Philosophy, science and expertise

expertiseby Mark English

Let me make a very simple — and, I hope, uncontroversial — point about expertise and authority before looking at some questions pertaining to the current (increasingly bitter) debate about the nature and status of philosophy and its relation to the sciences.

Expertise implies epistemic authority: the expert — by definition — speaks with authority within his or her area of expertise. If the expertise is recognized, the authority automatically follows and doesn’t have to be claimed or argued for.

But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.

There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.

Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.

Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter)[1]. But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline. Besides, unconstrained by empirical (or mathematical) considerations, conceptual space is really not all that interesting. And of course, the sciences are just as much about model-building (i.e., exploring conceptual space) as they are about empirical evidence; and mathematics is pretty much all about exploring conceptual spaces of certain kinds.

If philosophy had a center or a core sub-discipline things might be different. Arguably metaphysics once played this role. And, in the middle years of the 20th century, a humbler, scaled-down version of philosophy focusing on logic and science prevailed and appeared to many to be viable. It may still be viable.

But there is as I see it a problem for academic philosophy as it is currently constituted (even apart from the various well-known and long-standing internal disagreements and divisions about the nature of the subject). However you look at it — and even limiting the picture to analytic philosophy — the loose amalgam of disciplines and activities which goes under the name of philosophy in academic contexts is not and is no longer generally perceived as a unified area of activity or knowledge.

So it is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.

In other words, in areas where the philosophizing is tightly constrained by a clearly specifiable body of scientific (or similar) knowledge to which the word “expertise” can be naturally applied, insidious questions about authority or status simply do not arise.

Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline [2]. And though my claims about philosophy’s historical and continuing dependence on religious ideas were understandably contested by many, the main thrust of what I was saying — concerning the crisis of identity and credibility facing philosophy — was not, I would have thought, particularly controversial. Many within and outside of the discipline take a similar line.

For example, after my essay appeared, Laurie Shrage’s ideas on a more empirically informed philosophy were brought to my attention. Though her background and general perspective are very different from mine, she also recognizes the huge problems which academic philosophy is facing and tends to see them in surprisingly similar terms. Shrage looks at the way the discipline has developed historically and acknowledges its sometimes surprising links with religion [3]. Her approach is refreshingly pragmatic, down to earth and open to what other disciplines — notably history and the social sciences — may be able to contribute to a new model of philosophy.

Other philosophers — most notably perhaps Richard Rorty, Paul Horwich and Peter Unger — have taken their cue from the later writings of Wittgenstein. Though there are marked differences between their views — between Rorty’s (very negative) and Unger’s (positive) attitude towards science, for example — all three men share the view that analytic philosophy as it has been and is still largely being practiced is profoundly misguided. Rorty’s views have been elaborated at length (for example, in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature) and are well known. Horwich set out his position very concisely in a piece published last year by the New York Times entitled, “Was Wittgenstein right?” [4]. And lately Unger has come out with a surprisingly blunt and scathing assessment of analytic philosophy. He too traces his basic ideas back to Wittgenstein.

“In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” [5]. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.

Unger’s approach is somewhat abrasive, but at least he draws attention to what is a real and ongoing problem. All too often philosophy’s defenders see no problem; or, if they see it, they think that acknowledging it will only give comfort to their detractors. For example, a commenter at Scientia Salon spoke (seriously, I think) about Unger having “gone over to the dark side” and others have spoken in similar terms. Such “them and us,” Manichean-sounding talk and thinking signals that philosophy has become for some less an intellectual discipline than a kind of religion or ideology.

Such approaches often involve inflated claims, and it is just not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience. Stirring rhetoric about philosophy’s intellectual grandeur and moral importance won’t get you anywhere. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that it’s precisely this grand, over-reaching, overblown view of philosophy which more than anything else is bringing it down.

Massimo Pigliucci’s contributions to this debate are neither Manichean nor merely rhetorical. He is seeking on this site — and, I understand, in a forthcoming book — to mount a rational and coherent defense of a very broad and, in effect, traditional view of the subject (incorporating ethics and standard metaphysics, for example), but I have the sense that such a line is not only in tension but also in conflict with his other main preoccupation: namely, to bring philosophy and the sciences closer together.

He believes that this rapprochement can happen even as philosophy continues to assert its status as an independent and so, in a sense, unified discipline. My view is that this unity and independence are not sustainable — but that this does not greatly matter because the most worthwhile philosophizing is focused closely on particular (usually scientific) areas of knowledge and inquiry and engaged in by those with appropriate levels of expertise in the areas in question.

It’s also worth noting that the very spectacle of scholars devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline is a sure sign that all is not well with the discipline in question.

But the signs are not all negative. As I have suggested, positive lessons can be drawn from the fact that there is far less controversy about the worthwhileness of science-oriented philosophizing than about more general and scientifically (or mathematically) unconstrained approaches. Does this not point the way to a brighter future — as well as signaling that empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned?

On the border lies some technical philosophy which engages closely with formal logic, and so is logically — though not empirically — constrained. I am thinking of the sort of metaphysics engaged in by Timothy Williamson or David Lewis and their respective followers, which has led to some good things but also to a lot of (in my view) meaningless speculation — as well as to the articulation of some pretty dubious ideas (such as modal realism, for instance). There have been useful contributions to work in linguistics (model-theoretic semantics, for instance), but I remain very skeptical of the value of any metaphysically-oriented work which is disconnected from empirical science.

Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.

But what I want to focus on here is the issue of philosophers engaging in non-technical writing on general topics. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, of course. Anyone should be allowed to express their views on questions of general interest. But my question is: what is it that philosophers bring to this sort of writing as philosophers? In other words, what kinds of general problems are philosophers really equipped to address, and on what basis?

I recall a seminar I attended in which a philosopher, someone with real expertise in ancient Greek language and culture and ancient philosophy generally, read a paper in which he applied Aristotelian concepts to the question of sexual perversion. His focus was not historical, however, but rather on what Aristotle might teach us on the matter. During the coffee break, chatting to the woman (a non-philosopher) sitting next to me, I expressed the view that modern psychology might be able to throw a little more light on these matters than Aristotle. She sagely agreed. (I only found out later that she was the speaker’s wife.)

This sort of thing, philosophers implicitly or explicitly claiming expertise in areas beyond their real areas of knowledge — usually on the basis that the topic is an ethical or a metaphysical one, and ethics and metaphysics are a part of philosophy — is widespread.

Let me just mention, by way of example, three books by philosophers on general topics which have prompted (I think appropriate) skeptical responses.

One is the book The Meaning of Disgust by Colin McGinn [6]. McGinn actually has a solid background in psychology but he gave it all up for a very old-fashioned, metaphysical version of philosophy. He was one of philosophy’s stars in the late 20th century and most famous for presenting, in a clear and accessible style, arguments that certain problems in philosophy — like consciousness and free will — are real problems, but problems that we are simply incapable of answering because of the limitations of our brains. In The Meaning of Disgust he seeks — believing as he does that all philosophy is logic (or the a priori analysis of concepts) — to isolate (by thinking very hard) the essence of disgust (whatever that might be). His approach is a mix of conceptual analysis, phenomenology, confronting rhetoric and self-indulgent psychological and metaphysical speculation. McGinn totally ignores the extensive body of science on the topic. The best that can be said of the book is that it elicited some gloriously scathing reviews [7].

The second book I will mention is Thomas Nagel’s notorious Mind and Cosmos [8]. As in the McGinn case, there has been so much savage criticism of the book that I will not add to it, except to say that Nagel’s self-confessed ignorance about evolutionary biology, physics and other sciences relevant to his themes does tend to undermine his credibility from the outset.

It might be objected that philosophers themselves have turned on McGinn and Nagel, essentially ostracizing them.

But the fact remains that Nagel and McGinn were both leading lights in later 20th-century philosophy and their work is deeply interwoven into the major debates of that time. Further, the roots of their current ideas are clearly visible in their early, more respected work.

The third book is by someone who, in his earlier philosophical writings engaged with the ideas of both McGinn and Nagel. A.C. Grayling’s recent work, Friendship is a rather rambling essay on the subject [9]. Grayling draws on selected philosophers and writers, but the selection of authors is arbitrary and the work is shaped by the author’s (necessarily limited) perspective and includes reflections on his own personal experiences [10].

It is not a bad book — certainly not embarrassingly bad or as flawed as the other two I mentioned. And Grayling is yet (so far as I know) to stumble intellectually or professionally and face the wrath of his colleagues. But this pedestrian little pot-boiler on friendship provides yet another example of a leading philosophical light exposing the — how shall I put it? — ordinariness of his insights on a general topic.

It seems to me that if you are writing seriously about a topic like friendship, broadly speaking you have three main options: a history-based approach, a science-based approach (social psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.), or an intuitive, “writerly” approach. Grayling explicitly renounces the first two:

“Note that this is not a history of friendship, not a sociological or psychological treatise on friendship … [R]ather it is a discussion of the idea of friendship, a philosophical (in the broadest sense) exploration of views about it”[11].

Philosophical in the broadest sense: what does this mean exactly?

Grayling tries to explain, but in effect concedes that there is a lack of intellectual rigor: “I range widely through philosophical, historical and literary sources for my materials, not methodically and systematically, but as occasion and need suggest. As when sinking one’s instruments into ocean currents at various places, one eventually gets a sense of their drift: that has been a part of the technique here” [12].

Despite the attempt to liken his explorations to those of an oceanographer, the comparison is not convincing. In fact the simile is utterly literary and I would characterize Grayling’s general approach here as literary-philosophical [13]. And, judged in these terms, the work fails to impress.

Many writers have said interesting or challenging things about friendship — and Grayling quotes some of them (Oscar Wilde, for example, who defined a friend as someone who stabs you in the front). But without some kind of intellectual framework to provide rigor and coherence or a strong perspective to provide subtlety and depth, what one is left with is superficial and unsatisfactory and uncomfortably close to desk-calendar wisdom.

True essayists or fiction writers can — like Proust for example (whom Grayling doesn’t mention) — challenge our ideas of friendship in subtle and serious ways that Grayling’s approach misses entirely. Not only does he fail to bring to the subject any original thoughts of his own, he fails (in my opinion) as a guide to the most worthwhile and original thoughts of others.

Grayling had the option, presumably, of taking a more rigorously historical or scientific approach. But he chose instead to play the role of the philosophically-oriented man of letters, an approach which is both difficult to play well and — whether played well or not — guaranteed to annoy people of certain types and temperaments. As my mother used to say: “Tell me something I don’t know why don’t you!”

So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify. Peter Unger makes the point rather poignantly.

Characterizing (quite plausibly in my opinion) most contemporary metaphysics, as well as “some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language” as being either parochial or trivial, he claims that potential students are in effect being misled or shortchanged.

“People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality,’ and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions” [14].

Behind Unger’s remarks is an awareness of the disappointment and disillusionment that many students experience when they take their first courses in philosophy and realize what thin gruel most of it really is. I personally have found myself in the position of trying to justify the discipline to skeptical students [15]. (My usual line was to try to get them to see philosophy more in terms of the history of ideas, emphasizing the importance of knowing something about the way our cultures and our science have developed over time.)

Given that — whatever happens to philosophy departments — meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines, why does it matter so much to some that philosophy should survive as an independent discipline?

It may be that many of philosophy’s defenders are motivated by a belief in the need for a synoptic view.

There’s no doubt that an integrated approach to knowledge and understanding can be valuable, providing stability and a broad framework for thinking. And there is no doubt that religion and philosophy were once able to provide such frameworks. (Whether the frameworks were soundly based is another question, of course.) Religion still does play this role for some, but philosophy not so much.

Again, questions of expertise and authority arise here. Who these days (apart from religious leaders) would presume to offer a comprehensive intellectual framework? As I suggested above, I think the best we can do in the context of academic teaching is to point out how others have addressed these grand issues in the past. And such courses would perhaps be more appropriately designated intellectual history than philosophy.

What other reasons or motivations (apart from matters of material self-interest, self-image and identity) might people have for wanting to maintain philosophy as an independent discipline?

Ideological and moral motivations clearly play a part. Just as implicit religious, ideological, political and moral commitments lie behind and motivate particular philosophical views, so such commitments motivate particular views of philosophy. In fact, only the existence of such commitments could explain, in my opinion, the crusading passion which many bring to these debates.

I specifically singled out religious perspectives for attention in my earlier essay and there was — perhaps unsurprisingly — a high degree of hostility regarding my suggestion that philosophy has been dependent on religion in various and complex ways in the past and continues to be. Non-religious supporters of philosophy did not want to see their favored discipline as being in any way dependent on religion; and religious supporters of philosophy felt perhaps that only a discipline seen to be entirely free of religious presuppositions or influences could be used convincingly to defend a religious point of view.

Political and moral and other broadly ideological commitments are also in play, of course, and a broad-based, normatively-oriented version of philosophy is inevitably attractive to those who seek to influence the values and behaviors of others.

But perhaps even more important than specific political and moral commitments is a general conviction, almost religiously held in some quarters, that scientism (conceived as a too-narrowly-scientific view of the world) needs to be actively resisted, and that the arts and humanities — including philosophy — should play a central role here.

To the extent that I recognize the desirability of a respect for ideas, a sense of history and a broadly critical perspective, I’m on board. But seeing such qualities as being in any way dependent on the fortunes of a single academic discipline would be a mistake.

_____

Mark English has a background in the history of ideas, linguistics and philosophy. He has a PhD in philosophy from Monash University and he blogs at Language, Life and Logic.

[1] “Are you sure you have hands?” Scientia Salon, June 18, 2014.

[2] “Does philosophy have a future?” Scientia Salon, May 26, 2014.

[3] See, for example, her 2008 paper “Will philosophers study their history or become history?” Radical Philosophy Review 11(2): 27-52.

[4] Here is Horwich’s essay.

[5] From an interview with Unger at 3 Quarks Daily.

[6] Oxford University Press, 2011.

[7] Daniel Kelly’s review is relatively sober and restrained, but it effectively exposes the absurdity of McGinn’s approach to the question.

[8] Oxford University Press, 2012. Here is Nagel’s own summary of the basic thesis of the book.

[9] Yale University Press, 2013.

[10] Grayling’s sources reflect his classical and philosophical background; he virtually ignores modern literature.

[11] Grayling, op. cit., p.15.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Grayling could be seen as a modern incarnation of the 19th-century man of letters. I can think of a number of 20th-century English philosophers who played this kind of role (especially in their later years) or saw themselves in these terms. Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer were prominent examples, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Grayling saw himself as following in their footsteps.

[14] Unger, op. cit.

[15] I mean here students expressing doubts about the worthwhileness of the discipline, but it was often the case that these students were also religious skeptics. In my experience, students with religious affiliations are less inclined to question the discipline and are more likely to find it interesting — and challenging.

305 thoughts on “Philosophy, science and expertise

  1. HI,

    I specifically singled out religious perspectives for attention in my earlier essay and there was — perhaps unsurprisingly — a high degree of hostility regarding my suggestion that philosophy has been dependent on religion in various and complex ways in the past and continues to be.

    I don’t recall hostility, I only recall that people (me included) would not accept it as a bald assertion of fact, but rather wanted to see some sort of evidence that this was the case. That evidence was not, as I recall, forthcoming.

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  2. But this does put me in mind about the joke that the Dean of a university is showing a visitor around and says “here is the mathematics department, the second cheapest to run – it only requires pencils, paper and a wastepaper basket”. The visitor asks which is the cheapest and the Dean replies: “The philosophy department – they don’t need the wastepaper basket”.

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  3. Horwich set out his position very concisely in a piece published last year by the New York Times entitled, “Was Wittgenstein right?” [4]. And lately Unger has come out with a surprisingly blunt and scathing assessment of analytic philosophy. He too traces his basic ideas back to Wittgenstein.

    “In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” [5]. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.

    Wittgenstein was an early example of this fad of philosophy about why you can’t do philosophy.

    Carnap pointed this out about Wittgenstein, that he had written an entire book of the type of philosophy he says you can’t do.

    Unger seems to be the latest in this line and does not seem to spot the flaw in the idea.

    Come to that, I recall that Kant began his Critique of Pure Reason with a description of the parlous state of metaphysics around his time and the common opinion then that it was on its last legs.

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  4. If there is one modern philosopher I can’t stand that’s Rorty. (Oh, and Derrida. And Heidegger.) Rorty took over the mantle of pragmatism and turned it into an unrecognizable mess mostly made out of postmodernist ideas.

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  5. I’m one of the minority who think Wittgenstein was right. I think a lot of people, dwelling on the bits of rubble, forget that “clearing up the ground of language” is an important, joyous and valuable task (the books you mentioned by McGinn and Nagel, frustratingly, seem to do the exact opposite).

    Philosophy as a ground-clearing enterprise is distinct from linguistics and cognitive science. It has a normative dimension beyond both of these (to improve our explanations), and it deals with the “meta-” questions of both.

    I’m not sure I agree with this:

    Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.

    I think this statement is generally true when the thought experiment is used in service of advancing an argument, but could be false when it’s used in service of clarifying concepts and language. In the previous thread, we were talking about Searles’ Chinese Room. As an argument, it’s not much to look at. But those philosophers who have engaged with it in terms of the concepts it implies have done a lot to clarify how our thinking and intuitions about “understanding” and “consciousness” can go wrong.

    I guess it could be argued that even engaging with the thought experiment at this level requires an engagement with science as well.

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  6. There’s the whole problem it seems to me, a reluctance to use the wastepaper basket.

    Sorry Mark, but you have not reduced my high regard for the value of philosophy, in particular metaphysics. Again philosophy is criticised for the way some people do it, and there is no mention of any philosophical ideas, approaches or traditions except the one that is to be criticised. It’s an easy target that you’ve picked. It seems that the most effective way for science to rubbish philosophy is to talk only about philosophers and philosophical ideas that fail. Then the argument cannot be lost.

    In my view the current problem in academic philosophy is an educational one arising from a university curriculum that is narrowly blinkered by dogma and prejudice, and which for the most part seems to utterly ignore the results of analysis.

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  7. Hi Mark,

    the most worthwhile philosophizing is focused closely on particular (usually scientific) areas of knowledge and inquiry and engaged in by those with appropriate levels of expertise in the areas in question.

    I agree with what you say here, and would like to make a comment about how physicists see philosophy. Readers will be aware of the somewhat dismissive comments by some scientists (Krauss, Feynman, Hawking usually get a mention; Dawkins also though I’ve never seen the quotes about this).

    Let’s divide philosophy into “good, worthwhile and valid philosophy” and “bad, useless, should-be-ditched philosophy”. It doesn’t matter that we agree on which is which, just that we have our own ideas of what is in each category (for example, many would put theology in the latter).

    Now, physicists regard all of the “good, worthwhile and valid philosophy” as science, afterall they regard thinking about science as science (rather than not-science). To quote the article: “meta-questions relating to the sciences and other disciplines will continue to be addressed by practitioners of those disciplines”.

    So, when a physicist hears a philosopher insisting that philosophy is distinct from science, she immediately thinks that this must be referring to the bad-and-useless philosophy. Afterall, from the physicist’s perspective, any good-and-valid philosophy would be part of science. Therefore the only thing left, the only thing distinct from science, is the bad-and-useless stuff. And at that point the physicist dismisses it.

    Thus, rather than emphasizing the distinction of philosophy from science, seeing it as a valuable part of science could be a good tactic (afterall, who has all the funding and the prestige?).

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  8. To learn something about “the ultimate nature of reality” is, in my opinion, a matter of proportionality. Once the Greeks discovered the immensurable magnitudes, they were forced to find a method to solve the paradox. Proved that was impossible to determine the diagonal of a square depending on the side, Eudoxus of Cnido, one member of the Plato Academy in Athens, introduced the idea of non-quantified mathematical magnitudes to describe and work with continuous geometrical entities such as lines, angles, areas and volumes, thereby avoiding the use of irrational numbers. Eudoxus was able to restore confidence in the use of proportionalities by providing a definition for the meaning of the equality between two ratios. This definition of proportion forms the subject of Euclid’s Book V.

    Then, the key point of this issue is not to lose sight of the concept of proportionality (symmetry and harmony) of the magnitudes. It was the way to solve the so-called immensurable crisis that shook the foundation of the Pythagorean maths. I think that philosophy also has to be ruled by the principle of proportionality.

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  9. I think that the value of philosophy is in its approach – it questions assumptions that are taken for granted in other disciplines (every specified discipline has to start somewhere). You could just allow the Religion department to cover metaphysics, the Natural Sciences to cover empiricism, the Language departments to cover meaning and signification, etc – and then just leave them all be in separate worlds with no overlap.

    But I think there’s value in taking a step back and comparing and contrasting the core assumptions behind each.

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  10. Complaining that Philosophy is too broad, so no one person can be an expert in it seems odd to me. If you accept that stance, science is too broad, history is too broad, and economics is too broad. Doesn’t it make more sense to grant philosophy the same courtesy as every other intellectual field. Yes, science is too broad for there to be science experts, that’s why we have biology, physics, chemistry, etc. Yes, philosophy is too broad for there to be philosophy experts, that’s why we have logicians, ethicists, metaphysicians, etc.

    And how does Nagel’s bad book (if it is a bad book, I haven’t read it) destroy an entire discipline? Did Newton’s mystical writings ruin astronomy or physics?

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  11. I find much to agree with here. But since vociferous agreement is usually treated as uninteresting, I’ll merely point out one salient irony.

    English rightly notes that Rorty, Horwich, and Unger all that their cue from the late Wittgenstein. But we must notice that Wittgenstein himself was deeply hostile to the idea that philosophy could be or should be in relationship with science, both in the Tractatus and in the Philosophical Investigations.

    Wittgenstein thought that philosophy and science were completely different activities, and he wanted to purge the pretensions of science from philosophy. Hence he did not think that philosophy offers us explanations, but only descriptions — nor is it the business of philosophers to construct theories.

    If you want an inspiring model for a canonical, non-contemporary philosopher who thinks philosophy should be in close conversation with science, Wittgenstein isn’t the person to emulate. A much better choice would be John Dewey or Wilfrid Sellars. Or, you know, Aristotle.

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  12. On McGinn and Nagel: both of them became luminaries at the hey-day of professional philosophizing on a wholly a priori basis — after the decline of pragmatism and logical empiricism, but before it the new naturalism that’s on the rise. And both of them are at the tail-end of their careers, so it seems foolish to use them to judge what’s cutting-edge in philosophy of science or philosophy of mind.

    To see McGinn’s a priori approach nicely eviscerated, Kerry McKenzie (philosophy of physics) has a review of “contribution” to metaphysics. There’s no shortage of hostile reviews of Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, but those by Alva Noe and Peter Godfrey-Smith stand out. I can give links to those curious.

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  13. “Behind Unger’s remarks is an awareness of the disappointment and disillusionment that many students experience when they take their first courses in philosophy and realize what thin gruel most of it really is.” If they actually think that, why are they doing philosophy in the first place? As a physicist postdoc who has taken an interest in philosophy, I find it the complete opposite of “thin gruel”, and have issues understanding that kind of mindset.

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  14. That’s a good question. I have publicly invited Unger to resign his lucrative post at NYU, if he really thinks what he wrote about his own profession. So far, he has taken me up on the suggestion…

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  15. Sigh. Here we go again.

    A few thoughts on this latest installment of the “philosophy is useless show.”

    1. “It is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.”
    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    By far the most thriving area in philosophy today—and the one safest from the budgetary knife—is Applied Ethics and especially Bioethics. Emerging science and technology have raised an entire generation of new ethical questions, whose consequences are far-reaching and profound. At my university, we cannot offer enough seats in our Bioethics courses, as they have been recently made a requirement for anyone who wishes to obtain a degree in nursing (a popular major). Interestingly, the people in charge of the Nursing program seem to think that philosophers—and specifically, in this case, our bioethicist—do have significant expertise and authority, with respect to moral questions, as they apply to the practice of medicine. What does the author know that the Head of Nursing at a large state university doesn’t?

    My Aesthetics course, in which I focus on questions of artistic value, interpretation, critical judgment, and the like, has been integrated into the BFA and MFA programs, in our College of Art and Design. My classes fill to capacity every time it is taught – annually – and at least half are typically studio artists of one kind or another. Interestingly, then, the people in charge of Art and Design think that I have significant expertise and authority with respect to questions of justification as they arise with regard to our interpretation and evaluation of works of art. What does the author know that the Head of the College of Art and Design at a large state university doesn’t?

    Funnily enough, the areas of philosophy that the author seems so fond of—those with a “scientific focus,” like “Philosophy of Physics”—are, in fact, by far the worst off. They are precisely the areas which Krauss, Hawking, and the rest of the “philosophy is useless” crowd have attacked. And they are precisely the areas, the value of which is hardest to explain the university administrators.

    2. “In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations”. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.”
    ________________________________________________________________________________

    All that this demonstrates is that Unger knows nothing about Wittgenstein (and given the uncritical praise implicit in quoting this particular jewel, neither does the author). There are few philosophers who have been more hostile to the attempts to “scientize” philosophy than Wittgenstein, as *any* familiarity whatsoever with the literature on the man’s work would tell you.

    3. “So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify. Peter Unger makes the point rather poignantly.
    Characterizing (quite plausibly in my opinion) most contemporary metaphysics, as well as “some epistemology, a fair amount of philosophy of mind and philosophy of language” as being either parochial or trivial, he claims that potential students are in effect being misled or shortchanged.
    “People who are signing up for philosophy don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality,’ and their position in relation to it. And when you’re doing philosophy, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions”
    _____________________________________________________________________________

    I have been teaching philosophy, now, for twenty years. At my present post, the introduction to philosophy course is one of the most popular general education courses on campus. I have taught literally thousands upon thousands of students and have yet to speak to a student who took philosophy “to learn something about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’ and their position in relation to it.” That this sort of phraseology still appears anywhere strikes me as nothing more than an archaism. It reflects nothing about why students take philosophy – and the vast majority take philosophy to fulfill general education requirements, not as a Major – and also completely misrepresents how philosophy is being “sold” to students.

    Philosophy’s main selling point, for those familiar with its marketing within the context of the university, over the last few decades, is its capacity for teaching critical thinking and helping students develop a more generally critical demeanor. But this is not merely a matter of teaching informal logic and what passes as “Critical Thinking.” Teaching epistemology – i.e. theories of justification – helps develop a general and broadly applicable critical disposition; teaching Philosophy of Religion helps develop a critical attitude with respect to religious claims; teaching Ethics helps develop a critical attitude with respect to moral claims. The examples stretch right across the philosophy curriculum.

    Again, interestingly enough, this task of engendering a critical demeanor, both generally and in a subject-specific fashion, is largely given to philosophy departments. Apparently, then, university Provosts, Deans, and other academic administrators believe that philosophers have expertise and authority, with respect to this type of intellectual training. What does the author know that they don’t?

    4. “Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.”
    _______________________________________________________________________________

    The author either knows nothing about Putnam’s Twin-Earth experiment or instead is trying to score cheap points, by lining up funny-sounding names.

    The Twin-Earth thought experiment was used by Hilary Putnam, to great effect, to make a number of crucial points that cut across both semantics, sociolinguistics, and the philosophy of mind – regarding reference, mental representation, linguistic competence, and more. The articles in which the experiment appears engendered a broad and highly productive conversation on these subjects, for decades to follow. I can’t think of a worse example of what is supposed to be “bad philosophy.”

    5. “It’s also worth noting that the very spectacle of scholars devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline is a sure sign that all is not well with the discipline in question.”
    ____________________________________________________________________________________

    This is my favorite quote from the article and is what I will close on.

    There is something really rich about a person who pens a lengthy attack on philosophy, and then turns around and cites as evidence of philosophy’s troubles that philosophers are “devoting a lot of time and effort to trying to define and defend their discipline.”

    In case the author hasn’t noticed, he is merely the latest person banging the “philosophy is worthless” drum. This is an attack that has been sustained, now, for years. What would the author have us do, those of us who have invested our lives, our intelligence, and our feelings into the study of this subject? Just pack it in? Say, “Yeah, you’re right, my whole life’s work was just a waste of time”?

    If I walked up to the author and punched him in the face, he’d (hopefully) defend himself. Suppose I did it every day, for weeks and then months on end, and suppose for all that time, the author would indefatigably defend himself and nobly carry about his daily business. And then suppose I was to say, “you know, the fact that you are devoting a lot of time and effort to defending yourself is a sure sign that all is not well with you.”

    Who would be the object of just admiration?

    And who would not?

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  16. I think Massimo is referring to the later, so-called, postmodernist Rorty. Perhaps not. I remember one of my English professors contended that most novelists had only one thing to say and, given enough time, said it repeatedly to the point of becoming tediously self-parodic.

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  17. But the problem with that is you are assuming that scientists can’t do bad and useless philosophy about science. They can and do. Much of the bad and useless philosophy is done by scientists about science.

    Afterall, from the physicist’s perspective, any good-and-valid philosophy would be part of science.

    And a true Scotsman, to boot?

    The problem is that if you start to regularly label philosophy as science you weaken science. For example if you want to claim that Intelligent Design is not science then you will be in a pretty weak position if you have labelled a whole host of philosophical discussions as science. They will rightly ask – “If that is science then why is this not science?”.

    For example you would clearly label your articles in Scientia Salon as science under this theory. So what criteria would you use to distinguish it from Scientia Salon articles that are not science?

    Also, there is a great deal of bad and useless science which should be ditched. It always puzzles me why those in scientists do not spend more energy in tidying up that problem instead of always trying to blunder into other fields.

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  18. Hi Carl

    But we must notice that Wittgenstein himself was deeply hostile to the idea that philosophy could be or should be in relationship with science, both in the Tractatus and in the Philosophical Investigations.

    This is what I had thought too, but from the text:

    “In a way, all I’m doing,” says Unger, “is detailing things that were already said aphoristically by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations” [5]. He sees the only real hope for the discipline as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.

    And I was wondering what part of PI that comes from. As far as I know, by the time Wittgenstein wrote PI, a close collaboration between philosophers, mathematicians and scientists had been going on for decades and Wittgenstein had pointedly always refused to become involved in that other than in a minor and tangential way.

    It made me wonder if Unger had actually read PI.

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  19. Other types of philosophizing based on informal reasoning about science-fiction-like thought experiments — Twin Earth or zombie or brain-in-a-vat talk, for example — may be seen as empirically constrained to some extent, but its problem also is that it does not engage closely enough with real science. What this means is that the issues are often simply not resolvable in the terms in which they have been presented. Thought experiments just become talking points or discussion generators in the absence of any real — or at least prospective — engagement with actual science.

    But of course there is engagement with real, actual science, you just need to look around you. Science does not occur in a vacuum, quantum physics was developed in an atmosphere where physicists engaged epistemic points such as illustrated by “brain-in-a-vat” or “evil genii” type thought experiments – it was part of what they did.

    And they made such thought experiments of their own – such as Schrodinger’s Cat or Einstein’s analogous argument about the exploded/unexploded dynamite.

    They did not create these thought experiments in the knowledge that they would be resolvable, they raised them in order to illustrate or clarify questions they have about science.

    Science, mathematics and philosophy will be the poorer if we are only allowed to raise questions that we know, in advance, will be resolvable.

    It is also part of science now – read Sean Carroll’s blog and you will find he uses the thought experiments of philosophy and applies them to science (for example the Sleeping Beauty problem). Sean Carroll and a number of others are very keen to find models of quantum physics which they can think of as being “real”.

    See the discussion between Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking where Penrose, the realist, worries about the concept of a smeared out dead/alive cat and Hawking as the Positivist (as he was then) says that we should not worry about such things but only if the mathematics describes and predicts the observations.

    They would not have had that discussion if they had to be able to demonstrate that the questions would be resolvable ahead of time.

    But asking the questions clarifies the issues and can have important consequences as to the matter of how people go about doing science in the future.

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  20. If I walked up to the author and punched him in the face, he’d (hopefully) defend himself. Suppose I did it every day, for weeks and then months on end, and suppose for all that time, the author would indefatigably defend himself and nobly carry about his daily business. And then suppose I was to say, “you know, the fact that you are devoting a lot of time and effort to defending yourself is a sure sign that all is not well with you.”

    Who would be the object of just admiration?

    And who would not?

    Indeed, look at the amount of time and effort that those in science are devoting to defending and defining their discipline.

    Would the author say that the Dover Trial, “Why Evolution is True”, “The Greatest Show on Earth”, etc are a sure sign that science is in trouble?

    Sometimes time and effort is spent in defending a discipline because those who attack it are in the wrong and it is worth defending.

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  21. Aravis Tarkheena makes some interesting points as well as some rather careless and sweeping accusations. I can’t deal with them all in one comment. I will do some follow-up comments over the next day or two.

    The appeal to authority is interesting, but what I would like to draw attention to at the outset is the emotionally-charged tone of the comment – the face-punching metaphor really takes the cake. (Or is it a thought experiment?) Am I really saying what you say I am saying? I am not rejecting all philosophy out of hand, you know.

    Don’t blame me because others have said some similar things before me. I just happen to have written a couple of ‘thinking out loud’-type articles trying to articulate the doubts I have about philosophy’s status today. Some people (including some philosophers) seem to agree with me in general terms; others don’t. Fine.

    And, by the way, neither Unger nor I was ever in any doubt about Wittgenstein’s attitude to science. I quoted Unger on his debt to PI, and then said (separate point) that he (Unger) sees philosophy’s best hope for the future as involving collaboration with the sciences. I made the point that Rorty and Unger differ in their attitude to science. Not everyone who expresses a debt to Wittgenstein is thoroughly Wittgensteinian. To me Horwich seems to be the closest to Wittgenstein of the names I mentioned, not least because of his moral and (broadly interpreted) religious orientation.

    And, by the way, I am quite aware that applied ethics courses are booming – in fact I developed and taught one for a number of years – and that new technologies have thrown up a whole panoply of new ethical problems. But these facts just make concerns about philosophy’s epistemic authority all the more pertinent I would have thought.

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  22. Mark, well, I’d be interested in your further comments, because it seems to me that Aravis hit all the right points in the right manner. And I don’t think you should read too much in the “punch in the face” analogy. This isn’t a violent forum…

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  23. I agree that a synoptic view is desirable but, as I suggested in the essay, it raises questions of expertise and authority. Who has the authority to adjudicate on science (or scientia) as a whole?

    And I don’t think you need to see the various disciplines as existing in separate worlds. There is always going to be overlap, interdisciplinary work. And why can’t experts in a given field question their own assumptions, or question the assumptions of those in related fields?

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  24. ME wrote: “I would like to draw attention to at the outset is the emotionally-charged tone of the comment – the face-punching metaphor really takes the cake.”

    ———

    Of course you would. After all, why address the substance of the point — that it is a bit outrageous to pen 2 articles attacking philosophy, and then cite as evidence of philosophy’s trouble its efforts to defend itself — when you can distract, by turnabout. “He’s mean!” “He’s attacking me!” “He’s hostile!”

    ———-

    ME wrote: “Am I really saying what you say I am saying? I am not rejecting all philosophy out of hand, you know.”

    ———-

    Lessee.

    1. You’ve asserted that philosophers cannot claim *any* expertise, by way of their disciplinary knowledge.

    2. You’ve maintained that the effort to resist scientistic hegemony over all epistemic activity and urge the importance of arts and humanities to the human project of knowing is nothing more than religious-type faith. (With the obligatory “in some quarters” thrown in)

    3. You describe “worthwhile philosophy” as that which “focuses closely” on scientific areas of knowledge and inquiry. (With the obligatory “usually” thrown in)

    4. You characterize philosophy, as “trading on the past glories of the subject”, depict students of philosophy as feeling “disappointment and disillusionment” and practitioners as peddlers of cliches, shallow analyses, and “desk calendar wisdom” (on the basis of the most uncharitable selection of books imaginable).

    Not much left for us poor jerks, once you get through this list. (And there’s more — I just got tired.) So, yeah, you “really are saying what I say you’re saying.”

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  25. And, by the way, neither Unger nor I was ever in any doubt about Wittgenstein’s attitude to science. I quoted Unger on his debt to PI, and then said (separate point) that he (Unger) sees philosophy’s best hope for the future as involving collaboration with the sciences.

    Well then that really needs to be unpacked.

    He says that he is saying just the same thing as Wittgenstein and then straight away you say he came to the diametrically opposite conclusion to that of Wittgenstein.

    So Unger is contradicting himself. He sees value in the philosophical work of a man who explicitly rejected the collaboration with science that most of his peers were engaged in.

    And yet he concludes that the only hope for the philosophy is to reject the type of philosophy that Wittgenstein was doing and start engaging in the type of philosophy he was refusing to engage in and saw no value in.

    In other words he is saying that the only hope of philosophy is to reject the kind of philosophy in which he (Unger) sees value.

    Now you will have to admit that this is a very hefty contradiction. How do you or Unger resolve it?

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  26. Did I say or imply that Nagel’s book destroyed philosophy? I gave it as an example of a tendency of philosophers to speak beyond their true areas of expertise.

    On the other issue you raise, the breadth of philosophy is not the only problem: there is also the question of its structure and nature. I claimed that expertise applies typically to reasonably narrow and clearly defined and recognized bodies of theoretical or practical knowledge. The sub-disciplines of physics and chemistry, say, derive ultimately from an uncontroversial body of basic knowledge (high school physics and chemistry and beyond) which takes years to master. Practical disciplines like medicine also build on a basic body of accepted knowledge. Likewise mathematics (parts of which, of course, are part of the knowledge base required for doing physics and other sciences). One part builds on another. But philosophy doesn’t seem to fit this pattern. Thus the authority problem for the ethicist or metaphysician (though not so much for the logician).

    I agree that you can be an expert in what philosophers have written in areas like ethics and metaphysics but I doubt the value of this kind of expertise (unless it is seen more in terms of the history of ideas).

    It’s the wastepaper basket problem again.

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  27. Hm. With respect to Wittgenstein, I think your only approach would be to point out that “scientizing philosophy” is different from philosophy “collaborating” with the sciences. Aravis is correct about Unger, so your best bet is to ditch him and try to keep Horwich.

    but what I would like to draw attention to at the outset is the emotionally-charged tone of the comment

    Hopefully to draw attention to it as a positive quality rather than to imply that the writer is “hysterical”.

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  28. I think you may have misunderstood me slightly – I wasn’t suggesting that it’s best to leave the disciplines in isolation, but rather that philosophy’s value is in its ability to facilitate their overlap. We need people who are focused on questioning assumptions, and we need people who are focused on running with them. Experts within specified fields certainly can question their own assumptions, but then they’d be doing philosophy, and they could benefit from there being a field of study dedicated to just that purpose.

    Logistically, if we start dividing philosophy up into it’s subsets and shopping them out to different departments (some to the history department, some to comparative literature, some to mathematics, some to the sciences, some to political science, etc), we’d either end up with a fair amount of redundancy, or else we’d break the synoptic view by treating systemic questions in a fragmented way.

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  29. Also interested to hear your response to Aravis’ post, Mark. At least every other week someone seems to be writing articles bashing philosophy, saying pretty much the same things as each other, over and over, but they never seem to get around to addressing the counterpoints raised by defenders of the discipline. They also seem to make strong unquivocal claims at the get go, then scuttle back to the “but I’m not dismissing Philosophy outright” defence when someone calls them on it. So I’ll join the queue of those eagerly awaiting your point by point reply here.

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  30. [The following was written without reading the comment-response exchange between Aravis and Mark, above. I am just now reading that and may come back to it. I did note one thing, briefly: Mark: ” I am not rejecting all philosophy out of hand, you know.” Well, it sure sounds like that.]

    I had a number of problems with this article. To begin with, the ‘end of philosophy argument dates back to the Fathers of the Church, many of whom felt that philosophy was either a waste of time or a distraction suggested by the devil. And yes, they were talking about natural philosophy, but they were also discussing what we would call ethics, political philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics. Logic itself has come under suspicion repeatedly in the history of theology, both Christian and Islamic. We should remember that reasoning discourse over shared concerns in search of improved values and clarification of thought, is always a threat to ideological purists. And there is no doubt in my mind that there is a strain of ideological puritanism in current arguments for ‘scientism.’
    What is the danger in it? In a comment to a recent article here by Massimo Pigliucci, I noted that one of the issues not addressed by anti-philosophy scientism arguers is the current prevalence of scientists engaging in philosophy, although many refuse to acknowledge this (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/the-return-of-radical-empiricism/comment-page-1/#comment-6847). The problem is three fold. First, many scientists are engaging in philosophy uninformed as to the history and contexts of the issues they address. Secondly, in order to engage in such philosophy, they often borrow ideas and definitions from philosophy, sometimes surreptitiously, which they then assume to have been finalized, i.e., no longer debatable. Finally, since their (borrowed) terms and ideas are considered no longer debatable, it follows that any disagreement is simply wrong. Since those most likely to find points of debate and disagreement would be philosophers, philosophy per se must simply be wrong.
    But if philosophy per se is somehow simply wrong, then perhaps the terms and ideas borrowed from it are also simply wrong? For instance, I’ve read a lot lately about how science promises to solve the problem of consciousness, and I have no problem with this if it happens. But the very notion of consciousness has been developed (and debated) through philosophic discourse; why bother with further discussion of it if the activity that brought it into being is wrong?

    Secondly, putting this in context, I wholeheartedly support Aravis’ remarks in response to this article. What is the point of arguing that a professional pursuit ought to be stopped – just because, ‘science?’ It is one thing to say, ‘just don’t bother.’ Why would any philosopher want to agree to that?
    It is another thing to suggest, constructively, that philosophy should progress in different directions than it has, and there are those in philosophy who are doing this, this is an ongoing debate.

    This leads me into a structural problem with Mark’s article: In support of his argument he attacks certain assumed ‘failures of philosophy,’ while marshaling philosophers he suggests support his position. The first maneuver is filled with ‘straw men,’ the second with ‘strange bedfellows.’ The ‘straw men’ here, McGinn and Nagel, are not convincingly representative of the failure of philosophy in the present era. As for Grayling, what irks Mark is that he is not presenting his text on friendship as authoritative, that he seems to be writing as a “man of letters.” That’s a problem? You want to say that philosophy is a waste of time and your argument for a whole 10 paragraphs is essentially a literary review? I haven’t read Grayling’s book, but Mark’s review hasn’t given me any reason not to. Grayling is a philosopher I respect, and if the text is well written, I might just learn something from it, which is all that I ask of a text by a philosopher. I don’t necessarily want to get things right, I want to have my own thinking challenged.

    But the ‘strange bedfellows’ here give me greater difficulty. Of the philosophers Mark calls to his support, ONLY Unger actually agrees with his position. Horwich, Shrage, and Rorty do not argue for any ‘end of philosophy;’ they are arguing for a different direction for philosophy, much in the way that I suggested above. That is clearly true also of Wittgenstein, the philosopher scientism arguers always like to refer to, without apparently reading much of what he wrote. (See the Monk article linked by Asher Kay, above, but also Lynch’s reply to Horwich, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/05/of-flies-and-philosophers-wittgenstein-and-philosophy/.) Arguments against certain kinds of philosophy are simply not arguments against philosophy as a whole. And the fact that such arguments for change, for redefining the project – or, rather projects – of philosophy, is not any evidence that it is without any project at all, it indicates that the field is alive with committed research and debate.

    Finally, the Lynch article reminds me that philosophy as a discipline can offer what other disciplines cannot, criticisms of basic assumptions and lines of reasoning. I’m not talking about only ‘critical thinking’ in the educative sense. I mean that philosophy is well placed to raise critical inquiry into political and social issues, as well as scientific practices. The former should be obvious – for instance, how can we have a debate over the kind of justice system we want if we cannot criticize what it is we assume ‘justice’ to include? But the latter is just as important surely; indeed, in this area, I find many philosophers unnecessarily timid. For instance, current problems in physics, concerning string theory and cosmology, seem to be involving (and evolving) certain problems in epistemology and metaphysics that I fear physicists themselves are ill-equipped to handle – at least without recourse to reference to philosophy. Even if this only involves the history of such issues, it should be noted that only philosophers have been adequately trained in the history of philosophy; consulting the SEP will only get one so far.

    Which brings us to Mark’s final remark, that as far as preserving the humanities is concerned, he’s “on board” – just not philosophy. This position is simply incoherent. Without philosophy, none of the other disciplines labeled ‘humanities’ would even exist. As instance, as noted, only philosophers are trained to teach the history of philosophy; and without that, you can pretty much chuck history, literature, art, languages – the lot.
    I’m not ready to do that.

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  31. Mark English: 

    “But the word “expertise” normally applies only to reasonably narrow, clearly defined and recognized areas of knowledge, theoretical or practical. And general philosophy (encompassing all the traditional sub-disciplines) is just too broad and ill-defined for the word to apply in any natural or straightforward sense. Its meaning must be, as it were, stretched to fit.”

    Reply:

    Yes, that’s why we have metaphysicians, epistemologists, ethicists etc.

    Objection:

    There is even disagreement about what philosophy is about — or if it is about anything at all.

    Reply: yes, and there is disagreement about what science is about or history. The nature of philosophy is itself a philosophical question. 

    “about anything at all” ok, so I guess all those people for the last 2000 years have been thinking about nothing at all.

    Objection:

    “Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.”

    Normative study of rationality is a key part of philosophy, but not all. Not clear to me what: ” entire realm of reason” means but philosophy studies and attempts to provide rational foundations for the principles upon which we reason. If you disagree with that the then you need a better argument that simply saying it looks “plausible” to me. 

    Objection:

    “If philosophy had a center or a core sub-discipline things might be different. Arguably metaphysics once played this role. And, in the middle years of the 20th century, a humbler, scaled-down version of philosophy focusing on logic and science prevailed and appeared to many to be viable. It may still be viable.” 

    Reply
    The centre is metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics. There you go.

    Objection:

    “But there is as I see it a problem for academic philosophy as it is currently constituted (even apart from the various well-known and long-standing internal disagreements and divisions about the nature of the subject). However you look at it — and even limiting the picture to analytic philosophy — the loose amalgam of disciplines and activities which goes under the name of philosophy in academic contexts is not and is no longer generally perceived as a unified area of activity or knowledge.”

    Reply:

    Yes, but these philosophical civil wars have been going since the Enlightenment. Rationalism v empiricism anyone?

    Objection:

    “So it is no surprise that general philosophy and philosophers in general are losing authority and status, even as certain sub-disciplines of philosophy — notably those with a scientific focus, like the philosophy of physics for example — manage to thrive.”

    Reply:

    Aravis made a great reply to this point about bioethics flourishing and pointed out arguably that it is the “science” stuff that has less value or interest (certainly, it seems to noobs like Krauss and Tyson.) 

    Did Philosphers ever have authority? Did philophers ever have status, except among a tiny intellectual elite? 

    We should also consider that the lay folk probably don’t really know what philosophy is. They think it is something like pychology or some new age bullshit. 

    Objection:

    “Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline.”

    Reply: yes, I think there is some truth to that in regards the links with religion. Philosophy however has undermined the rationality of religious belief and one aim of philosophy I think to build a coherent system of facts, values, meaning, practice, into a coherent whole.

    Objection:

    “Such approaches often involve inflated claims, and it is just not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience. Stirring rhetoric about philosophy’s intellectual grandeur and moral importance won’t get you anywhere. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that it’s precisely this grand, over-reaching, overblown view of philosophy which more than anything else is bringing it down.”

    Reply: I think this is false. At least for the naturalist. Whose aim is to build a coherent system of belief, value, meaning and practice. The project for the naturalist philosopher is taking the findings of science seriously and how the findings of science undermine practically everything in religion and philosophical rationalism. The need then is for reconstruction.

    Last Word:

    Collingwood said that the task of 20th century philosophy is to reconcile with 20th history.

    I say that the task do 21st century philosophy is to reconcile with 21st science. 

    That is to build a coherent and systematic metaphysics, epistemology, ethical and political systems that reflects scientific understanding of mind and cosmos. 

    This is a project for the naturalists to flesh out this reconciliation and build such a system.

      

     

     

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  32. “And why can’t experts in a given field question their own assumptions, or question the assumptions of those in related fields?”

    But who’s excluding that? The point is really that the types of questions one asks when questioning the foundations of a discipline (or its assumptions) are usually of a different sort to the questions that the discipline itself deals with in its practice, and as such require a different approach, ie a philosophical approach. That’s not to say those usually concerned with the practice of a discipline can’t and don’t engage in this different sort of activity (and insofar as they do it well and thoughtfully they’re welcomed for it). But doesn’t it stand to reason that those who devote their academic energies predominately to, say, Philosophy of Physics, might have a strong claim to expertise in those particular questions because, well, that’s precisely what they devote their time to? Whereas someone who is a practicing physicist, an activity that by no means requires the kind of conceptual philosophical analysis and foundational questioning that the Philosopher of Physics is concerned with, might not necessarily have the same in depth understanding or developed skill set that is particular to this kind of enquiry, merely because they don’t devote much of their time to it?

    Why is that so hard to accept? Unless there’s a healthy dose of insecurity going on here, that is.

    What’s funny to me is that the argument often seems to be something like this:

    Philosophers of X (discipline) have nothing to actually contribute to the practice of X. This seems on the face of it to imply that Philosophy of X is indeed distinct from X and that there is little overlap, if any, between the two.

    But then the next part goes like this:

    Insofar as anyone should do Philosophy of X (which is distinct from X) then it shouldn’t be those who merely do Philosophy of X, but those who do X, because they’re the only real authority worth listening to on the matter by virtue of the fact that they do X (which has little if anything to do with Philosophy of X).

    That strikes me as as a cake and eat it too scenario.

    Again, the problem isn’t with experts in their given field engaging philosophically with that field, it’s when they do so poorly and with a hubris that dismisses the painstaking life’s work of those who engage in that sort of questioning full time. In terms of authority then, like pretty much everything, I’ll go with the person who has devoted their life to it over the person who does it in their spare time.

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  33. Your last paragraph leaves me confused. It seems to suggest that *because* “applied ethics courses are booming” and that there are “new ethical problems,” philosophy (including philosophy of ethics?) has lost “epistemic authority” (or at least this has become questionable). I really don’t see how this follows.

    [Nurse: ‘I need to ask an ethical question -‘
    Mark Philosopher: ‘I’m sorry, because you need to ask that question of me, clearly I am not the one you should ask.’
    Nurse: ‘But you have studied and thought deeply on such matters -‘
    Mark Philosopher: ‘Exactly; I have no expertise. Ask a (biologist/ physicist/ neuroscientist/ etc.).’]

    Does this make any sense?

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  34. Sometimes we can’t avoid it. When our Education Minister (who also happened to be my local member) a while ago intimated that he thought that there was a place for the teaching of Intelligent Design in Australian schools I wrote him a polite but firm letter expressing strong opposition. He may have received a few more because he backtracked very quickly.

    But, technically, I was speaking beyond my area of expertise when saying that ID was not science since I am not a biologist.

    Similarly I was once told (by an evolutionary biologist) that I could not criticise Daryl Bem’s “Feeling the Future” since I was not an experimental psychologist. That was kind of an extreme example of the “back off man, I’m a scientist” attitude and I am not sure that he quite understood what the paper was about.

    But I think there are valid instances of going beyond one’s expertise as well as invalid ones (for example Nagel).

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  35. Some see it as the normative study of rationality. But it is simply not plausible in my view that philosophy (or any single discipline) could effectively encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality. Logic perhaps, but reason is a much broader concept.

    Massimo Pigliucci prefers to see philosophy as being concerned with the exploration of conceptual as distinct from empirical space (the sciences being focused on the latter)[1]. But, again, conceptual space is just too vast an area to be subsumed by any one discipline.

    Again I would like to see this unpacked. Why could a single discipline not encompass the entire realm of reason or rationality? Why could a single discipline not encompass the exploration of conceptual space?

    I can’t see how anyone could respond to this point without knowing the precise nature of the objection.

    It is not as though anyone is suggesting that a single person or a particular group could be completely across this entire area, It is not as though anyone is suggesting that this means that philosophers have some sort of hegemony over scientists or mathematicians.

    Many have suggested a number of times that the discipline of science might encompass these entire realms – would you have similar reservations about that proposal?

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  36. The notion that physics derives from “an uncontroversial body of basic knowledge” is at best amusing. Certainly Einstein would have thought so just before blasting Newtonian absolutism into dust. And Einstein tried consigning quantum physics to the wastebasket, but that didn’t work. Your argument, once taken to the court of history, is insufficient.
    “One part builds on another. But philosophy doesn’t seem to fit this pattern.”
    I know you have training in philosophy; but your training in the history of philosophy is apparently incomplete. The historical development of the study of logic is very clear. The transition from theology to modern philosophy is also clear. (I know you’re committed to the thesis that contemporary philosophy is contaminated with religious concerns; unfortunately, there isn’t any branch of knowledge today that does not find its origins in theology. For a thousand years, theology was the only game in town. what, you want scientists today to enjoy virgin birth, uncontaminated by the intellectual efforts of 2300 years? are you just being silly or contrarian? We have a field of physics called ‘cosmology’ because cosmology was studied for centuries by theologians! What do we tell, e,g,, Krauss, Penrose, Hawkings, ‘hey, stop doing that, that’s an old theological question!’ I think not. The ‘religion origination’ issue is a red flag and a red herring. I pass.)
    All new knowledge is constructed on the ruins of the past. That doesn’t make the past unimportant.
    We learn what we may from whatever sources we can.

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  37. Mark English: “Earlier this year I wrote a piece expressing doubts — based largely on historical factors concerning how the nature of philosophy has changed over time and its links with religion — about philosophy’s future viability as a stand-alone, secular academic discipline.”

    Your last piece was wrong.

    Mark English: “So, overall, it seems to me that philosophy and philosophers are trading on the past glories of the subject, as well as on misunderstandings on the part of sections of the general public concerning what words like “philosophy” and “metaphysics” might signify.”

    Your this piece is confused. You are confusing about {the academic philosophy, philosophers in the history and of today, the many-isms} are the philosophy itself. Of course, {the academic philosophy, philosophers in the history and of today, the many-isms} are related to philosophy and are parts of it, but they are not philosophy per se. You again mistake that philosophy was only the ‘mother’ of many vital disciplines of today, and it is the time for this aged-mother to go. You are truly wrong on this because that you do not know {what is philosophy?}. I will show you two solid examples here.

    Example one:
    Issue one: “What are the ‘physical’ laws of nature?”
    Physics is the best candidate to answer this issue ‘today’.
    And, fact one: the ‘empirical physics’ has done a great job on the issue one.
    Proposition one: With fact one, “Empiricism is the only way for gaining knowledge”.

    Proposition one is not a physics issue but a philosophical issue, and its validity can only be decided in the ‘court’ of philosophy.

    I have given one example that ‘all’ nature-physics laws can be derived without any empirical-info (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/28/the-return-of-radical-empiricism/comment-page-1/#comment-6855 ). However, the ‘internal logic’ of this example does not prove that ‘proposition one’ is wrong. The proposition one is wrong because that this example is ‘valid’. That is, the sentence for ‘proposition one’ cannot be judged in the court of physics but must be judged outside of it, and the court of philosophy can simply do that.

    Example two:
    Proposition two: “All axioms of math make contact to reality, so math is empirical”. Thus, the proposition one is proven.

    Again, there is no ‘math’ which can prove that the ‘proposition two’ is wrong. I can however show that one set of axioms of a math is not empirical, as below.

    I am ‘constructing’ a new number system, as below:
    Axiom one: 1 + 1 = a; a can be any ‘nature number’ (defined by the textbook number system).

    When I choose a = 3, then 1 + 1 = 3

    Axiom two: all theorems in the real-number (textbook) system is valid, applicable on this new number system.

    Axiom three: a + 1 = b, b + 1 = (a + 1) + 1 = a + (1 + 1) ;
    If a = 3, then b + 1 = a + (1 + 1) = 3 + 3 = 6
    Note: this axiom gives a computing (+) operation for this new number system. However, it might cause some contradictions with the axiom two. That is, one formula can give two or more answers. And, two or more formula can give the same answer. For the textbook number system, it is a ‘straight-line’. On the other hand, this new number system can be a twisted and entangled line. So what? As long as we can get a unique answer for every computation (equation) in this system, it is a good number system. Of course, we might need to add more rules (axioms) to smooth out those contradictions. I will add axiom four below first. If we need add more, it will just be a piece of cake.

    Axiom four: if a formula produces more than one answer, the largest one is the answer. [note: this axiom ensures that every function has only one value.]

    At the beginning, this new number system can be a mess; but it is still a well-defined number system. After a bit work, we can find many wonderful and strange properties about it. Will this new number system be any useful, especially about this real world? Definitely.

    This new number system could be much better than the ‘NIST elliptic curve cryptography algorithms’ and can very much close the NSA back door, as follow:

    Message = {coded by (a1) number system} + … {coded by [a(n)] number system}

    The above has two tiers of encryption:
    A. Coded by {a(1), …, a(n), …} systems. If a(1) = 3, then it is a [1 + 1 =3] system. If a (n) = 41, it is a [1 + 1 = 41] number system.
    B. {a(1), …, a(n), …} itself can be encrypted with a different system.

    This is one example that the axiom set of a math system is absolutely having nothing to do with any empirical connection. Again, the ‘internal math-logic’ of this example does not prove that the ‘proposition two’ is wrong. Proposition two is wrong because that this example is valid. The validity of proposition two is not judged by math but outside of the math, again in the court of philosophy.

    Philosophy encompasses a much bigger ‘scope’ than the point which is showed by these two examples. But, this single point has showed that some judgments (knowledge) can only be handed out by a higher court (above the individual ‘discipline’).

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  38. “I made the point that Rorty and Unger differ in their attitude to science.”
    Actually, they seem to have nothing in common.
    “Not everyone who expresses a debt to Wittgenstein is thoroughly Wittgensteinian. To me Horwich seems to be the closest to Wittgenstein (…).” Lynch would disagree. So would I. For that matter, I would suggest that Horwich would disagree with the use you have made of him. (And if Horwich, Lynch, Rorty, – and possibly Wittgenstein himself – and I all disagree with your interpretation of Wittgenstein, you have problems.)
    Well, you seem to be wrong about Horwich, Wittgenstein, and Rorty. That leaves Unger. God luck with that!

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  39. Again a reply to OP. and the last remark is ‘Good luck with that’ (although “god luck” is rather amusing in the context, given that OP wants ‘science’ is lifted to near divine authority over knowledge).

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  40. I actually like Rorty until his debates with Eco; Eco proved to be the pragmatist Rorty pretended to be.
    There is more to say about Eco than is commonly said.

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