Archive for December 29th, 2010

December 29, 2010

A scientist’s view of philosophy

by Neil Rickert

In a recent blog post, John Wilkins asks why there are “Attacks on philosophy by scientists.”

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.

Well sure.  And scientists philosophize a lot.  But that is mostly not what they are criticizing.  Philosophers pontificate a lot about science.  I’m wondering why it bothers Wilkins so much that scientists return the favor.

Apparently, part of what bothers Wilkins, is the post by Mark Perakh at Panda’s Thumb.  Perakh said, among other things:

Ruse claims to be strongly pro-evolution, as well as a non-believer (see, in particular, the above link). It does not prevent him from constantly rubbing elbows with the most notorious creationists including the “leading lights” of intelligent design pseudo-science. He edits various anthologies together with such figures as Dembski, he rather energetically argues for the alleged rational notions science might borrow from religion, etc. Such activity, to my mind, serves to legitimize pseudo-science and provides a veneer of respect to the absurdities and often dishonest shenanigans of the likes of William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, and their cohorts.

Well, yes, I agree with Wilkins, that Perakh was out of line with that comment.  It is entirely proper that philosophy should be looking a wide range of disciplines, including religion.

Scientists criticize philosophy for reasons other than those used by Perakh.  I indicated that I would give a scientist’s view of philosophy.  So I will give my own view as a scientist and mathematician (really more of a mathematician).  I don’t read minds, so I won’t claim to be speaking for all scientists.

There are two things that trouble me most about philosophy.  They are the way that philosophers use logic, and the way that they do epistemology.

I’ll start with logic.  When reading what philosophers write, I often see what are claimed to be logic arguments.  And what I find troubling, is that it is often obvious that the conclusion is being arrived at in some other way, and then is just written down in a way so as to make it look as if logic were used.  Philosophers don’t all do this.  Some of them actually write clearly without this use of a false logical form.

Epistemology is the harder one to discuss, so I’ll only touch the surface.  Philosophers usually define knowledge as “justified true belief” with an occasional nod to the Gettier problem.  For me, and I suspect for many mathematicians and scientists, nothing is more obvious than that knowledge is not justified true belief.  Scientists prefer to depend on as few beliefs as possible.  They perhaps don’t have a good definition for knowledge, but “justified true belief” just does not fit.

You can easily see a couple of the problems of epistemology.  If it were a good theory of knowledge, it ought to be the basis for our systems of education.  But it isn’t.  As best I can tell, even professors of philosophy don’t apply their epistemology to their own teaching methodology.  And a second problem is that of AI (artificial intelligence).  Much of AI is based on automating epistemology.  So if epistemology were a correct understanding of knowledge, then why don’t we have working autonomous artificially intelligent robots?

Philosophy of science

When philosophers discuss science, they attempt to describe science in terms of their own epistemology.  And, because of the problems with that epistemology, this does not work at all well and tends to present a distorted picture of the science.