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. Michelle,
    I think that the value of philosophy is in its approach – it questions assumptions that are taken for granted in other disciplines

    We need people who are focused on questioning assumptions

    I think you have hit the nail on the head. Other disciplines generate knowledge, that is not the function of philosophy, that is not its expertise. Philosophy instead examines and interprets the findings of other disciplines, that do generate knowledge, questioning their assumptions and methodology.

    A lovely example of that was Lawrence Krauss’ infamous assertion that something can come from nothing. It was naive assertion with poor understanding of ‘nothing’, something that was quickly pointed out by philosophers.

    Knowledge generated by specialist disciplines becomes interpreted and absorbed into the general consciousness. That role is carried out variously by popular writing, science journalism and the academics themselves. It is a fruitful source of bias, misinterpretation and selective interpretation. An academic is always a biased advocate of his own work.

    This is where philosophy can play an important role. It brings powerful tools of careful thinking to the table. It brings an informed understanding of broader, contextual issues to the table and is is free of the bias found in the disciplines themselves.

    My broader comment is that we have become trapped in the view that worthwhile academic work generates new knowledge and the sciences are a prime example of that. We hold up philosophy to that standard and cry that it does not do the same. My reply is that we are asking the wrong thing of philosophy. We should instead be asking it to provide a questioning and interpretive layer between academia and society.


  2. Mark,
    I agree that you can be an expert in what philosophers have written in areas like ethics…but I doubt the value of this kind of expertise

    I notice you hardly mention the importance of ethics in your article, and then casually dismiss it in this sentence. In all, you made only three passing mentions of ethics. Ethical problems are central to the way society operates and philosophy plays a central role in examining and formulating ethical systems.

    Just take today’s report on the BBC, One in Ten Girls are Sexually Abused, says UN Report, ( That is a huge amount of very real suffering caused by ethical failures. I am completely confounded by your blithe dismissal, “I doubt the value of this kind of expertise


  3. Aravis,
    you have been subjected to double jeopardy, Attack philosophy and then attack philosophy for defending itself. It is a common tactic and not an especially admirable one.

    Your points were all on the mark(if you will pardon the pun). I am especially astonished by his blithe dismissal of ethics. See my earlier response to Michelle. He only uses the words ‘ethics’ three times, in passing, in the article. I suspect Aristotle has risen from his grave and is searching for Mark’s office.


  4. I run an investment firm, and it appears to me that I am the only “lay person” here. For reasons not clear to me, I am deeply interested in evolutionary biology and “general philosophy” as Mark calls it. I have read almost all of David Hume and lot of Bertrand Russell, who, I assume, can be called general philosophers. As a non-expert philosopher, I wanted to point out that reading and understanding philosophy has made me a much better investor over the years. Science has been useless to me as an investor (although I am a graduate engineer). I have numerous examples of the ways in which I used philosophy, but let me just offer one.

    One of my favorite Humean quotes is: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”. This was an “a- ha” moment for me about 15 years ago when I was struggling as a professional investor. In my line of work, most companies make tall claims of excellence, and it is not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. This advice from Hume has helped me enormously over the years, and (I think and hope) I have become better at assessing companies and their managements. I may or may not have figured this out on my own, but Hume surely short-circuited the process.

    As an investor, let me ask this of anyone demanding an end to philosophy as we know it. Where can the investing community turn to for answers to tough questions like: should I invest in a casino, should I vote to fire an otherwise excellent CEO who seems to be a misogynist, is it appropriate to charge millions of dollars in fees when the fund has underperformed the market, is this or is this not an inside information on which I can trade? Science has no answers to these questions, and more importantly, does not even want to get muddled with these issues. While no academic discipline can offer prescriptions to these problems, I do think that critical thinking and philosophy can inform many of the issues investors like me face on a daily basis.

    The article seems to suggest there is an ongoing attack on philosophy. I am not an expert and don’t have time read all the current academic debates. But I do hope general philosophers and philosophers in general do not take these attacks seriously. Their time is better spent propagating philosophy to help people like me become more rational and more reasonable human beings. Only one request: please be more comprehensible than Derrida.


  5. Have you actually read Nagel’s book though Mark? I ask because when I read it the impression I got was that it actually had very little to do with evolutionary biology itself, and everything to do with metaphysics. He doesn’t reject the theory of evolution, insofar as its claims go, he rather sees it as incomplete and lacking in terms of a broader conception of reality. In other words the work he is doing is really at the edges of evolutionary biology. I myself find some of his criticisms of reductionism on the money, others not so, but this idea that he’s writing about things beyond his expertise I find a little perplexing…can anyone really claim an expertise about questions like whether the universe is fundamentally teleological or not?


  6. Hi Robin,

    But the problem with that is you are assuming that scientists can’t do bad and useless philosophy about science.

    No, I was not assuming that. As I said: “It doesn’t matter that we agree on which is which, just that we have our own ideas of what is in each category”.

    They will rightly ask – “If that is science then why is this not science?”.

    It is *not* an issue of subject topic, it is an issue of quality control. See this cartoon (scroll a little down) for the difference. Thus the difference between a scientific evaluation of a medicine and homoeopathy is all about valid methods, not about that the issue being discussed.

    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.

    Can you give examples of this “great deal of bad and useless science”? But, most scientists do indeed spend their energies on quality control within their disciplines and within science. Are you suggesting that philosophy is not important enough to merit attention?


  7. Mark,
    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?

    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.

    That would seem to be a strikingly good reason. After all people do behave and their behaviour is permeated with normativity. There is hardly a person whose life has not been touched by the poor ethical choices of another person. For that matter, can anyone of us claim we have not made poor moral choices and that we have not harmed someone else, even if only tangentially?

    Christian Smith put it this way (Moral, Believing Animals, pg 148)
    Human culture, I have suggested, is always moral order, and human cultures are everywhere moral orders. Human persons, I have claimed, are nearly inescapably moral agents, human actions necessarily morally constituted and propelled practices, and human institutions inevitably morally infused configurations of rules and resources. Building on this model, in the foregoing pages I have suggested that one of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order


  8. Hi Aravis,

    the most thriving area in philosophy today … is Applied Ethics and especially Bioethics. Emerging science and technology have raised an entire generation of new ethical questions, […] 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.

    Just a comment that areas such as bioethics are indeed close to science and are indeed the areas that philosophy should do well and does do well. The key word is “applied” ethics, keeping it close to real-world issues.


  9. Hi Robin,

    Just to say that there you replied to a comment about thought experiments that “do not engage closely enough with real science” by giving an account of thought experiments that *do* engage closely enough with real science.

    I think that the criticism of “twin earth” as not doing so sufficiently is valid. As you say, plenty of thought experiments are indeed a valuable part of science (or whatever you wish to call the activity).


  10. Coel,
    Now, physicists regard all of the “good, worthwhile and valid philosophy” as science

    You have such an impoverished view of philosophy. You are imprisoned by an implicit view that worthwhile activities are those that generate new knowledge about the world, as science does. You use this view to judge the value of philosophy:

    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

    You are expecting the wrong thing of philosophy. Philosophy is not a knowledge generating activity in the sense that physics, chemistry, history or archaeology are.

    It is a process of exploring knowledge(generated by other disciplines), questioning it and interpreting it, demanding clarity, consistency, well reasoned logic and sound assumptions. To this end it develops tools and examines foundational assumptions. Massimo used the term ‘exploring the conceptual space’ to describe this.

    Furthermore, science is not the only activity of value in the world, much as you would like to believe that. In fact the vast majority of human activity has nothing to do with science except in the sense that human activity is supported by a technology infrastructure, enabled by science. By contrast, normativity suffuses all human activity, shaping behaviour, shaping outcomes. Science has nothing to say about normative behaviour but philosophy does. That makes philosophy highly relevant. When the average person uses his/her iPhone for sexting they are making a normative choice and they couldn’t care less about the science behind it. When the jilted boyfriend posts the nude photos of his former girlfriend(revenge porn) he is making a normative choice and the science is just incidental. Science may be an enabler but it has no say in normative choices. For that you need other disciplines and philosophy is important to this.


  11. It occurred to me that a major problem with Mark’s take is that he insists that there cannot be expertise in philosophy because philosophy is too broad a discipline. Philosophy, for him, is not “reasonably narrow.” But this strikes me as very strange. Nobody claims expertise “in philosophy.” I am a philosopher of science, and I claim expertise only in the even narrower philosophy of biology. I don’t know enough about, say, quantum mechanics or time to philosophize about *that*. And I certainly claim no expertise on Kant, Plato, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, and so forth.

    Look at it this way: I am also a scientist (the category broadly equivalent to “a philosopher”), and I have certainly taught introductory courses in biology, just like I do in philosophy. But as an expert my concentration was on population biology, and more specifically gene-environment interactions. I never claimed, nor could I have reasonably claimed, expertise in molecular biology, cell biology, developmental ecology, or even areas closer to interests, such as community ecology. What exactly is the difference between the two cases, then?


  12. Coeol, bioethics is close to science only in the sense that it applies ethics to a particular domain, namely science. It would be like saying that the ethics of, say, legal decisions, is close to law because it pertains to legal matters. It does, but only in the sense it takes those as inputs to deploy the tools of ethics, which happen to be the same regardless of whether we are talking about biology or justice.


  13. ejwinner,
    “god luck” is rather amusing in the context, given that OP wants ‘science’ is lifted to near divine authority over knowledge

    That is why I think scientism should really be called scientology.


  14. Hi Massimo,

    bioethics is close to science only in the sense that it applies ethics to a particular domain, namely science.

    It’s also close to science in another respect — bioethics and “applied” ethics usually derives ethics from an account of how humans think and feel about ethics. It is founded in a *descriptive* account of human ethics.

    You do not have to address issues of moral realism (or not) to do bioethics, you can leave them aside and just deal with human judgements and ethical feelings. Founding something in a descriptive account of how humans think and feel makes it “close to science” .

    It is when the field of ethics leaves that behind, and attempts to develop schemes of moral realism (“pure” ethics, rather than “applied” ethics) that it gets more dubious.


  15. Coel, not at all. You should read some bioethics before making that sort of comment. And this has nothing to do with moral realism, most ethics is not meta-ethics.


  16. Hi Massimo,

    I’m rather baffled by your reply. The fact that applied bioethics is not meta-ethics and is divorced from issues of moral realism was exactly the point I was making — applied bioethics is rooted in a descriptive account of human ethics, and that makes it akin to science.


  17. pcprasad1,
    Where can the investing community turn to for answers to tough questions like: should I invest in a casino, should I vote to fire an otherwise excellent CEO who seems to be a misogynist, is it appropriate to charge millions of dollars in fees when the fund has underperformed the market, is this or is this not an inside information on which I can trade? Science has no answers to these questions, and more importantly, does not even want to get muddled with these issues. While no academic discipline can offer prescriptions to these problems, I do think that critical thinking and philosophy can inform many of the issues investors like me face on a daily basis.

    I think you have put your finger on the nub of the problem. You might enjoy Michael Sandel’s book, What Is The Right Thing to Do?(


  18. I’m baffled by your baffledness. Have you ever read anything in applied ethics? Try Michael Sandel. You’ll see that there is neither talk of meta-ethics nor anything at all to do with “science.”


  19. Hi labnut,

    You are imprisoned by an implicit view that worthwhile activities are those that generate new knowledge about the world, as science does.

    No, labnut, I really, really am not. Vast swathes of very worthwhile human activities are nothing at all to do with generating new knowledge. My attitude that all good methods for generating new knowledge are best grouped under a broad “science” umbrella is really *not* the idea that generating new knowledge is the only worthwhile human activity.

    Philosophy is not a knowledge generating activity in the sense that physics, chemistry, history or archaeology are.

    If you say so, but I’m not sure I agree and I’m not sure that the philosophers here would agree.

    Furthermore, science is not the only activity of value in the world, much as you would like to believe that.

    Quote me saying that.


  20. Hi labnut,

    A lovely example of that was Lawrence Krauss’ infamous assertion that something can come from nothing. It was naive assertion with poor understanding of ‘nothing’, something that was quickly pointed out by philosophers.

    You misrepresent Krauss here. Krauss was already fully aware of the issues that David Albert and others raised. There was nothing “naive” in Krauss’s stance.


  21. All new knowledge is constructed on the ruins of the past

    Pithy and true. Any person who enjoys history is an archaeologist who enjoys picking over the ruins of the past. Blaming the present for the past is a variant of the fallacy of presentism.


  22. Michael Sandel work deals, for example, with notions such as “justice”. Where else do we get such notions other than from human opinion?

    A descriptive account of the human moral system is just as much “science” as a descriptive account of the human immune system.


  23. Oh boy. No, it ain’t science, under any sensible definition of science. But since you adopt an all-encompassing, essentially meaningless, definition of it, then sure, everything is science. Including meta-ethics.


  24. When pressed Krauss admitted that “of course” he wasn’t really talking about nothing. But that, you know, that sort of title is what sells books.


  25. Hi Massimo,

    As I’ve said a few times, the distinction between science and not-science is not about subject topic, it is about quality control.

    Physicists attempt to find abstracted statements that describe and model certain aspects of nature.

    Ethicists such as Rawls attempt to find abstracted statements that describe and model human moral feelings.

    Economists attempt to find abstracted statements that describe and model economies (whether they are any good at it being another matter).

    The general approach is the same; if finding descriptive statements about the human immune system is “science” then I don’t see why finding descriptive statements about the human aesthetic and moral systems is not.


  26. Coel,
    You really should read David Albert’s scathing take down of Krauss’ book – This is exactly how good philosophy works, exposing the vacuous pretensions of scientists with ideological agendas. Here is a choice quote:

    And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.

    Krauss talks of three levels of nothing. See instead Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s description of nine levels of nothing –

    I think my charge of naivete on the part of Krauss stands.


  27. I am not sure that the thought experiments I mentioned, such as “brain in a vat”, “evil genii” ones could really be said to engage closely with real science because, as I pointed out, if they they describe the possibility that “real” science would not be real. They engage with science in the same way they engage with epistemology generally.

    By the way, what is your objection to the “twin earth” thought experiment?


  28. Coel, Albert’s most definitely was not a hatchet job, and that you say so says a lot about your disdain of and lack of appreciation for philosophy, regardless of your protestations to the contrary.


  29. >>The fact that applied bioethics is not meta-ethics and is divorced from issues of moral realism was exactly the point I was making — applied bioethics is rooted in a descriptive account of human ethics, and that makes it akin to science.

    You seem to be ignoring the vast majority of ethics, which is neither meta-ethics nor “a descriptive account of human ethics.” Namely, NORMATIVE ethics.

    >>Ethicists such as Rawls attempt to find abstracted statements that describe and model human moral feelings.

    That’s not what most ethicists do. Many ethicists are trying to figure out what IS moral or immoral, and very often they might think that most people are *mistaken* on the matter (e.g., concerning slavery, sexism, criminal punishment, rape, war, the death penalty, abortion, the moral authority of God, etc.)


  30. Dear All,

    Krauss’s book takes a “layered” approach, which is a good pedagogical technique, particularly for a popular science book. He thus starts with “everything” and then gradually whittles it down.

    So he explains how matter can arise as quantum fluctuations out of “empty space”, which is in one sense “nothing”. That is what much of the book is about, and it is good popular-science writing, and is one sensible interpretation of “no thing”.

    *Then* he considers whether “empty space” is actually “something”, and then considers whether empty space itself came from a more absolute “nothing”. He notes that while normal quantum fluctuations are *in* space, gravity is also a theory *about* space, and thus a quantum-*gravity* fluctuation might also produce the “empty space” out of a more absolute “nothing”. Krauss fully admits that that is speculative since we don’t have a working theory of quantum gravity.

    Krauss then considers an even more basic question, noting that even a quantum-gravity fluctuation would come from “quantum-gravity behaviour”, and thus asks where that behaviour comes from, and can we dispense with “laws of physics” altogether and arrive at them from a truly absolute “nothing”? He fully admits that that is even more speculative, and that is where the book ends up.

    The book is thus an account of how far along that path science has got. It is not a claim “we can explain the universe out of absolute nothing”, it is rather an account of progress down that path. Thus, the only thing that the book can sensibly be accused of is a concise title. But then you try getting a paragraph-long title past a publisher!

    Albert then came along and adoped the attitude that Krauss was a silly, naive physicist who had only got as far as the first step (para 2 above) and then genuinely thought that that had solved the whole issue. But Krauss was already aware of thse issues, as his original book demonstrates!

    The philosophers are patting themselves on the back over their superior insight about issues that it had not occurred to the silly naive physicist to think about. Yet Krauss had already thought about and discussed those issues — which is why Krauss reacted rather tetchily to Albert’s rather unfair review. So, sorry, but I’m siding with Krauss here.


  31. HI Coel,

    I am not sure I quite got that. Something that was simply a descriptive account of human ethical judgments and feelings might be science.

    But that is a different case to something that takes human ethical judgements and feelings as its starting point.

    What is being described is something which is neither moral realism, nor is it simply a descriptive account of human ethical judgements and feelings.


  32. This is *not* what the author meant by “close to science.” Bioethics is the study of moral, *normative* issues, as they arise with respect to the application of medicine and medical technologies. (Normative issues that you think don’t exist.) But what Mark said is this:

    “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 is clear that he means things like philosophy of physics and philosophy of biology, practiced by philosophers with substantial knowledge *in those sciences*.


  33. The research on expertise is that it is, like beliefs in logic/reason and other cultural norms, a myth. Statements by “experts” appear to be more accurate on matters they have no experience with. Non-expert statements on specific subjects appear to be more accurate.

    This makes sense. There are simply way too many unknowns for any statements, by an individual, to be accurate/predictive.

    It is instructive that religious kinds of statements-ideas end the article. Magical thinking is the common theme. The core belief “Mind over matter.” There is no such biological, medical, physiological thing as a mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Why don’t you go ahead and tell us what the implications of the Twin Earth experiment are, Coel? What was Putnam’s point in evoking the example and what conclusions did he draw from it?

    If you think his criticism of the experiment is valid, you should be able to answer these questions.


  35. You have such an impoverished view of philosophy.

    Coel has an impoverished view of inquiry in general, not just philosophy. The most tunnel-visioned view I’ve encountered, short of religious fundamentalists.


  36. bioethics and “applied” ethics usually derives ethics from an account of how humans think and feel about ethics. It is founded in a *descriptive* account of human ethics.


    This is flat out false.


  37. I’d think that we all engage in some sort of philosophizing in our daily life. However, only a small percentage of people would like to put efforts required to become an “expert” on certain areas such as philosophy and mathematics and that not everyone has the capacity to do so. Has the number or quality of academic publications in philosophy significantly dropped? I doubt that a book or two or three can represent what philosophy is and have critical effects on the status of philosophy. Perhaps, the shrinking status/popularity of philosophy has more to do with social variables. A scientific study might shed some light on this. Just a statistician’s two cents (I love generalizations! ^_^).


  38. Hi Robin,

    By the way, what is your objection to the “twin earth” thought experiment?

    It just seems to me to make a fairly limited point. The mind-representation of “water” does indeed not point to H2O, it points to “stuff that acts sufficiently like water”, where that refers to a package of properties that the brain does indeed know about.

    Thus both H2O and XYZ are “water” on both Earth and twin-Earth. In the same way, water with an extra neutron (^2HHO) is also “water”. Similarly, the stuff that we drink with all the various impurities in it is “water”.

    Thus the term “water” does not fundamentally derive from a particular chemical composition, rather it derives from a particular set of properties (wetness, drinkability, taste, et cetera), with some envelope of allowed variation in those properties.

    If, later on, you learn the chemical composition then that is merely something else you learn about water. If you learned that water could be either H2O or XYZ then that is no different from learning that it could contain a ^2H instead of a ^1H or a ^18O instead of a ^16O.

    All of that seems fairly mundane. I may of course be totally missing or misinterpreting the whole point of the twin-earth thought experiment, and if I am then I expect I’m about to get jumped on. 🙂


  39. Hi Aravis,

    This is flat out false.

    Then from what roots does bioethics and applied ethics in general obtain an account of human morals?


  40. I am not sure that this covers what Putnam was saying, however the fact that you consider it trivial does not mean that it does not engage with science.

    For my part I don’t think that it is a criticism of a philosophical position to say that it does not engage science.

    But I was just pointing out that the “science fiction” thought experiments mentioned did engage science (among other things) even when that was not their point in the first place. Usually the scientific relevance of the philosophical point being made only emerged later.


  41. The Nagel comment was more of an aside, and I exaggerated. But picking a bad book (if it is a bad book) and saying that it shows a “tendency of philosophers” strikes me as equivalent of taking the study that showed a connection between vaccines and autism and saying that shows a tendency of scientists.

    As for the claim that Philosophy lacks “an uncontroversial body of basic knowledge,” that just seems strange to me. Modus ponens seems pretty uncontroversial to me, not to mention laws of identity and non-contradiction. There’s a ton of ethical, political, epistemological, and metaphysical knowledge that is uncontroversial. We just don’t spend all of our time discussing it, because it is uncontroversial. Starting every conversation by saying, “Are we all in agreement that it is wrong to torture babies?” would be like a physicist walking into his lab every morning and saying, “Well, f=ma, right?” We are all in agreement that it is wrong to torture babies.


  42. ” only philosophers are trained to teach the history of philosophy”

    This isn’t really true. Ancient Greek philosophy, for example, is taught in Classics departments (and they are arguably better at it in some respects, since they are also experts on the language, culture, and other historical facts of the time). Historical political philosophers (Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc.) are often taught in political theory. Philosophy is often taught in history of science (e.g., Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz.) Medieval philosophers are taught in religion departments (Aquinas, Augustine, Scotus, etc.) And philosophers show up in various literature and language departments (you can find Kant scholars in German departments.) And of course you have various “Great Books” and “Western Civilization” courses that are populated with philosophical readings and aren’t necessarily taught by philosophers.

    I won’t deny that philosophers tend to teach history of philosophy differently from non-philosophers (e.g., philosophers might be more interested in analyzing the arguments than placing the text in deep historical context), but let’s not pretend that only philosophers are trained to teach history of philosophy.


  43. However what you are saying does not seem all that trivial to me. You are basically saying that the referent of a word like “water” is its mental representation. In other words you are saying that the referent of any word is brain activity.

    I think that most people imagine that the referent of a word is the thing that triggers that brain activity.

    When a mother says “I care about my child” I don’t think she really means “I care about some brain activity”.


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