of his propositions (following as they do from purportedly all-but-100% certain premises). He isn’t just using it to show that his argument is logically coherent.

    So what should a historian make of this syllogism, created to push her or him, however reluctantly, in the direction of the truth? Well, I think the conclusion will and should be: little or nothing, depending as the syllogism does on (at best) contestable premises. What historians typically do when faced with contestable premises is to proceed inductively (or primarily inductively), and leave it at that. That’s the approach that the evidence normally warrants.