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.


3 Comments to “A scientist’s view of philosophy”

  1. I followed this over from Wilkens website………….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.


    • It’s been a while since I read some of the history of Einstein, but I recall that he received a lot of useful ideas from Ernst Mach.

      I have a lot of respect for John Wilkins, who seems to have a better understanding of biology than most philosophers. And Nancy Cartwright has some good stuff on the philosophy of physics.

      My impression is that those philosophers of science who sit down with actual scientists and specialize in a particular area, as with the ones I mentioned, probably do contribute good ideas. But most scientists don’t run into that kind of philosophy. What they more typically see is philosophy that seems to miss the boat as far as science is concerned.

      My own view of this is colored by my interest in human cognition. And I see cognitive science as dominated more by philosophy than by real science, and often missing the big picture.

      Most philosophers see knowledge as beliefs, and thus they see scientific knowledge as beliefs. They take observation for granted, and see the scientific beliefs as abstract relations between observation, perhaps found by induction. They tend to describe science as pattern discovery (discovering these abstract relations). But, for scientists, the real problem is in how to get observations in the first place. If there happen to be relational patterns, so much the better, but that is not the emphasis. So the scientists are solving a different kind of problem from that which philosophy discusses.


  2. “My impression is that those philosophers of science who sit down with actual scientists and specialize in a particular area, as with the ones I mentioned, probably do contribute good ideas. But most scientists don’t run into that kind of philosophy. What they more typically see is philosophy that seems to miss the boat as far as science is concerned.”

    I understand this, but this is like a philosopher reading the wrong book about biology written by a scientist and claiming that “biology as a discipline really isn’t useful” (there are lots of bad science books too). The solution to the problem is to read the right people, whether in science or philosophy. Here are several works that seem quite well informed to me scientifically.

    1. Philip Kitcher, The Advancement of Science (degree in mathematics and philosophy)
    2. David Albert, Quantum Mechanics and Experience (PhD in theoretical physics; philosophy professor at Columbia Univ.)
    3. Pat Churchland, Neurophilosophy (neuroscience and philosophy UCSD)
    4. James Woodward, Making Things Happen (causation, CalTech university; engages huge scientific literature on causal modelling)
    5. David Buller, Adapting Minds (most thorough evaluation of Evolutionary Psychology in existence)

    I can’t imagine that anybody who read these books would suggest these individuals don’t know much about science, or that philosophers are not making useful contributions.


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