Mark English on Philosophy, science and expertise – A Naive Reply

Dictionary Series - Philosophy: philosophyby Peter O. Smith

A number of articles have come out recently about the role and future of philosophy, contributing to a growing sense of dismay about that discipline that demands a reply. A recent essay by Mark English in Scientia Salon [1] crystallized the issue, and so it represents a good reference point for a reply. Reading English felt like watching a profession fall on its collective sword. Why should they do that? Then again, critics of philosophy are all prominent people in their fields and I am not a professional philosopher, so why should my opinion count in this debate? Perhaps that is precisely why it should count, because people like me are the real target of philosophy and its critics. This, then, will be the theme of my reply.

First, some background. I am a foundry metallurgist who was retreaded as a quality engineer, then a software engineer, and was finally subsumed into corporate management. I am a naive philosopher with a limited grasp of the ideas and a tentative use of the terminology. But I think I am also intensely practical, with a keen appreciation of the power of ideas to motivate and guide behavior (blame my management background). It is precisely this intrinsic power of ideas that makes philosophy so important: if philosophy cannot be made relevant to a person like myself, then it has no relevance I can think of.

It may help to see the debate about philosophy in the context of a struggle among three competing world views [2], which can be approximately described as follows:

1) The scientistic world view: The authority of the Tangible.

This sees the world as a vast assemblage of particles driven inexorably by the laws of nature. There is no inherent purpose and meaning. Science discovers how this process unfolds and this is the only truly valuable activity since it deals with the only truths. Alex Rosenberg expressed this point of view very clearly [3]. Morality, purpose, meaning and freedom are just incidental and most likely illusions of the mind. This world view rests on the authority of the Tangible.

2) The humanist world view: The authority of Ideas.

We are the fortunate inhabitants of a stage that is by chance just right for us. We are privileged participants in the drama of the universe and have a special responsibility to each other and to the world we inhabit. We have no future but we should care for what we have while we have it, which includes caring for each other. We have created a rich culture, driven by a world of ideas and this culture gives us our purpose and value. We are custodians of and must cherish this world and culture for our successors. This world view rests on the authority of Ideas.

3) The religious world view: The authority of the Absolute.

This shares aspects of the humanist world view but argues for a real purpose and meaning to life that transcends our existence. It places more onerous demands on our standards of behavior. This world view rests on the authority of the Absolute.

The key features of this struggle between competing world views are the demands they place on our behavior and the nature of their appeal to authority. The religious view makes onerous demands and appeals to the Absolute for its authority. The humanist view makes lesser demands and appeals to the world of ideas for its authority. The scientistic view makes few demands and appeals to the tangible, the demonstrable, for its authority. This struggle takes place because we are discovering a new world of abundance and freedom. The authority of ideas seems to be losing its hold on our imagination and being replaced by the authority of the tangible. Science is tangible and successful, which gives the scientistic world view great credibility. Humanist and religious world views, by contrast deal with intangible problems that resist easy solution, so have lower credibility. In the last two hundred years the authority of the Absolute has been replaced by the authority of ideas, which in turn is now being replaced by the authority of the tangible.

With this background in view, I will attempt to: 1) summarize Mark English’s main thesis; 2) reply to his core points; 3) outline what I think is the real problem; and 4) propose a solution for the problems facing philosophy. I want to immediately note that (4) is in fact an admission that (from this naive philosopher’s point of view) philosophy does have a serious problem.

Mark English’ main thesis

This is my schematic summary of the ideas expressed in English’s essay for Scientia Salon:

a) Philosophers cannot claim expertise.

b) Philosophy is a broad and ill-defined discipline and there is no agreement concerning what it is about.

c) It has no centre or core sub-disciplines.

d) It is losing authority and status.

e) The religious origins of philosophy are important.

f) It is “not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience.”

g) The unity and independence of philosophy are not sustainable, and the only possible future for the discipline is by means of closer ties to science.

h) “Empirically and mathematically unconstrained approaches may need to be jettisoned.”

i) Students are disillusioned with philosophy.

j) Meta-questions about disciplines are best addressed by the individual disciplines themselves.

k) There are questionable motivations for defending philosophy.

A reply to English’ thesis

I want to start by acknowledging that there is a problem, but I think it is not what Mark English thinks it is. I will cover these points briefly because Aravis Tarkheena has already done a good job at answering them on the ensuing discussion thread [4].

The claim that philosophers lack expertise is rather like claiming that scientists lack expertise. No scientist has expertise in the full range of science, and in the same way no philosopher has expertise in the full range of philosophy.

That philosophy is broad and ill defined, a loose amalgam, is true, but does not constitute a serious criticism. It is the consequence of growing specialization in the academy, and we see it in all the main academic disciplines, including the sciences.

The idea that philosophy has no center is in fact not true. Its center is ethics, both theoretical and practical [5]. One may disagree with my assessment, but I find it interesting that English says so little about ethics at all. Still, a naive philosopher or onlooker, such as myself, may be inclined to concede the apparent truth of these criticisms because philosophy does not come in a neatly wrapped package with a label explaining its contents. Other disciplines do have clearer packaging that makes them more readily apprehensible.

English also claims that philosophy is losing authority and status. The loss of authority is part of the general trend towards scientism. This is accentuated by the sustained scientistic attack itself, part of the clash among world views with which we are preoccupied. I think the attack is motivated by a decided hubris, which results in a clear display of tribal behavior. I think of this as a form of empirical imperialism.

As for the religious origins of philosophy, they are just beside the point, as all disciplines are built on the ruins of the past. Raising the point feels like an attempt to smear philosophy on the assumption that most readers would be unhappy with its association with religion.

It is true that a small number of philosophers are claiming the role of “enfant terrible,” playing avant garde critic. But in reality they are merely within the norm, conforming to the general trend in society of accepting the authority of the tangible. English tries to make his point stronger by drawing attention to examples of bad writing in philosophy and one must reply, so what. All disciplines contain examples of bad writing and a lovely example of that is Krauss’ infamous book, A Universe From Nothing, and an even worse example is Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

English claims that students are disillusioned with philosophy. Aravis Tarkheena disposed of that point in a powerful fashion when he mentions the demand for courses in bio-ethics [4].

As for the idea that it is “not possible nowadays to articulate a broad and ambitious vision of philosophy which will be persuasive to a wider audience” I admit that this is indeed a serious problem. But I do not agree that such vision cannot be articulated, and in the last section I will outline how I think it can be done.

The assertion that meta-questions about disciplines are best addressed by the disciplines themselves is a questionable one. That is precisely because practitioners of such disciplines lack the philosophical training and background necessary to carry out that kind of analysis, and most importantly they lack the detachment and objectivity that is provided by an outside view of things.

We then get to the main thrust of English’s argument: he is arguing that philosophy should be more closely allied with science and that some parts of it should be abandoned: “the only real hope for the discipline [is] lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences.” I think this is profoundly wrong and my reasons for this stance will become apparent in the last section.

Finally, english questions the motivations for defending philosophy, claiming that political, moral and ideological commitments are at play. I’m not sure how he reaches that conclusion, or why it wouldn’t apply just as well to the other side of the debate. But seriously, can we just assume for the time being that people have sincere and legitimate interests in defending their chosen fields of inquiry?

The real problem

Mark English’s criticisms in their entirety point to what I think is a real problem, at the least as it looks to me while looking from the outside. The word “philosophy” does not convey much meaning to the ordinary person anymore. It has become something ephemeral, pie in the sky, somehow unrelated to the real life people lead. When the outsider looks in, he sees this vast array of disparate fields and he simply cannot make sense of it all. To make it worse, he cannot relate the terminology to anything in his experience. He can’t see a core to philosophy so he cannot see any purpose in it at all. To the outsider this looks like navel gazing taken to its extreme.

This problem is accentuated by the contrast with the great successes of science. Science then becomes the standard by which other endeavors are judged and it therefore may look like philosophy fares very poorly indeed. But this is a false comparison, as I will outline below. Finally, the problem is exacerbated by a good dose of scientistic hubris as the scientistic world view aggressively expands its influence.

The problem underlying it all is, I think, the trend from the authority of the Absolute, to the authority of Ideas to the authority of the Tangible with which I began this essay. Scientism reflects the authority of the Tangible and philosophy asserts the authority of Ideas. Mark English and others wish to embrace this trend toward the authority of the Tangible, but I think this is a mistake. We are volitional agents, we act, we behave. Science explains behavior, but ideas shape behavior and this means that ideas will always be paramount. Philosophy will thus remains relevant and important because it is the custodian and interpreter of the ideas that shape behavior.

A solution

This naive philosopher in me thinks that the philosophical community has been aiding and abetting its enemies by failing to provide a clear and compelling vision that is readily understandable to the rest of the world. Such a vision is necessarily a simplification that glosses over many things, it is superficial because it needs to be. It is the wrapping paper on the box that contains the many components of philosophy.

I am asking you to consider this because I think it is the outsider’s view that will determine the fate of philosophy. If philosophy cannot give a compelling account of itself to outsiders it will go into substantial decline and will keep yielding ground to the scientistic world view, a view that is simple and immediately appealing.

Let’s start with a distinction between science as a guide to the objective world and philosophy as a guide to how we respond to and think about the objective world. Science deals with the facts and philosophy deals with how we think about the facts.

As Massimo Pigliucci would likely put it, science investigates the empirical space and philosophy investigates the conceptual space [6]. The conceptual space overlays the empirical space (as well as extending beyond it), and philosophy supplies the interpretative layer between the conceptual and empirical spaces. Science and philosophy have thus two different but complementary roles.

However, this is all rather abstruse and likely conveys little to the man in the street. Why should that matter? Well, I am a man in the street and it matters to me. It matters because I live in a world making competing claims on my beliefs, time, behavior, and allegiances. I must make choices and I am continually confronted by questions like, what is true? How should I behave? What is valuable? I need to be equipped with a set of tools to navigate these choices. Philosophy is that tool.

Science is not that tool because it rests on the triad of test, observe, and measure, something the ordinary man does not do. Philosophy rests on the triad of belief, behavior, and value, something the ordinary man does all the time. To put it differently, philosophy answers three basic questions (loosely adapted from Kant [7]):

1) What can we believe?

We are faced with many claims of truth which encompass all aspects of our lives. Philosophy provides the tools to examine and test claims of truth. It develops the right attitude of mind so that truth claims are not uncritically accepted. This is becoming even more important as society enters late modernity, because the authority of the world of ideas is declining and individuals are assembling their beliefs at will from many sources, becoming a kind of “pastiche-man.”

2) How should we behave?

The world is afflicted by moral problems. Everyone of us has been impacted by the poor moral choices of others and in all likelihood we have made poor moral choices that have injured others. At the heart of philosophy, its very core, is ethical thinking. Philosophy is the custodian of ethics and is the thinking man’s guide to moral behavior.

3) What do we value?

Just as ethics permeates our lives so do ideas of value. We make value judgements all the time about things, people and events. Such important aspects of our lives need guidance, and philosophical thinking provides this guidance. The idea of value is so important because our species is prepared to go to great lengths to defend the things it values or to acquire them. Clearer thinking about values would go a long way towards mediating our conflicts.

In summary then, I believe that philosophy can make a case for itself by persuasively presenting the view that it answers the three basic questions above. This can be thought of as the wrapping paper on the box that contains the many parts of philosophy, if you will. It is what the outside world will see and that immediately conveys clear meaning that is relevant to our lives. It reinforces the idea that science and philosophy serve different needs. Professional philosophers will claim that this way of looking at things is superficial and incomplete. That is true, but it simply must be so.

People inclined toward scientism see the only real hope for philosophy as lying in the direction of collaboration with the various sciences. That is because they fail to value philosophy’s vital role as an interpretive layer between the empirical world and the conceptual world, one that fashions belief, behavior, and value. This is a role that lies outside the scope of science and one that science simply cannot provide.

_____

Peter O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] Mark English, Philosophy, science and expertise, Scientia Salon, 4 September 2014.

[2] Matt Warman, Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead’, The Telegraph, 17 May 2011.

[3] Alex Rosenberg, The Disenchanted Naturalist’s Guide to Reality, On the Human, 2009.

[4] Aravis Tarkheena, reply to Mark English.

[5] Aravis Tarkheena: “By far the most thriving area in philosophy today — and the one safest from the budgetary knife — is Applied Ethics.”

[6] Massimo Pigliucci, My Philosophy So Far — part I, Scientia Salon, 19 May 2014.

[7] “Philosophy … is in fact the science of the relation of all cognition and of all use of reason to the ultimate end of human reason, to which, as the highest, all other ends are subordinated, and in which they must all unite to form a unity. The field of philosophy in this cosmopolitan sense can be brought down to the following questions: 1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope? 4. What is man? Metaphysics answers the first question, morals the second, religion the third. Fundamentally, however, we could reckon all of this as anthropology, because the first three questions relate to the last one.” —I. Kant (JL 9: 24-25)

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103 replies

  1. Hi labnut,

    (Alberts) correctly points out that Krauss is misusing the word ‘nothing’

    You do like that example, don’t you? But you (and Albert) are still being unfair. The word “nothing” has a lot of meanings (e.g. “What have you got in you pocket?”. “Nothing”. The reply can be accurate and truthful without indicating the absence of air molecules, let alone quantum fields).

    It is rather arrogant to say that, in a popular science book, only one specific meaning of “nothing” may be discussed. Krauss’s approach of discussing varieties of “nothing” and gradually paring the concept down is entirely legitimate. About the only valid criticism is that the title is too concise to convey the nuance of different meanings of “nothing”, but that’s what the rest of the book is for.

    The book is mainly a popular-level account of modern cosmology, and at that it succeeds pretty well. Anyhow, do either you or Albert actually know that the ontological status of a quantum field actually is? On what basis are you asserting that it qualifies as a “thing” or “stuff”?

    Alberts used his training as a philosopher to critique Krauss’ claims of truth.

    It would be just as accurate to say that Albert used his training as a *physicist* (combined with a highly uncharitable reading) to criticise Krauss. Really, this attitude that only philosophy can examine and test claims of truth is a bit of a conceit.

    On which subject:

    Hi Massimo,

    Philosophy, then, aims at understanding […] not just at knowledge. […] and knowledge is all that science can provide us with.

    Wow! That’s quite a claim! I suspect you’re not going to get widespread agreement among scientists on that.

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  2. labnut, I have invited Sean a couple of times to write for SciSal, but of course he’s busy enough writing for his own blog. He promised, though…

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  3. Coel, if you understood what I said in context any scientist would readily agree. When was the last time that biologists claim to aim for wisdom, or understanding in anything more than the narrowly focused type of understanding that comes from scientific investigations?

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  4. Peter,

    “A good example was David Albert’s commentary on Lawrence Krauss’ book ‘A Universe From Nothing’. Here we have a physicist significantly overstating what physics shows. A philosopher(Alberts) correctly points out that Krauss is misusing the word ‘nothing’ to imply far more than science has actually shown.”

    I just want to make a few small comments regarding this example. First, note that David’s last name is Albert, not Alberts. Second, note that his professional education (i.e. his PhD) is in theoretical physics, not philosophy. This is despite the fact that he is now a philosophy professor at CUNY, and a prominent person in philosophy circles. He considers himself both a physicist and philosopher — in his own words, if his paper has more than two equations he sends it to a physics journal, while otherwise he sends it to a philosophy journal [1].

    Finally, Albert’s commentary on Krauss’ book is not a good example of a philosopher correcting a physicist. Namely, Krauss’ book is not about serious physics — it is all about hype, unsubstantiated conjectures, religion bashing and “scientistic” (as opposed to scientific) worldview. Albert just recognized it as such, in a very public and cut-through-the-bullshit way. I’d say that any serious physicist, as well as philosopher, would distance themselves from the material presented in that book, for much the same reasons Albert noted in his review.

    My point is that this is a wrong example for a “success of philosophy”. If a physicist goes on to write a popular-science book full of half-truths, wrong conclusions and hype, any other scientist (especially a peer physicist) can recongize it and label it as such. You don’t really need a philosopher to do that. The fact that Albert is a philosopher (in addition to being a physicist) seems to me to be just a coincidence in this particular case.

    [1]

    (the statement is at 9:01, although the whole interview is worth watching).

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  5. Hi Labnut,

    Oh my — yes, it is. Thank you for pointing that out. Oh, and I forgot to mention that I very much enjoyed reading your article. I don’t think there’s much I can add to the convention at this point, but I do agree with the idea that the vision of philosophy should be articulated in such a way so as to be palatable and attractive to outsiders, without us having to sacrifice the substance of what we do. I can see a clear need from this — the current number of philosophy majors at my university is around 60, I believe. It’s a sad, scary number.

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  6. Several brief thoughts.

    1. I don’t know whether some would consider it more bottom-up, or others more top-down, but I am going to offer an etymological-related definition of philosophy — it’s about thinking. It’s about better thinking, better defined thinking, more accurate thinking, more critical thinking, etc. I think this somewhat gets at Thomas Jones’ observations about psychology and philosophy, etc., while also providing a clearer demarcation between religion and philosophy than I think Peter does.

    2. Contra PHoffman, in its division called logic, in today’s various modern forms, does provide some guidance. It may not be 100 percent assured, but it does provide some guidance. Certainly, beyond modern logic, philosophy of science, beyond tools, provides a format for assessing claims, and even more, a format for judging claims about claims. David Buller, who has done so much to refute over-the-top claims of evolutionary psychology, is, after all, a philosopher of science. And, in general, when people claim scientists don’t need philosophers, or what’s the value of philosophy of science, I point to him. Stephen Toulmin from an older generation is another good example.

    3. Sidebar to Massimo: Yesterday, in random thought, I stumbled across the idea for another fallacy of informal logic. I call it the “Straw Angel,” in a nod to the old straw man.

    Rather than being fictive negative characterization of an opponent’s idea created solely for the purpose of being destroyed, as a straw man is, a straw angel would be a fictive positive characterization of one’s own idea created solely for the purpose of defending one’s own idea against rational attack. This might tie well with your denialism piece, ie, climate change “skeptics” trying to appropriate the mantle of skepticism.

    Feel free to spread it!

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  7. Massimo: “Philosophy, then, aims at understanding […] not just at knowledge. […] and knowledge is all that science can provide us with.”

    Amen!

    phoffman56: “… it would be really nice to see at least one modern example of this, and some actual serious “claim of truth” for which that tool has been at all decisive. … Or rather, I’ll assume it till such an example is forthcoming. What with the time limits on these discussions, it seemed unwise for me to wait too long, …”

    If you do some ‘true’ reading, there are ‘examples’ everywhere. Are Russell and Whitehead philosophers or mathematicians? They both did great contributions in math.

    In answering your question, we must first decide what ‘truth’ is. I have showed that ‘Spirituality’ (timelessness and immutability) is the highest truth. The ‘goal’ for M-string theory was to achieve the ‘string-unification’ (writing out the Standard Model particles in string-language). After 45 years, it has accepted the defeat. While human-physics does understand the four-locks (which locks this universe in shape), there is no chance of any kind that it (the current human-physics) can get keys for those locks different from the ones I have shown.

    The string-unification (see https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/my-philosophy-so-far-part-ii/comment-page-2/#comment-2432 and http://putnamphil.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-final-post-for-now-on-whether-quine.html?showComment=1403375810880#c249913231636084948 ) can only be done with the ‘Immutability to quark-dynamics transformation”. There is no other way.

    The calculation of Alpha depends on two numbers (64, 48). And, those two numbers are the results of ‘timelessness to arrow-of-time transformation’. There is no other way.

    If you got better idea, I will listen; otherwise, the ‘Spirituality’ (timelessness and immutability) is the test-stone for all arguments.

    As two hard sciences (human-physics and biology) are not able to reach the outskirt of the domain of ‘Spirituality’ thus far, they are at best the half-asses. In fact, there is no chance of any kind for the Popperian sciences to ever reach that domain. The Popperianism is fundamentally and conceptually wrong, but it has advanced science to a great height. Although both Kuhn and Quine failed to point out the wrongness of the Popperianism, they have provided a good check and balance on it. The recent (October, 2014) introspection on the ’10 billions/55 millions’ issue (see http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/10/lhc_outdone_by_tabletop_electron_experiment_108918.html ) indicates that the Popperianism is on its way out. This is one example that even the wrong-philosophy can do some great good in its short life. Popperianism must go and will go soon enough.

    With the ‘Spirituality’ as the test-stone, many great modern (in 300 years) philosophers did some great work at its outskirt, such as, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Kierkegaard. Although all their works did not reach the hard-core of the ‘Spirituality’, they are still great wisdom-lights on that final destination.

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  8. A philosopher (Albert) correctly points out that Krauss is misusing the word ‘nothing’ to imply far more than science has actually shown.

    No, this is not an example of modern philosophers providing the tools to examine and test claims of truth. Albert’s review of Krauss is almost entirely concerned with a quibble about the title, and with some overstated comments by Dawkins. Krauss explains what he means by “nothing” in the book, and Albert has no substantive criticism of what is in the book. As Coel says, “the title is too concise to convey the nuance”.

    Lawrence Krauss and David Albert have not ignored each other, far from it.

    Krauss called Albert a “moronic philosopher” who is wrong about what the laws of physics can do, and did not bother to say much more. Also Krauss said: “To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

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  9. conversation*
    for*
    That’s what I get for replying via my phone.

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  10. Hi Coel,

    It is rather arrogant to say that, in a popular science book, only one specific meaning of “nothing” may be discussed.

    The book is supposed to be an answer to a philosophical argument. It is entirely fair to hold him to account on the definition.

    Krauss’s approach of discussing varieties of “nothing” and gradually paring the concept down is entirely legitimate.

    Not unless he can show there is some sort of a continuum between the different usages of the word. If he can’t then it is just equivocation.

    The book is mainly a popular-level account of modern cosmology, and at that it succeeds pretty well. Anyhow, do either you or Albert actually know that the ontological status of a quantum field actually is? On what basis are you asserting that it qualifies as a “thing” or “stuff”?

    Does it have properties? Yes. Then it is not nothing.

    All of Krauss’s versions of “nothing” have properties. He ends up with a conjecture about something which does a stochastic search for physical laws.

    That is obviously not nothing.

    And, as I often point out, Krauss tries to defend his substitution of something for nothing be asserting that philosphers 100 years ago would not have complained. Even Albert goes along with this, however I doubt that you could find even one philosopher (or even theologian) 100 years ago who would have said so. Certainly the philosophers I am aware of at the start of the 20th century would not have said so.

    Krauss later says that he is sure that Plato and Aquinas would have thought of empty space as nothing. But he didn’t bother to check. Plato said that empty space “exists”, he said it was a container. Aristotle also says that empty space is something – he says that this is the consensus of his contemporaries.

    And, yes, even Aquinas, for all the other daft things he says, also says that space is something, that it has material qualities. Krauss even cites the part of the Summa where Aquinas says this. Obviously didn’t read it well.

    So, yes, Krauss claims have been refuted for all but the most one-eyed defenders. If something has properties then it is obviously not “nothing”. Krauss should have talked this over with a decent philosopher and maybe checked his claims about the history of philosophy with a historian of philosophy.

    But then he wouldn’t have had a book.

    It would be just as accurate to say that Albert used his training as a *physicist* (combined with a highly uncharitable reading) to criticise Krauss.

    So how did the physicist author miss this? And his reading was entirely charitable. Too charitable, I would say.

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  11. labnut, (do I assume you are Peter Smith?)
    I’ve butted heads with Sean on the topic of time, back when he was primary blogger on Cosmic Variance and didn’t get very far. Safe to say, that if one does not whole heartedly accept that the “fabric of spacetime” is physically real, rather than a clever correlation of measures of distance and duration, one is not acceptable within the confines of modern physics. Even though it requires the blocktime assumption that all events exist on that time dimension and the perception of physical presence is subjective illusion.
    Just as an aside, one of the many incongruities associated with it is the proposed expansion of space is based on this math, yet it completely overlooks that in order to be relativistic, the speed of light should increase proportional to the expansion of space, in order for it to remain CONSTANT!!!! Yet that would negate using it to explain redshift, since the light would be “energized.” It is sheer nonsense to argue space expands, based on the redshift of light and still assume a constant speed of the same light to use as denominator, against which to compare this expansion. We are the center of our view of the universe and eventually it will be understood that redshift is an optical effect, that is “equivalent” to recession, just as gravity is equivalent to acceleration, but the earth is not actually rushing out in all directions to keep us attached to it and neither are all those other galaxies rushing away from us.
    Sorry for the digression, but it’s a long story.
    While I bring up my observations on the subject of time, it is to clarify a dynamic around which the nature of philosophy revolves. Humanity has evolved in a thermal plane on this particular planet and its my impression these dynamic processes of this environment shape our thoughts, both consciously and subconsciously, far more than we really appreciate. So if we were to try to step back and consider how our thoughts reflect this reality, it might give more context to these discussions.
    For instance, as I pointed out, the implication seems to be that validity is a function of bottom line results and while this might be a valid consideration, it has been vastly overstated in our public and economic aspects of society. This then goes to that linear modeling of time and how it implies that narrative conclusion to our story. Now given that we are mortal creatures and our lives go from start to finish, it is a hard lesson to put aside.
    Meanwhile there are those infinite numbers of essentially thermodynamic feedback loops out of which any particular storyline is distilled and ignoring those reactions to our linear actions is dangerous.
    So the problem in the academic sense, is that many areas of study and knowledge are sectioned off into their own little fiefdoms and efforts to bridge the gaps are often viewed as threats to the gatekeepers of these fields. Yet philosophy requires being able to take that broad view and understand how all these many parts fit together.
    For instance, energy expands, while mass contracts and so it is natural for our logical function to keep distilling order and structure down to their most elemental forms, but is that really foundational? Much of the energy and more nebulous forms are lost and while we have these useful abstractions, often they have lost their own sense of meaning. Consider a dimensionless point; Mathematically anything multiplied by zero is zero, so by the very logic of math, much of this platonic realm can’t exist.
    Currently the firewall debate between relativists and quantum theorists seems to gradually be coming to the conclusion that too much energy is radiated away to actually form black holes in the first place. It appears to be a giant cosmic convention cycle of expanding energy and collapsing mass.
    Now I realize the physicists will be up in arms over this, but for the philosophers, just remember, what goes round, come round. Energy expands out, till it “cools off” enough to start collapsing back in, which eventually heats it up and it radiates back out. What expands between galaxies, falls into them. A cycle, not a vector.
    Massimo,
    Sorry if this seems off topic, but philosophy is about the broad view and we need to understand our world, if we want to understand our place in it.

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  12. Mark English,
    welcome to the conversation.

    But, clearly, scientific sub-disciplines are on a firmer epistemic footing than philosophical sub-disciplines. The crucial point is that scientific sub-disciplines are always closely integrated into a broader structure of accepted knowledge

    Embedded in your statement is a belief that knowledge, the epistemic footing, is the value by which philosophy should be judged. Other disciplines accumulate knowledge and you claim that philosophy, if it were valuable, would do the same thing.

    This is our point of departure. We think that philosophy is a guide to how we think about and react to knowledge(about situations, things and people). But it is not a means of gaining knowledge, that is the job of the sciences and other disciplines.

    For example. In the foreseeable future it will become possible to genetically modify embryos to give them highly desirable characteristics, such as being a world class marathon runner. Should we allow such advantaged athletes to compete? Is this any different to allowing performance enhancing drugs? Science can tell us how to conduct the procedure but it cannot tell us whether the procedure should be allowed. Philosophy will clarify and inform that debate.

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  13. Socratic,
    I am going to offer an etymological-related definition of philosophy — it’s about thinking. It’s about better thinking, better defined thinking, more accurate thinking, more critical thinking,

    I like that!

    Coel,
    You do like that example, don’t you? But you (and Albert) are still being unfair. The word “nothing” has a lot of meanings (e.g. “What have you got in you pocket?”. “Nothing”. The reply can be accurate and truthful without indicating the absence of air molecules, let alone quantum fields).

    That is exactly why philosophy is so important. It clarifies the terms and insists on exact usage. Krauss used the term ‘nothing’ in an exceedingly loose and misleading way. Robert Lawrence Kuhn identified nine levels of nothing.

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  14. Marko,
    I stand corrected on David Albert’s name, thanks.

    If a physicist goes on to write a popular-science book full of half-truths, wrong conclusions and hype, any other scientist (especially a peer physicist) can recongize it and label it as such. You don’t really need a philosopher to do that.

    It is interesting that Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris endorsed the book with a blurb. Dawkins said this ‘The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is devastating.

    As you said ‘it is all about hype, unsubstantiated conjectures, religion bashing and “scientistic” (as opposed to scientific) worldview‘, but nevertheless some big names from the world of science heartily endorsed it.

    Krauss writes persuasively and it requires careful thinking to spot the holes in his argument.

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  15. Brodix,
    labnut, (do I assume you are Peter Smith?)
    Yes, labnut == Peter Smith. I should have changed my log in identity, mea culpa.
    You seem to endorse the cyclic universe hypothesis.

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  16. Hi Robin,

    The book is supposed to be an answer to a philosophical argument.

    No it is not. And this is the heart of this whole squabble. The book is *primarily* a popular science book. It primarily addresses a *scientific* question. We see matter all around us. What is the nature of that matter? Where does it come from? Where do the galaxies, stars and planets and the matter in them (and us) come from?

    For *those* questions the scientific account of producing matter from no-matter is relevant and interesting (for anyone interested in science and cosmology, anyhow). Of course there are other interpretations of “no-thing” that are not “no matter”, so having dealt with the no-matter interpretation Krauss then discussed other interpretations (he didn’t need Albert to point them out, he had already noted them in the book).

    Not unless he can show there is some sort of a continuum between the different usages of the word. If he can’t then it is just equivocation.

    No, not if he regards *all* the interpretations of “nothing” as interesting! Which, as a scientist, he does. It is rather arrogant for someone to respond that the only interpretation of “nothing” that *they* are interested in is their philosophical one, therefore the only one *he* is allowed to write about is that one, and anything else is equivocation.

    Krauss should have talked this over with a decent philosopher …

    Krauss was not *trying* to write a philosophy book! Even you have admitted that towards the end of the book he does indeed discuss these other versions of “nothing”. If your complaint is simply that 90% is weighted to other interpretations then that’s because those are the ones about which science has more evidence. Why not be a tiny bit charitable to what is a pretty good popular-science book about cosmology?

    So how did the physicist author miss this?

    He did not miss it! He does mention these things and was fully aware of such issues when writing the book! The philosophers are freaking out simply because it is not the book they would have written. That’s uncharitable.

    Hi labnut

    Krauss used the term ‘nothing’ in an exceedingly loose and misleading way.

    No, Krauss used the term in several ways, each of which he clarified.

    Robert Lawrence Kuhn identified nine levels of nothing.

    Exactly! Hence why it is uncharitable to object to Krauss discussing different levels of nothing.

    Hi Massimo

    When was the last time that biologists claim to aim for wisdom, or understanding in anything more than the narrowly focused type of understanding that comes from scientific investigations?

    Some of us don’t think that what comes from science is merely a “narrowly focused” understanding. I’d suggest that science has at least as good a track record as philosophy of generating broad understanding.

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  17. Krauss called Albert a “moronic philosopher” who is wrong about what the laws of physics can do, and did not bother to say much more. Also Krauss said: “To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

    But this is just incoherent.

    And ironically he is simply assenting to the original proposition that he was supposed to be refuting.

    He says that the definition of “something coming from literally nothing” has no application to emerging empirical knowledge.

    Well, yes, that is kind of the point. The original claim does not impose a definition on reality. It states, in effect, that the definition of “something coming from literally nothing” has no applicability to reality.

    And Krauss seems to agree. And yet he is trying to phrase this in a way that makes it sound like others, and not he, were changing the definition and that they, and not he, were wrong.

    Also the “Please go on talking to each other and let the rest of us ….” comment is odd, considering that he dealt himself into the conversation.

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  18. Peter,

    “It is interesting that Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Sam Harris endorsed the book with a blurb. […] but nevertheless some big names from the world of science heartily endorsed it.”

    We have very different views on who are “big names” in the world of science. For one, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are biologists, and do not know enough physics to notice all the places where Krauss abused various misconceptions about physics in order to reach a conclusion he likes. Moreover, both are actively promoting atheism, and because of this agenda they are almost certain to give a positive review of any popular science book that reaches a conclusion that god doesn’t exist. The actual (lack of) quality of the book itself seems to be irrelevant.

    And don’t even get me started on Neil deGrasse Tyson. If anything, he seems to be a big name in science popularization, but not a big name in actual science. As an astrophysicist, he is supposed to know enough quantum field theory to see through Krauss’ abuse of the (small) level of physics expertise typical of lay audience (which is the target audience for the book). But apparently he doesn’t know even that much (and he wouldn’t be the first astrophysicist ignorant of QFT that I came across).

    So, for an active working physicist, those three names typically do not constitute any serious level of authority, even regarding popular physics books. Their positive reviews of the book are just another sad case of blind leading the blind.

    But we are getting off-topic here… 🙂

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  19. Massimo

    I’m not sure what wisdom is but I certainly would not wish to circumscribe the concept by somehow tying it to a particular academic discipline. Nor would I want to similarly circumscribe the concept of critical thinking.

    A further clarification: I am not calling into question the standard “philosophies of …”. What I am questioning is stand-alone philosophy (or metaphysics or ethics), cut off from the sciences (or other disciplines or activities). So we agree to an extent.

    Peter

    You wrote: “Embedded in your statement is a belief that knowledge, the epistemic footing, is the value by which philosophy should be judged.”

    Well, a value. Good philosophizing in my view needs to be epistemically grounded.

    My article was about expertise and authority, so naturally my focus was to a large extent on knowledge. If your expertise (i.e. knowledge or skill) is recognized, you speak with authority, no problem. The stage magician can speak with authority on his tricks and illusions, the plumber on pipes and drains and blockages, the scientist on his or her area of expertise. And certain kinds of talk, involving critical perspectives or concerning meta-questions about a discipline or area of activity, become philosophical.

    “Other disciplines accumulate knowledge and you claim that philosophy, if it were valuable, would do the same thing.” No I don’t.

    “This is our point of departure. We think that philosophy is a guide to how we think about and react to knowledge (about situations, things and people). But it is not a means of gaining knowledge, that is the job of the sciences and other disciplines.”

    Sure, philosophical thinking involves critical (and meta-) thinking, and is not primarily concerned with discovery in the way e.g. scientific disciplines are.

    But I don’t see how ‘philosophy’ can even begin to be a reliable guide unless it takes full account of how things actually are.

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  20. Hi Coel,

    No, not if he regards *all* the interpretations of “nothing” as interesting! Which, as a scientist, he does. It is rather arrogant for someone to respond that the only interpretation of “nothing” that *they* are interested in is their philosophical one, therefore the only one *he* is allowed to write about is that one, and anything else is equivocation.

    Krauss is allowed to define a 69 Camaro as “nothing” if he so chooses and no-one will complain.

    But iff he uses that definition to claim (as he does at the beginning, middle and end of the book) that he is entitled to adopt this definition as a contribution to an existing debate about “nothing” then it is an equivocation.

    Let him adopt whatever definition of “nothing” suits him. But lets make it clear that none of these definitions has even the remotest or even tangential relevance to those debates he keeps alluding to throughout the book and claims to have settled at the end.

    He tries to pretend this relevance by inaccurately claiming, without having bothered to check any evidence, that philosophers 100 years ago would not have complained at the definition of empty space as nothing.

    He tries to pretend this relevance by saying he “suspects” that this is what Plato or Aquinas would have meant. His suspicions suit his prejudices, but not the reality of what either of those men said..

    You want me to be charitable. I think I am. I am certainly being more charitable than Krauss is ever prepared to be.

    If he were to remove the irrelevant nonsense about philosophy and theology throughout the book then maybe, yes, it would be a pretty good book on popular science. It was certainly interesting in between the muddled metaphysical musings.

    But let’s get this clear. For each of his definitions of “nothing”, there never was any kind of philosophical problem about how something could come from them. Obviously something can come from something, even if you do slap a label “nothing” onto it.

    And obviously each of the things that Krauss arbitrarily chooses to label as “nothing” is clearly “something”.

    Again, no-one doubts that something can come from something.

    And, ironically, none of those questions about actual “nothing” never really was any sort of trump card to Theology, but Krauss has created the impression now that they are.

    Me: “The book is supposed to be an answer to a philosophical argument.”
    You: “No it is not.”

    I have the book on my phone and have had a look again. Clearly we are talking about entirely different books. The book is shot through with claims that science is addressing these philosophical arguments. Take them out and the book would be half the length it is.

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  21. I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments, though I’ve skimmed most of them, so I hope I’m not retreading any ground in this post.

    I am currently getting my undergraduate degree in philosophy, so I only know a tiny bit more about the field than the general public. That said, I pretty much agree with Peter Smith that the problem philosophy has these days is one of perception. People really don’t seem to see philosophy as relevant to their day-to-day lives. When I talk to relatives and peers not majoring in philosophy, it is clear that they think of one of two things when they hear the word ‘philosophy’: the study of the outdated thoughts of “dead white guys”, or really radical philosophy like global skepticism or postmodernism (e.g. “brains in vats” or “moral relativism”).

    The thing is, what (well-educated) people don’t realize is that they think about philosophy and are exposed to philosophical topics all the time, whether it is the theoretical side of feminist politics, general ethics, cosmology, the existence of god, how society should be run, etc. Many people care about at least some of those subjects, and they all have large philosophical components. If we could get people to realize that they do care about philosophical topics, maybe they’d turn to philosophers to answer these questions instead of public intellectuals from other fields. A lot of the philosophical thoughts and arguments by these non-philosophers are poorly thought out, specious, and smuggle in many assumptions. Sometimes, they’ll pose questions, but won’t answer them. It’s much easier to pose a big philosophical question and sound profound than it is to give a well-thought-out positive answer to those questions. Philosophers are the best people to do that.

    Again, my knowledge of philosophy is limited, but it seems to me that part of the issue here is there really doesn’t seem to be very much of what I will call Big Philosophy these days. The ancient Greeks focused a lot of their time on fundamental questions about how one should live one’s life. The early-Modern philosophers focused much of their time on fundamental issues of epistemology and metaphysics. Even the philosophers of the early 20th century had a lot to say about the fundamental issues (or lack thereof) of mathematics, logic, and science. Contra Mark English, I think analytic philosophy is trying too hard to be like science, building on a foundation by focusing on relatively small and relatively technical issues with highly precise language rather than the big ideas and the big questions. The problem is, there is no debate about the foundational assumptions and knowledge of science, but there is in philosophy. Philosophy should be rigorous and respectful of scientific facts, but ultimately philosophy should be about raising big questions that all human beings think about, developing and debating potential answers to those big questions. It should also be about getting people to open their minds and question their assumptions.

    But, maybe I’m being overly idealistic!

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  22. Coel, sadly I’ve been mugged, robbed, and in situations threatening a lot worse. Having lived in bad parts of Chicago, and having been poor in general, well that sort of does things to a fellow. This explains one of my highly philosophical positions: in some cases one’s best and only remaining argument is a short, sharp, shock to a vulnerable location.

    But I want to address the “core” concept more concretely. It’s possible we were just using the term differently.

    To me the core of philosophy, in an objective sense, means its central focus or activity from which more specified applications emerge. It would be the activity without which philosophy could not work. That is best summed up by what Massimo wrote earlier in this thread. To me the core of philosophy is critical thinking (or logic). Philosophy could live without ethics, but not logic.

    Of course if by core you mean the key or central application of philosophy, then I think it is arguably true that ethics is the core given the budding off of natural philosophy into science. But my guess is that would still fall to subjective appraisal. To a philosopher of science or mathematics, ethics might seem less the “core” of philosophy. On your side, I’d say that lay people would tend to use moral reasoning (or be concerned with it) more often on a daily basis than its other specializations.

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  23. To Schlafly, it is possible to say that some philosophers ignore science and some scientists ignore philosophy. You could even try to make an empirical case of many or most. But it seems like loose language to say that philosophers ignore science and scientists ignore philosophy.

    And I just do not see where you feel they operate in separate universes (do you mean ala Gould-esque non-overlapping magisteria?). That philosophy can address concepts outside the scope of empirical claims or experimentation does not mean that it must or its main applications are on such topics.

    It was also not clear to me what you were talking about regarding (lack of) successes of philosophy in the last 300 years. Relativity and quantum mechanics, regardless of all the mathematics and experiments that came afterward to establish those concepts, were clearly successes of philosophy. Both of these involved conceiving alternative ways our universe might deliver the experiences we have, and the implications for our world if those alternative possibilities were true. This is despite their deviation from assumed (straightforward) concepts regarding the nature of our world and experiences within it.

    Perhaps I am wrong but Einstein didn’t seem shy about discussing his theory’s emergence from philosophy.

    If the argument is that philosophy or philosophers didn’t put on the final touches, or deliver the final evidence for these theories, I’d say “so what?” That would be like carpenters finishing a house and then dismissing the architects as useless to their work. Could have done it without X is always easy to claim once something is done on the back of X.

    Perhaps less clearcut, but I would argue, much of biology is riddled with philosophy. Evolutionary theory (to me) is another success (and still ongoing) of philosophy. Without conceptualization from varied sources to project questions of life into “deep time” evolution would not be on the table. And symbiosis as the basis for emergence of eukaryotic cells would not be of interest (i.e. mitochondria just are organelles, deal with it). Understanding the potential mechanisms for carrying and differentially expressing genes (indeed what is a gene) often extends to philosophical inquiries rather than (and well before) experimental possibilities.

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  24. labnut,

    On your example of “advantaged athletes” (genetically=modified humans, or, something that’s been in recent news, transgendered): If a sports ethics panel has to make a decision on whom to allow, it may be clear what biological science should be presented to them, but what philosophy should be presented for them to make a decision?

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  25. Thanks to others for replies, no further needed from me, and to

    labnut:

    for both 1) his purported examples of “Philosophy provides the tools to examine and test claims of truth.”, and 2) his entertaining dig “You were a little premature, no?” at my “And I’ll assume the article’s author has no example as I asked originally, and so perhaps withdraws that more grandiose general claim”.

    On 2), and applicable here, I’d said ” What with the time limits on these discussions”. Furthermore, he conveniently left off the ending where I qualified it with “I’ll assume it till such an example is forthcoming.”. So maybe 2) was an indication of oversensitivity. But still 2) was good for a chuckle, appropriately by me, since, as Massimo knows only too well, I’m very prone to sarcastic remarks myself.

    On 1), thanks again for the latter purported example on “Sandel’s book”, which may actually contain such a tool, maybe even one created by philosophers in recent centuries, though you didn’t hint what the tool(s) might be.

    Also thanks for the Krauss/Albert attempted example, which happily elicited a fair response from others. Those responses partly make it unnecessary for me to wade into details. Briefly, I think both did little to enhance themselves there. Albert already admitted that Krauss had answered the form of ‘Why something rather than nothing?’ which philosophers before 1900 banging on about a definition of “nothing” would have recognized as their question. And Albert was unwilling to concede that there is perhaps a genuine question of why ‘Something exists’ seems to be a perfectly meaningful proposition, and, if so, certainly true. It is one immune to physicists’ (never philosophers’!) progress in putting unnecessary definitions of “nothing” into question.

    But the simpler reason Krauss/Albert is not an example is just that there is no tool there at all, supposedly invented in recent centuries by philosophers, to make his sarcastic review into an example of your grandiose claim that “Philosophy provides the tools to examine and test claims of truth”.

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  26. Sorry, my “Albert was unwilling to concede” should be “Krauss was unwilling to concede” .

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  27. Mark, I think you know well enough what I mean by wisdom, you are simply dodging my point. And when I talk about philosophy I don’t talk just about the academic discipline, but also about the broader practice, as should be very clear from the body of my writings. As for the difference btw the philosophies of and core philosophy, I don’t see any principled way in which you can draw that distinction and accepting one while rejecting the other. They all use the same methods, approaches, and backgrounds, just applied to different questions.

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  28. Hi Robin,

    … to adopt this definition as a contribution to an existing debate about “nothing”’ then it is an equivocation.

    I note again the insistence that there is only one concept of “nothing” that Krauss is allowed to discuss. It is a common English word, and only a tiny fraction of the usages of it would be in the sense that you’re using it.

    … debates he keeps alluding to throughout the book and claims to have settled at the end.

    He doesn’t claim to have settled those debates. The end of the book is explicitly speculative and open-ended.

    And obviously each of the things that Krauss arbitrarily chooses to label as “nothing” is clearly “something”.

    That’s unclear. It is, for example, unclear whether a “quantum field” is a “thing” with properties, as opposed to a mathematical fiction that gives a scheme for calculating properties of the actual “things”, which are particles.

    It is also very unclear that the speculative concept of a quantum-gravity fluctuation would arise in a pre-existing “thing” with properties, as opposed to being self-contained.

    Anyhow, the point that one needs to consider where “space time” and “quantum fields” come from in order to pare down “nothing” to absolute nothingness is obvious. You don’t need the special expertise of a philosopher to realise that.

    Hi labnut,

    nevertheless some big names from the world of science heartily endorsed it…

    Echoing Marko, Sam Harris is not a name in science; his notability is as a popular writer. Neil Tyson is noted as a science populariser (a very valuable role), but not as a scientist. Of your list, Dawkins is the only “big name” in science, but as a biologist he was perhaps not a good choice to comment on a physics book. I presume he was chosen owing to the empirical fact that the words “Richard Dawkins” on the cover of a book markedly boost sales.

    Hi L.T.,

    The problem is, there is no debate about the foundational assumptions and knowledge of science, but there is in philosophy.

    I beg to differ. It seems to me that scientists think about these things as much as philosophers, and often have as good a feel for them.

    Hi brandholm,

    Relativity and quantum mechanics […] were clearly successes of philosophy.

    I again beg to differ. They were a product of a mixture of empirical enquiry and thinking. That’s how science works. Mach, for example, was both a scientist and a philosopher.

    Both of these involved conceiving alternative ways our universe might deliver the experiences we have, and the implications for our world if those alternative possibilities were true.

    Which is exactly how science proceeds. That sentence is theoretical physics in a nutshell. I’m not one of those who says that philosophy is useless but a lot of this commentary has much too narrow a concept of how science works, with the implication that thinking is “philosophy” rather than “science”.

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  29. Hi Peter, apologies but up thread I started a reply to you but accidentally addressed to Coel. So if you look further up you will see my reply to you regarding my take on the “core” of philosophy.

    Hi Coel, apologies for accidentally naming you in a reply to Peter. That might have seemed a bit out of nowhere.

    But I see you have addressed a point I made to Schlafly…

    “I again beg to differ. They were a product of a mixture of empirical enquiry and thinking. That’s how science works. Mach, for example, was both a scientist and a philosopher.”

    Fair enough, looking back at my statement it might have seemed like I was claiming these had nothing to do with science or not a “success” of science. That they were a “success” of philosophy alone. I was trying to get across that they were a success of philosophy as well. That it’s contribution should not be ignored when asking what has it done for me lately.

    I think of these as joint or interdisciplinary success stories. Using my analogy of the house, certainly the architects could not dismiss the contributions of the carpenters either!

    Within scientific fields we seem to champion interdisciplinary aspects of research, say molecular biology or neuroscience and credit the success to all fields involved. In the cases I mentioned philosophy was also involved. You mentioned Mach with feet in both fields, and I had mentioned Einstein.

    Yet there seems to be a recent movement in parts of the science community to dismiss contributions from philosophy.

    “That sentence is theoretical physics in a nutshell… a lot of this commentary has much too narrow a concept of how science works, with the implication that thinking is “philosophy” rather than “science”.”

    I understand you are not one of those that are down on philosophy. 🙂

    However I find what you said ironic. My description was indeed theoretical physics in a nutshell, which is largely (from its inception) an interdisciplinary field. People can try to dismiss that interdisciplinary aspect by redefining the “theoretical” part as “just thinking” rather than philosophical inquiry, but that seems like a semantic game.

    Sure there is thinking going on in science that is not philosophy, including hypothesis building. But some of it is. When everything is going according to theory, evidence piling up in support of our current model, some scientists seem to swell with hubris and claim they never needed philosophy. But at its edges or when contrary data comes in that has to be dealt with, philosophy (a form of thinking) usually gets employed.

    Or perhaps I should ask how you define the kind of thinking that is being done so as to distinguish it from methods of philosophical inquiry? That it focuses on a specific body of evidence, or will lead to a specific line of research cannot be the main criteria otherwise (if applied consistently) there is no philosophy anywhere… just thinking (about art, about ethics, about etc).

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  30. [brandholm] Relativity and quantum mechanics, regardless of all the mathematics and experiments that came afterward to establish those concepts, were clearly successes of philosophy. Both of these involved conceiving alternative ways our universe might deliver the experiences we have, … Perhaps I am wrong but Einstein didn’t seem shy about discussing his theory’s emergence from philosophy.

    Philosophers contributed nothing to relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein said that he got some inspiration from Mach saying silly things like “When the subway jerks, it’s the fixed stars that throw you down.” But those ideas did not become part of relativity, and Einstein later recanted. Einstein crediting Mach seemed like just a way to avoid crediting his fellow physicists and mathematicians who were really 99% of his inspiration. (And Mach was also a scientist, as Coel points out.) See Mach’s principle for details. Relativity and quantum mechanics were driven by experimental results.

    There are philosophers today like Albert who promote goofy interpretations of quantum mechanics, but none of it has had any impact on the physics world.

    do you mean ala Gould-esque non-overlapping magisteria?

    Gould described religion as a set of beliefs with no relation to the scientific world. Yes, modern philosophy is like that. It is as irrelevant as medieval theology.

    Sure, it is possible to think philosophically about science. Krauss, Dawkins, Albert, Gould, and Harris have dabbled in it, as mentioned above, with mixed results. But expecting a modern philosopher to say something interesting about science is like expecting it from someone trained in biblical literalism. Modern philosophy since about 1950 is antithetical to science. Distinguishing sex and gender is about the best you can expect.

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  31. You have obviously read no philosophy of science whatsoever.

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  32. Hi Coel,

    I note again the insistence that there is only one concept of “nothing” that Krauss is allowed to discuss. It is a common English word, and only a tiny fraction of the usages of it would be in the sense that you’re using it.

    And I note the gross misrepresentation of what I said.

    I have to wonder which part of “Let him adopt whatever definition of “nothing” suits him.” you had difficulty understanding.

    But, as I also pointed out.”But lets make it clear that none of these definitions has even the remotest or even tangential relevance to those debates he keeps alluding to throughout the book and claims to have settled at the end.

    When a problem is posed using a particular definition and someone answers it using a different definition then that is called equivocation.

    It has nothing to do with disallowing people to use words in particular ways.

    i don’t think that I was unclear on that.

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  33. Modern philosophy since about 1950 is antithetical to science. Distinguishing sex and gender is about the best you can expect.

    Two ideas that impinge on biology that I can think up quickly are “Species as Individuals” and Natural Selection as an Algorithm.” They are certainly interesting and have influenced my thinking in biology – whether or not they are true is another story….

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  34. Hi Brandholm,
    Hi Peter, apologies but up thread I started a reply to you but accidentally addressed to Coel.

    Thanks, I missed that.

    To me the core of philosophy is critical thinking (or logic). Philosophy could live without ethics, but not logic. Of course if by core you mean the key or central application of philosophy, then I think it is arguably true that ethics is the core

    I agree with both your statements. Massimo put it this way:
    To me philosophy is about critically reasoning on a number of issues, including other disciplines, fully taking on board whatever of pertinence the sciences have to say. Philosophy, then, aims at understanding

    But I would say it is more than that. All disciplines, arguably, practice critical reasoning about their own field. Philosophy brings something extra to the table. It pays far more attention to the thoroughness and quality of the reasoning than does any other field. And it does so in a neutral, independent way because it is free of the commitments found in the other disciplines.

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  35. Philip Thrift,
    but what philosophy should be presented for them to make a decision?

    Ethics and more specifically, bio-ethics. Remember that this problem affects more than sports. Cognitive enhancement, for example, has large ramifications when competing for places at prestigious institutions. Effectively wealthier people, who already have institutional advantages, will cement their advantages genetically. This debate will take place in many places in society. Training in ethical philosophy will be important to the way we conduct the debate.

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  36. phoffman,
    On 1), thanks again for the latter purported example on “Sandel’s book”, which may actually contain such a tool, maybe even one created by philosophers in recent centuries, though you didn’t hint what the tool(s) might be.

    That is not a purported example, it is a highly regarded example. It does provide the tools for ethical thinking, not ‘may’. I don’t have to ‘hint’ at what the tools are. They are well described in the book.

    You ignored my question:

    Do you think science can answer those questions?

    Do you perhaps think that no answers are necessary, since science, quite clearly, cannot provide the answer? I can give you a huge list of ethical problems that we need to confront.

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  37. Socratic..:

    My 5th and last.

    Just noticed this, and the rest of that 2. hasn’t to do with me as far as I can see:

    “2. Contra PHoffman, in its division called logic, in today’s various modern forms, does provide some guidance. It may not be 100 percent assured, but it does provide some guidance. …”

    If you are saying that relevance logic (including that paraconsistent Priestly stuff), or even modal logic (excluding as I said provability logic and applications in theoretical CS of dynamic-type logics—neither done in philosophy AFAIK) have produced tools for understanding truths (other than those uninteresting * pure mathematical truths obtained by playing with the formalities in the purely syntactical aspects of those logics*), then I’d once again like to see even one convincing example. (And again, Kripke’s brilliance as still a high school student I am including under *, but it is of course not uninteresting. Further development by others in that direction seems to be pretty low interest to any outside the circle who publish and referee for each other in that area). I doubt anyone knows any truths about the (not merely possible!) world even partially because of those forms of formal logic.

    Thanks in advance for your example or clarification.

    There is plenty of good modern work on 1st and higher order classical logic, including applications, but that is not a modern “form” of logic in my interpretation of your use of that word.

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  38. Ok, I can see that the discussion is diverging into various directions, but let me make just a couple of side comments…

    Regarding Krauss and various definitions of nothing, let me explain a bit what he actually did. Every undergraduate student of physics knows that there is a sharp distinction between the statement “there is no EM field in some region” and the statement “the EM field has zero magnitude in some region”. Despite the naive impression that this is just semantic nitpicking, there is a very real experimentally observable difference [1] between the two described situations, and a serious physicist like Krauss should know better than to mix them up. And this is precisely what he actually did in the book — counting on the fact that a casual lay reader will not know the difference, he abused the language to essentially say something like: if all the fields are equal to zero, than this amounts to having “nothing”, and once the fields start to fluctuate, we have “something created from nothing”. This is pure sophistry, relying on the lack of physics knowledge of a casual reader. The statement is so completely wrong, that Albert’s review was actually way more charitable than it should have been.

    Regarding general relativity, let me remind you that back at the beginning of 20th century a predominant philosophical position was that the Universe is static and everlasting. Even Einstein succumbed to this view (and consequently introduced the cosmological constant into GR), despite the clear prediction of the equations that the Universe is expanding. Afterwards he called the adherence to this philosophical worldview the “biggest blunder” of his life. Also, Mach was known as a big critic of Newton’s ideas about inertia, and his criticisms did inspire Einstein to think about the topic. But Mach’s solution proposal to the problem of inertia was eventually shown by GR to be wrong, and in a very fundamental way. So I would say that GR was not developed due to the philosophy of the time, but despite the philosophy of the time. At best, I don’t see any clear example of some input from philosophy into GR, let alone QM… 🙂

    [1] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aharonov%E2%80%93Bohm_effect (btw, back in the day, that same Aharonov was also a mentor for a young physics postdoc named David Albert).

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  39. @Marko,

    Regarding general relativity, let me remind you that back at the beginning of 20th century a predominant philosophical position was that the Universe is static and everlasting.

    Predominant philosophical position?

    I would have to see some evidence of any philosophers at the beginning of the 20th century having held that position. As far as I know the static and everlasting Universe was a scientific position, not a philosophical one. Philosophers had long since stopped trying to make that kind of call.

    Also, it was physicists, rather than philosophers who, at the beginning of the twentieth century were in the habit of thinking of empty space as being nothing, hence the survival of the concept of “aether”, even Einstein used it,

    At the beginning of the 20th century Positivism (not yet Logical Positivism) was gaining ground and any view that we can have a priori knowledge of the world would have been very much in a minority at the time.

    As I have said a few times in the past, I think that a good case can be made that this radically empirical view of knowledge created the right environment for scientists to make the leap into quantum physics although I have never had time to make that case in detail.

    @labnut

    Thanks for an interesting and enjoyable article. I have been trying to formulate my ideas about how philosophy informs the layman but have never been able to get it together.

    I have been reading Simon Critchley on Heidegger. I regard Heidegger as an out and out fraud and his work as gibberish with no content. The fact that Critchley, who must surely be regarded as having expertise, would disagree makes me wonder about the whole field.

    I spent much time worrying that I could not understand writings like those of Heidegger. Now, having reason to believe that I have at least above average intelligence, I regard any kind of reputation that Heidegger or Derrida and the like, have is entirely due to the Emperor’s New Clothes effect.

    I am pretty sure I am right in that call, but I wonder what that says about philosophy and expertise? I am not saying that all philosophers are frauds – I don’t think that at all. It is just that when a philosopher says something that I cannot understand – I have no way of distinguishing that from Derrida or Heidegger.

    I also have the same problem with scientists who stray into the realm of metaphysics, even if they don’t call it metaphysics. It is sometimes not possible to tell when a scientists has stopped talking actual science and started talking metaphysical nonsense.

    It is what my Dad used to call the “Kepler Limit”.

    I am wondering if really, the field we should be looking at for answers to the kinds of issues you pose is really not just “reasoning” in general, rather than philosophy and looking to philosophy only when it deals with something useful in an accessible way.

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  40. Philip On your genetically modified athletes, well, consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, or a personalized system of ethics with a philosophical basis, of course!

    Or, Labnut’s answer … albeit noting that bioethics could be “informed” by any version or school of ethics.

    Robin hints at a core issue here, that sciency-types, whether full-blown practitioners of scientism or not, may like a NOMA — but as long as the non-overlapping of traffic goes in one direction only.

    Well, fair’s fair. Shall we lift the drawbridges away from both moats? Would you like philosophy to go back to pre-pre-Socraticism, folks who propose this?

    This issue also connects, in my mind, to greedy reductionism. (Sidebar: I laugh every time Dennett uses that phrase with the implication he puts forth that he’s never a greedy reductionist himself.)

    Speaking of, on “nothing” and “what do I have in my pockets”? I have the Ring of Critical Thinking! In this particular case, it renders me immune to scientism. (And, per my first essay here, on philosophy and aesthetics, whenever I wear it, it automatically starts music, like the Beethoven C sharp minor quartet, in my mind, as part of shielding.)

    Schlafly appears to be the new Coel? Going beyond Massimo, I earlier mentioned Richard Buller by name. And Toulmin. (Sidebar: Folks, read the book, or see the TV program, “A Glorious Accident.”) Beyond that, your definition of post-1950 philosophy seems limited to French postmodernism.

    Otherwise, in modern physics? The Copenhagen interpretation is plenty connected to philosophy. So, too is the idea of eigenstates.

    For both of you, philosophy still has insight about how to think about certain scientific questions and more. On thought experiments, by offering constraints on what is logically possible, for example.

    PHoffmann No, I wasn’t just referring to classical logic. And, you’ve moved the goalposts just slightly. You originally said:

    “Philosophy provides the tools to examine and test claims of truth.”

    A narrow, and a broad, response.

    First the narrow. and that includes various versions of modern, or semi-modern, logic. Bayesian probabilities are “just” probabilities in and of themselves, but obviously affect modern informal logic and, from that, arguably have playout on examination of truth claims. (That said, if you’ve read my responses to Coel, on the previous essay here, you’ll know how I see Bayesian probabilities as open to being gamed, or attempted to being gamed, by those so willing.) Other than that, modern logic is not one of my strongest philosophical areas, so I’ll demure, other than noting the word “examine.”

    Next, the broad.

    My response is mainly to your denial of the first half of that claim. Philosophy of today still provides tools to examine truth claims. And, I muddied my response, in my first statement, by not separating logic from philosophy as a whole. Philosophy as a whole (hence my Buller and Toulmin references) still provides such tools today.

    “Examine” may mean something different to you, but fields like epistemology (connected to logic a bit, yes) are about exactly this enterprise.

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  41. If philosophy is about understanding and wisdom, there is no obvious need for academic philosophy. Literature, drama and other arts are also generally construed to aim at understanding, even wisdom They are not expected to “progress,” therefore neither should philosophy. However, if this is true, the technical jargon in academic philosophy is inherently anti-philosophical, being a barrier to understanding and irrelevant to wisdom. Worse, failure to study philosophy of the past is not worse than failing to learn Greek and Latin to properly appreciate the classics.

    The thing is, there isn’t a philosophical canon comparable to that for literature and drama etc. Nor is it clear that a canon would be any more necessary in philosophy than in literature etc. Cultural conservatism (or snobbery) insist that it is, but it has never been demonstrated that being unpopular is genuinely wiser or more understanding or more human. Maybe canonization destroys itself destroys the value, instead of preserving it. Further, if philosophy is about our trying to be wise now (and particularly if we say we want to take on board scientific knowledge,) engagement with the wider contemporary population is that mark of a living philosophy. Yet it is precisely those philosophers whose work most closely addresses today’s life that are most contentious. If philosophy is about promoting understanding and wisdom, about human values, surely one of the most influential contemporary schools of philosophy is Ayn Rand and the many libertarian philosophers working the same tradition, such as Friedrich Hayek. Yet academic philosophy tends to avoid this like the plague. In practice, schools or trends in philosophy act very much like religious sects: Their own works reference their own tradition. By their bibliographies shall ye know them! The occasional intellectual confrontations are either very much like the proceedings of ecumenical conferences, carefully noncommittal, or polemics, which we lay people can never be quite sure are not just slaying straw men. And thus libertarian/Randian philosophy lives, and prospers in peace, even as other traditions profess to scorn them. (Again, this webzine’s struggle against scientism makes it an outlier.)

    However, in the thread, another common claim, that philsophy is critical thinking. This is not quite so bold as the open claim that philosophy is the scientia of reasoning itself. There are two problems here. First, and least important, if philosophy were in fact the discovery of how to reason critically, it really should be making progress. There should be wide areas of agreement. To be sure there are the canons of scholarship but these are procedural. There appears to be general agreement on a coherence concept of truth and that all logical distinctions must be admitted as valid arguments regardless of whether they are identifiable in reality. As a result, the scientia of critical thinking never progresses to ruling out wrong answers. Instead, philosophers appear to be like SF readers: Nothing is ever forgotten, and somebody somewhere is still a fan. Second, and more important, critical thinking is not really a thing. (No, not a popular opinion.) There’s objective thinking, and there’s thinking guided by evidence, and there’s thinking that uses meaningful concepts rooted in reality, and there’s thinking that starts with the realization that common sense can be misleading, even wrong. But…Skepticism is “critical” yet still an intellectual dead end. In schools, every child who decided they couldn’t see any reason to study has exercised critical thinking. In practice, there are no abstract critical thinking skills. All effective thinking must use content-specific concepts guided by an intuition developed by practice in the field. There are many problems that require multi-disciplinary approaches, but philosophy is not a definable discipline in this sense. Philosophy + [field] are not multi-disciplinary.

    I can make no brief for Krauss’ book, never having read it. But I did read the Albert review. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 In the third paragraph, Albert essentially asks who wrote the quantum laws, asks why He did that and, having generated an infinite regress, forgets to wonder whether an infinite regress is a symptom of intellectual failure. If this is supposed to be an example of the wisdom of philosophy, then philosophy should be in trouble. He closes with this: “When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for every­thing essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don’t know, dumb.” I assure you that there are many people who like Albert would rather be powerful villains than merely dumb. Wise? I’m not so sure about simple goodness.

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  42. Understanding and wisdom? There is a humorous distinction.

    To understand is to learn why a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.

    To know is to understand why you, nevertheless, don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad.

    Perhaps, wisdom is the pursuit of understanding from which knowledge follows. But what about fruit salad?

    Socrates cryptically said, “I know nothing.” Parmenides cryptically said, “Is.” Wittgenstein cryptically said, “Shush.”

    Don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad.

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  43. Massimo

    I have trouble with that more general sense of philosophy, even more so than with ‘wisdom’. My previous comment could, I suppose, be seen as evasive or it could be seen as my attempting to leave the meaning of the word ‘wisdom’ as open as possible.

    You write: “As for the difference btw the philosophies of and core philosophy, I don’t see any principled way in which you can draw that distinction and accepting one while rejecting the other. They all use the same methods, approaches, and backgrounds, just applied to different questions.”

    A big issue and just a quick response. One difference is that the philosophy of a particular discipline is informed by the epistemic status and practices of that particular discipline. And what Steven Johnson has to say above on critical thinking might be pertinent here, namely that there are no abstract critical thinking skills and that ‘[a]ll effective thinking must use content-specific concepts guided by an intuition developed by practice in the field.” I’m not sure about this but it sounds plausible.

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  44. The age of science is upon us, thus the age of philosophy.

    Science is about what is true. Philosophy is about what could be true.

    Science is about realistic circumstances, philosophy is about imagining them. Science is about knowing, philosophy about guessing.

    Neither goes without the other, since there have been baboons, and they think.

    All animals with advanced brains have to be scientific enough to catch dinner, have sex, play hard to get, and they have to be a bit philosophical. However both science and philosophy took gigantic dimensions, once the genus Homo made culture into, well, a science.

    With its intricate brains, Homo Sapiens could create, in said brains, entire world of ideas, neurological structures constructed by experiences, the world of tangibles, the world of truth, science. But it could also instruct, from the same, more free form structures, the world of imagination, where philosophy feeds at the trough.

    In particular, 10,000 religions blossomed, and many a virgin perished in their names.

    So what now?
    Some say philosophy is dying. What they mean, is that they are dead.

    This is the age of science, the age of truth. Much is known, but it’s nothing relative to what is coming. What is coming is automatic science. It’s not yet here, but some computer scientists are working on machines to prove theorems, automatically.

    That does not mean mathematics would become meaningless, impotent, just the opposite. Mathematicians will devote themselves to the imagination, in other words, to the philosophy. Machines will see if it (philosophy) works.

    And all over the world of inquiry, so it will be. Even in law, machines (computers) will be able to fill in all the details, check, in advance what are the consequences of imaginable laws.

    All over, the imagination will be the specific human impulse. In other words, philosophy.
    If one considers prehistoric man, one is considering a scientist: knowing what was true allowed survival.

    Being seriously wrong did not mean one’s “paper” would be rejected by a prestigious journal, but that one would be torn apart by a Homotherium pack.

    There was little time and inclination for wild guesswork about the nature of the universe. Now is just the opposite: Homotherium has got extinct 10,000 years ago, with a whole panoply of terrible predators.

    Machines, increasingly, bring food and medicines.

    We have all the time in the world to go on a rampage of guesswork.
    Speaking of that, the “A Universe For Nothing” book of a professional salesman, Lawrence Krauss, is an example of wild guessing. That’s good, but it’s philosophy. Using what skeptics view as a completely idiotic argument about potential energy, this physicist claims that it costs nothing to create a universe. Or a zillions of them per nanometer, actually.

    15,000 years ago, Krauss arguing that Homotherium was created from nothing, would have been promptly swallowed. Science used to keep us alive, now we can afford ridiculous philosophy. All the more reason to create something more serious.

    Philosophy is the new science.

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  45. If Mark’s complain is about the low-performance of the modern philosophers, I will not get into that debate. If he (and his company, Dawkins, Neil Tyson, and phoffman56) is putting down philosophy as a good ‘tool’, I must show that he is wrong.

    The major difference between science and philosophy ‘now’ is that not every street walking person can do science but every person can do philosophy. I will demonstrate this point with an impromptu philosophy, while putting all the traditional philosophy (from Plato, …, Kant, … Whitehead; the critical thinking, logic) aside but with three criteria:
    One: with ‘semantic’ reasoning,
    Two: with ‘common sense’ consistency,
    Three: being useful in some ways.

    As an impromptu, I will improvise from the comments of this thread, the issue of ‘nothing’.

    Robin Herbert: “Does it have properties? Yes. Then it is not nothing.”

    By accepting this definition, ‘nothing’ already has a property. By defining ‘nothing’ as non-definable, it still carries a property. Obviously, this is not a good definition. But If I dismiss it out right now, it is too cheap. So, I will accept it as a ‘starting’ definition and work the axiomatic procedure from here.

    Mark: “But I don’t see how … unless it takes full account of how things actually are.”

    Wow! Is science knows the full account of how things actually are? But, again I will take it as an axiom. That is, I know at least one thing is {I am not nothing}.

    With Robin’s definition and Mark’s axiom, they two must be synthesized. So, I ask two simple questions.
    Q1: Is Robin’s nothing a ‘state’ or a ‘process’?
    Q2: Can I (not-nothing) encroach this ‘nothing?

    If nothing is a ‘state”, why can I not encroach? If not, it must have a power to stop me doing so. Facing off my repeated encroachments (a process) must also be viewed as a ‘process’. So, I define its power as ‘immutability’ (as both state and process) regardless of it likes or not. Now, Robin’s nothing (being voided of anything: matter, energy, space, time, language, etc.) does now have an attribute ‘because’ that I am here. If Robin insists on his definition, he will be a good company of Zen-Buddhism (trapped in a koan-universe). So, I will choose a new definition.

    “Nothing” is {a state and a process} which is ‘immutable’. Yet, I still want to keep Robin’s definition (being voided of anything), as it truly makes sense. At ‘timelessness’, there should be voided of anything. So, I add the ‘timelessness’ (again, as a state and a process) as part of the new definition.

    Being as ‘processes’, … If we can show that these two processes are physics-processes, the above philosophy is useful. Then, I have met my three criteria above. And, here it is, an impromptu philosophy.

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  46. Socratic Gadfly,

    “On your genetically modified athletes, well, consequentialism, deontology, virtue ethics, or a personalized system of ethics with a philosophical basis, of course!”

    My question is really this: When the decision about whether to allow them to compete in a venue goes before the ethics panel composed of a philosopher of each of these types of philosophy, what is the result of the vote?

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  47. As a philosophy major about to graduate, I just want to throw in my two cents regarding perceptions of philosophy. When I tell people that I major in philosophy, the most common question I get is ‘what are you going to do with it?’ or the smart aleck ‘what is philosophy?’

    I love philosophy, the only reason why I appear harsh in my critiques. I love philosophy but not the so-called ‘academic philosophy’ in academic journals. Personally I find reading journal articles sometimes tedious and at other times like watching middle-aged men bickering, while mentally masturbating to themselves that their perceived opponent’s argument is being torn to shreds by their sharp thinking. (Sorry but the only place where one can hair-split some issue unrelated to daily life, such as debating some minor point made by some dead philosopher, and get paid for it, is in academia. Possibly a ‘professional’ philosopher who has tenure.) My point stands: the professional philosopher (or more pedantically, the philosophy scholar) tend to live in the academia bubble where they can choose not to deal with the general public. Naturally, it is far easier for the general public to dismiss philosophy as a discipline. Since, unlike science, there is no specific technological product in sight.

    But what philosophy can offer is different from science. Using (misusing) the cave analogy, if philosophy is carrying a lighted torch in the dark, then science is recording what is observed along the way. Philosophy is everywhere. In the field of medicine for example, there is the ethics of care and whatnot. In journalism there is the idea of journalistic integrity. The concepts of care and journalistic integrity belong to the realm of philosophy. My point is just that there is always a part for philosophy to play, big or small.

    The idea that philosophy will be better off by imitating the sciences is misguided at best. Firstly, scientific enterprises requires collaboration, philosophy does not. Dressing philosophy in a lab coat diminishes rather than enhance its status. (*cough* analytic philosophy *cough*)

    In my humble opinion, if academic philosophers want to be respected as public intellectuals, then they should act as one. For example: writing in opinion columns in newspapers, going to those public forums and asking those ‘tough’ questions on policies, philosophy lunches/dinners etc. If philosophy is about gaining ability to think critically, what better way than to demonstrate it in the public arena?

    Those who keep on banging on about philosophy being useless should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. What have they contributed to the discipline? I don’t mean the ‘scholarly research’ that is of interest only to those selected few. I am referring to the greats like Socrates, that conviction to go against public opinion even at the risk of being executed. (compared to losing an academic post)

    If the discipline of philosophy is a group of gadflies to public opinion, what is the value of the discipline when no individual is willing to take the first sting, preferring to rest in their comfort of academic status? The discipline might as well just die peacefully, than to extend its existence, pride-less and despised.

    Rant over

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  48. Hi brandholm,

    Yet there seems to be a recent movement in parts of the science community to dismiss contributions from philosophy.

    My view is that advances in science come from a close cooperation between empirical data and theorising (= “thinking”). Thus the thinking about science is best done by people who are close to the empirical findings (though whether those people are labelled “scientists” or “philosophers” matters less; in my view there is no big distinction between such “philosophy” and “science”, there is only “thinking”).

    Has, in practice, academic philosophy contributed to the progress of physics in the last century or so? Not much, I’d say, and the few examples are from people who had a foot in both camps. (Why not, I wonder? I’d say because it doesn’t get its hands dirty with the data enough.)

    That is not to dismiss the contribution of philosophy to other areas of human endeavour outside the physical sciences.

    Responding more to others (not brandholm), I reject the idea that “thinking about science” is something distinct from science, and thus is “philosophy”. I find it bizarre that some regard “thought experiments” or thinking “about what could be true” or “imagining” to be outside science. That’s exactly the sort of thing that scientists spend half their time doing (the other half being acquiring and analysing data).

    Hi Robin,

    When a problem is posed using a particular definition and someone answers it using a different definition then that is called equivocation.

    The point, yet again, is that the book was about a wider swathe of issues than the narrow one you are focussing on. It is not equivocation if one *also* talks about a much wider range of conceptions of “nothing” than just one.

    If someone, say, chooses to write about the crime rate in the US, France, Sweden and Italy, would it be fair to declare that, since your only concern is the crime rate in the US, that the author is equivocating in talking also about France, Sweden and Italy, and, further, must be somewhat dim in not having realised that France, Sweden and Italy are not the US?

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  49. Coel: “Has, in practice, academic philosophy contributed to the progress of physics in the last century or so? Not much, I’d say, … (Why not, … because it doesn’t get its hands dirty with the data enough.)”

    Agree 100%. Yet, I would like to go one step further; most philosophers are losing the guts and courage to challenge sciences as they are intimidated by the extraordinary successes of science. And, most of them are bogged down by the traditional philosophies (far removed from the modern science) and lost the intuitive philosophizing capability. The entire ‘nothing’ debate in this thread is by quoting other’s saying, very few about self-philosophizing.

    Robin’s definition is intuitive and correct but utterly useless. With a little philosophizing, we can get a new definition which still retains his original essence (totally voided of anything — being timelessness, as nothing in this physical universe can go outside the arrow-of-time).

    Again, both timelessness and immutability are the intuitive concepts in philosophy and theology, and they are utterly useless. Only if they are processes, they can be defined ‘operationally’, linking to this physics-universe. For immutability, it must fend off ‘all’ encroachments (planned, organized and ordered attacks). Philosophically speaking, all those planed, organized structures (attacks) are ‘created’ by this immutability. At least, there is no way to ‘distinguish’ the attackers (structures) from being as parts outside of this immutability. Of course, all this talk is nonsense unless we can find such an immutable ‘process’, and here it is.

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

    This is a very simple game, playable by a 1st grader. We can choose N = 100, 1000 or 10000 for checking it out, as they are not a terrible big job. With a computer, we can select N= one million or one trillion.

    All the ‘sabotages’ (planned or otherwise) can form some structures. When T = 3, those structures are the 48 Standard model fermion particles (see http://prebabel.blogspot.com/2014/02/ghost-rascal-conjecture-and-ultimate.html ). For string-unification, this is the only way (that is, M-string theory gives it up now). In fact, all orders are squeezed out from the orderlessness (immutability), and all structures are in the ‘nothing’.

    It is not too difficult to show (but not now) that the arrow-of-time is also squeezed out from ‘timelessness’, and every ‘moment’ of now is just one-expression of the timelessness which is the ‘essence’ of this ‘moment’.

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  50. The big take away here is that many, on both sides of this issue, feel the need to distinguish between ‘professional philosophy’ in the universities, and philosophy per se, as an endeavor intellectuals feel invested in. The latter will not be silenced by scientismist attacks on the former, not because philosophy is some surrogate for religion, but exactly because it is not. Intelligent, educated people seek philosophy for guidance; in order to converse with others; for greater understanding of themselves and the world; but principally in order to clarify their own thinking. In response to the world, we develop feelings and thoughts that seem reasonable, but need greater articulation. Art can sometimes do this, but it can also dis-articulate understanding into mere feeling.

    Articulation into clarity has always been the principle focus of philosophy. (Even in the Continental traditions, although ‘articulation’ has a different meaning there than in American traditions.) Does the felt need for philosophy among intellectuals require a professional academic philosophy? Yes; two reasons: First, historical: professional philosophers can clarify the reading of texts in the various traditions. (I would rather libertarians read Nietzsche than his crude imitator Rand!) Secondly, contemporary professional philosophers can address contemporary concerns in a manner different from those found in either the arts or sciences. Instance: Do lawyers pay attention to philosophy of law? Certainly; the legal profession has an ethical problem that won’t go away: Lawyers are bound by oath to uphold the law, but the integrity of the profession requires that they wholly adopt the interests of their clients. Inevitable conflicts between these two demands arise, because the lawyer is duty bound to interpret the law in the interests of the client, even if this should conflict with the interests of the community that established the law. I know of no science that can properly address such issues.

    Many would like professional philosophers to be more involved in public discussion of such issues. Hopefully, we’ll see more of that in future.

    Does philosophy make progress? Yes. An idea is generated, its arguments are laid out, counter-arguments are made against it; when all the arguments are known, philosophers acknowledge that the idea stood or failed, and move on. Some will cling to failed ideas, but generally there’s consensus as to which ideas remain interesting and which do not. Since this is a process of reasoning and argument, it takes far longer than the progress we sometimes see in science, but proceeds nonetheless. We no longer discuss Medieval scholars; debates over Hegel are exhausted; logical positivism is a thing of the past. Ideas from such discussions are still in play, but their values depend on contemporary contexts.

    It is hard to understand why some scientismists want to close down the conversation, decide it is pointless, even implying that philosophers should lose their jobs, and intellectuals should stop reading their books. The close-mindedness is palpable and unsettling.

    On Krauss: I only note, when scientists engage in philosophy, they should acknowledge it.

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