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.

I shall not even try to list all the things science has failed to anticipate

Help me wrap my brain around this tweet. I can’t grok it.

Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!

John Wilkins isn’t helping.

Likewise, scientists’ failure to anticipate The Beatles is a severe indictment on science.

Don’t you mean Pink Floyd, John?

Also, since Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus was a philosopher and poet, and since his work did anticipate (incompletely) evolution, couldn’t we say that a philosopher actually did anticipate Darwin, and he was a Darwin too? We could also declare that the poets got there first.

And since Darwin considered himself a natural philosopher, couldn’t we also say that a philosopher did more than anticipate, but actually came up with Darwin’s theory of evolution?

Darwin appreciated philosophy, but also thought it essential to include experiment and observation. In his Autobiography he actually praised his education in philosophy.

Again in my last year I worked with some earnestness for my final degree of B.A., and brushed up my Classics together with a little Algebra and Euclid, which latter gave me much pleasure, as it did whilst at school. In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.

He also respected William Whewell, a philosopher (and a theologian. Christ, we’re screwed here!).

Dr. Whewell was one of the older and distinguished men who sometimes visited Henslow, and on several occasions I walked home with him at night. Next to Sir J. Mackintosh he was the best converser on grave subjects to whom I ever listened.

Whewell is also the guy who invented the term “scientist” to describe practitioners of a specific branch of…philosophy. I guess it was a philosopher who anticipated scientists.

And, apparently, Darwin’s shipmates on the Beagle called him “philosopher”!

The first Lieutenant, however, said to me: “Confound you, philosopher, I wish you would not quarrel with the skipper; the day you left the ship I was dead-tired (the ship was refitting) and he kept me walking the deck till midnight abusing you all the time.

So I am confused. How can anyone use Darwin Day as an excuse to indict philosophy? It’s as if I used my birthday as an opportunity to cuss out my dad.

The CU-Boulder philosophy department gets failing marks

This is the school where my daughter has just started graduate work, and now a scathing review of the philosophy departments’ practices has been released. Turns out it was a nest of snakes. (Fortunately, my daughter is in the computer science department, and believe me, she’d be speaking out if things were this bad there).

…it is our strong conclusion that the Department maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior. Members of most groups we talked to report directly observing inappropriate behavior. This behavior has harmed men and women members of every stakeholder group in the Department.

Some assistant and full professors (both male and female) report responding to this situation by working from home, dropping out of departmental life, and avoiding socializing with colleagues. Several faculty members’ reputations for bad behavior place a higher service work burden on colleagues. Women are leaving or trying to leave in disproportionate numbers. [note: the report does not name names or describe specific incidents. --pzm]

The female graduate students report being anxious, demoralized, and depressed. Some female students report that they avoid working with some faculty members because of things that they have heard about those faculty members. Some female students report avoiding working with faculty members because they directly witnessed or were subjected to this harassment and inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior. There was and is a lack of support for students who lost their advisors or instructors due to sanctions. The female graduate students would like more women in the department but they cannot recommend this department as a good place to come.

In addition, male graduate students report being extremely worried about the climate of harassment. They are worried that they will be tainted by the national reputation of the department as being hostile to women. They are worried about getting a job letter from someone who has a bad reputation when the student does not know exactly who has a bad reputation. They are concerned that the lack of administrative support for the Department resulting from the climate of harassment [i.e. “provost saying, ‘no more departmental support until the department shapes up’”] will negatively affect their abilities to succeed. They avoid some faculty because they do not want to have a reputation that might come with being advised by a harasser (a problem exacerbated by lack of certainty about who the harassers are). And some are angry in discovering the severe problems in the department that they didn’t know about before they arrived.

It’s good to see that they point out that an epidemic of sexism is bad for the men as well as the women.

Man, I hear this kind of thing all the time about philosophy departments — philosophy and engineering seem to be the major repositories of sexist behavior in academe. You’d think philosophy would enable a rational perspective, and it’s a mystery to me why so many suddenly go so stupid on sexual harassment.

Although this paragraph suggests a possible reason.

The Department uses pseudo-philosophical analyses to avoid directly addressing the situation. Their faculty discussions revolve around the letter rather than the spirit of proposed regulations and standards. They spend too much time articulating (or trying to articulate) the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior instead of instilling higher expectations for professional behavior. They spend significant time debating footnotes and “what if” scenarios instead of discussing what they want their department to look and feel like. In other words, they spend time figuring out how to get around regulations rather than focusing on how to make the department supportive of women and family-friendly.

Ah, that’s how the power of philosophy can be corrupted to do great evil: it’s a whole mob of people trained in the virtues of reflexive devil’s advocacy.

Plumbing philosophy

A commenter left a link to this comic here; now we know what happens when you combine plumbing and philosophy.

Good timing, too. On my to-do list for today is to pop off the trap for the bathroom sink — we think the satanic cat who is lurking in our house knocked something into it, clogging it hopelessly. Now I’m going to have to tell my wife I can’t do it, and I’ve got a good reason: existential dread.

And what does a mere obstructed pipe have to do with the Grand Scheme of the Cosmos, anyway?

Philosophism

I have seen scientism, and it’s usually not us. The most blatant example recently was Pinker’s appalling essay in which he suggested that Hume could have used some instruction in molecular biology; I’ve seen people like Hawking and Krauss claim that philosophy is dead, killed by science. But usually the prominent atheists manage to step back from the brink and acknowledge that there is virtue to the humanities that is not dependent on science (but make no mistake, poetry is not a tool for generating new knowledge, but for communicating insights into human nature, which is fine and valuable — science is the tool we have for testing and verifying, and for acquiring new information about the universe).

Massimo Pigliucci has written a paper chastising the New Atheists for taking a turn towards scientism. But take note of my first paragraph: I’ve already given more specific examples of scientism than Pigliucci does in his entire paper. I’d also consider them illuminating: Krauss has retracted his sentiments, both Krauss and Hawking took a lot of flak for their weird ideas about philosophy (science is a branch of philosophy, so I found both rather discombobulating), and Pinker…well, I’d consider that the most damning evidence for a plague of scientism within atheism, that so many praised that blatant example of ahistorical and aphilosophical BS. Pinker isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the paper.

Pigliucci has picked his scientistic enemies: Dawkins, of course, and Harris and Stenger, adding just for the sake of completeness a couple of other scientists, me and Jerry Coyne, who also strongly criticizes the paper. Hitchens is dismissed as a mere polemicist, while Dennett, as a philosopher, causes some discomfort to his thesis, Pigliucci simply acknowledges that he can’t accuse him of scientism and moves on to his other targets.

But he can’t really defend his accusation against any of the others, either, and he doesn’t seem to care that there is a range of perspectives on philosophy even within his hand-picked sample. I consider myself to have a strong appreciation of philosophy and the humanities, and have even proposed to colleagues that a real liberal arts education ought to require learning some philosophy. Stenger’s work is full of history and philosophy; read God and the Atom, for instance, to see what I mean. I think Harris’s The Moral Landscape was all kinds of awful, but that he exercised some bad philosophy does not support his claim that the New Atheists reject it.

And look who he leaves off: Susan Jacoby, David Silverman, Hemant Mehta, Greta Christina, Ibn Warriq, Ophelia Benson. And worse, he has to explicitly deny that AC Grayling is a New Atheist! The impression I get is that what he has done is not find prominent New Atheists who endorse scientism, but prominent New Atheists who also happen to be trained as scientists, and then clumsily elided “is a scientist” into “is practicing scientism,” while also glossing over the existence of philosophers in our clan. We have a word for this: cherry-picking. It’s not a compliment.

Then he tries to define New Atheism, mentioning that nothing in it is actually “new” (a point that I think all of the New Atheists have made repeatedly! It’s a stupid name we got stuck with by a journalist writing in Wired). Here’s his definition.

Rather, it seems to me that two characteristics stand out as defining New Atheism apart from what I refer to as classical Atheism, one extrinsic, the other intrinsic. The extrinsic character of the New Atheism is to be found in the indisputably popular character of the movement. All books produced by the chief New Atheists mentioned above have been worldwide best sellers, in the case of Dawkins’s God Delusion, for instance, remaining for a whopping 51 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. While previous volumes criticizing religion had received wide popular reception (especially the classic critique of Christianity by Bertrand Russell), nothing like that had happened before in the annals of Western literature. The search for the reasons explaining such an unprecedented level of popularity is best left to sociologists, and at any rate is not really relevant to my aims here. It is likely, though, that the New Atheism qua popular movement is a direct result of the complex effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We have seen that the first book in the series, by Sam Harris, was written explicitly in reaction to those events, and I suspect that careful sociological analysis will reveal that that is also what accounts for Harris et al.’s success.

The second reason is intrinsic, and close to the core of my argument in this paper: the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more forcefully on science than on philosophy. Indeed, a good number of New Atheists (the notable exception being, of course, Daniel Dennett) is on record explicitly belittling philosophy as a source of knowledge or insight. Dawkins says that the “God hypothesis” should be treated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis; Stenger explicitly—in the very subtitle of his book—states that “Science shows that God does not exist” (my emphasis); and Harris later on writes a whole book in which he pointedly ignores two and a half millennia of moral philosophy in an attempt to convince his readers that moral questions are best answered by science (more on this below). All of these are, to my way of seeing things, standard examples of scientism. Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

So he’s got two criteria: 1) We’re popular. That’s an accusation that has me stumped; would we be more respectable if nobody liked us at all? 2) We’re scientists and take a scientific approach. Well, we’re not all scientists, and what’s wrong with looking at an issue using evidence and reason? Why shouldn’t we reject ideas that might be pretty to some people, but contradict reality? It’s not as if we can’t appreciate beauty or justice, entirely non-scientific ideas, unless they’re also counter-factual. Beauty and justice are best when they aren’t wrapped around lies and nonsense!

I’m going to start replying to these broad-brush accusations of scientism with my own accusations of philosophism. It seems to me we’ve got a plague of people who resent the success of atheism and respond by belittling it with trite claims of it being “bad theology” or “naive philosophy”. I’m about to be served with a big plumbing bill for a frozen pipe — I wonder if I can get a discount if I argue that those two guys with the big toolboxes were insufficiently appreciative of the philosophy of flowing water, and are unwarrantedly popular with homeowners this time of year. Damn plumbists.

Please, please people: stop using the naive dictionary meaning of words in place of context

I know I’m notorious for complaining about those goofy definitions of atheism (“it just means “not believing in god”, nothing more!”, the superficial mob will say) because the word has acquired much deeper resonances that we ignore at our peril, and has implications far greater than simple rejection of one assertion. But the other word that people love to abuse is “freethought”. The same superficial twits all think it means simply that you’re allowed to think whatever you want (which, it turns out, you can do even in a theocracy) and that it’s a kind of hedonism of the mind in which all things are permissible.

It’s not. It’s a word with a long history, a real meaning, and a greater substance than the poseurs know of. Alex Gabriel does a marvelous job scouring the ignoramuses on the meaning of freethought.

Objections to Freethought‘s place in our masthead are among the laziest, glibbest soundbites our critics have, but more than that display a failure to grasp even the term’s most basic history. Freethought is not ‘free thought’ or uninhibited inquiry – to think so boasts the same green literalism as thinking a Friends’ Meeting House is a shared beach hut or that Scotch pancakes contain Scotch  - though even if it were, it’s silly and inane to assume one’s critics are automatons or say loose collective viewpoints mean dictatorship. Freethought is a specified tradition, European in the main, whose constituents have by and large been countercultural, radical and leftist, everything Condell and cohorts viscerally despise.

I am so fed up with people who say that they understand the meaning of the word “free” and the meaning of the word “thought”, and therefore they understand everything they need to know about “freethought”. And these are often the same people who claim that their tradition is one of knowledge and learning and skepticism, yet they want to replace the complex world of knowledge with a kind of naive literalism.

A philosopher agrees with me

I don’t know whether this is a good thing, or a bad thing, but at least he’s agreeing for a different reason. On the question of whether we’ll someday be able to download brains into a computer, I’ve said no for largely procedural reasons: there is no way to capture the state of all the complex molecules (and the simple ions, either) of the brain in any kind of snapshot, and the excuses of the download proponents are ludicrously ignorant of even the current state of biology. John Wilkins says no for a different and interesting reasons: a simulation (and that’s all a computer version of a person could be) is not the thing itself. The map is not the territory. So even surrendering the idea of a high-fidelity transfer and saying that you’ll just develop a model of a brain doesn’t get you anywhere close to solving the problem of immortalizing “me” in a machine.

Sorry, trans-humanists. I can believe that there can be a post-humanity, but it won’t include us, so I don’t know why you aspire to it. I can sort of imagine an earth transformed by human activities into a warmer, wetter, even more oceanic place that allows more squid to flourish, and it’s even a somewhat attractive future, but it’s not a human transformation.

Oh, those secular ethics

In case you’re interested, DJ Grothe will be speaking at the Midwest Philosophy Colloquium on the University of Minnesota Morris campus next week. I can’t attend; it’s scheduled at the same time as one of our HHMI student research events.

He’s speaking on secular ethics.

By the way, of no possible relevance at all, I’m sure, Grothe is threatening legal action against Women Thinking, Inc., and is holding up publication of a survey on vaccination outreach, because he doesn’t like that someone reported a bad joke that he made. Which he denies.

Secular ethics in action!

Man, am I glad I have a good excuse to not attend that talk. I’m going to enjoy celebrating students’ summer research instead.


Oh, yay! More examples of secular ethics!