Attacks on philosophy by scientists

Reposted from my home blog.

Something that I never really fully understand is why academics feel the need to denigrate other academic disciplines. Just because one happens to think something is so worthwhile that they devoted their lives to it doesn’t thereby mean that everything else is crap. But that seems to be the attitude of many scientists and advocates of science towards philosophy. Do a Google search for “philosophy is useless” if you disbelieve me.

I know, I think, why some people seem to think that all that matters is science. I too think science is pretty damned important. But once you stop knowing about things, and start arguing about things you cannot know by science, you are doing philosophy, and so it is a little, dare I say, hypocritical, to argue, philosophically, that philosophy is crap. Not to mention self-contradictory.

Scientists sometimes think that any attempt to be philosophical about science is otiose. Feynman once remarked, although I can’t find the reference, that philosophy of science is about as useful to science as ornithology is to birds. This might very well be true (although in times when the birds are under threat, ornithology can be of very great benefit indeed), but the value of a study is not the things one can sell from it. It is surely true that philosophers like Popper and Hempel and Carnap tried to constrain and prescribe science, and that project failed. But the philosophy of science is about understanding how science is done when it works. Surely that’s not for nothing. How is this just “entertainment“? Is philosophy of science something scientists should ignore and deride?

Recently, Mark Perakh, a physicist, posted on Panda’s Thumb another attack upon Michael Ruse, the philosopher and historian of science, because Ruse asked this question:

If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

In the context of the US Constitution and legal precedent, this is a sensible question to ask. It doesn’t make much sense outside that sort of context, because in most other educational jurisdictions, what gets taught is decided by educators, not the courts, and, for example, in mine (Australia) religion is regarded as something that should only be taught comparatively or in religious education classes that are voluntary (and even those are hardly widely accepted). So is Ruse leading up to some horrible accommodationist error? No, he merely asks that question. Taking a view he calls “independence” – that science and religious claims are independent of each other – he says

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want science removed from schools. I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution. The independence position does not raise this issue, because it argues that science has no implications either way about religious claims. You cannot argue for the independence position because of that, but it is a point in its favor.

Now I think that science, being a human activity that engages many of the same questions traditionally approached through theology, yes, and philosophy, is not entirely independent of religious questions. I have said many times that if a religion makes contrary-to-fact claims, so much the worse for that religion. So I do not agree with Ruse’s position here. But I cannot think that he is merely being stupid or just the sort of entertainment one might get from watching a demented drunk dance, which is the tenor of Perakh’s comment.

Ruse, is being a philosopher when he asks questions that scientists think are dumb. Philosophers often ask questions that scientists, and other firm believers in a set of shared views, think are too stupid to even challenge, because, well, that’s what philosophy has always done. And what history teaches us is that philosophy, in asking those questions, often points up some weaknesses in the “common sense” views, leading to interesting conceptual developments.

Perakh thinks that philosophy of science has done nothing to help science. And yet, scientists like him constantly do philosophy of science. One of the most influential philosophers upon science, its practice and debates, was a physicist named Percy Bridgman. Bridgman’s “operationalism” was a philosophical attempt to leave philosophical aspects of science such as truth claims to one side. It affected everything from physics to taxonomy. Einstein was no philosophical slouch either (and he did not feel the need to denigrate philosophy: like many of his contemporaries, he had a good humanist education), nor modern physicists like Max Tegmark. So it seems that, from the perspective of a physicist, the only philosophers of science who should be mocked and denigrated are those who do not say things that the physicist writing agrees with. In short, do philosophy so long as it concludes what I think is true…

What upsets many of these “critics” (I scare quote this because real criticism involves reasoning, not merely the restatement of prejudicial beliefs) is that some philosophers, like Ruse, do not assert that the sole method and mode of rationality is to deride, exclude or a priori reject religious credibility. Ruse, an avowed atheist, does not attack religion at every turn, and instead seems to think that religious views have a social role and place even if he disagrees with them. This is not enough for the absolutists. One must not only disagree, one must strive mightily to eliminate. The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.

The way to achieve this Utopian vision is, of course, to mock and deride any person, profession or technique that does not arrive at the preferred conclusion which we all knew, really, was true before we began. Philosophy, which must take seriously views that we dispute (so long as they are not factually false; only a few metaphysicians might accept that one could hold those views reasonably, and then only for the purposes of argument), is stupid. Useless. A waste of time and brains. Blah, blah, blah.

Can you say “special pleading“, children? I knew you could. Can you say “fallacy of affirming the consequent“? Can you say “circular reasoning“? A bit of philosophical training might have helped Perakh a bit, before he dismissed an entire profession for the simple reason that it is not what he, personally, likes.

I do not think Ruse’s claim that science is inherently metaphorical works as a general statement (I fail to see, for example, how mathematical models and their interpretations are metaphors), but a lot of it is, and the failure of people like Perakh to see this is one of the reasons why philosophy of science is of service to science. We do the garbage clearance, when we do our job well. Perakh’s snide comment is garbage. One of the ironies of this little set-to is that it is a theological philosopher who rightly takes Perakh’s exclusivism to task. The post is entitled “Mark Perakh and the Ironies of Philosophy and Science”, so there’s meta-irony as well.

As to Ruse’s actual question, my view is this (and it is a philosophical view, like Perakh’s): If the claim is made that some scientifically investigable object does not exist, like the Yangtse River Dolphin, then that assertion is science and can be taught in a science class in America. If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it’s fracking philosophy! and philosophy should not be taught in science class.

That we have no scientific reason to think there is a God, well, yes, that’s the point. Is science all one should rely upon in belief formation? That’s another philosophical question (which I, unlike Ruse, tend to think the answer to is “yes”, but not entirely).

Now Ruse seems to have a wider definition of science than I do, and that, too, should be discussed in a philosophical situation (what counts as science? Is it everything some archetypical physicist believes is true? Should Sheldon from Big Bang Theory be our arbiter of reasonableness?), but so does Perakh. Where Ruse seems to think that any belief set that is strictly derived from scientific ideas is science (I do not, for that would include Mary Baker Eddy’s idiocy), Perakh is a scientific hegemonist. Science (the physicist’s science) rules all and nothing else is worthy. Ruse is too inclusive, while Perakh is too restrictive and at the same time imperialistic. Ruse wants the League of Nations, while Perakh wants … what? The Napoleonic Empire? And the whole point here is that this is a philosophical debate we’re having, even if Perakh doesn’t think it is.

Forgive me if I am a bit testy. I have spent decades listening to scientists, even as they make philosophical arguments, tell me how useless philosophy of science is. It’s a reflex action instilled into undergraduate science students that they uncritically seem to disgorge upon the slightest stimulus for the rest of their lives. Of course not all, or even most, scientists do this (most don’t care, but there are a large number of philosophically educated and interested scientists out there. In fact, they drive the philosophy of science, in my opinion). But just like being poked by a younger brother in the same place often can lead to an outburst eventually, I am provoked. Mum, he started it!

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55 Responses to Attacks on philosophy by scientists

  1. harold says:

    If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?

    This may be a valuable question, but it has no relationship to any valid question in philosophy of science. Science does not make any claims about God.

    (Creationists make the claim that certain things have to be scientifically true for God to exist – the earth must be about 6000 years old or their conception of God is false, for example. This is not the fault of science. Science can only test whether or not the earth is about 6000 years old. It cannot test whether that age of the earth is required for God, or whether God exists. The latter two are not scientific questions.)

    It is unequivocally illegal for a US public school teacher to announce to a class that God does not exist, for exactly the same reason it is illegal for a public school teacher to announce that one or another god does exist.

    I think these points are pretty obvious.

    I don’t attack philosophy or philosophy of science in general, but I do condemn that misleading quote, which clearly and falsely implies that science involves direct statements about God. If it is not an attempt to pander to creationists, it is a very good imitation of such.

    I have cross posted on Panda’s Thumb.

  2. As someone who sometimes agrees with accomodationists and sometimes agrees with non-accomodationists/absolutists, I don’t think you are at all correct when you say that the absolutists are rejecting the Enlightenment ideals. Wanting people to agree with what one thinks is correct is not a rejection of that ideal. Perakh is not attempting to silence people or to use coercion to restrict what they say. Being, snide, mocking, snarky, sarcastic, or even insulting is not the same thing as saying that “The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.”

    Perakh is wrong about philosophy of science, but your claims about him attempting to abandon Enlightenment ideals does him a disservice.

    • John S. Wilkins says:

      Fair comment, although I find the intolerance of some gnutheists to be contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Voltairean dictum.

      • rjw says:

        That does come across as “I *wish* that gnutheists had some glaring error in their outlook, so I will assign them this convenient one” .

        This kind of snark just seems incredibly lazy and pointless – especially in a post that has an important point to make.

  3. Jim Harrison says:

    People talk about the inability of science to make assertions about God as if the problem were epistemological. Science is defined by a naturalistic methodology and therefore can’t deal with a supernatural object like God that can’t be studied by its empirical means. It strikes me that this way of looking at the issue is somewhat dated. A hundred years ago or so and even when I first went to school, it may have been commonplace to think of science as the product of a universal methodology ala Carnap or Hempel, but the greater attention to the context of discovery that came along with the more historical approaches to the philosophy of science has changed things, at least for me. I think of the sciences (note the plural) as defined by rather specific conceptual structures. I don’t know whether one can investigate the first person of the Trinity with a Geiger counter, but what matters more is that one apparently cannot represent God as an object of study in the language of any current science in the way Aristotle, for example, could represent the unmoved mover in his version of physics. I just don’t know a contemporary science that can make a statement about God one way or the other. The regional ontologies of the existing scientific disciplines just don’t have room for such a being, though one could imagine some future science that managed to do dimensional analysis on something like a deity.

  4. Achrachno says:

    Wilkins: Perakh thinks that philosophy of science has done nothing to help science. And yet, scientists like him constantly do philosophy of science.

    It’s true that most (almost all?) working scientists don’t feel that the products of philosophy of science are of any use to them in doing their work. But, you’re obviously right that philosophy can’t be avoided, and at some level scientists probably agree — and so that may be why many scientists are producing their own home grown philosophies. It appears they can’t find anything useful on offer from the professionals, so they’re assembling something that works for them with what they have on hand, imperfect as that may be.

    Doesn’t this suggest that the approach being used by professional philosophers needs to change? If the widespread testimony of their main set of potential clients is that the existing philosophical product is no help in doing science, the product is obviously flawed. It’s no use complaining about the potential clients when the product isn’t moving. Scientists are a practical lot who just want to get work done/questions answered as quickly and cleanly as possible. Can philosophers help with that?

    • John S. Wilkins says:

      Well it’s really not our business to do that. The question is not whether philosophy is dispensable, as it isn’t, but only whether it is done well or badly. For it to be done well, there needs to be a profession that develops standards and thus technical topics and research programs.

      But academic philosophy, like any field, tends not to reward public outreach all that much. I am sure my own paltry efforts have come back to bite me on the bum more than once: “Why is he blogging and not writing papers?”

      So we have a conundrum, in which we need to make philosophy – not that pap that Sophie found in her world – more accessible on the one hand, but on the other we need to have technical philosophy to get the stuff to make accessible.

      Perhaps we need philosophy communicators…

      • Achrachno says:

        Wilkins: Well it’s really not our business to do that. The question is not whether philosophy is dispensable, as it isn’t, but only whether it is done well or badly.

        If philosophers of science cannot or will not help with the problems of science, if they think the advance of science is not their business, then what they produce IS dispensable (to scientists) and will necessarily be ignored. Scientists will continue to claim that philosophy is useless and will continue to develop their own philosophical approaches. This situation is not in anyone’s interest, IMO.

      • Tom Hartley says:

        I think Achrachno is making some telling points here, and it is not as simple as denigrating or dismissing an entire discipline. I am not hearing a very stout defence of the status quo – maybe there is a problem with Philosophy of Science that needs addressing? I think we need more accessible communicators and also more scientists articulating their philosophical principles (Feynman was a great model of both). I can think of at least two philosophers who’ve made important contributions to my field (Cognitive Neuroscience), not by prescribing/describing what science is or how it should be done, but by getting into the nitty gritty of specific reasoning problems.

  5. Gary S. Hurd says:

    I am not sure who is following what threads on which sites. So I’m cross posting this note (slight edits from PT):

    Ruse wrote, “If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?”

    This is an asinine question. It can only be asked by nitwit creationists, or philosophers of science. Ruse we know, but here are some others “Evolution a religious belief the government is supporting,” or a “long form” “John Calvert, Kitzmiller’s Error: Using an Exclusive Rather Than an Inclusive Definition of Religion”

    The creationist claim is that the action of the transcendent/divine is observable, and identifiable. The creationists cannot have any truth argument unless first they are correct in assuming a supernatural agent exists.

    The materialist claim is that what is observable is the result of natural properties of matter. There isn’t a necessary assumption in the sciences that if no evidence for a supernatural agent can be found, that one cannot exist. However, the existence, or non-existence of a supernatural agent does not need to be determined for scientific work to proceed. It is a null question.

    The scientific rejection of the creationist claim is that there is no supernatural agency manifested, things are explained by the properties of matter, NOT that there is no supernatural agent. The sciences do not need to say that there is no God. In fact, it is outside the competence of science to do so. The sciences can say, in the words of Laplace, “[Sire,] je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse.”

    And this is why I think that the question by Ruse was a good example of philosophical circle-jerk; Ruse has mixed definitions, and misrepresented arguments. He posed a question that should be seen to have an obvious resolution, he echoes creationist bafflegab, and sits back and laughs. Very philosophical, unless you wonder what the point of philosophy or philosophers of science might be. At the very, very best they might be helpful as independent, external observers of those of us who do real science. Mark Perakh merely hoped for entertainment. Ruse has provided neither; not accurate observation, nor entertainment. He has, at most, fed a few more creationists with quote mines that they didn’t need.

    Evangelical atheists, like Dawkins, Hitchens, Coyne, or Myers, make the identical mistake that the extremist creationsits like Ham, Sarfati, Wells, or Meyer have made. They all insist on the same “false duality” that was found against in Kitzmiller v Dover, “Dr. Miller testified that a false duality is produced: It “tells students … quite explicitly, choose God on the side of intelligent design or choose atheism on the side of science.” (2:54-55 (Miller)).” Case 4:04-cv-02688-JEJ Document 342 Filed 12/20/2005 Page 49.

    You want it both ways? You cannot have it both ways.

  6. Jerry Schwarz says:

    “If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it’s fracking philosophy! and philosophy should not be taught in science class.”

    I see this kind of argument frequently, but it seems to assume that there is only one religion which is obviously wrong. Some religions may believe in a god that is outside of time and space and others don’t. Any Christian that believes that Jesus walked the earth and was (at least partially) divine does not believe in a god that is outside of time and space. I’m not a Christian and I’m not a scholar of Christianity, but it is my impression that most Christians believe this.

    Any discussion of whether “god exists”, whether scientific, philosophical, or theological, must specify enough about such a hypothetical god to be able to reach a reasonable conclusion. To just ask the question “does God exist?” is otherwise too ambiguous to deserve a response.

    • John S. Wilkins says:

      I think you should read up a bit more on Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. God is indeed outside of time and space. He also happens to be omnipresent within it. He is also separate from the world, so if you study the world in detail you are still not studying God.

      What is problematic here is the view that a God must entail empirical outcomes. That he has in the past according to the Creed is irrelevant if the empirical data cannot tell us that. God now cannot be studied in a scientific manner, through measurement and replication. Hence the need for revelation. Or so I was taught when I did theology.

      In any case I have often said that there are deities that are sensitive to empirical disconfirmation (Thor as the cause of thunder, for example). Although a Thorologian might be able to make a reinterpretation that prevented the factual falsehoods from arising. So some gods are vulnerable. The thing is that religious traditions change to accommodate new science (yes, they do, folks), so eventually there will be an unfalsified (and possibly an unfalsifiable) interpretation. Hence, some deities are invulnerable to scientific investigation until a Deoscope is invented. Hence, science cannot assert there are no gods, scientifically.

  7. Gary S. Hurd says:

    Are there some unpublished content rules?

  8. Mike Kelly says:

    Do you need to know about philosophers of science to be a good scientist?

    • Thony C. says:

      Basically no but you have to be aware of the metaphysical fundaments of your work to be a good scientist, which requires being an applied philosopher of science!

  9. Helena Constantine says:

    Ruse’s question seems naive, because science does not say ‘God does not exist.’ It says that no evidence of god has been found in the natural world and that god is not needed to explain any part of the operation of the natural world. If the philosopher’s thinking is so muddled that he can’t tell tell the difference between the real position of science and a straw-man usually posited by that part of the religious that consider themselves opponents of science, then indeed, what use is philosophy to science or anything else?

  10. Helena Constantine says:

    By the way, who told you that god exists outside of time and space. According to the Bible god exists in time and space and is constantly intervening in the operation of the universe. Aquinas, as I recall, thought the planets are being pushed about by angels. If any of those religious propositions were true science would discover them, because, until science showed that god does not exist in the physical world, the religious insisted that he did. They so often insist that their truths are eternal, how is is it that they get to stop making claims when they are falsified, without changing the theory that generated them?

  11. Paul King says:

    I would say that Ruse’s question about legality is foolish partly because it ignores the history of litigation on the issue but also because it is “framed” (i.e. spun) in a way that favours the creationist view.

    The teaching of creationism in science classes is rejected because it’s sole purpose is the advancement of religion. The teaching of evolution is accepted despite the fact that it contradicts some views of God because it is accepted that society has a valid secular interest in providing a scientific education and evolution is valid science (and very important in biology). So the direct comparison is misleading, and misleading in a way that ignores a vital distinction in U.S. law. The state IS permitted to take actions that merely happen to hinder religions, rather than directly targetting them – solong as it has a sufficiently strong secular reason for doing so.

    Now I have no doubt that Ruse knows this – he’s had enough involvement in such cases and followed the issues. So why does he phrase the legal question in a misleading way and not give the answer ?

  12. Sam McMurdo says:

    But the philosophy of science is about understanding how science is done when it works.

    If it’s only about philosophers understanding what scientists do, then it’s not prima facie giving anything to the scientists any more than rocks are given anything by geologists. To be useful to scientists, philosophy of science has to actually guide or motivate science in some way. So a philosophy-trained scientist should operate differently from one lacking that training. Does that happen?

    I enjoyed reading high-flown ideas about refutation and paradigms, all good fun, but does philosophy of science engage with pragmatic questions about the importance of positive controls and negative controls in ensuring accurate test results, or about how models can be validated in areas where experimentation is difficult or impossible (climate change, vulcanology, star formation)? Or Bayesian issues? These are where philosophy-style argumentation is needed, not in the clouds of sociological shifts.

    I really don’t know – I have had so little contact with philosophy of science, only with science itself. It’s a genuine question.

    On the god thing: I suspect some scientists are responding in the same atheological way I do which can be briefly and tritely put: there are no gods, fact*, so any argument about gods is pretty stupid and pointless, however many “ifs” are involved. I feel the same way about theological arguments the same way as I would about any debate starting “if the moon were made of green cheese…”, yawn and switch off. Theological arguments about the nature of god are as pointless as homeopaths debating which 30C remedy is most effective.

    * Here’s the non-philosophical rift; it’s a fact to me and many others, just as you pointed out elsewhere that god is not a hypothesis to most believers.

    • Yes, philosophy of science does talk about what you call ‘pragmatic questions’. Here’s a journal issue on Bayesian epistemology.

      There’s also a lot of work on the philosophy of computer simulation. Again, here’s a special issue on that.

      For climate change, Wendy Parker has done some work on that.

      Finally, there’s an entire subfield known as the the philosophy of experiment that talks about how experimental results can be made reliable. This might be a good start.

      • Ted Lawry says:

        I looked at your link for “philosophy” of experimental physics. I would say it is history of experimental physics with the examples chosen to illuminate the different ways theory and experiment interact. I don’t see that knowledge of philosophy brings anything to the discussion other than a rather obvious laundry list of questions about who is real or who came first.

  13. JGB says:

    I had posted at Panda’s my assertion that philosophy (along with more history) of science do in fact make valuable contributions to the training on new generations of scientists. Without those two perspectives conventional textbooks and current literature do a very poor job of giving a young scientist a sense of what constitutes an important scientific problem. What variety of methods can be employed. What really are the big unanswered questions. For younger students whom I now teach many of the issues are just as pertinent to helping them understand just what is this science enterprise. To answer the challenge put forward if eric is reading this, I try to pick my spots and expand certain topics with related readings from various authors. I’ve found a number of Ernst Mayr essays of great value in my biology class. As a biochemist I’d have benefited from some more of those, than yet another class discussing diabetes.

  14. clingon says:

    Science deals with that which can be measured or calculated. This is a small, albeit highly successful and interesting (to me), subset of reality. Newton’s metaphor of pebbles is still valid even though we have many more pebbles to look at than Isaac.

    To claim that science, which has eschewed questions about immeasurable entities like God, is therefore a philosophical fallacy.

    On the other side, why would a person of faith insist on believing in facts which are easily refuted? If you believe the world is flat, well, don’t expect it’ll be taught in school.

    I have occasionally found readings in the philosophy of science useful but I couldn’t spend too much time on this. As a young scientist, I found a book on the foundations of physics (can’t remember the exact title or author, sorry) helpful in validating the apparent circularity of science. F=ma but which is defined first, F or m? Science is slowly built up with consistencies. imo

    I love the statement (as I remember) from Johan Huizanga’s “The Waning of the Middle Ages) regarding Galileo’s (thought?) experiment: “In order to explain this, he was forced to invent a mysterious force of gravity, which he was unable to explain, nor has anyone since.” Still true, in spite of the Babson contest.

    Also Godel’s theorem is a compelling philosophical finding.

    Certain minds drawn to science (not all) focus only on the measurable “true” stuff. Have no use for theory, much less philosophy. See Myers-Brigg personality tests to understand the different types of personalities and minds that are in science. All are valuable and a mix of personalities is most productive. Studying how various minds interact with science is a useful mix of philosophy and psychology.

    In the end philosophy asks: How do I know what I know? How bound am I by my senses, now extended to my sensors? A working scientist can’t spend a lot of time on philosophical questions, but shouldn’t entirely forget them.

  15. clingon says:

    paragraph 2 should read:
    To claim that science, which has eschewed questions about immeasurable entities like God, can deny that God exists is therefore a philosophical fallacy.

    ouch.

  16. The main reason (I would think, at least in my case) that scientists dismiss philosophers as worse than useless is their predilection to generate controversy where none is necessary. Take the quote from M. Ruse [If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? ]. While certain scientists and others may claim that science has something worthwhile to say about the existence of god, they are clearly not “talking science”. Where are the proposed observations or experiments that speak to this topic? I dare say, there are none that actually hold water (or could convince NSF or NIH reviewers to fund them.) Scientific claims about the supernatural are, by their very nature not science, and generally just plain silly (not to mention often arrogant ). Science, by its nature, can only deal with the observable and the reproducible. When we characterize how the levels of particular RNAs in a Xenopus embryo change upon a particular manipulation, we need to convince ourselves that the same manipulation produces a reproducible result, and that is what we report. We may well be wrong, but it is most likely because there is some variable that we have overlooked. We do not claim truth, just skeptical candor (we think we did what we said we thought we did). If philosophical positions could be verified and either accepted and tested further, revised, or rejected, they would be more interesting, but then again, then they would be science.

  17. Achrachno says:

    Some God concepts are so vague that they hardly can be considered concepts. Those’d be really tough to falsify. Does he not specify that he’s (I presume) dealing with one of the common and readily falsifiable concepts? Or, worse, does he attempt to falsify one of the word salad gods?

    All the gods that are defined primarily as “creator of the universe” are pretty much falsified by science, no? That’s why the fundamentalists are so worked up about evolution and the big bang. They see the problems they face pretty clearly.

    • Dan Berger says:

      Well, no. You have not read enough philosophical theology. You might start with Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments based on causality are routinely misinterpreted.

      IIRC (too lazy to look up the citation), Thomas explicitly said that his discussion of causality was perfectly compatible with an eternal universe.

      • Achrachno says:

        >Well, no. You have not read enough philosophical theology. You might start with Thomas Aquinas, whose arguments based on causality are routinely misinterpreted.

        That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement! I suppose it’s too late to teach him to write clearly. :-)

        Since he’s “routinely misinterpreted” in your view, perhaps you should give me the correct interpretation before I start. Otherwise, what are the odds I’ll take the routine course? 90%?

        I read Aquinas long ago, and do have some of his writings around here somewhere. Can’t see that book from where I sit, but will find it later. I assume you’re referencing something in Summa Theologica (or whatever it’s called exactly).

        >Thomas explicitly said that his discussion of causality was perfectly compatible with an eternal universe.

        Steady state? I don’t remember that he talked much about the BB, singularities, many worlds, or anything like that.

      • Dan Berger says:

        No, the misinterpretation is because people think of causal chains as extended in time; that’s what Aristotle and Thomas would call non-essential causes because the things caused subsequently exist independent of their causes, and there is no particular problem with an infinite causal chain.

        The argument from causation has to do with essential (is this the right term?) causes: if a rock is moved by a stick, what moves the stick? If the stick is moved by my hand, what moves my hand? And so forth. Eventually, so the argument goes, there must be an ultimate cause that is not caused itself. “And this we call God.”

      • Dan Berger says:

        I should point out that my summation was just that, and an over-simplification besides. The causal argument as I outlined it rests quite firmly on Aristotelian metaphysics.

        Incidentally, that is all by-the-by; my point was that

        All the gods that are defined primarily as “creator of the universe” are pretty much falsified by science, no? That’s why the fundamentalists are so worked up about evolution and the big bang. They see the problems they face pretty clearly.

        is off-base. Fundamentalists are all worked up about evolution and the big bang because they are committed to a completely literal reading of the entire Bible. Philosophical arguments in support of a creator are not disproved by evolution or the Big Bang, and this has been understood by Christian philosophers since Augustine of Hippo, or before.

        The Big Bang, in particular, is so far from being a disproof of a creator that Fred Hoyle invented the Steady State theory as an alternative to having a beginning to the universe. And because he misunderstood the metaphysics behind the theology of creation, it didn’t matter.

        Again, here’s my total point: The metaphysical arguments for creation don’t depend on a literal reading of Genesis, and are far more sophisticated and ancient than the deistic straw men normally floated by amateurs such as you and I. I’m a philosophical dilettante, as I take you to be. I am not willing to hijack someone else’s blog to stumble through an argument about metaphysics. If you want to argue, the metaphysics, please take it up with a philosopher who is a Thomist.

      • Achrachno says:

        I don’t really want to argue anything, and certainly not metaphysics. I made the point I wanted to make, and I’ll just let it drop as I gather you’d like to do as well. I did find my copy of Aquinas though!

  18. Ted Lawry says:

    Dear Dr Wilkins

    The reason why non-philosophers deride philosophy is they think philosophers have the attitude: “I don’t know anything about your field but I still get to pontificate about it because I am doing ‘philosophy’ ” i.e. that “logical” analysis of a field, using little or nothing more than common knowledge, will actually yield something useful. That approach may have been fine in Plato’s time and may still work when the subject is aesthetics, but fails utterly when the subject is science in the 21st century.

    You say that philosophy should study how science works. That’s a big step up from the Logical Positivists who spilled ink over how the “logic of confirmation” related to statements such as “all ravens are black” and thought they were making contributions to the understanding of science! Philosophers have earned their reputation as do-nothing dilettants. You are right that philosophical issues do exist and are interesting, but that doesn’t mean that philosophers have said anything worthwhile on those questions. I notice that you never addressed the question of whether philosophers are any good, you just said that philosophy is good.

    • Sam McMurdo says:

      Ted Lawry:

      Philosophers have earned their reputation as do-nothing dilettants. You are right that philosophical issues do exist and are interesting, but that doesn’t mean that philosophers have said anything worthwhile on those questions.

      That’s a fair summary of the “what use are philosophers?” tendency, I think.

      An important issue for philosophy to be seen as worthwhile by the philosophoskeptics is that it not only asks questions but provides (some) answers to those questions, and that those answers be useful (or have some other meaningful impact outside philosphy). It’s not good enough for philosophers to say something like “oh yes, I’ve looked at what you do and on the basis of my (mis)understanding I see problems, but I don’t have any positive contribution to make”.

      I recall John Searle about a decade or two ago was involved in a series of television programs (I think, maybe it was some other medium) addressing some difficult questions, and I was impressed that he was making a serious attempt to do “applied philosophy” (rather than onanistic philosophy) and get some answers.

      I think a comparison might also be drawn with pure mathematics. Academic mathematics was becoming rather moribund in the 1960s and was revitalised when Mandelbrot (with fractals), Lorenz (with chaos theory) and Zeeman (with catastrophe theory) starting mucking around with messy maths, often on computers, accepting that progress could be made by simply stepping over the occasional pothole in the theory rather than regarding each as a bottomless and unpassable trough of despond.

    • Jonathan Livengood says:

      Ted,

      I think you have a couple of misapprehensions about philosophy of science and about the history of science and philosophy more generally. The biggest mistake you are making is carving up the space of inquirers in a way that puts together the useless people and labels them “philosophers” while putting together the useful people and labeling them “scientists.” That is, you are basing your categories on usefulness first, so of course, on that calculation no useful philosophers are going to turn up! But doing that totally ignores history. Pascal, Descartes, Hooke, Newton, Leibniz, Boyle, and even thinkers as late as Faraday would have all claimed that they were “philosophers” doing philosophy of one form or another.

      A smaller mistake is your view that ink spilled on the logic of confirmation was so much wasted effort. Work by Carnap, Reichenbach, and others has turned out to be useful (e.g. in machine learning), but even if it hadn’t, work on the logic of confirmation is actually much older than the logical positivists. The history of statistics is littered with philosophers. Even in the 20th century, first-rate statisticians and probabilists, like Bruno de Finetti and I.J. Good, published in philosophy journals and had useful interactions with people who self-identified as philosophers. In other cases, self-described philosophers, like Clark Glymour have published articles in statistics journals and have made (and continue to make) substantive contributions to statistics, computer science (especially machine learning), economics, psychology, genetics, etc. You might say, “Yes, but these people are actually doing math or statistics or science, not philosophy.” But in that case, you have just pre-judged the question and will repackage the facts until they fit your view that philosophers are do-nothing, know-nothing dilettantes.

      I submit that many non-philosophers have such a low opinion of philosophers because (a) they had some bad experience with a kooky philosopher and made a hasty generalization, (b) they know next to nothing about what philosophers actually do, and (c) they have no real knowledge of the history of science or philosophy.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says:

    So is Ruse leading up to some horrible accommodationist error?

    No, he’s just continuing a decades-long series of them.

  20. Karl says:

    OK, science can’t properly say that God exists or doesn’t exist.

    It seems to me science can ask “what are the observable consequences if God does or does not exist?” Creationists assert that God must exist because of observable design in life, the universe, and everything. As science shows that any given element of design can be explained by unguided rules (natural laws), creationists have retreated to asserting their claims in areas where unguided rules have not yet been sufficient explanation. (This is called the “God of the gaps” argument.)

    If this trend continues, we may indeed, as noted above, wind up with a God whose effect on the universe is not subject to falsification in any way. Scientists will still not have proven that God doesn’t exist, merely that he has no effect on anything science knows how to measure or detect.

  21. SAWells says:

    The question “Does God exist?” is scientifically meaningless as “God” is not defined. Specify a god and maybe we can get somewhere? All the ones I know of are fictional characters, so do not exist.

  22. Marion Delgado says:

    It’s soi-disant Bright/New Atheist orthodoxy to attack philosophy (except positivism and academic philosophy sufficiently similar to positivism). That said, over where things are normally more objective, away from the accommodationist / confrontationalist battle over defending evolution, in theoretical physics and the search for a unified theory of quantum mechanics and relativity:

    Philosophy of science (which is usually conflated to a degree with history of science/sociology of science/science studies) is vital to untangling what’s going on right now with string/brane/M Theory. Its lack of progress, and some of the seemingly unsound things extrapolated from it (dependence on an anthropically selected landscape, the gee whiz stuff Michio Kaku et al. promote – legitimately if you accept state-of-the-art mainstream string theory) have led to the conclusion, by a growing body of physicists, that string theory could be or be becoming a “bankrupt research program.”

    That’s a philosophy of science term of art. Some things, like the flat or young Earth, are pretty much disprovable hypotheses. Some entire disciplines, like alchemy, are pseudosciences. Some others simply have never repaid anyone who dabbled in them. Ufology and cryptozoology are two examples, and most scientists would say psychic phenomenon are in the bankrupt research program drawer at best, though more likely pseudoscience.

    Philosophy of science is also invoked by string theorists – basically they’re arguing that if there’s evidence you can’t depend on testability, then so much the worse for testability.

    My take is this is just a rehash of the old attempt in the 1950s or so by positivists to define themselves as the only scientific people. It’s what I thought, for instance, when I read Daniel Dennett’s “The Mind’s I” collection many years ago, and re-reading it, it’s still my take.

    • John S. Wilkins says:

      Interesting. I have read, of course, a number of discussions about whether or not string/brane theory counts as science. Claims to the contrary are usually based upon some falsificationist or confirmationist account of science, and this is of course a core issue in philosophy of science. I hadn’t realised that it worked the other direction.

      The “degenerating research programme” idea is of course Imre Lakatos’, and it relies upon a certain view of science as a temporal process. I do not agree with all of Lakatos (there are no core beliefs immune from revision), but his view of what counts as science played into subsequent methodology wars in systematics, and no doubt into other such wars.

      At heart the scientism I object to is a revivified form of positivism. It’s been around for two centuries or so, and is unlikely to die. But we can weaken that old zombie a bit, and stop it eating our braaiinnnssss…

      • Marion Delgado says:

        No one I know of is (yet) claiming string/M is not science, and everyone is agreeing it IS science. That said, you can follow the scientific method, be consonant with the observed body of scientific knowledge, be mathematically sound and subject to peer review and as much testing as people can muster, and still not produce (in about 30 years of activity with a larger and larger body of scientists) anything that provably advances what you were supposed to advance, the unified field theory, incorporating quantum mechanics and relativity. You can postulate an untestable multiverse which anthropically selected among 10 to the 200 different universes to give our boundary condtions, you can claim that a GUT can only be the outlines of a theory, and you can postulate tachyons/time travel and any number of other things. At that point, people are going to wonder about the worth 0f your project – and that worth is not something that’s part of physics. It’s part of philosophy of science – it’s epistemology, in fact.

    • Achrachno says:

      MD: Some things, like the flat or young Earth, are pretty much disprovable hypotheses. Some entire disciplines, like alchemy, are pseudosciences. Some others simply have never repaid anyone who dabbled in them. Ufology and cryptozoology are two examples, and most scientists would say psychic phenomenon are in the bankrupt research program drawer at best, though more likely pseudoscience.

      MD: Philosophy of science is also invoked by string theorists – basically they’re arguing that if there’s evidence you can’t depend on testability, then so much the worse for testability.

      MD: My take is this is just a rehash of the old attempt in the 1950s or so by positivists to define themselves as the only scientific people. It’s what I thought, for instance, when I read Daniel Dennett’s “The Mind’s I” collection many years ago, and re-reading it, it’s still my take.

      I’m confused by this. The first paragraph, sounds like Popper or the positivists — all about falsifiability, pseudoscience and similar, but you end by attacking that sort of thing. Can you clarify? Have we achieved a demarcation between science and pseudoscience? Should scientists always frame their hypotheses in testable/falsifiable ways, or is there another route? If falsifiable hypotheses are crucial to productive (vs. bankrupt/pseudo) science … how was Popper wrong again?

      I didn’t think the positivists were trying “to define themselves as the only scientific people” — weren’t they trying (unsuccessfully) to distinguish science from non-science and meaningful statements from meaningless ones?
      I thought Ayer made a pretty valiant effort, and I kinda wish he’d succeeded. Sniff.

      But, I’m a scientist not a philosopher and doubtless have missed some crucial point.

      • Marion Delgado says:

        I think the who said what is a little dull, but definitely more of Lakatos, and only a little bit what Popper said, and I really think that scientific research has benefited from their sort of analysis. The question of what to pursue and also criteria for scientific ethics, plagiarism, any number of things, none of those are scientific matters, all are philosophical issues. I learned about Lakatos before reading him first by Feyerabend’s (Against Method) references, and also read people like Henry Bauer. Hank Bauer was good at explaining the value of philosophy of science, but I have to report he became pretty much a science denialist in later life, and specifically adopted the tack he criticized Velikovsky for in his debunking. That said, the Myth of the Scientific Method is food for thought, and that’s what philosophy ought to be, at least.

        As for positivists, depends whom you mean. Ayer, for instance, was the sort of positivist I’d single out as anti-philosophical. Basically anything that wasn’t his logical positivism was a language error. Anything outside his scope was “meaningless.”

        As a counter to that, I think John Searle’s “naive realism” sheds some light on the narrowness a philosophy-free approach to knowledge produces.

  23. Marion Delgado says:

    My sibling and I were raised as 3rd-gen freethinkers. When said sib asked me what I thought about God, I’ve usually said that I know there’s no milk left in my fridge, because I checked. But I don’t know that all possible interpretations of a god or gods don’t exist anywhere in the universe because I don’t have the ability to check, even by an abstract algorithmic process of elimination. Also, not being raised to believe, I don’t care, either.

    The argument to a believer “Tell me why you don’t believe in other people’s gods, and that will tell you why I’m an atheist” doesn’t wash for me – the logical conclusion to that one is “… for your particular god.”

    There are lots of interpretations of a “god” I would have found plausible when I was first studying science compared to what has been found – dark matter and dark energy, for two. And if the string landscape theorists are “right” then our ultimate knowability is far less than I think philosophy-hating scientists would generally claim.

    I dislike them for many reasons, the modern self-appointed skeptic movement of radical atheism. They’re not, taken all in all, all that scientifically competent. Maybe a third of them are AGW deniers, as Penn Jillette is, and James Randi was, for a while. And most of them have ticks like that that fit a market fundamentalist paradigm. Most, Michael Shermer being typical, say opposition to Monsanto’s unethical actions with GMO seed is unscientific because the precautionary principle is “scare-mongering,” ignoring the violation of other farmer’s rights in the process. Some of them, notably Abbie Smith, say it’s unscientific to regard animals as anything more than toilet paper. I would say that’s out of the Old Testament, with its doctrine of filling the Earth, conquering it, and subduing it, not out of science, which shows that the animals are our relatives, some of them quite near.

  24. couchmar says:

    I don’t understand why some scientists think philosophy of science is not important. Here is Einstein’s view.….……

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

    —Letter to Robert A. Thorton, Physics Professor at University of Puerto Rico (7 December 1944) [EA-674, Einstein Archive, Hebrew University, Jerusalem].

    If more information is wanted see the entry on Einstein’s Philosophy of Science at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is silly for scientists to make these negative comments when they are not very well informed.

    Further, note that the point of philosophy of science is not to help scientists do better experiments in the lab or to advance any particular research program in science, any more than philosophers who study literature are primarily concerned to make authors better writers. The philosophy of science is concerned with understanding the scope, limits, and basis of scientific knowledge more generally. We need to understand this so that we can better understand how scientific knowledge fits into our broader understanding of the world and our ability to know it. Those people who think philosophy of science isn’t useful in the lab are right, in a sense; but it is not trying to be so this is not really relevant (any more than the historian of science is trying to help scientists do research). It is a discipline ABOUT science and how to properly understand it, and should be understood as such.

    • Achrachno says:

      Couch: Those people who think philosophy of science isn’t useful in the lab are right, in a sense; but it is not trying to be so this is not really relevant (any more than the historian of science is trying to help scientists do research). It is a discipline ABOUT science and how to properly understand it, and should be understood as such.

      This seems to concede that those scientists who say ph. of science is useless to them in doing science are right. Do philosophers of science even agree on how science should be understood? We seem to be back near Feynman’s statement about ornithology’s utility to birds.

      Personally, I think philosophy is potentially useful to scientists, but only if it helps scientists to think about their problems and how they can be better approached.

  25. couchmar says:

    I don’t know what it means to say “concede” this point. I’m claiming that someone who thinks the aim of philosophy of science is “to be useful to scientists in the lab” are misunderstanding the discipline. So I’m not “conceding” a criticism; I’m trying to explain that the complaint is based on a misunderstanding, and so isn’t really relevant.

    Philosophy of science may sometimes help scientists think about their problems and how they can be better approached. Surely, e.g., Popper’s notion of “falification” has been picked up by scientists and repeated many times, and is sort of useful as a distinction between science and other activities. And, e.g., philosophers have distinguished between causal and interpretive explanations that get wide discussion in the social sciences by researchers. But the *aim* of philosophy of science, as I see it, is not mainly to help scientists in the lab. The aim is about understanding the scope, limits, and basis of scientific knowledge more generally. It tries to contribute towards understanding human knowledge and how science fits into this. Compare what historians of science do: they provide valuable information about the historical development and change of science over time. This helps us better understand what science is, how it works, how it has changed, etc. By studying history of science we learn something important about what science is. But I don’t think historians of science would be bothered by being told, “you know, no practicing physicist in the lab reads history of science to solve his problems. So your discipline is really irrelevant to science.” This last claim is a non sequitur. The claim Feyman makes is similarly wrong, since ornithologists are not trying to help birds fly better (or whatever). So while philosophy of science sometimes may help scientists in their work, the discipline is not strictly aimed at this.

    I want to be careful here since philosophers do contribute to specific points of methodology or address conceptual problems in certain cases. But I think if you ask most philosophers of science, “what specific scientific research program X are you helping to develop?” they would be puzzled. They are not working alongside a research program, but contributing to our knowledge of science more generally.

    No, philosophers of science don’t agree on how science should be understood. But either do scientists. So I don’t see why this is a problem.

  26. Steve says:

    The author answers his own question “why do academics feel the need to denigrate other academic disciplines” when he does just the same thing in denigrating Mary Baker Eddy. Mrs. Eddy was the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, a world-wide religion, a world renowned pulitzer-prize winning newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor and multiple related magazines. I would suggest that anyone interested in the real value of this tremendous woman, her extensive healing work and how this science is practiced today, visit their local Christian Science Reading Room, or visit http://christianscience.com/. I for one would not still be here if it weren’t for this woman’s gift to the world based on the healing it provided to me and my family.

  27. Brian says:

    Seems odd to me to start off a defense by arguing that academics shouldn’t “denigrate other academic disciplines” (ie philosophy of science shouldn’t be criticized) when the entire point of philosophy of science is to tell another discipline what it means.

    Maybe scientists chafe at the idea that another unrelated field’s sole purpose is to tell scientists what they’re actually doing and how they should do it.

  28. John Gualt says:

    I’m a microbiologist. Microbes are the most successful organism on the planet. No philosophy. Insects are a close second. No philosophy. And so up the line to Homo sap. (or down, or sideways depending I suppose on how you’re holding the chart) Homo sap. hasn’t been around long enough, IMO, to make any claims about success as a species. So Philosophy (and sapience for that matter) don’t have any special place as far as I can tell.

    More directly related to your essay: “…One of the most influential philosophers upon science, its practice and debates, was a physicist named Percy Bridgman. Bridgman’s “operationalism” was a philosophical attempt to leave philosophical aspects of science such as truth claims to one side. It affected everything from physics to taxonomy. Einstein was no philosophical slouch either (and he did not feel the need to denigrate philosophy: like many of his contemporaries, he had a good humanist education), nor modern physicists like Max Tegmark…”

    All three of these example were scientists, not philosophers. They may have been using philosophy, but the philosophy was only productive because of their scientific training.

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