Science and philosophy

by Neil Rickert

In a blog post last month, John Wilkins expressed concern about what some scientists say about philosophy:

What gets my gander is that Perakh, or more recently Lawrence Krauss, Hawking and Molodinow, and a steady stream of physicists, seem to think that while their own discipline is noble, authoritative and has extensive conceptual ramifications (that we should really call philosophical), my discipline is just “entertainment value”. In a rejoinder to me and others just posted, Perakh tries hard to back down from this, but it’s pretty clear that he, and his entire field, has a set against philosophy. Why is this?

I suppose that I ought to be able to say something on the topic.  I think like a scientist.  But I have found a need to read a lot of philosophy over the last 20 years.  So this will be the first of several posts that attempt to address the issue.  I won’t be attacking or even criticizing philosophy.  I shall try to maintain the kind of respect that Wilkins mentions in his title.

Along the same line, a recent blog post by Massimo Pigliucci seemed to express annoyance at what scientists say about philosophy, most particulary in the comments to that post:

My respect for Hawking has a philosopher is about the size of my respect for him as a football player. And I’m getting a bit tired of philosophers being accused of mental masturbation. Yes, we do learn things from observation (and experiment), but observations themselves are theory-dependent, not just vice versa, which complicates the picture a bit…

Pigliucci’s post is the first of two on metaphysics.  I am tentatively planning a future post on the two Pigliucci discussions of metaphysics.  However, for the moment, I want to mainly discuss the apparent coolness of relations between philosophy and science.

Pigliucci, in the referenced post, says:

The second argument in favor of anti-realism is the pessimistic meta-induction. This is the idea that all past scientific theories have eventually been discarded as wrong or flawed in some significant way. Applying inductive reasoning to future scientific theories based on such past experience, it seems that there is no basis on which to argue that currently accepted theories have any better chance of being true.

As it happens, Isaac Asimov had discussed that idea of meta-induction.  This was mentioned in a comment

Isaac Asimov had something to say about the pessimistic meta-induction: “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Pigliucci is apparently unimpressed by Asimov’s argument.  Here’s part of his response:

With all due respect to Asimov, I don’t think he was a good philosopher of science.

And that, I think, takes us to the heart of the disagreement.

A lot of Asimov’s writings were philosophical, and many of those philosophical writings were about science.  It seems to me, wearing my scientist’s hat, that “philosophy of science” is a pretty good name for that kind of writing by Asimov.  And I think that many scientists (or at least physical scientists) find more value in Asimov’s writings on science than they do in the writings of academic philosophers who specialize in philosophy of science.  From a physical scientist’s perspective, Asimov was not just a good philosopher of science, he was one of the best.

I guess we could say that Asimov was a scientist’s philosopher of science, but apparently he does not meet the expectations of a philosopher’s philosopher of science.

And there, I suggest, we have identified the problem.  There is a huge Kuhnian paradigm shift that separates how a scientist looks at philosophy from how a philosopher looks at philosophy.  And that is reflected in the huge difference between how a scientist looks at science, and how an academic philosopher of  science looks at science.

To take a specific, let’s look at knowledge.  Many (perhaps most) philosophers say that knowledge is justified true belief, though some admit that Gettier showed a problem with that designation.  As best I can tell, most physical scientists think that is wrong.  When scientists are arguing with creationists, they often try to say that scientific knowledge is very distinct from belief.

When Jean Piaget (a scientist) studied knowledge, he set up a laboratory to test his theories.  When I read the literature of epistimology (mostly the philosopher’s theory of knowledge), Piaget is rarely mentioned and when he is mentioned it is usually as criticism of Piaget’s ideas.  Yet epistemologists from academic philosophy are not doing the same kind of empirical testing that Piaget practiced.

What it comes to, is that philosophers and scientists largely talk past one another.  There is some communication, particularly in specialized areas.  For example, Wilkins does discuss he ideas about biology with biologists.  But there seems to be little discussion at the big picture level.

John Wilkins, in the referenced post, asks:

So why do physicists among all scientists seem to fear philosophy of science so much they must attack it outright and deny it any intellectual standing?

I’m not sure where Wilkins gets the idea that there is fear.  It seems more likely that the physicists are just laughing at what they see as silliness in philosophy.  The physicists might be more outspoken than other physical scientists.  However, the suspicion that a lot of philosophy is pointless and silly is not restricted to physicists.

3 Comments to “Science and philosophy”

  1. I’m not sure where Wilkins gets the idea that there is fear.

    Without taking sides on whether John is right (that would require a lot more reading of the philosophical musings of people like Hawking, Krauss, et al. (and, yes, deciding that philosophy is just “mental masturbation” is, itself, a philosophical exercise) I suspect that John’s impression come from the common human response to ridicule what they fear. It is certainly common in creationism, politics and many other human beliefs and atheists and scientists are hardly immune.

    It seems more likely that the physicists are just laughing at what they see as silliness in philosophy.

    Sure. But the real question is whether the physicists are laughing at silliness or commiting it.


    • But the real question is whether the physicists are laughing at silliness or commiting it.

      There’s some of both, I’m sure.

      Think of a CPA (accountant). He uses mathematics to balance the books of a business. A lot of what we mathematicians do must look like mental masturbation to the CPA. And maybe the CPAs joke about that around coffee, but they don’t go public.

      The physicists do go public. I guess we could say that Massimo went public in saying that Asimov was not a good philosopher of science. But we don’t usually see the philosophers going public with those kinds of comments about scientists. The physicists can more easily get away with this, because they are higher on the academic pecking order. So I guess that’s really a kind of bullying, and I’m pretty sure it was that bullying that mostly bothered John.

      My post was mainly about there being a lot of miscommunication. I didn’t address the bullying aspect.


  2. My post was mainly about there being a lot of miscommunication.

    I knew that and don’t disagree. But the philosopers have no small reason to feel a bit besieged by the practioners of the “hard” sciences of late.

    Then, of course, Thomas Nagel goes and gives them a lot more ammunition …


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