Physicists and philosophers

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689by Massimo Pigliucci and Dan Kaufman

As part of the new direction at Scientia Salon [1] we are beginning to (occasionally) publish video conversations. This first one (and several of the forthcoming ones) features myself and Missouri State University’s philosopher Daniel Kaufman. Dan and I will likely do more along the same lines, but I will also try to expand the video offerings to include interviews conducted by me with a number of scientists and philosophers whose research is pertinent to the themes of Scientia Salon.

In “Physicists and Philosophers” Dan and I talk about the (in)famous comments made about the relationship between the two fields by Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I also covered in a previous essay in SciSal [2]. However, we expand the discussion to the more general issue of why so many high profile scientists, particularly physicists, seem to be so bent on belittling philosophical scholarship, putting the issue in a broad historical context. Dan and I then move on to talk about the value of ordinary language, and ask whether a discipline like philosophy is inherently “elitist,” and why that may be a bad thing. The end of the video features some comments on the (then newly started) Scientia Salon venture and the challenges posed by wanting to engage in public intellectualism. I hope you’ll enjoy it! Comments, as usual, are welcome.


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

Daniel A. Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State University and a graduate of the City University of New York. His interests include epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and social-political philosophy.

[1] Scientia Salon’s (slight) course correction, a letter to my readers, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 9 January 2015

[2] Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 12 May 2014


140 thoughts on “Physicists and philosophers

  1. Adam:

    “In spite of the highly technical nature of their work, any physicist or biologist or could explain — in terms comprehensible to the average person on Main Street — the five major breakthroughs in their disciplines in the past year. If anyone could come up with a list of the five great breakthroughs in epistemology and metaphysics in the past year, 50 years, 200 years, or even 500 years – again, preferably in terms the average person on Main St could appreciate – then please go ahead.”

    Jake Zielsdorf:

    “Also, I don’t think taxpayers would be too delighted to hear that they’re being compelled to pay philosophers to “explore logical space.”.

    I can only echo the very competent answers provided to you two by Aravis, ejwinner, and others. The whole framing of your approach is misconceived, assuming as it does that the only knowledge that exists is factual/scientific and thus the measure by which a discipline is successful is its progression a la mimicry of the hard sciences in terms that are definite and quantifiable. Why should a person buy into this definition of the advancement of understanding in the first place? Why do you think you get to set the terms of success? Anyone who is familiar with both the analytic and continental traditions will know that the work of people like Quine, Davidson, Wittgenstein and others have forced us to rethink what we think we know about the world, just as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault and others have made significant contributions in terms of our understanding of objectivity, human temporality, embodiment, and the archaeology of knowledge.

    No, they didn’t pioneer theories that led to the creation of newer and more annoying gadgets or contribute to the improvement of global health or infrastructure. But then, human life is about about more than just making widgets. It’s about, you know, being human. The failure to recognize this is the crux of the problem.

    I will also echo ejwinner’s warning that scientismists may be cutting the branch they are sitting on by invoking the interests of the taxpayers.

    At the end of the day, all we’re hearing is the same old tired hegemonic narrative of the sciences. In pushing back against precisely such a narrative, Leon Wieseltier recently wrote:

    “But some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose. It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them. The idea of the autonomy of the humanities, the notion that thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding, fills them with a profound anxiety. It throws their totalizing mentality into crisis. And so they respond with a strange mixture of defensiveness and aggression. As people used to say about the Soviet Union, they expand because they feel encircled.”


  2. Here is what I realized, reflecting on my jeremiad ‘against’ science (which I hope was understood to be tongue-in-cheek):

    Philosophy cannot be pursued under an authoritarian government; it inevitably produces ideas in violation of the ideology of the government.

    Science can be pursued under an authoritarian government, as long as it does not violate the ideology of the government.

    Technology can be developed under an authoritarian government without limitation, since the production of new machinery need not invoke any ideas violating the government’s ideology.

    Once the logic of the scientific foundation of the technology is reduced to a logistics – the model reduced to machinery – technology can be developed without reference to that foundation.

    Technology is history-independent, since its logistics are no longer dependent on the logic of the theories that first produced them.

    To at least the extent that the logic of a science can be reduced to a logistic, the science is history-independent. Once a prior scientific theory has been superseded, its logic becomes reduced to a logistics supporting the superseding theory. (Thus the ‘Newtonian universe’ is dead, but parts of it are still practically useful in support of the current Standard Model.)

    Philosophy is not history-independent. It’s logic does not reduce to logistics, and so it cannot ignore properly logical claims, including those of past theories its current theories derive from.

    The danger of engaging in any practice that is history-independent is that there is no check against anyone developing a grudge against the past, against history itself. Reflecting on it takes too much effort, discussing it risks political difficulties; frequently it reminds us that what we consider important matters are, or may be found later to be, not so important. History is littered with false starts and mistakes. The wish here – ‘we are “beyond” making mistakes’ – is evident.

    An informed intellect is necessarily open to historical knowledge, since this provides understanding of the development of the ideas in circulation in its contemporary social environment.

    Those who believe themselves to be ‘history-independent’ in their practices thus tend toward anti-intellectualism.

    Authoritarian governments hold that they are ‘beyond making mistakes.’ Even when they assert themselves as ‘the result of history,’ they equally assert that, having gone ‘beyond’ it, they are now independent of it. The logic of history thus reduces to a logistics of political control.

    Authoritarian governments are anti-intellectual, since any history-dependent intellectual pursuit is considered a threat.

    Like always tends towards like. Anti-intellectualism as an attitude tends toward authoritarianism as its ultimate political realization.

    While it is true that the sciences thrive in a democratic republic, but many of them can thrive under an authoritarian government, and all technologies can. Philosophy can only thrive under a non-authoritarian government. A democratic republic is the least authoritarian government that is practically realizable. Thus the event of philosophy in a democratic republic is inevitable; the event of science therein is probable; the event of technology therein is merely incidental.


  3. Adam,

    I’m afraid you’re losing the forest for the trees. Pearl’s work is an excellent example of how philosophy has influenced work in computer science. Pearl discusses Lewis’s work in his book and in numerous papers. Yes, you are correct that Pearl does not agree with everything Lewis says about counterfactuals, but he builds his account in relation to Lewis’s,
    and this in part because Lewis has provided (for the first time) a rigorous framework for thinking about counterfactuals. In his book on Causality Pearl even goes so far as to show that some of Lewis’s axioms can be derived from his own account. This is hardly the approach of someone who doesn’t think Lewis’s work is important.

    But it is also worth noting how much of Pearl’s work concerns philosophical issues. Even in the one article I linked to above, Pearl discusses or cites philosophers Hume, Mill, Lewis, Cartwright, Fine (a metaphysician at NYU), and Woodward (a philosopher of science). In another paper of Pearl’s (Causes and Explanations: A Structural-Model Approach–Part II: Explanations) he discusses philosophers Hempel, Lewis, Salmon, Woodward, and Scriven. In it Pearl focuses on the notion of “explanation” and builds his approach explicitly in relation to their philosophical work. If their work isn’t relevant or crucial to his project, why does he discuss them? It is also worth noting that some of this work has been published in philosophy journals. Two of his pieces appear in the British Journal for Philosophy of Science. This hardly seems like the approach of someone who thinks philosophy isn’t relevant to his research. (His Wikipedia page says that one of Pearl’s interests is the philosophy of science.)

    Moreover, Pearl’s co-author on the paper just mentioned (Causes and Explanations) is the computer scientist Halpern at Cornell, and Halpern himself has written articles with the philosopher Christopher Hitchcock (see “Actual Causation and the Art of Modeling”). So not only has Pearl published work in philosophy journals, but his co-author has written work with philosophers. The suggestion that philosophy or metaphysics hasn’t importantly contributed to Pearl’s program is ridiculous, and not borne out by the evidence. Here are the two papers for your reference.

    Click to access festschrift.pdf

    If I only gave one example, that’s because that’s what you asked for. If I had to list other examples of influential work in the last fifty years, that could be done. I would note Dennett’s book (Breaking the Spell, NYT best seller on atheism), Singer (Animal Liberation, started the animal rights movement), Kuhn (Structure, sold over 1.4 million copies), Sen (Economist and Philosopher, Harvard, nobel prize), and Searle (refutation of AI in computer science). All of these have been important contributions to human knowledge and society I would say.


  4. Adam, A philosopher is simply a lover of truth. And surely great strides in love and truth have been made and are being made everyday. The reason you are not seeing them is only that you lack the vision to see the truth. You cannot see the advancements of truth until you know what truth is.

    Can One teach the blind to see? I think One must learn to see Oneself. Perhaps those strides in truth you seek will some day become your own. As for directions, It was Michelangelo the artist and philosopher and physicist who taught me to study Nature when I was searching for truth. May I humbly suggest philosophy and physics is nature, and the study of them worked wonders for me.

    I’m on the list,



  5. Hi Massimo,

    Epistemology is the study of how we come to have knowledge in general, so it’s a meta-discipline compared to the level of interest to practicing scientists. In this sense scientists use tools from epistemology, but are not usually involved in discussions about those tools.

    I guess we’ll have to disagree on this one. As I see it scientists have been and are deeply involved in the meta-discipline. Thus, for example, the scientific method (to use a shorthand), and thus the epistemological ideas that underpin science, are very much the product of scientists. Philosophers have had some influence, yes (especially back in history when “scientists” and “philosophers” were the same people), but most of it is the product of scientists.

    Case in point:

    couchloc: # Karl Popper — Falsification

    Popper’s “falsification” was a commentary on how science already was, rather than a new idea that scientists then decided to follow. Now, post-Popper, people realise that “falsification” cannot be interpreted too simplistically, since one can never isolate (and thus falsify) any one part of the overall theory, but again that has always been, de facto, how science has proceeded.

    In such ways, I don’t think that one can divide meta-epistemology from applied-epistemology, and thus scientists need to be and are experts in both in order to do science.

    If we then consider, say, recent discussion over things like the multiverse, it is again scientists who are just as much developing the meta-epistemology.

    Hi ejwinner,

    Before attempting to dismiss any other field of knowledge, scientists should ask whether they can come up with arguments for their own justification, should that come to pass. Many people do not equate technology with the sciences. So if string theory can’t be shown to help build a better toaster, why should we care?

    Nowadays science is continually being asked and is answering this question. Nearly every grant bid nowadays (in the UK at least) requires a section about this. Every time the funding agencies talk to governments, this is the main topic of conversation. Scientists realise that we really do have to justify our funding to the taxpayer.

    Hi couchloc,

    Pearl’s work is an excellent example of how philosophy has influenced work in computer science.

    I think such examples are good illustrations that philosophy progresses best in close partnership with a relevant science, rather than when seeing itself as distinct.

    … and Searle (refutation of AI in computer science).

    Shouldn’t you have the word “attempted” in there? 🙂

    Hi Massimo,

    … more than one good “solution” to the problem: virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism. Ah, but which one is *the* correct one? Asking that question means mistaking the point of philosophical inquiry …

    Asking that question is exactly the right approach! The answer is that there is no “correct” one because there is no objective standard of ethical conduct. Each of your three are descriptive about different aspects of human psychology. This is an example of where philosophy does not make progress it should, by not taking that step, as a result of seeing itself as distinct from the scientific approach to the issue.


  6. Things I have learned from Coel in this thread:

    1. If a scientist did it, it’s science.
    2. If a scientist didn’t do it, that person was still doing science.
    3. All meta-scientific activity is still just science, because there’s only one epistemology, and scientists, not philosophers, figured out what it is.
    4. If a philosopher doesn’t come up with a totally new idea that scientists then follow, it means that the philosopher hasn’t done anything that scientists haven’t already done.
    5. If you look at scientific journals, you will find tons of articles about meta-science like epistemology and the nature of truth, because scientists are deeply involved in that.
    6. Anything a scientist does is basically science. If a scientist is brushing his teeth, presumably, he is doing science, because he is a scientist.
    7. Richard Dawkins is a dreamboat.


  7. People such as Adam insists upon labels. So and so was employed officially as a philosopher: ‘what did he do, I did not read him, I can’t read him, so why does it matter to scientists?’

    Feynman was a practical philosopher. He needed his philosophy for his physics. Actually some of his “proofs” in physics use a special, Feynman-made notion of “truth”. According to Feynman-truth, Feynman discovered some things. But somebody with a different notion of truth would view physics differently (Feynman would agree with what I just wrote; actually he basically wrote this, in particular cases, say about E = mc^2, or “virtual””particles”).

    French philosophers of science such as Bachelard and then his successor, Canguighelm, were actually scientists: the former as a physicist, the second was a Medical Doctor.

    In turn, the one some would view as a glorified parrot, Thomas S. Kuhn, used Bachelard’s notion of “epistemological rupture” (coupure or rupture épistémologique) as re-interpreted by Alexandre Koyré to develop his theory of paradigm changes.
    Wikipedia lists nearly 1,000 French philosophers (and they miss quite a few!) Many of these were of a scientific or mathematical background.

    Here is an example: I claim the Multiverse error is based in a philosophical subtlety, which was missed by everybody. I feel that Planck nearly spotted explicitly the nature of the error, and it’s Einstein, his protégé’, who instigated it (this is rather ironical, as, in the end, without realizing it, Einstein came to be opposed to himself in the debate on the Foundations of Quantum Physics).

    A lot of the progress in science, and even technology, has to do with questioning how we know what we think we know. That’s essentially philosophical. The more fundamental the scientific questions, the more one has to question how it is that we got to these conclusions.

    Here is another example: the end of Cretaceous mass extinction. Alvarez, the geologist son of Alvarez the Nobel in physics, asked his dad how one could prove that there was an impact. The dad answered: Iridium, it’s rare on Earth, but found on asteroids. So Alvarez went to look for Iridium, and found it, thus demonstrating there was an impact.

    However, I scoffed. I knew there had been other impacts. I also knew there was the Deccan Traps hyper-volcanism at the same time. The numbers, about the magnitudes did not fit. So, philosophical question: how sure were we that the Iridium did not come from the center of the Earth? I did not see the Alvarez and their followers even consider the question.

    Yet, it was impossible they were not aware of it. So this was fishy scientific logic.

    Science is about certain knowledge. How do we get there? By making alternatives impossible. The asteroid extinction conclusion cannot pretend to be science, because a (more probable!) alternative was not excluded.

    By the way, latest news show that my point of view is winning: yes Iridium can come from the core, yes the extinction’s chronology seems volcanically driven.


  8. I suppose I really am shouting into the void here, but it does seem the philosophers of science are falling down on the job. Yes, theoretical physicists are a bit like workers on the line. They get the material and use the tools and rules they have to assemble the parts as best as possible and pass them on down the line. Input and output. What they don’t seem to appreciate that negative feedback loops can be very bit as dynamic and motivating as positive feedback loops, from the inside. Yet when there are serious conversations about multiverses, it is about as clear an example of reductio ad absurdum as you will ever find.
    Where are the people, the philosophers, whose job it should be to raise warning flags before decades are spent spinning wheels? Is there just no money in stating the obvious and it is better to mull the mental cobwebs of every mildly insightful writer of the last however many centuries, who had access to quill and parchment?
    Wasn’t it at some point a scientific assumption that if observation didn’t match the predictions of the theory, you went back to the drawing board, not invent some enormous new force of nature? I do recall Perlmutter et al and how when they discovered redshift wasn’t the even reduction from the edge of the visible universe, but dropped and then flattened out and within a week it was explained that something like 75% of the universe is this invisible energy, to explain redshift before it goes parabolic. Where were the philosophers of science to swat that idea around a little bit first???
    We have inflation, dark energy, strings, susy, the big bang, the “fabric of spacetime,” block time, etc.
    Yes, the scientists like these ideas, because they serve the immediate purpose of patching a whole in their logic and so they can continue their merry way. Who is policing them though? How long will this continue?
    Not to be completely cynical, but it’s safe to say that it will continue as long as jobs, papers and conferences are funded in these subjects, because it is evident the philosophers of science have nothing to say.


  9. Philosophy has much bigger scope than science. But, my concern here is all about the philosophy in physics. The Nature physics has three steps: ready, get set, go. The human physics has four steps:

    S1, philosophical insights

    S2, translating that insights with math language (equations and model building)

    S3, testing and verifying those equations (experimental data)

    S4, conclusions and interpretations

    The philosophical insight is the ESSENCE in this process while all other steps are just nitty-gritty. In the entire history of physics, there are only a few insights:

    I1, viewing the motion of Apple is the same as the motion of moon

    I2, viewing light as a vector field

    I3, viewing the gravity as the consequence of the spacetime geometry

    I4, breaking up the particles to review their internal structures

    Then, believing that all fermions could be written with a theoretical LANGUAGE, and this led the M-string movement. Good insight, but failed. Yet, this is a great divide in physics:

    Stage 1, Popperianism: falsifiability of theories and models, {theory vs empirical data}

    Stage 2, Anti-popperianism: truth is non-falsifiable, {theory vs language (mainly the math language)}

    These changes are revolutionary philosophical advancement. Yet, it is mainly pushed by physicists, not by philosophers. Worse yet, it is fighting against by the philosophers. Fortunately, they (M-string and multiverse mania) do not have any workable example to support their claim.

    M-string is by all means a great LANGUAGE, but no cigar (not in contact with Nature). The starting point for the multiverse is the Naturalness issue {all nature constants are fine-tuned while they cannot be derived with the current paradigm}. While they have pushed their claim beyond the Popperian sphere, they can be refuted philosophically:

    One, disregard all other-verses. There is one known universe. Just work out the issues of this universe.

    Two, MEANing: if those other-verses are not interact with this universe, they have no meaning to this universe. They can be comfortably ignored. If they do have meaning to this universe, that meaning will be detected.

    Three, bubble dependence: the nature constants of this universe must also be bubble dependence. Although not being able to derive them, the attributes of bubble dependence must be detectable.

    These are philosophical arguments, needs no physics.

    On the other hand,
    First, someone shows that all those nature constants can be derived.
    Second, in those calculations, all those nature constants are not bubble dependent.
    (See, ).

    With this, physics is now finally END, and philosophy is just begin. Yet, no philosopher is on this pathway yet.

    Now, we are entering into the third stage:

    Stage 3, theoretical truths (eternal) vs empirical evidences (always fallible), Next.

    Philosophical insight is the ESSENCE of physics. But, there is zero such insight coming from philosophers in the past 100 years. Philosophical truth (eternal) should check the physics-nonsense, but no such a check was powerful enough doing any good for the past 50 years.


  10. ejwinner,

    Just to correct some points on the University of Tehran:

    There does seem to be very little physics:

    ‘Philosophies of’ shows up in a few places like psychology, education and religion:

    Of course there’s a lot of religious studies, this one caught my eye –Comparative Religions and Mysticism:

    And to my surprise, under animal studies –Evolutionary Biology:


  11. Asher Kay,

    Thanks for the summary, it looks accurate to me.


    I also appreciated your comment as well. It’s worth explicitly pointing out that even if Adam were right about epistemology or metaphysics (which, of course, many have shown him to be incorrect about), this wouldn’t show that philosophy as a whole hasn’t made progress. It’s extremely easy to point out major advances in philosophy in various fields like Phil language (kripke, Quine, Davidson) or Phil mind (all of the authors and ideas I cited before) or ethics/meta ethics (singer, Blackburn, etc.). The list could go on and on.

    Jake also said that if he explained meta ethics to his lay friends they would laugh.

    That’s unfortunate, because all of my lay friends find meta ethics very interesting. Also meta ethics isn’t about nothing, it’s about whether or not there are moral facts and what our moral statements mean/express. Perhaps you just meant you don’t find it interesing, but I think there are
    Plenty of others who do find it
    Interesting (myself for one) to render that comment pretty useless.


  12. ejwinner, I’m not sure that was a very good joke. In fact, it was more like a rant about nonexistent slippery slopes. I didn’t suggest that science is worthless at all. That’s pure concoction on your part. And the difference between science and philosophy is that science makes progress and actually discovers solid truths. Although I’m open to the idea that much science research grants are wasted on dead end research.

    Your next comment was a grandiose wacking of a phantasmagorical strawman. I was merely questioning whether publically funding philosophy is justified, considering it doesn’t make any seeming progress. Like Coel said, scientists justify their research to apply for grants. I like philosophy. I consume much that is privately produced. I think of it as highbrow entertainment. However, I’m not so sure the public should be compelled to pay philosophers to “explore logical space.” The vast majority of people have no idea what philosophers do and receive no benefit from their taxpayer dollars. If people wanted to voluntarily pay philosophers to philosophize, I’m all for it. The argument for publically funding philosophy has to be that it creates positive externalities. This lofty talk that I creates “better citizens” is doubtful at best. I’m actually more given to thinking that it’s detrimental to good citizenship because many philosophy students become socialists and don’t understand economics in the least.

    Coel is right. If philosophers are working with scientists, they’re being scientists. The rest of philosophy is just entertainment.


  13. Deep Science Is Always Philosophical

    Philosophy, and science have the same longing, truth. They go at it in, roughly, the same way. However, the data set philosophy uses, even in its mature form, is much more general. This makes philosophy more “meta”, and thus indispensable to create anything really new in science, be it even a new lab method.

    So the debate “Philosophers and Physicists” in Scientia Salon is, to a great extent, tongue in cheek.

    Newton was a mathematician, physicist, and self-declared “Natural” philosopher. Indeed there were many philosophical problems related to his mathematics, and his physics. Leibnitz’s approach to infinitesimals was made logical only three centuries later (Non-Standard analysis, Robinson et Al.)

    Einstein offered philosophical considerations in domains far from physics. If one knows his works really well, one sees some crucial connections.

    Epistemology, the study of how we come to have knowledge, is a meta-discipline.

    Yet, epistemology is essential to establish new methods in science.

    Why? Because if we could use the same epistemology as Aristotle, Aristotle would have discovered everything already. As it was, Aristotle had neither noticed air resistance, nor guessed that air resistance, should it exist, would make much of his logic fall flat on its face (that’s an allusion to the fact Aristotle thought that the Earth could not move, as falling bodies would be left behind…)

    A recent example is datation using genetic material: the practice became more precise, because how we came to the previous knowledge was questioned, and then modified into better knowledge.
    Edge science is nearly always entangled with practical epistemology. This makes scientists at the edge of science philosophers of science in a practical sense.

    So I agreed with lots of what Coel said above. Scientist are practical epistemologists.

    I also agree with what Coel said about those who are ravaged by superstition to the point they demand respect for their superstitions, by confusing respect and tolerance.

    Should we entertain those fanatics (= those who come from the fanum, the temple), we would have to respect Abraham the would-be child killer, because we are tolerant? Of what? The veneration for those who bind children to offer their lives to gods? Would it sound worse, if they offered them to dogs?


  14. Asher Kay,
    With your pointed observations you are vying with Miramaxime for the title of King of Satire! I Can only exclaim with admiration and say – oui, this is not Bad.

    You could have added 8. Lawrence Krauss has nothing to say.


  15. tientzong (& Adam) “Stage 1, Popperianism: falsifiability of theories and models, {theory vs empirical data} Stage 2, Anti-popperianism: truth is non-falsifiable, {theory vs language (mainly the math language)}”

    You keep repeating that, and I read other repetitions of that dead end logic about Godel. Readers who do know physics need to know that there is a mathematical theory that claims we can never entirely encompass measurable events primarily because no theory can make any secure claims about the future or the past. You need to differentiate a mathematical description of a mechanism (nature) from the interfaces of the mechanism itself. The logic of Godel is confined to verification, or description by math for verification by mathematical consistencies (same thing). Being a method of checking every number, it has no security when it delves into the past and future to hypothesize as to whether the numbers stacked up or will stack up as theorized, except by using a crystal ball, which defeats its purpose.

    There is no crystal ball to check either way. Laplace might or might not be true, but Laplace’s universe can never be known, by limits to knowing, by limits to both past & future analysis, by the simple fact of living always in the present. So Godel saying that no theory can ever be complete, simply means only that no theory can ever be verified by checking its past & future, because we live in the present. So tientzong, you are correct that is a mathematical theory (Stage 2) because it is a verification theory and not an engineering theory based on secure mechanisms. So, Stage 2 is merely the impossibility of verification using mathematics. Logic applies to mechanisms more fundamentally than math. Mechanism are defined logical by consistent interfaces, angles shearing as Fields, for example, and not the number that describe them. Define = mechanism, describe = mathematics.

    But Stage 1 is much more fundamentally true that not owning a crystal ball, because mechanical logic for interfacing angles of material objects is best theorized and falsified. The point of Popper is to break free of incremental method, just skimming off the current theory. He wanted science to be creative and reconstruct while keeping relevance to facts for checking. I explained this earlier for Adam. That is fundamental to methodology, and nothing to do with the facts that mathematical verification to the last number (or anywhere near it) is impossible. I would not rate Godel as warranting Stage 2 as a separate issue, it’s too obvious that verification is ultimately impossible. But a theory that gets the mechanism right need only be confirmed in the present if its logic as a mechanism is intact to evolve from a Big Bang, for example, to where we are now and then on to somewhere in future. It only take secure mechanisms properly interfacing for that evolution. Never verified, but not necessary if it completely defines present events with mechanical consistency, past & future (as theory, not verification). Godel is as obvious and inflated as the U.P.


  16. Everyone:

    I appreciate the extended exchange, but I am going to bow out. I have said pretty much all I have to say on the subject — that is, beyond what I already said in the dialogue itself.

    I won’t deny that it is terribly depressing to see how many people out there — highly educated people — despise philosophy. Even worse — want to see it eliminated. I used to think philistine Republicans in the congress and state legislatures were the only ones making these sorts of cynical “hard earned taxpayer dollars!” arguments against the humanities and fine arts — usually, while trying to ax the NEA, NEH, or other arts-and-letters funding organizations — but to find these attitudes being expressed so vehemently by scientifically literate, intellectually sophisticated people is shocking and not something I want to have any part of.

    Indeed, I will not engage in these sorts of conversation at all, anymore. I will continue to read SS and comment on those articles that I am both interested in and competent to speak on, but I am going to avoid all discussion of the merits/worthiness of philosophy. That ship has already sailed for me. I have made my choice. And given how much of my life and emotional energy I have poured into this discipline, it is simply too painful to be constantly told how worthless it all is and to see it belittled and ridiculed.

    I leave the rest of this conversation in your more than able hands.

    –Dan K.


  17. I have made two points on this physicists vs philosophers issue.
    One, the philosophical insights are the essence of physics, and all others are nitty-gritty.

    Two, philosophy has done a very poor job as guiding light for physics in the past 100 years.

    The nitty-gritty-physics (the empirical capability) success during the past 100 years has made most of philosophers chickening out into total silence, and they even become devotees for Popperianism which is superbly successful while is conceptually wrong.

    Yet, the stage 1 {the Popperianism, the falsifiability} is at its dead-end for physics, and the top physicists know about this.

    The stage 1 is constructed with the law/theory based epistemological telescoping (Epi-telescope). The law based Epi-telescope can in general produce new truth. But, the theory based Epi-telescope is definitely in question, often biased. There are three good examples on this in the past 3 years.
    Ex 1, the OPERA fiasco (faster than the light speed neutrino), error in the instrument.

    Ex 2, the BICEP 2 saga, error in the background calculation, theory biased.

    Ex 3, the Higgs mechanism (HM), two and a half-year after the discovery of 126 Gev new boson, HM (the name sake for the new boson) is still not confirmed (see , comment from Nigel Lockyer, Director of Fermi Lab.)

    Now, the Popperianism (falsifiability) is over, at its dead-end: empirical physics can no longer play a major role. The future physics relies on two new epistemologies.

    First, the anchor-web-matching: with stage 1, we have discovered many physics laws and nature constants, and they become the anchors. Those anchors form an anchor-web. A {framework} is not a theory nor a model, as it does not make any prediction nor any explanation. Yet, it must match all known anchors. It does not need to predict or to explain anything but must be the LANGUAGE to describe all things.

    Second, the beauty-contest: instead of discovering any new physics, we should DESIGN a universe of our own, by arbitrarily choosing a finite set of axioms. Then, we can DERIVE many (all) laws axiomatically. Then, we can make a beauty-contest between this designed-universe and the discovered universe. If one of the law of this discovered universe cannot be derived in the designed universe, then we lost in this contest (see ).

    These two new epistemologies are philosophical issues. It is the time now for philosophy to take over the spotlight of physics.


  18. Brodix

    “This though, doesn’t completely refute the uncertainty principle as I used it, as an analogy for how information must be framed, in order to be information and that multiple frames can extract different information from the same energy, with no ontological finality as to one being more right than the other.”

    Different perspectives always need to be reconciled by “frames” but the basis for their reconciliation is the simple fact that momentum (motion AND direction) is always a smear (as you see). You don’t need to try to extend beyond that. I think you understand that motion AND direction both cannot be known at one spatial position in one instant – Heisenberg simply stated the obvious. I also wouldn’t extend into a “zero” point argument to nail a time instant, or apply the same idea to nail a spatial “point” – without clarifying the meaning of that. The clarification here, or application, is a field exchange explained in my earlier posts. As I said, given that there is only a smear or an approximation of passage BETWEEN two instants/places, which you grasp, then how narrowly can that gap be closed? Apparently, only to within a wavelength, currently, at least. And what is the likely width to an object that has a wave-like (unmeasurable) passage in between apparatus? – maybe a wave-length. The idea here is to say a photon has a back & front side, with a gap between them, and when its momentum (motion & direction) are measured, we are in fact not simply measuring the difference between the place of absorption (now, here) and emission ( 2 seconds ago, over there) for its motion (& direction). Instead, the very actions of absorption and emission involve an adjustment by having front & back ends, front & back ends at each end, as it were.
    Consequently, its relevant to say we cannot nail an instant (or a “point” in space), but it doesn’t affect the fundamental nonsense of the U.P. It just means that no matter how narrowly we nail that “instant” or “point”, we can always nail it better (less gap) extending infinitely inwards to smaller times & spaces. It is useful, however, to use that obvious idea of inaccessibility inwards (to infinity inwards, if you like), to look at the gap between front & back sides of a photon and realize things are happening at emission and absorption, at either end, with gaps at those ends. It a reminder to go further inwards at those ends, and not just close the gap between those ends. When that task is properly understood, we can theorize about why a particle emits or absorbs a photon always at light speed motion despite the particle having motion – because there is an adjustment between front & back ends while it is being emitted or absorbed to direct momentum across a particle surface as well as at its pole. An adjusted light speed motion is measured due to that “gap” being used for adjustment.


  19. Dear Jake Zielsdorf,

    wow, you have really nailed it. So, not only will Philosophy not give us the iPhone10, it even fails at something so basic as to teach its students economics! Who would have thought that? This is got to be the most damning critique of Philosophy I have ever read.

    You know, when I was younger I was wondering why so many students were attracted to pure math. Didn’t they realize that applied math is where it’s at if you want to get to something useful!? What was even more staggering to me, was that it were the especially gifted students that were attracted to the most arcane and useless stuff. Oh, how much could they have advanced my field, I thought. They could have given us new algorithmic tools to solve real engineering problems in a way I could never dream of, but instead they were counting prime numbers, studying the geometry of objects that could never exist or wrestle with the foundations of logical systems that couldn’t even proof anything useful in the first place.

    Did you know that a colleague of mine dedicated his whole carreer to studying an age-old problem to which no “significant” contribution has been made in the last 100 years (well, he would probably disagree, then again he could certainly not explain these advances in clear terms to any laymen, so there).

    What is worse, even if he could finally solve it: Nothing useful would ever come out of it (as he is quite happy to inform anyone interested) -> no positive externalities at all (and we all agree that this is the only way how spending tax dollars could ever be justified, right)! His papers are hardly ever cited and if so, then always by the same 10 people on this planet who seem to care and/or understand what he actually does.

    Why don’t we both go over to his office to tell him that his career was a complete waste. While others tried to cure AIDS or were at least trying to solve math problems of industrial use, he sat there in his armchair and thought about a useless problem, writing useless symbols on endless sheets of papers proving useless theorems and never even managed to get a handle on the problem he originally set out to solve!

    So, come on, let’s go! Oh, you are hesitating? Why?


  20. I’m glad couchloc wrote about “how philosophy has influenced work in computer science”. Previously I referred to the philosophical background of Martin-Löf type theory, which influences CS in programming language theory.

    Here are subfields where (ridiculed) “postmodernist” philosophers Baudrillard and Derrida have been referred to in CS: virtual reality design; human-computer interaction.


  21. Dan,
    That isn’t how I read the general tenor of this conversation. Excepting a few, it would seem the majority are pro philosophy and if anything, wish it were conducted with more vigor. My personal objection has been with the theoretical physicists and their patchwork cosmology, as well as a general reliance on imaginary mathematical constructs, rather than actual physical dynamics and wonder why there has been no one to seriously raise questions. To me, it amounts to intellectual corruption, to take the short cut and propose intellectually easy fixes, than go back and seriously re-examine the basis of the theories, when they consistently need patches to match observation. I am certainly not against philosophy, though possibly against those who might claim the mantle without seriously conducting what is required. Similarly I respect the institutions of government and finance, yet find many of those currently conducting it to not exactly be up to the task required. Time will tell who is right.


  22. tienzengong

    “Now, the Popperianism (falsifiability) is over, at its dead-end: empirical physics can no longer play a major role. The future physics relies on two new epistemologies.”

    I cannot agree. You have skimmed over the points I made about Popper and Godel. Your scheme is very involved. I like the point-form comments, but they are hard to follow. You epistemology in physics reduces, I I said to Adam, to “secure theory subject to falsification, ongoing” by Popper. That is not a dead end to anything, iit is a recognition of the reality that Godel’s verification is impossible. We do not theorize and then verify, we theorize and falsify. You miss the significance of this, as do many. Verified knowledge is impossible, because we always build knowledge from secure deduction using hypothetical induction to extend it, test it deductively, and build upon it by results. that process will continue, and it should, because it is secure. It is NOT secure, however, to theorize and try to prove it ultimately as a verified theory, that’s a fools errant faced with past, future, and everything happening all over the place across present moment, unmeasured and unmeasurable. Godel is a nonsense. Knowledge is always provisional, by Popper.

    In fact, if that does not convince you of the nonsense of Godel, return to his First Theorem, which gets back to Emergence Theories, same mistake. Emergence Theories say a whole has parts that can be compared, but, by definition they cannot because a whole has no discernible parts. The same sort of inconsistency applies in the Liar Paradox – a statement is made that contradicts itself (“this statement is a lie”). Make the comment itself an event, and its content has a rule inconsistent with the comment. In the Uncertainty Principle, the definition of motion & direction is contradicted by a claim that a stationary state at one place and instant has any momentum, making the statement obvious and its controversy about it just silly. In the First Incompleteness Theorem, Godel defines a whole as a “complete and consistent theory”, but he says a claim cannot ever be proven about a part of it. It is obvious that such a claim about any part would contradict the rule that the theory is a consistent WHOLE. The Second Theorem lifts that nonsense into practical verification, as if we have a crystal ball to measure everything to verify, particularly when momentum is always putative, “in passage” and not measurable, by definition. We cannot ever verify. “Knowledge” is a “secure theory subject to falsification” and never “verified”. QED for the Epistemology (Methodology) of physics!


  23. Hi Asher

    Things I have learned from Coel in this thread:

    1. If a scientist did it, it’s science.

    2. If a scientist didn’t do it, that person was still doing science.

    3. All meta-scientific activity is still just science, because there’s only one epistemology, and scientists, not philosophers, figured out what it is.

    Excellent, you’re getting the hang of scientism! 🙂

    Though, I’d phrase things somewhat differently. We don’t have a big divide between chemistry and biology, we just have a seamless transition with a broad overlap that we call “biochemistry”. Ditto with chemistry and physics. So why should there be a big divide between physics and relevant areas of philosophy? (The response that my examples are all sciences whereas philosophy is not is merely begging that question.)

    Why would there be a big divide between meta-epistemology and applied-epistemology? If all such things are part of a Quine-style web then considering them as distinct and separate is wrong-headed.

    Science is a process of adjusting and updating the web of beliefs in order to better match reality (or, rather, empirical observations, being our only handle on reality). Thus, the scientist thinks, adjusting the meta-epistemology is just as much fair game as adjusting the applied-epistemology or anything else — whatever works.

    It’s sense to adopt convenient labels for different parts of the web (“chemistry”, “physics”, etc) so long as we accept that they are for convenience and are not big natural divides. In the same way there is no natural divide between meta-epistemology and applied-epistemology, and any such demarcations are artificial and arbitrary. Thus any such “boundary” to broadly-construed “science” is unnatural.


  24. Brodix wrote:

    Dan, That isn’t how I read the general tenor of this conversation. Excepting a few, it would seem the majority are pro philosophy and if anything, wish it were conducted with more vigor.


    Of course. I wasn’t suggesting that this is the dominant view here — although there are a number of people who have voiced this attitude in quite aggressive terms. It’s just that I am not willing to continue to field demands that I justify my life’s work, on the charge that I’m robbing Americans of their hard earned tax dollars. Just as I wouldn’t expect someone to continue talking to me, if after he told me he was passionate about interior design, I told him that his passion was worthless and he should have had his federal student loans yanked, so as not to steal from the taxpayers.

    That’s all. As I said, I am happy to have any number of discussions. I just won’t have this one anymore.


  25. miramaxime,

    You really know how to satirize an opinion. Maybe you should replace Jon Stewart! All this talk of me being an anti-intellectual or scientismist is laughable. I’m just applying cost-benefit analysis to philosophy. I guess this is too crass and cynical for most denizens of this site to handle. It’s ironic since any “good citizen” should be applying cost-benefit analyses to all public policies. Sorry to irritate you with my skepticism.


  26. Hi all, but especially the critics of philosophy. Essentially the recurring theme among critics is to ask “what has philosophy done for me lately”. Some have already put in excellent replies to these criticisms (with a strong nod to Daniel). But I want to address another issue raised within this thread, particularly the question why philosophers should be on the ‘public tab’. I’ll limit myself by restricting this discussion to its application toward science.

    Science is the product and beneficiary of a rather long conversation. This conversation began (I think without controversy) with philosophers doing philosophy. Philosophers today are employed by the public chiefly as educators. Their primary goal in that capacity is not to produce anything ‘new’ (as scientists might) since presumably what they teach will be ‘new’ to the incoming students. This is just like teachers of languages, historians, and basic mathematics. In addition to the subject being interesting in itself (for some) philosophy teachers can give scientists (as students) a greater depth of knowledge regarding that long conversation of which they will soon become a part.

    Scientists can understand what underlying mechanics of good arguments are, as well as why certain elements became part of the scientific method. They can learn how to evaluate speculative theories from a more critical perspective (or more advanced perspective) than the skills normally required in a lab setting.

    Obviously philosophers will pursue their interests and so explore all sorts of topics. If it seems laughable that a metaphysician might have anything new to say, remember that practice makes perfect and they need to chew on problems to keep their knowledge and skills up. Just like a historian, or mathematician. In fact they may score some advances, but for sake of argument I can assume they don’t. They still have relevance as instructors for those wanting to build knowledge about the world around them.

    In time (a lot of it) there will be fewer novel scientific discoveries to be made, especially in the fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry. Everything “useful” (given the concept used in this thread) will be limited to application which means engineering or exploration. I believe when that time comes it will still be a good idea to have pure physicists and chemists on the public tab to instruct these future engineers about why they use the formulas they use, what matter and energy mean by taking them through the process scientists used to discover their nature and relationship. And just like today, philosophers will be useful to help understand the basis for the method the scientists employed.


  27. Aravis, your uses of “rob” and “steal” to characterize my and others’ opinions is unfair. I don’t use that sort of inflammatory rhetoric. My opinion is more measured. Public funding of humanities scholarship isn’t even that extensive. However, that doesn’t mean it’s justified. It’s perfectly understandable that you find this discussion unpleasant, since you’re a philosopher, but since the topic is brought up I feel the need to voice my dissenting opinion.


  28. Comment about the video; Physicists and Philosophers

    Introduction: I am a retired medical research scientist and engineer. I hold eight US Patents and have held non-tenure track faculty positions in the College of Medicine and College of Engineering at the University of South Florida. My PhD is in Biomedical Engineering (University of Florida) and my undergrad in Nuclear Engineering (University of Florida) after I changed major from Physics. My only foray into formal philosophy was a narrow course of study at the Humanist Institute held at the Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West. Howard Radest was class mentor. Currently I speak to the Humanist and Atheist Communities in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida.

    The subject of the video is one in which I am deeply interested. Watching the video and reading sixty some posts a few days ago I was initially struck by the arrogance of a few posts and the video. I was also surprised by a number of Appeals to Authority (“Darwin himself”). I then began to wonder why both of you seemed surprised by physicists’ ignorance of philosophy. Massimo works at a university which grants PhDs in Physics. He should know or have known the curricula. I reviewed CUNY’s Physics Department graduate level course offerings ( The courses were exactly what I thought. I found no Philosophy courses therein. I also wondered why you both were surprised by physicists’ response when, among other things, you claim; “There are no facts.” You are speaking about people who use all their time finding facts and searching for truth in the natural world. You should not be surprised. You should also not be surprised why the physicists do not take up philosophy. Fundamentally I wonder why you spent time making the video at all when you could have used the time to teach the ignorant physicists (and engineers) at least one lesson you consider important.

    My philosophical problems: 1) I think I know philosophy is not science because there are no standards against which philosophical constructs can be measured. Without measurement (see Lord Kelvin) we cannot understand (know) anything. So without the bounds of reality you can make up whatever you want and, if well written, can be accepted within philosophical circles. 2) I think I know the method of science is the best path to inquire about the real world. As far as I know there are no better methods from philosophical space to take its place (please correct me here if there are better methods). 3) I need to study the whole reality problem because what I call reality might be something else (Is it here post modernism enters?).

    I need updates to my knowledge of philosophy because I am currently in the Physicists’ camp. In philosophy, typified by some Scientia Salon posts, I see endless navel inspections and redefinitions of redefinitions which confuse, failing to illuminate. How many PhDs in Philosophy have been awarded for venturing into a well plowed field looking for a stone to evaluate and, finding a worm, redefined it as a stone?

    In all fairness I know philosophy is very important as was pointed out in the video. It clearly has authority in other philosophical fields: politics, economics, sociology, and medicine (most MDs are not scientists). Whether it belongs in the sciences I am unconvinced. Perhaps Gould’s NOMA applies to the philosophy-physics boundary.


  29. Jake Zielsdorf,

    You[miramaxime] really know how to satirize an opinion
    Yes, he is good and you are well advised to pay careful attention. Satire is an appropriate tool when the other person is unable or unwilling to engage seriously with the debate.

    All this talk of me being an anti-intellectual or scientismist is laughable
    We think it is an accurate characterisation. Your talk of applying cost-benefit analysis to philosophy justifies the opinion.

    I guess this is too crass…
    Yes, we think so too.

    any “good citizen” should be applying cost-benefit analyses to all public policies
    CBA would paralyse much of the process of formulating public policies.

    1. The world is a messy place where consequences are unpredictable. Outcomes are often surprising and counterintuitive. They do not lend themselves to measurement.

    2. We cannot encapsulate some of our most important values in neatly formulated measures that can be related to costs.

    3. Agreement about costs and benefits can be almost impossible to achieve. Take this forum discussion as an example of how difficult it is to get any kind of agreement among a small subset of people about a narrowly defined topic.

    4. Calculation of benefits is only possible in narrowly limited cases where good knowledge is available.

    5. Vision matters. History is replete with examples of people who had a vision that defied contemporary wisdom but were ultimately proven right.

    6. That is because intuition matters. Some of our most important insights were a spontaneous and intuitive judgement call.

    7. CBA is often gamed by powerful players for their own ends. I was party to this as a corporate manager.

    8. Advocates inevitably bias the process in their own favour, a process known as confirmation bias.

    9. CBA has the undesirable effect of narrowing the terrain of the debate.

    10. Scale matters. As one scales up the project the unknowables multiply exponentially. Beyond a certain scale the outcome becomes wishful thinking and the CBA a creative exercise in fiction.

    I have a lot of experience with CBA as a corporate manager. What really happens is the following. Someone, through a process of vision and business intuition wishes to initiate a new venture/project, etc. Anticipating objections from powerful vested interests he prepares a CBA. The CBA is carefully fudged to make his case as strong as possible. Cynical, yes. But business is cynical and I have pushed through large, successful projects in this way as a matter of practical expediency. It happens all the time. Politics is even more cynical.

    CBAs become a dishonest exercise that hide the real debate that should be taking place.

    That said, CBA works well in cases where outcomes are clearly known, easily measured, the process is controllable with a well defined scope and the players are honest. Philosophy, and indeed much of humanities, defies these parameters and cannot possibly be subjected to CBA. Only a scientismist, with his eye glued to the eyepiece of his measuring instrument could think otherwise.


  30. Please make a downloadable mp3 version of these discussions, so that I may listen to them while on the road.


  31. Dear Jake

    thank you for your response. Please believe me that it was not my intent to grossly misrepresent your view, but you explicitly complained that philosophy students are not educated enough about economics, which seems quite an odd complaint to me. I wonder whether you would ever be tempted to raise the same complaint about students of chemistry, who are not faring any better in this regard in my experience. Would you?

    I don’t find cost-benefit analysis “crass” or cynical. I teach it in my introductory class and especially the business students love it since the math is so easy (in stark contrast to the other stuff we do). If carried out carefully it provides a valid perspective for policy makers and citizens alike, but it is certainly not the ONLY valid perspective, which was my point (and has severe limits, as Labnut already explained).

    I used the example of my colleague from pure math in good faith, since I made the experience that science minded folks often have a great reverence for math, while having no respect for philosophy. In all honesty: Do you think he wasted his career? Should the tax payer continue to pay his salary? Any “cost-benefit-analysis” will not evaluate his research favorably, mind you.

    This was my last post for this thread, but I am genuinely interested to have your perspective on this! Cheers!


  32. I am not a philosopher nor am I a scientist but I have had some years experience of being a therapist and some of the cross purposes and defensive misconstruings so evident in this thread are familiar to me from my training and work in that area. Bringing philosophy to Main Street is essentially a therapeutic exercise, an attempt to identify and correct cognitive and linguistic dysfunctions, and the same goes, it seems to me, for each “philosophy of x”. Successful therapy is rarely easy and is almost impossible if the “client” does not come willingly, even if not eagerly, to the encounter. It is not at all surprising that people who are engaged in such a successful activity as “Science” find it difficult to see that they might benefit from the observations of mere “spectators”. Only the few, the “seekers after truth” will actively seek the greater clarity a training in philosophy might bring.

    However, if “therapeutic” philosophy is having a torrid time of it at the moment, the “preventative” variety is looking much more hopeful. The introduction of philosophy classes in Primary schools in the UK seems to be a growing phenomenon (how fast I don’t know) and I understand there is a similar movement in U.S. Elementary schools, about which I know less. But it seems that philosophy is far from dead, Hawkins notwithstanding, and if it can be successfully taught from an early age it will reduce the need for the more difficult therapeutic variety in later life.


  33. Many of the above comments reflect a palpable sense of resignation, characterized, I’d say, by much meandering through a quagmire of inconsequentialities. I therefore feel compelled to once again point out a robustly meaningful alternative.

    One of the high-profile detractors of philosophy cited at the beginning, Niel deGrasse Tyson, is demonstrably guilty of pretending to know something he doesn’t really know: Gravity-induced oscillation through the center of a massive body. (See the YouTube video posted above by me.) By the ideals of science, is Tyson not obliged to back up his claim with empirical evidence?

    DisagreeableMe has defended Tyson by claiming that Galileo’s experiment is “completely infeasible,” and that there is no need to do it anyhow. DisagreeableMe claims that the evidence gotten from OVER the surface of gravitating bodies suffices to establish that the predictions of Newton’s theory concerning motion INSIDE material bodies is all but confirmed as well.

    The advice from Herman Bondi (see my previous post) however, warns of the danger of such extrapolations. This rigorously scientific advice of Bondi is reflected in the linked documents from my previous post as well. Also found in these documents, and most especially this one:

    are reasons to expect an entirely different result from the standard one, as enacted by Tyson. On the basis of Einstein’s rotation analogy, it may be argued that the dropped test object would not even pass the center of the larger body. I understand how unlikely this may seem, but the model that predicts it agrees with General Relativity in all experiments performed so far. General Relativity’s interior solution yet remains to be tested.

    Even if there were no reason to expect a non-standard result, however, most scientifically curious persons, I suppose, would be positively tickled by the idea of witnessing the experiment unfold. Add to this the fact that the experiment was proposed almost 400 years ago by the Father of Modern Science, and it becomes difficult to imagine any good reason not to do it.

    Another way to put it is this: Someday, somebody will surely do Galileo’s experiment. Would it not be preferable for that day to be sooner rather than later? It is a win-win proposition. And by putting Tyson on the spot, by insisting that he come clean by supporting his claim with physical evidence, it provides an opportunity for the philosophy community to put a feather in its cap.

    Patrice Ayme commented:

    “A lot of the progress in science… has to do with questioning how we know what we think we know. That is essentially philosophical. The more fundamental the scientific questions, the more one has to question how it is that we got to these conclusions.”

    As much as possible, we need to let Nature do the answering. Shall we not hold Tyson to these standard of evidence instead of letting him get away with “confirming” theory with theory, i.e., with “evidence” by extrapolation?

    You can lead a horse to water…


  34. labnut,

    I understand there are limitations to CBA. However, I think it behooves all citizens to apply it as best they can to all public policies. And I’m not at all suggesting that you can predict the benefit of any action. That would be absurd. I do think the societal value of the vast majority of philosophy scholarship is questionable, though. This view notwithstanding, I actually think high school introductory philosophy classes would be a good idea. I wouldn’t want them to be mandatory but I think they would make good electives. I wish my high school had a philosophy class. Again my opinion is that philosophy beyond the basics is of doubtful societal value.


    I don’t mean to pick on philosophy. It’s just that the value of philosophy was mooted and I opined. Sure, academics in other fields pursue research that isn’t likely to be of any public benefit. That’s not cool. It makes me wonder, do you not have any misgivings about your colleague pursuing this project? I understand that he’s passionate about it, and you don’t want to tell him that his work is worthless to society, but this isn’t encouraging to hear. Publicly funded research is supposed to create positive externalities for society. All publicly funded research should be justified as being in the public interest. That’s all I’m saying.


  35. When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, I became preoccupied with coming up with my own theory about the foundations of ethics. I had an excellent friendly ethics professor who would hear these theories and always, with almost no effort, tell me convincingly what was wrong with them. In my view this is representative of one of the values of professional philosophy to society. They may not discover a new insect or automotive technology but they provide a screen regarding ideas on important issues that don’t work. A metric of professional philosophy’s success to some extent is not what they have added to society but what they have protected society from. They form a structure of authority (of presumed competence and experience) that casts influential opinions on public discourse, however far in the background it is. If you want to publish a philosophy tract of any kind, for instance, a professional philosopher’s sponsorship is the difference between wind at your back and wind at your front. This is for a good reason. Half-baked philosophies are a dime a dozen and quality measures are needed not just to advance knowledge but to keep society safe from the dangers, fraud, etc., of bad philosophical ideas. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a society in which these screens of sophistication were gone and e.g. political philosophy was in the hands of software engineers. Also, anyone who doesn’t appreciate the vast contribution to human understanding represented by 20th-century philosophy simply doesn’t know the history.


  36. Im really upset with the hatred against philsophy nowaday, which is kinda tough since I am an undergraduate in it. I really don’t give a damn about the worth or non-worth of philosophy anymore and I am really too tired to argue either way. I psychologically defend myself myself in this situation by not identifying myself as a philosopher any more. I seem to do things and use words that seem like something a philosopher would do or speak, but I am no philosopher. By putting myself in this stupid discussion I was always anxiously defending my position as philosophy student, whilst at the same time becoming agressive and rejective against physics and even more the natural sciences. Nowadays I don’t put myself into any categories anymore just so I do not fall into this polarized black and white thinking that doesn’t let me enjoy either of the subjects.


  37. Hi Wesley, I looked through the course list you linked to and found several theoretical courses. But most pertinent were the courses in quantum mechanics and cosmology. As I stated in my earlier reply science is the product and beneficiary of a long conversation. That we can study ‘just the science of’ a particular field today does not undermine the philosophical underpinnings of those topics (its part in that conversation). I certainly did not study those two topics mentioned above as a philosopher, but when I studied quantum mechanics as a scientist and dug into the original work its philosophical nature (what it rests on and how it was argued) was clear. Certainly people like Bohr and Einstein did not deny they were employing philosophy in support of their science. This is also true when I became interested in cosmology (as a civilian), when digging deep some of the issues clearly veer into uncharted and so conceptually analytic rather than purely empirical analysis.

    The fact that a Physics department does not have courses in philosophy might suggest that some of the philosophically relevant parts are within the course itself, or that they treat it at a functional level rather than analyzing the fundamentals of the field. I might also note, that they do not have any courses in english (or any language skills). I assume that does not mean such skills are not considered important/couldn’t be useful to physicists?

    Hi Paul Paolini, I largely agree with your point. Philosophers can certainly act as a filter against poorly conceived ideas. However, I think they do (potentially) produce something of value: better thinkers. Getting people to use their minds to evaluate the way they think and their knowledge (or at least what they think they know) about the world, is a great service. I think some of the backlash comes when certain scientists range outside of purely empirical analysis only to find their analytical skills are rusty, get upset, and want to throw something back at the critics. Lack of producing empirical data is a pretty easy charge to make against critics who are not in the business of producing empirical data. That doesn’t make the critics wrong about their analyses.

    Hi Tschoo, don’t be embarrassed about being a philosophy major. Frankly I think every field gets made fun of (or demonized) by someone. At least you don’t get accused of ‘killing babies’ (which I get working with stem cells). Philosophy may face a bit more ridicule than most I suppose, but then it’s time to channel some Stoicism. If you want to disarm or avoid criticism at parties, just say you study applied logical analysis. Also, I do recommend you pick up a ‘practical’ (by which I mean easy to get a job in without an advanced degree) minor or second major. It gives you something to hone your skills on with current data from a field, and helps with employment later.


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