Philosophy, my first five years

philosophy_dictionaryby Massimo Pigliucci

By any standards I can think of, I’ve so far had a very lucky academic career. I started as an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville [1], back in 1995, where they treated me very well for nine years, nurturing me through tenure as well as promotions to associate and full professor — the classical (if increasingly less common) academic sequence. Then, in 2004, I was hired by Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology & Evolution [2], one of the most prestigious in the field. I still remember the thrill of my first day there, walking around the 6th floor of the Biology building and passing the offices of a number of people who had written the textbooks on which I had studied when I was younger: Doug Futuyma, James Rohlf, Robert Sokal, George Williams [3,4,5]. And now they were my colleagues!

About that time I hit my mid-life crisis and had to face a choice: buying a Ferrari Testarossa (obviously, red, though the yellow ones are really cool [6]), or follow a youthful passion, go back to graduate school, get a PhD in philosophy, and begin to shift my career to the other side of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” [7]. To my delighted surprise, it worked. First I was able to do my thesis under the guidance of my brilliant friend, Jonathan Kaplan [8]. Then the City University of New York’s Lehman College [9] hired me as a full professor in Philosophy (and a Department Chair to boot!) in 2009. And finally — and this is hot off the presses — another CUNY campus, City College [10], just offered me the K.D. Irani Professorship in Philosophy, a position that I will occupy beginning in the Fall of this year. Wow. That’s (academic) luck, my friends. (And no, I’m not being falsely modest: I know I was qualified for all those positions, but so was a rather large number of other people, believe me.)

Why am I telling you all of this, you may begin to wonder? Because this year marks not only my 50th birthday and the beginning of my fourth (and, if everything goes well, last) academic job. It also marks five years working full time as a philosopher (to be weighed against 26 years as a biologist), and all these numbers have put me into a meditative mood. The rest of this essay is a pause of reflection about what it means to be a philosopher, in both the academy and the wider world — especially when contrasted with being a scientist. Personally, I can’t compare it with anything else, since I’ve never held what my father used to refer to as “a real job.”

The first thing to admit is that, academically, things have been a bit more complicated than I had anticipated. I had (naively, as it turns out) assumed that having more than a quarter century of experience in science, but also having done the hard work of going back to graduate school to build philosophy creds, would mean that as a philosopher of science I would encounter a generally friendly atmosphere: the scientists would be interested in what I had to say as a philosopher, because of my reputation in their own field; and the philosophers would be happy to have a real scientist in their midst who had taken their discipline seriously enough to go back to school for it. Instead, more often than not, I found the opposite to be true: a number of my new colleagues in philosophy think of me as too much of a scientist (I keep asking the perennially annoying question: “but isn’t this a matter of empirical evidence?”), while my old colleagues in the sciences see me as lost (i.e., prematurely retired) to armchair speculation (always asking them: “but isn’t that an epistemological or metaphysical assumptions that you are making?”).

Okay, it isn’t quite as bad as all that. I’ve received plenty of friendly smiles and encouragements on both sides of the divide, which has been immensely gratifying. Still, the cross-divide suspiciousness is always lurking just out of sight — and sometimes it actually hits you directly in the face.

My adventures in sliding back and forth between science and philosophy have taught me a lot about how the academic world works, and of course about just how differently people may think when they are immersed in a disciplinary echo chamber constituted of their close colleagues and graduate students.

Going back to the two parenthetical questions I asked above, many scientists are genuinely puzzled by the idea that some of what they do is based on philosophical assumptions that lie outside of their purview, and about which a number of colleagues in philosophy departments have thought long and hard (and have something interesting to say).

The famous debate between physicist Lawrence Krauss and philosopher (with a background in theoretical physics) David Albert is a perfect example of what I’m talking about [11]. Krauss, a brilliant cosmologist, had written a popular book entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.” Albert, a brilliant philosopher of physics, had pointed out in The New York Times that Krauss had simply redefined “nothing” and gingerly proceeded to write a book that, as fascinating as it was, managed entirely to miss the point of that perennial question.

From where I sit, they are both correct, with one crucial difference, one of attitude: Albert has done the homework to understand the physics, while Krauss is downright contemptuous of any suggestion that philosophy should be engaged in its own right.

Lest I be accused of “defending the turf” (which one, since I’m both a scientist and a philosopher?), let me add that often enough the table has been turned. For instance, I was among several scientists (and philosophers) to severely criticize eminent philosopher of mind Jerry Fodor when he co-wrote a book on “What Darwin Got Wrong” which clearly and patently misunderstood modern evolutionary theory [12]. And the number of examples could be multiplied on both sides of the unfortunate divide [13].

The mirror to scientists’ puzzlement at the claim that philosophical assumptions are fundamental to what they do is some philosophers’ bewilderment at the idea that their analysis ought to be informed by the best available empirical data. I’m not talking about the (correct) rejection of Sam Harris’ naive contention that science can determine moral values [14], but rather the general mistrust that so many of my colleagues (especially those in the so-called “analytical” tradition within the field) seem to have in regard to anything that smells too sciency.

For instance, there is a debate currently going on within metaphysics — one of the classical core disciplines within philosophy — about the extent to which science, and particularly fundamental physics, should be taken onboard while doing metaphysics. On the one hand we have the contributors to a recent collection entitled Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology [15], who argue for a metaphysics essentially independent from science, as if it were still tenable to think that we can somehow gain a priori knowledge about the world by just thinking about it (has nobody read Kant, of late?). On the other hand there are the contributors to an alternative collection, tellingly entitled Scientific Metaphysics [16] who refer to the other group (scornfully) as “neo-scholastics,” and who maintain that the project of metaphysics is to make sense of the picture of the world emerging from the individual sciences, not to proceed without science. I think the second group wins hands down, while the first one is fighting a loosing battle that only contributes to the further isolation of philosophy from the rest of the intellectual world.

This rejection of empiricism in philosophy is strange, since prominent philosophers at least since David Hume have pushed for precisely the sort of attitude toward the natural sciences that I am sympathetic to, an attitude that has been further elaborated upon by one of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, W.V.O. Quine [17].

This is, of course, a debate very much alive within the philosophical community, as shown not only by the above mentioned discussions on the nature of metaphysics, but also by the rise of so-called experimental philosophy, or XPhi. This however, and with all due respect to my bright colleague and all around nice guy Joshua Knobe — a major mover and shaker in that field — I think was a misstep. For reasons I have elaborated on elsewhere [18], XPhi is (sometimes not really well done) social science about how people (often not professional philosophers) think about philosophical questions. I don’t see why much of its output should be of concern to professional philosophers, no more than, say, social science about folk concepts of physics or biology should keep physicists or biologists up at night.

And speaking of “the folks,” a significant part of my efforts in both science and philosophy over the years has had to do with public outreach, from one of the early editions of Darwin Day I organized at the University of Tennessee to, for instance, the very existence of Scientia Salon itself.

Here too, there have been interesting lessons to be learned by comparing attitudes and approaches across the two cultures. It wasn’t long ago that scientists were dismissive of colleagues who engaged in efforts to communicate with the general public — witness the famous issue of Carl Sagan not being admitted into the National Academy of Sciences despite the fact that his record of technical publications was as good as (if not better than) those of most of its members.

But things have changed dramatically beginning with the ‘90s (could it be that the Republican assault on science and science funding had something to do with it? Inquiring minds want to know). It is now customary for professional scientific societies to conduct outreach efforts, and a number of professional scientists have gotten into writing books for the public, several of which have become bestsellers, especially in physics, but also in biology, and even the social sciences.

Philosophy, in this respect, is about a decade or two behind the curve. The prevailing attitude among many of my colleagues is still of a stiff rejection of anything that is not arcane, buried in the proper amount of impenetrable jargon, and ideally of interest to as few people as possible. Moreover, it seems to me that it is a professional hazard for philosophers to be so self-reflective and hyper-critical that when they do engage in public discourse about their discipline they do it in a auto-destructive fashion [19].

There too, however, things are changing for the better. A new generation of graduate students and young colleagues comes into the profession with a built in familiarity with the internet, social networks and especially blogs, and they are not shy in using them. Moreover, various publishing houses for years now have moved beyond putting out yet another “History of Western Philosophy” as their chief meager attempt at bringing philosophy to the public, and have produced astoundingly successful series of books that use various vehicles from popular culture to engage a public that is obviously hungry for philosophical discourse [20]. And of course there has been a proliferation of philosophy cafes, Socratics clubs, and the like. Indeed, I have been running one in New York [21] for more than seven years, and its more than 1,500 members are my favorite statistics to throw back to colleagues (and administrators) who maintain that nobody cares about philosophy.

So this, more or less, is what I’ve learned about philosophy during my first five years as a full time practitioner in the field. It is a fascinating exercise in reflective and critical thinking, with a tradition literally stretching back millennia. But it is also an area of inquiry that needs to be defended against attacks from both within and without, and which constantly needs to be explained to the broader public. It is also, in my mind, at least as vital to our university (and, really, pre-college) curricula and to the very vibrancy of our democracy than scientific literacy is. You can certainly get by in life with little understanding of theoretical physics or evolutionary biology (though you probably shouldn’t), but you simply cannot afford not to know the rudiments of logic or ethics. Sure, philosophers make mistakes and sometimes say really silly things. But as David Hume famously put it in his Treatise of Human Nature: “Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” Add politics and science to religion, and you’ve got a pretty full picture of modern perils.

_____

Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] This was my Department at UTK.

[2] And this is the one I served in at Stony Brook.

[3] D. Futuyma’s Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer.

[4] R. Sokal and J. Rohlf’s Biometry, Freeman.

[5] George Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection, Princeton.

[6] Here is what a yellow Testarossa (a bit of an oxymoron, since “testarossa” means red head…) looks like.

[7] C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press.

[8] Published with Jonathan as Making Sense of Evolution: The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology, University of Chicago Press.

[9] My Department at Lehman College.

[10] My new Department at City College.

[11] My full analysis of the Krauss-Albert debate and surrounding issues is here and here.

[12] M. Pigliucci, “A misguided attack on evolution,” Nature, 18 March 2010, pp. 353-354.

[13] For instance, consider Stephen Hawking’s inane declaration that philosophy is dead because it hasn’t contributed to theoretical physics (in The Grand Design, Bantam), or Thomas Nagel’s equally misguided attack on modern science in his Mind and Cosmos, Oxford Press).

[14] Upon which I have written extensively.

[15] Edited by David Chalmers, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. Oxford University Press.

[16] Edited by Don Ross, James Ladyman and Harold Kincaid. Also published by Oxford University Press.

[17] This, of course, should not be taken as an indication that I’m on board with everything that Hume and Quine have written, only that I share their general outlook about what philosophy is and how it should relate to science. For instance, contra Quine, I do not think that epistemology is reducible to psychology.

[18] See: M. Pigliucci, Experimental philosophy is not an elephant, Rationally Speaking, 15 March 2013.

[19] Witness, for instance, the recent very public discussions about misogyny in philosophy as a profession. There is, indeed, a problem there, make no mistake about it. But a) philosophy is certainly neither the only field within the academy (think of math, physics, chemistry, engineering, just to mention a few) nor in society at large (Wall Street, the US Military?) with such problem; and b) philosophers should at the least give themselves some credit for discussing it openly and for having their major professional society, the American Philosophical Association, taking direct steps to address it. Instead, we are scaring the shit out of young women who may be considering becoming philosophers by telling them that it would be an awful choice and that they are better off somewhere else, thank you very much. (I fully expect to be skewered for this footnote, by the way.)

[20] You will find some of my own entries in this genre within the following volumes: The Ultimate Daily Show and Philosophy: More Moments of Zen, More Indecision Theory; The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes; The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Aristotle, Locke; Planet of the Apes and Philosophy: Great Apes Think Alike.

[21] Dinner & Philosophy meetup.



Categories: Philosophy

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56 replies

  1. Well, again it seems a rhetorical and journalistic tactic only to claim there is any consistent and universal pattern of behaviors that could be called “science.” In fact, there are only specific studies with specific results. But popular usage, not professional, always wins.

    “XPhi is (sometimes not really well done) social science about how people (often not professional philosophers) think about philosophical questions” It seems just another theology and form of magical belief to for philo to presume what it needs to prove – that “thinking” exists at all. Cognitive neuroscience,psychology, the social sciences and econ do the same, BTW

    #1 – All we really have is verbal behavior. Why presume and not try to prove something inside the brain is happening that must be apparently, a exact analog to the verbal behavior? It is an interesting construct to believe that external behavior somehow perfectly translates an internal body organ state and accurately describes it! For all the deep talking-tinking among pro philosophy surprising how biology, anatomy and medical facts and implicit medical hypotheses, are always ignored.

    # 2 – If this thinking-verbal behavior were meaningful and useful biologically or in living – other animals who exhibit it.

    Finally, as a professional communicator of technical professional topics, my experience is that “popular science” is an oxymoron the same as popular air piloting, computer engineering, surgery and all other highly technical areas of knowledge. The notion that a general public would ever want to engage with, our take the time to comprehend, highly technical and complex professional knowledge seems an artifact of the space race age and the “popular mechanics” belief system from the 50’s.

    Experimental and evidence-based knowledge is getting infinitely more complex at an accelerating rate. Even professionals within the same field cannot understand what peers in other ares and using other models are doing.

    • I’ve had similar sentiments towards philosophy- as much as I still find it irresistible. Nothing but a bunch of feeble language routines that have no bearing on one’s greater agency in the world? Decoupled cognition par excellence? Only useful to those who can turn a penny from ‘doing’ it? I’m seeing it more in light of social coordination theories of language; namely it consists basically in a pretense or assumption of ‘reality tracking’ when all that’s really going on is social coordination.

  2. Congratulations, Massimo. I look forward to many more enjoyable and stimulating postings. One reason that I will, is that you continue to challenge my thinking by disagreeing with many that I agree with. As a Civil Engineer with an amateur interest in philosophy my leanings tend to be towards the science side of the science/philosophy debate. I tend to have a utilitarian view (is an idea true or even useful) and see it as a tool for maximising happiness (well being if you prefer) in society. In this regard, I have found that my reading in physics, biology and psychology (particularly evolutionary psychology) have contributed more to my understanding of the human condition and the choosing of happiness maximisation strategies than my reading of literature and philosophy (which I still enjoy nonetheless). Am I missing something here? Is this a communication problem? (I find popular scientific writing much clearer than philosophy). Has the general perception of philosophy been damaged by the ridiculous claims of the post-modernists who may have had a greater impact than their numbers might justify.

    Keep up the good work!

    • “Post-modernism” died quite a few years ago. Don’t worry about it.

      Philosophy (the technical kind) is difficult to read, for sure. Readers have to know what the subject is actually about and how it actually works before they can understand writings in the field, same as for science and any other field. But even though many people have a great interest in understanding the human condition, etc., they have never received a proper education in what philosophers actually do, or they didn’t understand anything in the courses in philosophy they sat through in their formal education (or the courses were taught by bad teachers). Communicating real philosophy to the public is a real headache. At least we have people like Prof. Pigliucci fighting the good fight.

  3. Massimo, thank you for your short biography. I might add that you could also make it as a writer (with minor editing) if you ever get tired of science and philosophy. I too was interested in science and later philosophy, but I gave up science as an undergraduate and philosophy as a graduate student and then became a printer instead. Now that I’m retired I’m an amateur astronomer.

    From my point of view as someone who is out of the loop, most of the big questions in science and philosophy aren’t important on the individual level as long as one has good working hypotheses that aren’t contradicted by facts. The academic tendency to seek ultimate truths may result in a better understanding of the world, but it has limitations. For example, we may never fully understand the universe, and if we don’t, so what? We have to get on with our lives.

    The only point on which I disagree with you is science’s relation to morality. I haven’t read Sam Harris, but I am in the E.O. Wilson camp and think morality is a product of our eusocial nature. I have always found philosophical and theological writing about ethics and morality to be a complete waste of time. These would not even be concepts that we could understand if we were no eusocial to begin with. Thus, rather than attempting to extract morality from a priori concepts, I think there is more to be gained by synthetically deriving moral concepts through the study of Homo sapiens in an evolutionary context. Such a process would not provide a complete picture of morality, but I think you have to start there to get the basics.

    • Paul wrote: ”These would not even be concepts that we could understand if we were no eusocial to begin with. Thus, rather than attempting to extract morality from a priori concepts, I think there is more to be gained by synthetically deriving moral concepts through the study of Homo sapiens in an evolutionary context. Such a process would not provide a complete picture of morality, but I think you have to start there to get the basics.”

      That is, in itself, a philosophical claim rather than a scientific one.

      But such a study could tell us little, if anything, about how we should behave now or in the future and that is really what is meant by morality and ethics.

      Such studies would reveal that this or that moral intuition or behaviour helped to improve the chances that some distant ancestor would survive just long enough to reproduce in some ancient landscape.

      We have no explicit desire to see certain configurations of long chain molecule propogated over others, so such information can offer no insight on what we should do now.

      If there is any fact of the matter of what we should do now and in the future then it will be the subject matter of philosophy, albeit in the context of the best available scientific knowledge.

    • Robin, I guess I have to say that morality and ethics have no intrinsic meaning. They are terms that we have invented to discuss how to think about human actions in a social context. My point is that there is a genetic/cultural basis for our thinking morally, though the content of those thoughts varies across time and cultures. In my program, we would study human behavior in the same way that we study the behavior of social insects. In the case of social insects, it is clear how the behavior of each individual is constricted in order to benefit the colony. In the case of humans it isn’t as clear, but there are probably universals, such as the golden rule, which can be found across cultures. The case is complicated for humans because of our perception of free will. We create artificial, formal rules of behavior and impose them on ourselves externally as laws. As an example of our thinking this way, consider how business is conducted these days. Businesses do not fret over whether or not a proposed action is moral; rather, they check its legality and stop there. Laws ought to reflect the most basic rules that people should follow, and although we are accustomed to arriving at them through a democratic process, I think a full set of laws suitable for humans could be created by means of a scientific process. The advantage of such a set of laws is that it might eliminate the distortions that have occurred in historical governmental systems, from monarchies to republics to communist states. So I’m only talking about morality in a rough-grained sense, and leaving open how an individual might choose to think about small-scale moral decisions, such as whether or not they should send a thank you note to Aunt Susan for their birthday present.

      Philosophically, I am operating on the assumption that, because our instincts are often concealed or suppressed by perceived consciousness, we cannot inherently know the difference between right and wrong and must be taught it. My proposal is that it be taught by scientists rather than monarchs, dictators, congresses, popes or ayatollahs.

    • Hi Paul,

      My point is that, although you have come to that conclusion by yourself, you have not done it alone. You have done it in the context of being informed of the issues.

      If so then your readings in the philosophy of morality cannot have been a complete waste of time.

    • Hi Paul,

      I am somewhat puzzled, however, as to how scientists could determine the difference between right and wrong any better than I could, even in a rough grained sense.

      And I am puzzled as to why I should feel any obligation to follow whatever set of behaviours they prescribe, especially if they are going to glean this information from evolutionary history.

      Add to that the fact that a scientist is as corruptible as a politician and as fallible and biased as the rest of us, I have no great hopes that this would ever come to anything.

      As with anything I am prepared to be proved wrong and would be interested if someone would put this theory into practice and show us how science can do morality.

    • Robin, my advocacy of the scientific study of morality is based on the idea that there is a eusocial basis in human nature that can be delineated by methods other than personal introspection or cultural trends. I can’t say that I’ve read up on the subject, but I suspect that the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, neurology and zoology may already have found important pieces of the puzzle. The reason why I think this should be done is that it might disprove extant theories of morality. Although it may never be possibly to use science to resolve small-scale moral problems, I think it could in principle resolve large-scale moral problems such as how society ought to be organized and which government laws and policies ought to be enacted.

      As mentioned in an earlier post, most of the West, the U.S. in particular, has struck on a formula which may actually be wrong for humans. There is growing evidence that democracy plus laissez-faire capitalism plus a weak central government results in a short-term jump in the apparent standard of living, followed by increased inequality and social unrest, not to mention pollution, mass extinctions, overpopulation, etc. If you analyze government as a guiding moral agent, it’s pretty clear that the thinkers behind modern democracies were engaging in wild speculation rather than science. I see no reason why contemporary Darwinism can’t inform some of this thinking.

  4. Well put in general, especially about the need for more critical thinking and how to do it. Note to Paul: Per Hume and the is/ought issue, eusociality or anything similar is not logically sufficient for a theory of ethics, for sure. That’s not to mention that Wilson, although less blatantly than a full-blown Pop Evolutionary Psychology, overstates what we can learn from human evolution of small tribal bands of scavenger (sic, not “hunter”) gatherers to apply to ethics of today.

    • metroplexsouthsider, I haven’t read Hume lately, but if I were you I wouldn’t assume that he would deny eusociality if he were alive today. He died more than 80 years before “The Origin of Species” was published, and I would not presume to think that he would have ignored it. E.O. Wilson may seem like little more than a grandstanding politically incorrect academic octogenarian to many, but I happen to think he is correct on group selection (making Dawkins incorrect). I can see why no one wants to admit that we’re like ants, but actually we are. The details are far more complex in humans, but I feel confident that Wilson’s view will prevail. If we had remained reptilian, Homo sapiens would never come into existence.

    • It’s me, having changed my WordPress name to match my Blogger one, still. I didn’t say that Hume would ignore “Origin of Species,” first. I just indicated that he wouldn’t let evolutionary psychology (which, even in its non-pop forms, is on shakier ground than the neo-Darwinian synthesis) “drive” discussion of ethics without noting, still, the “is/ought” distinction.
      Group selection, and its validity or not, has nothing to do with ev psych. Group selection as an evolutionary mechanism, along with individual selection and sexual selection, was postulated back in the 19th century. That said, I am open to claims of group selection. That said, E.O. Wilson is not necessarily, ev psych aside, the best proponent of them today. D.S. Wilson, among others, while overlapping somewhat with E.O. Wilson, has different lines of thought, too.

    • SocraticGadfly, I don’t think we necessarily are at odds. As for E.O. Wilson, I cite him in particular because I’ve read several of his books and usually agree with him, though I think he was a little over the top in “Consilience.” I only get evolutionary psychology through the media and agree there too that it is heavy on the “pop” side; I think it will be hard to convincingly prove much in this field without creating genetically accurate living replicas of our ancestors and observing them in simulated habitats (not gonna happen). However, I think a lot could be still learned about morality through cross-cultural studies of contemporary humans (without calling it evolutionary psychology). Also, we may get more clues about our evolutionary past as the field of genetics continues to advance.

      In my long-ago philosophical reading experience, philosophers in general did not had much of value to say on morality, because they spun theories that were not falsifiable. Locke, who is thought to have been a significant influence on Thomas Jefferson, did not leave behind a coherent moral theory. Kant created the Categorical Imperative, which looks to me like little more than a cleaned up Golden Rule and must have been stolen from the Bible. And Mill ignored Darwin entirely, which I think was a big mistake.

    • You might consider looking at a few philosophers more recent than Locke, Kant, and Mill. Try looking up “ethics” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (www.iep.utm.edu/ethics) or the many articles on ethics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (plato.stanford.edu).

    • zenner41, thanks, I’ll take a look. I’m almost 40 years out of date on philosophy.

    • Gotcha, Paul. I’d suggest D.S. Wilson and/or Eliot Sobor, among others. Certainly, I agree on cross-cultural human studies; I’d say that falls under cultural anthropology studies. That said, cultural anthropology supports Hume’s is/not ought, if anything. Human culture and cultural evolution is as much about transcending our genes as much as anything. Dietary laws or lack thereof within religions would be one example. State-required monogamy would be another. I think group selection is interesting, but, while not totally dismissing it, we still have some ways to go.
      Also, as the field of epigenetics is showing more and more, heredity is in more than just our genes. And, at least in the “pop” strain, I’ve yet to see an ev psycher deal honestly with it. Maybe we’ll have something in about 50 years.

  5. “Still, the cross-divide suspiciousness is always lurking just out of sight — and sometimes it actually hits you directly in the face. …
    You can certainly get by in life with little understanding of theoretical physics or evolutionary biology (though you probably shouldn’t), but you simply cannot afford not to know the rudiments of logic or ethics. …
    Add politics and science to religion, and you’ve got a pretty full picture of modern perils.”

    Excellent points.
    Yet, all the above could be unified with the “Large Complex System Principle” (LCSP) — there is a set principles which govern all large complex systems regardless of whatever those systems are, a number set, a physics set, a life set or a vocabulary set.

    Corollary of LCSP (CLCSP) — the laws or principles of a “large complex system x” will have their correspondent laws and principles in a “large complex system y.”

    The most complicated complex system is ‘linguistics’. Thus, I would like to suggest adding ‘linguistics’ into your two part system (science + philosophy).

  6. Massimo, Happy Easter and congratulations on being offered the K.D. Irani Professorship in Philosophy. I’m confident that most of your followers hope that your new position continues to be a source of gratification to you.

    You’ve been upfront, both in your posts on Rationally Speaking and here, of your leanings–heavily empirical, analytic, and naturalistic. But in this regard, your depiction of your quandary regarding attitudinal positions between the scientific and philosophic communities is both revealing and, to some extent, hollow. The blogosphere, and, for that matter, much social and “news” media reflects rigid orientation or, worse, subtle bias in opposition to blunt bias. In fact, it often sounds more like an ideological, as opposed to disciplinary, “echo chamber.” And there is little definitive evidence to think that within industrialized nations much of this exchange is more than self-serving or group posturing awaiting a critical mass to be reached, upon which science is turned to to provide ameliorative courses of action as opposed to normative.

    As a scientist and philosopher, it should not be surprising that your focus is largely on the conflict between these two disciplines. But to varying extents, it is hardly confined to these. I think your intent to provide a dialectical space for the public intellectual is laudable, except it is no longer clear to me what “public,” as opposed to “militant” or “paramilitant” intellectual, is anymore. Is it really a secret that many so-called intellectuals treat the free exchange of ideas as a kind of infection to be isolated, or at worse ridiculed or suppressed, if it does not conform to currently accepted popularizations or predilections?

    Well, I’m becoming incoherent, I see. So best to end. Let me summarize by suggesting that much of what you describe as the gap between scientific and philosophic roles was presaged by Jean-François Lyotard in “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” I realize that you along with most readers here have a low opinion of continental philosophers, and I happen to agree with Habermas’s critique of much that followed. Still, there are times when I want to read something in a blog that is totally out of character, that goes against the grain. My hope is that you push the envelope. I think you will. At least I have no reason to doubt your intentions. Give us more of what we disagree on, and let us run loose, provided we keep in mind the poster’s argument. I would love to read a post by Ken Ham, for example, but doubt whether he can be persuaded to engage.

    Once again, congratulations. Thank you for engaging me in my retirement!

  7. Congratulations on the new position at City College!

    One thing that seems to distinguish science and philosophy in terms of marketing is that there is an adventurism in science (and also in technology): There is the prospect of exciting adventures in discovering and making new things, from finding data supporting a theory of cosmic inflation to 3D-printing of body parts.

    What could be said about the exciting adventures in philosophy that lie in the future?

  8. BMM,

    “Well, again it seems a rhetorical and journalistic tactic only to claim there is any consistent and universal pattern of behaviors that could be called ‘science.’”

    As it is often the case, I find your remarks puzzling, a bit mono-thematic, and off topic. But I’ll do my best to address some of them anyway. Science is a (somewhat) distinctive type of human activity (yes, a “behavior,” as you put it), and so there is interest in studying it on its own right, just like we study art, economics, or whatever. I’m not using the term “science” in the sense of “popular usage, not professional” but quite the contrary, from the professional perspective of a scientist and philosopher of science.

    “ It seems just another theology and form of magical belief to for philo to presume what it needs to prove – that “thinking’ exists at all.”

    I have no idea how this relates to my comments concerning experimental philosophy nor, really, what could you possibly mean.

    “If this thinking-verbal behavior were meaningful and useful biologically or in living – other animals who exhibit it.”

    I’m sorry, but photosynthesis is clearly useful — to plants and cyanobacteria. That doesn’t mean all living forms need to evolve photosynthesis. It is an evolutionary non sequitur.

    “my experience is that ‘popular science’ is an oxymoron the same as popular air piloting, computer engineering, surgery”

    You are profoundly mistaken on this. Of course the general public has an interest in science, and of course that doesn’t mean they want to know highly technical details, they are looking for the big picture, and it is our duty as professionals to provide it.

    Brian,

    “I tend to have a utilitarian view (is an idea true or even useful) and see it as a tool for maximising happiness (well being if you prefer) in society.”

    Well, I’d like to point out that utilitarianism in ethics is a particular philosophical framework that one needs to (philosophically) argue for, and cannot take for granted. As for “true or useful,” those are very different criteria, and the adoption of one or the other is also a philosophical choice that needs to be defended…

    “Am I missing something here? Is this a communication problem? (I find popular scientific writing much clearer than philosophy)”

    I don’t know that you are missing something, except perhaps the fact that you are reading science while already adopting one or another philosophical framework, which you have elected not to analyze. Which is fine, pragmatically, but it only means that you are taking on board certain philosophical baggage, not that you are thinking without it.

    “Has the general perception of philosophy been damaged by the ridiculous claims of the post-modernists who may have had a greater impact than their numbers might justify.”

    To an extent, yes. But that damage has been blown way out of proportion, especially by a number of philosophically ignorant scientists who have began to equate philosophy with postmodernism. Imagine if I were to equate all biology with eugenics, or all physics with the concept of phlogiston.

    Paul,

    “The academic tendency to seek ultimate truths may result in a better understanding of the world, but it has limitations. For example, we may never fully understand the universe, and if we don’t, so what? We have to get on with our lives.”

    Well, philosophers of science have long since abandoned the idea of “ultimate truths.” As for getting on with our lives, sure, but I think there is something missing if a human being is not curious about the big questions. And I think most of us are, except that a great number looks in the wrong place (religion) for answers.

    “I haven’t read Sam Harris, but I am in the E.O. Wilson camp and think morality is a product of our eusocial nature.”

    So do I, but that confuses the origin of X with our best understanding and practice of X. Take mathematics, for instance: very likely our ability to think about simple abstract mathematical objects (numbers, geometrical figures) evolved by natural selection because it was useful to our survival. But that tells you nothing at all about how to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    “I have always found philosophical and theological writing about ethics and morality to be a complete waste of time.”

    I agree with the theological ones, but it looks like you’ve never read Aristotle or Mill. I found them extremely illuminating and thought provoking.

    “there is more to be gained by synthetically deriving moral concepts through the study of Homo sapiens in an evolutionary context.”

    Would you say the same for mathematics?

    Thomas,

    “there is little definitive evidence to think that within industrialized nations much of this exchange is more than self-serving or group posturing awaiting a critical mass to be reached”

    I think that’s a bit too pessimistic. But that’s certainly not — I hope — how Scientia Salon should be characterized.

    “except it is no longer clear to me what ‘public,’ as opposed to ‘militant’ or ‘paramilitant’ intellectual, is anymore.”

    I don’t think public intellectuals have ever been neutral with respect to politics or ideologies, nor do I think that would be desirable, let alone possible. I see public intellectualism as part of a broader exchange of ideas, ideas that can be articulated in the open and the dissected, modified or rejected accordingly.

    Philip,

    “One thing that seems to distinguish science and philosophy in terms of marketing is that there is an adventurism in science … What could be said about the exciting adventures in philosophy that lie in the future?”

    Adventures of the mind. Just like the arts allow adventures of the spirit (and, of course, I am using the term in an entirely secular sense). Again, I think it is a fundamental mistake to hold science as the paragon of how everything else should be and then blame everything else for not matching that arbitrary standard.

    • “I haven’t read Sam Harris, but I am in the E.O. Wilson camp and think morality is a product of our eusocial nature.”

      “So do I, but that confuses the origin of X with our best understanding and practice of X. Take mathematics, for instance: very likely our ability to think about simple abstract mathematical objects (numbers, geometrical figures) evolved by natural selection because it was useful to our survival. But that tells you nothing at all about how to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.”

      Massimo, I suspect you may be engaging in a category mistake here. Morality and mathematics are different, though they both probably have origins in human evolution. I think morality is broadly a predisposition or a general set of guidelines on how to behave with respect to other people, and it does not have the same kind of utility as mathematics. Mathematics, as I understand it, is logically consistent throughout its branches, all the way to Fermat’s Last Theorem. The same cannot be said of morality, which varies somewhat from culture to culture and individual to individual. No one has written a treatise on morality that everyone agrees on; it is not a subject with multiple branches that sprang from new discoveries and techniques.

    • Paul,
      Isn’t this assuming morality relativity without defending that thesis? If morality is defined as applied rationality towards social problems, than it’s not a matter of agreement by people but rather on the logic of those rational claims of morality. This is similar (not identical) to math or science, people may disagree with a mathematical theorem or a scientific conclusion but actual consensus of people is not the criteria that math or science follow. Creationists deny evolution but that doesn’t at all speak to the truth of evolution.

      Similarly, people may disagree with moral principles but simple disagreement does not mean morality is relative. In other words,unless your assuming a priori that morality is based on consensus rather than rational, logical arguments, there is no reason to take the fact that not all people agree on morality is a credible argument against morality.

    • Hi Paul,

      I don’t think mathematics has it’s origins in human evolution. If SETI received signals that were a binary encoding of sequences of prime numbers we would not conclude that humans had somehow made their way into space, but that intelligent life had evolved independently.

      And as we can see these mathematical patterns inherent in the events close to the Big Bang we cannot conclude that they are an artifact of intelligence. We cannot even conclude that they are a feature of physical reality since there could be no possible reality in which a theorem, proven in our physical reality, was false.

      Nevertheless I agree with you that the analogy between mathematics and morality does not work here. I think that knowing something about the origin of morality can tell us something about the practice of morality – perhaps it can even tell us that there is really no such thing.

    • Robin, here I tend to agree with Massimo that our propensity to do mathematics does have some evolutionary significance: our analytic abilities allowed us to avoid extinction. As for extraterrestrials, you are probably correct that their mathematics and laws of physics are compatible with ours. We cannot know for certain until we come into contact with them, if we ever do. It is possible that, to a civilization that is a million years old, our highest mathematics would look like basic arithmetic. We seem to agree on morality.

    • imzasirf, I don’t think that morality is completely relative. Rather, I think there may be a basic morality that is often subverted by local culture. Thus, for one group, headhunting may be morally neutral, while another group may find it morally abhorrent. What I’m getting at is the possibility of studying Homo sapiens as a species in order to come up with rules such as “Killing people who are not a threat to your group is morally wrong.” I think that some elements of game theory are relevant to moral reasoning, but that the rational part of morality is secondary to the instinctive part that we carry around genetically. The former would not be of interest to us without the latter. Thus, I consider moral principles that are derived from pure thought to be mostly untenable.

    • Accepted or advocated moral principles (generalized moral judgments) do indeed vary among societies, and among individuals or small groups within a single society; mathematical ones don’t. But that’s because they have very different functions. Moral judgments are decisions by individuals or groups of individuals about how they want people around them to behave. Most people in most societies don’t want a society in which people go around killing each other willy-nilly, but most societies have pretty well specified rules about when killing is OK: war, capital punishment, duels, self-defense, etc. Humans simply expect each other to behave in regulated ways, although there is no species-wide agreement about what those regulations should be.

      The basic reason for the universality of mathematics is still unknown (a philosophical issue not yet settled), but there is some reason why 2+3=5 for everyone (including, probably, intelligent beings throughout the universe, if there are any others). Both moral judgment and mathematics have utilities of different kinds; I don’t see why moral judgments are not useful, even if they are not universally accepted. Human life would be very adversely affected, it seems to me, and perhaps impossible if people simply stopped making them, so they are quite useful.

    • I agree that moral judgments are useful. My hope is that science might study them and help establish a set of rules that are compatible with our biological predispositions. I am dubious that this can be done purely by conceptual analysis. For example, Western thought often promotes individual freedoms and democracy, whereas Eastern thought often minimizes the importance of individual freedoms and emphasizes cooperation, duty and respect for authority. To the extent that this is true, I think the Eastern view demonstrates a somewhat better understanding of humans as eusocial creatures.

      As for the universality of mathematics, that probably has something to do with the fact that the laws of nature in our neck of the woods appear to be constant. If they changed constantly there would be no utility to mathematics. For example, if every bridge collapsed the day after it was built because of unforeseen changes in the laws of physics, there would be no basis for pursuing engineering concepts with respect to bridge design.

  9. One day mankind will attain the knowledge of a single truth that will unite not only philosophy and science but absolutely everything. Einstein would have called it Grand Unification and that One day will set us free, “free at last” =

  10. Thanks for this. For what it’s worth, over at the Philosophy of Brains blog a few weeks ago, we had a discussion about the relationship between philosophy and science that overlaps quite a lot with the ideas discussed here (1). The basis for the blog discussion was a symposium with Dr. Eric Kandel on humanities and science, where I argued that interaction between philosophy and science can be mutually beneficial, and Dr. Kandel argued that philosophy is irrelevant to science (2). Though Dr. Kandel generally is an advocate for the humanities, with the exception of ethics, he regards philosophy as pretty much useless. If anything, this is further evidence of the claim made in this post that some scientists really are hostile to philosophy (which is counterproductive to the pursuit of understanding, in my view).

    1. http://philosophyofbrains.com/2014/03/18/spaulding-and-kandel-on-relationship-between-psychiatryphilosophy.aspx

    2. The old video, which showed the symposium in its entirety, has been taken down and replaced by shorter videos of the comments.

    Here are my comments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6rhuvkQcsg
    Here is Dr. Kandel’s response: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckAEe-d9V2Q#t=538

    • A statement that “philosophy is pretty much useless” is itself useless, unless it is made much more specific. Perhaps Dr. Kandel specified just which philosophers’ statements he found useless; I shall look at the links.

  11. Reblogged this on Jordan Scott Martin and commented:
    Massimo Pigliucci provides an insightful analysis of the current state of philosophy and science, their limited interdisciplinary dialogue, and the relationship of these two “cultures” to broader public discourse and education. His personal journey reflects much of my own experience, and I admire his attempts to transcend the unfruitful divides existing between the humanities and sciences. This state of affairs not only inhibits theoretical progress in both philosophy and the sciences (particularly biology, at least for Pigliucci and myself), but endangers the academic success of interdisciplinary-minded students who are forced to artificially pigeon-hole themselves into limiting academic tracks. Those who are able to effectively use analogy and metaphor between disciplines–drawing upon expertise in mutliple domains–can synthesize and expand knowledge bases in ways not afforded to more narrow specialists. A next generation of scholars must learn to address reality at multiple levels of analysis, both philosophical and scientific, and come to see these perspectives as both complimentary and necessary for a satisfactory understanding of our world.

  12. Massimo, I didn’t mean to rain on your parade, but in fact I am more pessimistic than you. I appreciate your definition what it means to be a “public intellectual.” Nevertheless, as I look back, it seems rather idealized. The echo chamber is not confined to higher academics, though; it is culturally pervasive.

    I should probably spend more time on my yard work. It was a good essay–despite my cranky, cynical remarks–and I am happy for you.

    • Thomas, I frequently sound like a pessimist too, but I tend to think of it as realism based on knowledge of facts. There is always some cause for optimism, though. Currently I am enthused by Thomas Piketty’s new book, “Capital,” which I plan to read soon. It’s too soon to say for certain, but this could be a game changer in America’s discussion of policy issues. I find it interesting that American academics haven’t already written a comparable book, and that this had to come from France. As a side note, I should mention that economics is a subject that most Americans recognize as important, yet, as far as I know, professional philosophers and scientists have little or nothing to say about it. Economics is a subject that every public intellectual ought to weigh in on, but many do not. Those who don’t are likely to be perceived as obscure specialists, not big thinkers, and they are unlikely to have much impact on society.

    • Paul, I’ve read reviews of Piketty’s book by Paul Krugman and by Robert Paul Wolff, a retired professor of philosophy, on his blog site “The Philosopher’s Stone” (http://robertpaulwolff.blogspot.com/). Wolff has posted a few times on Piketty’s book including a follow-up post today. He shares your enthusiasm.

      Ross Douthat had an Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday that Wolff describes as the equivalent of feces. Nevertheless, you can expect serious push-back against Piketty even when critiques such as Douthat’s acknowledge “I am unqualified to assess” his economic models–this despite the fact that most Americans know they don’t own much more than debt and don’t need any economic models to tell them that they are and have been treading water for decades. Douthat’s piece, I suspect, is typical of what you’ll see–a sort of bland, public relations distraction that acknowledges “a” problem without suggesting that “trickle down” notions are not limited to economics in the USA but rather affect almost every facet of life here. Best I shut up, though.

    • Thomas, yes, Piketty is further stimulating the political polarity that has been making Washington dysfunctional for years. I think that’s good. Fortunately this may turn out to be more than a sound bite on the news, because most economists seem to take Piketty seriously: he has better credentials than they do.

      While we’re on the subject of public intellectuals, I have to mention Tony Judt, because he was my favorite. He had the courage to speak out against the Israel lobby and Israeli policies. He also eloquently chastised Bush’s liberal supporters in what I consider to be one of the most brilliant political essays in memory: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tony-judt/bushs-useful-idiots. Any public intellectual can learn something from Judt.

  13. That we continue to have individuals asserting that academic fields are unjustified is disconcerting – especially from within academia. I attended a lecture on Saturday at UCLA by Robert Watson on Shakespeare. A wonderful discussion of Shakespeare as a study of the human condition – as a writer of whom we personally know little, but who was able to incorporate much of what it is to be human into his plays. This along with a panel of students from the Creative Writing program highlighted that observation and reading are a big part of creating literature that speaks to us. Much as observation is a part of being a scientist – in fact many of the creative writing students were studying far afield in economic, accounting, neuroscience, etc.

    I understand funding is tight, but academics should be defending each other and the freedom to explore the universe through multiple paths. We need more collaboration and less animosity (we have politics for that). Academia should be a network of interconnecting paths – more cooperation and less competition. Instead of dismissing fields we don’t understand, we should be embracing them and learning from them. Let’s step outside of our narrow worlds and learn something new. I applaud Massimo for making that leap – as a graduate student I flirted with philosophy and had a committee member from the Philosophy department when almost all students chose a committee from within the mix of life science departments. I received mostly negative feedback for that choice, but never have regretted that association. Not only do we need outreach to the public, we need it with our colleagues.

    • Perhaps one reason so many academics in other fields are hostile toward philosophers may have a little to do with the uncomfortable habit philosophers have of exposing problems with the unexamined assumptions their colleagues in other fields unthinkingly take for granted. “The unexamined life is not worth living” includes “unexamined intellectual activities are not worth pursuing,” perhaps. But look where that got Socrates.

  14. Massimo,
    I for one am very happy you opted for the career change instead of the car. Your posts and podcasts have been a major joy in my life in the last couple of years.

    Congratulations on the new job and keep up the excellent outreach work!

  15. Massimo wrote: “… as if it were still tenable to think that we can somehow gain a priori knowledge about the world by just thinking about it (has nobody read Kant, of late?).

    It was actually Aristotle who originally made this point, although there is a fashion these days to pretend otherwise and say that Aristotle advocated pure logic.

    And yet metaphysics is practiced as a separate discipline even by physicists today. For example Max Tegmark’s reasoning behind his Mathematical Universe hypothesis is pure metaphysics and the fact that this argument is even taken seriously by other physicists and philosophers of science is a sign that this divide is not so deep as some would claim.

  16. As for “Neo Scholastics” being a term of scorn … The Schoolmen I know of are Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Nicolas Oresme, Thomas Bradwardine and, given what they did with what was available, I would be proud to be counted among them.

  17. WRT the “science can do morality” lobby I say “knock yourselves out guys, what’s stopping you?”

    If science can do morality then the easiest way to prove this is to go ahead and do it.

    Victor Stenger claims science has been somehow kept out of the area of morality. Sam Harris spends pages whining about NOMA. NOMA was just a dopey idea an atheist had last century. Gould was a biologist, not a cop.

  18. Paul,

    “I suspect you may be engaging in a category mistake here. Morality and mathematics are different, though they both probably have origins in human evolution.”

    Yes, they are different, but I don’t think this is a category mistake. Mine was simply an analogy to illustrate the point that asking about the origin of X is an entirely different question from asking about the proper use or functioning of X in a context very different from the original one. I believe that goes for both mathematics and ethics.

    “I think morality is broadly a predisposition or a general set of guidelines on how to behave with respect to other people, and it does not have the same kind of utility as mathematics.”

    Morality *originated* that way. As for usefulness, I think morality is much more useful than mathematics, given that we are a social species.

    “Mathematics, as I understand it, is logically consistent throughout its branches, all the way to Fermat’s Last Theorem. The same cannot be said of morality, which varies somewhat from culture to culture and individual to individual”

    You may be confusing a descriptive approach to morality with a prescriptive one. Philosophers are in the latter business, anthropologists in the former. Any decent moral philosopher will try to provide a logically coherent system of ethics. And yes, this can be done in more than one way; so can mathematics.

    Thomas,

    “It was a good essay–despite my cranky, cynical remarks–and I am happy for you.”

    Appreciated!

    SelfAware,

    “I for one am very happy you opted for the career change instead of the car. Your posts and podcasts have been a major joy in my life in the last couple of years.”

    Again, much appreciated!

    zenner,

    “Perhaps one reason so many academics in other fields are hostile toward philosophers may have a little to do with the uncomfortable habit philosophers have of exposing problems with the unexamined assumptions their colleagues in other fields unthinkingly take for granted.”

    I do believe you have a very good point there. Nobody likes to be told “you should think more carefully about what you are doing.” And yet that’s pretty much philosophy’s job. But this also means that it is incumbent on philosophers to do it properly, which means really understanding whatever discipline they are doing philosophy of.

    Robin,

    “As for ‘Neo Scholastics’ being a term of scorn … The Schoolmen I know of are Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Nicolas Oresme, Thomas Bradwardine and, given what they did with what was available, I would be proud to be counted among them.”

    But I think Ladyman and Ross’ point is that to do that sort of thing *today* is not particularly useful, just in the same way as nobody denies the value of Descartes for the history of philosophical ideas, but we reject his mind-body dualism (well, most of us anyway).

    • “You may be confusing a descriptive approach to morality with a prescriptive one. Philosophers are in the latter business, anthropologists in the former. Any decent moral philosopher will try to provide a logically coherent system of ethics. And yes, this can be done in more than one way; so can mathematics.”

      Yes, I favor the descriptive approach. Regarding the prescriptive approach, as mentioned in some of my other comments on this article, I am skeptical of the validity of moral systems based on pure thought and believe that science can add crucial information. Moral philosophers are prone to making mistakes about human nature, and these mistakes in turn lead to false (or irrelevant) conclusions that are logically consistent with their premises. I think moral theory can advance through observation in somewhat the same way that astronomy advanced when the Ptolemaic system gave way to the Copernican. As a skeptic, you must get this point.

    • Paul, I’ll reply here to your other post as well as I want to comment your above post too.

      >>>imzasirf, I don’t think that morality is completely relative. Rather, I think there may be a basic morality that is often subverted by local culture. Thus, for one group, headhunting may be morally neutral, while another group may find it morally abhorrent. <<>>What I’m getting at is the possibility of studying Homo sapiens as a species in order to come up with rules such as “Killing people who are not a threat to your group is morally wrong.” I think that some elements of game theory are relevant to moral reasoning, but that the rational part of morality is secondary to the instinctive part that we carry around genetically. The former would not be of interest to us without the latter. Thus, I consider moral principles that are derived from pure thought to be mostly untenable.<<<<

      I'm not entirely clear what you mean by pure thought? I certainly don't think morality should be based on pure thought, it needs to be well grounded in various empirical facts about humans and what type of creatures we are in order for the reasoning to be sound at all. However, I'm not sure if we could get prescriptive morality directly out of descriptions of what humans in fact do, as that will vary considerably and not always for moral reasons. Descriptive facts about moral behavior however are of great importance, especially when you move from the realm of coming up with principles to applying them.

    • imzasirf, by “pure thought” I am attempting to contrast empirical study with formal systems. I get the impression that most philosophers, Massimo included, think that a moral system can be derived from a few premises. Massimo goes as far as to suggest that morality is just as unempirical as mathematics. A thought I had before reading this article was that our modern political and economic system is largely based on philosophical theories that are arbitrary or just plain incorrect. I now think the same can be said of the moral theories that seem to underlie contemporary democracies. I don’t know whether or not anyone has proposed an empirically-based system of moral conduct, but my thinking is that such a system would not resemble anything proposed by Kant, Mill, etc., and might actually be more suitable to humans.

    • >>>Moral philosophers are prone to making mistakes about human nature, and these mistakes in turn lead to false (or irrelevant) conclusions that are logically consistent with their premises.<<>>I think moral theory can advance through observation in somewhat the same way that astronomy advanced when the Ptolemaic system gave way to the Copernican. As a skeptic, you must get this point.<<<

      Can you describe how observations will advance moral theory? How would you even start observation without already having a moral theory that is used as a measuring stick to guide the observations and inferences regarding advancement and progress?

    • imzasirf, we have observed that humans are eusocial, and that would be the starting point for developing an empirical moral system. We would not be looking for eternal right and wrong, but for eusocial predispositions in our genes that differentiate us from non-eusocial species. I think eusocial behavior involves implicit rules about how members of a specific eusocial group act toward each other under various circumstances. Although there is a more variability in humans than in other species, you can safely say that, despite a serial killer here and there, we are not by nature like scorpions. If prophets and philosophers can tell us how to live, why not scientists?

  19. A week ago, Greer Heard hosted a debate on ‘God and Cosmology’ with the participants of William Lane Craig, Tim Maudlin, James Sinclair, Sean Carroll and Alex Rosenberg.

    Without discussing the cosmology, Alex Rosenberg used evolutionary biology and the 2nd law of thermodynamics refuted all theists’ claims. His key argument is about the ‘first’ adaptation which must (no other way) arose from the blind random thermo motion of atoms, that is, with the Boltzmann Brains.

    In science, there are two kinds of ‘proof’, the empirical (such as physics) and the logical (such as mathematics). The Boltzmann Brain is not supported neither by the empirical evidence nor by any logical deduction, and it is a pure speculation at this moment.

    On the contrary, a much better scenario can be provided for the rising of the first adaptation.
    One, the life is an information processing machine, that is, it needs a counting device (such as, counting straws, an abacus or a Turing computer).
    Two, if a counting device (such as, Turing computer) is embedded in the fundamental particles (such as, proton or neutron), then the first adaptation can arise ‘intelligently’ by some information processing.

    Although there is no empirical evidence thus far on this Turing imbedding thesis, it is fully supported by a ‘logical’ evidence, that is, both proton and neutron can be written as Turing machine by a mathematic ‘language’ (see, http://www.prequark.org/Biolife.htm ).

    As an evolutionary biologist, what do you think about this Turing imbedding thesis in comparison to the Boltzmann Brains? As a philosopher, what is your take on this logical evidence for the above thesis?

    • Congratulation on your new job. I hope that this Turing imbedding issue can be a part of your philosophical inquiry. As it won’t be empirical for a while, let me restate it in an empirical way.

      For Boltzmann Brains, it must invoke the omnipotent power of ‘infinity’ if the task is to reproduce the entire writing of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (only about 40 printed pages). But, what is the semantic difference between ‘infinity’ from ‘God’? Boltzmann Brains in this sense is just a covert term for theism.

      Maybe we can reduce the task from the entire play to just the first page “Two households, both alike in dignity. In fair Verons, where … Here were the servants of your adversary, And yours, close fighting, ere I did approach:” We can invite the software programmers of the entire world to come up a Boltzmann monkey to do this reduced task for one year (with the most powerful computer available in the world) and to see how many sentences can be written by such a monkey in one year.

      Now, I will introduce another process ‘the Ghost Rascal’ game.

      Ghost-rascal conjecture — For a coin flipping game (head vs tail), T is the number times flip as one ‘game’, N is the number times that that ‘game’ is played. If T >= 3 and N >= 10^500, then no amount of sabotage from a Ghost can change the outcome of this game.

      This conjecture defines two philosophical terms ‘empirically’.
      One, immutable: no change by sabotage of any kind.
      Two, eternal: as soon as the game begins, there is no end to it.

      But, let’s put this conjecture aside. This game can be implemented in a computer. Let the T = 3, and the computer can play the game 1,000 time in a second. Then, in a fraction of a second, the following outcomes will be produced many times over.

      Game a: (tail, head, head)
      Game n: (head, tail, head)
      Game x:: – (tail, tail, head)

      These three games form a ‘glider’ of ‘the game of Life’, and it can be the base for constructing the Turing computer. The detail of this is available at http://prebabel.blogspot.com/2014/02/ghost-rascal-conjecture-and-ultimate.html .

  20. Here’s an idea. It will sound a little weird at first but, remember, Einstein made great progress in explaining the universe beginning with geddanken experiments.

    Imagine a world similar to ours (Earth prime, or whatever) where all departmental budgets for the upcoming year would be only 75% as large as they were the year before. This “75%” thing is an immutable fact-of-nature; the shrinking is across all institutions that practice anything that can reasonably be called “the study of physics” or “academic philosophy” and it cannot be avoided or evaded.

    In this world of making-do-with-less, how would the triage look? If you had to condense these areas of study, who gets seats on the lifeboats; who gets the the life vest; and who gets to see friends’ genuine tears as they wave from the distance? As a flea who formerly flitted around a philosophy department, I know my answers.

    Professor Pigliucci, I’d love to know your answers. (But, as a department chair, I understand if a basic sense of diplomacy forced you to keep your powder dry.)

    • Of course, the old joke pretty much sums it up:

      The president of the college announces to the faculty that some departments will have to be eliminated. He says: “We’ve already decided that physics, chemistry, and biology have to go; their equipment is just too expensive.” The chair of the mathematics department replies, “Well, we only need chalk and erasers.” Then the chair of the philosophy department fires back: “Oh, yeah? We don’t need erasers!”

  21. Thank you for sharing this Massimo. The more we as a species gather millions of highly specialised bits of learning, the more we need generalists and synthesisers to make sense of it all. That’s where the really great leaps can now be made—across the interstices. Unfortunately, those synthesisers are always faced with trying to convince someone who is more specialised than they are about one tiny subject that they should reconsider their thoughts given the broader picture. It’s too easy for the specialist to dismiss the generalist so that’s why it’s a never-ending fight you are in for. But I for one am very grateful for people like you who are willing to fight it. For the last three years, I’ve been sketching out an outline of an Evolutionary Philosophy (a term that as far as I can tell has stunningly not been captured), but you are clearly ahead of me in deep expertise in both of the fields that I’m using for that term. I wonder if I could contact you sometime to get your thoughts or recommendations about pursuing a PhD on that subject in some kind of cross-disciplinary manner. Would you even recommend it given what you’ve learned and expressed in this post? Regardless, keep up the great work!

    • Ed, feel free to contact me directly, though I’m not positive on what you mean by the term “evolutionary philosophy.”

    • Thanks Massimo—I’ll do that. In the meantime, maybe this quote from the “Purpose” page on my website will start to explain what I mean when I use that term:

      “Just as Evolutionary Biology and Evolutionary Psychology look to our evolutionary roots for answers about our biological and psychological questions, Evolutionary Philosophy (EvPhil for short) looks to our evolutionary roots for common answers to our common philosophical questions.”

      http://www.evphil.com/purpose.html

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