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. Hi Harry Ellis,

    Krauss’s book … title makes a claim that obviously alludes to theology and philosophy, and then the text proceeds to ignore the question of the source of the “rules” governing (not to mention the very existence of) quantum fields.

    I wonder. Have those criticising that book actually read it, or just read Albert’s review? The text explicitly addresses those questions! Krauss does not use just *one* meaning of “nothing” in the book, he realises that “nothing” can have many different meanings (“What have you got in your pocket?”, “Nothing”. The answer can be correct in context, even if the pocket contains air molecules).

    Thus, as a strategy in a popular science book, Krauss deals with lots of meanings of “nothing”, progressively stripping down the concept as the book proceeds. Albert pooh-poohed it, saying that he’d simply started from space containing quantum fields (by the way, if Albert really knows the ontological status of quantum fields, he should tell the world about it).

    But Krauss’s answer was already in the book! The answer is that, in quantum gravity, where space itself (and the fields it contains) are part of the fluctuation, one might start from a “nothing” that wasn’t even space-with-quantum-fields. This is speculative, since we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity, which is why the book ends up being speculative and open-ended. He also does, explicitly, address the “source of the “rules”” question. This is why Albert’s review was blatantly unfair.

    Hi Massimo,

    Me “Thus science is also about understanding science!”; SciSal Yes, that part of science is called sociology, …

    No, the area I was refering to is called epistemology. I don’t agree that this is “philosophy” about which science has nothing to say. It is an area of overlap between science and philosophy.

    Yes, but they [scientists] are not experts on what counts as evidence in general, …

    I disagree, I’d say that scientists have just as much or more expertise there as philosophers.

    Hi Aravis,

    What [science] cannot do is speak to questions of justification, warrant, truth, and the like, because these are not empirical questions.

    Again, I disagree. The “day job” of scientists is all to do with justification, since scientists spend their lives justifying different scientific theories and concepts.

    The point is that the question of *what truth consists of* is not a scientific question. Is truth correspondence with the facts? Is truth coherence? Is truth nothing more than disquotation?

    Actually, that question is merely one of semantics, what we mean by the word. Correspondence-truth and internal-coherence-truth are different concepts. It’s not a matter of discovering which is the “true” version of “truth”.

    If we phrase the question slightly differently, and ask “what is the nature of reality?”, and the related issue of what we even mean by that term, then that is very much a scientific issue that really needs to be addressed using empirical evidence about how things actually are. Philosophy can, of course, contribute also. Once again, I see attempts to put a divide between the two on such topics as wrong-headed.


  2. SciSal –

    (“the failure of the philosophy that is best known to physicists is there for all to see”)

    Hmm, failure at what, exactly?”

    – Failure at solving any problems. As we see, this leaves physicists free to dismiss philosophy as useless.

    (“to be fair for a moment, I feel it is up to philosophers to make some progress and put all this cheap criticism to rest”)

    Philosophy very clearly has made progress in a number of areas. ”

    – Footnotes to Plato. It has not solved one important problem. If it had then it would have some happy customers. As it is they’re all complaining. I cannot see how we are going to move our ‘western’ philosophy on until we can admit this dismal failure. Only then are we likely to look for a better approach.

    So I’d agree with Kraus and Tyson et al in respect of our tradition of philosophy. It is clearly not going anywhere. But I’d disagree with their assumption, which seems to be based on a remarkable lack of research, that this is the whole of philosophy or the only way to do it. It’s just bad workman blaming their tools.

    This could be my fifth post so I may not be able to reply again.


  3. ejwinner,

    I was just saying: If the theoretical physicist who ridicules philosophy can make useful models without knowing of anything written by philosophers, good for him.

    Wouldn’t it be a nice irony if some theoretical physicist made a useful new model inspired by his readings of the writings of some ridiculed postmodernist philosopher?


  4. Hi labnut

    Let’s begin by clarifying our terms: “Tolerance”: 1. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others …

    This is exactly the dumbing down of language that I’m complaining about. It essentially defines “tolerance” as “respect”. The whole point of different words is that they mean different things.

    So let’s consult a proper dictionary, namely the OED:

    Tolerate: “(1) allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference. (2) endure (someone or something unpleasant) with forbearance.”

    Contrast that with:

    Respect: “feeling of deep admiration for someone (or something) elicited by their qualities or achievements”.

    See how different they are? The whole basis of Western freedom and free speech is that we can disrespect and criticise other people’s ideas as much as we like, while still tolerating them. To be intolerant is to try to prohibit by legal sanction or threats of violence. The distinction between “disrespect” and “intolerance” is crucial to Western pluralism.

    What has happened, though, is that people nowadays like to adopt the victim posture, and whenever they are disrespected they start simpering and whimpering about “intolerance”.

    Frequent targeting of a group strongly indicates intolerance.

    No it isn’t. Not if the “targeting” is merely public speech. Not unless you want to say that all party politics is “intolerance”, all campaigning is “intolerance”, all attempts at promoting ones views are “intolerance”.

    The intent to destroy Christianity cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called tolerance.

    If one wants to “destroy” Christianity by peaceful persuasion (by writings books and giving speeches, as Hitchens and Dawkins actually do) then it is entirely tolerant.

    Seeking to persuade each other is exactly what we’re allowed to do and should be doing. It is precisely what allows Christians to proselytize. Or is proselytizing “intolerant” because it is disrespectful of people’s current beliefs?

    Furthermore, intolerance can be seen as a wish to deny a group intellectual, cultural, emotional or physical space for practice or expression.

    And of course Dawkins has indeed asked for laws that prevent Christians expressing their views on websites and other places! That was of course sarcasm. Ooh, how very intolerant of me to use disrespectful sarcasm!

    You do realise, by the way, that by your definitions you and many Christians are highly intolerant of atheists, and especially of Gnu Atheists? (How many anti-atheist diatribes have you written on SS alone?) Indeed, one could say that anyone who ever calls anyone else “intolerant” is, thereby, themselves being intolerant! See how silly this gets?

    See the Dawkins quotes on Islam, below. This is just a small sampling. … “One of the great evils in the world.”

    I note the attempt to disallow criticism of religion by trying to paint the religion as the victim of “intolerance”.

    There is religious intolerance in the world, labnut, it is what happens when Malala was shot by the Taliban for speaking, when Boko Haram massacre people at church, when Egypt jails someone for espousing atheism, when Pakistan applies the death sentence under its blasphemy laws, when Saudi Arabia flogs a blogger for “insulting Islam”, when gunmen kill drawers of satirical cartoons — we need to retain the word for genuine intolerance, and not re-label any free speech that you dislike as “intolerance”.


  5. To be fair, compared to science, philosophy is ‘useless’ in the sense it does not offer technological products. (Just look at that smart phone, the flat screen tv, the internet and so on.) Science offers knowledge in very explicit forms, and this knowledge is eventually turned into technology. Philosophy (and/or humanities in general) is not as explicit. What philosophy offers are ideas based on the times. From the abortion of slavery, to equality, to human rights, these are at their roots, philosophical notions. These notions needed politics to become reality, but their starting point is philosophy.

    Philosophy is not science, just as a child is not her mother. But there is no dispute to say that a part of the child is from the mother. In this case philosophy IS the father of science, whether science likes it or not.

    ( It was a bit tempting to pull a bit of star wars into this. Luke can hate his father all he wants, but he cannot deny the fact that darth vader is his father)


  6. Coel:

    Re: truth. Of course the question of truth is semantic — the concept of truth belongs to semantics. It is one of the semantic values of sentences (meaning being the other).

    It matters quite a bit which concept of truth one works with. The reason why there are a number of them is precisely because each represents an attempt to address problems with the others. The point simply is that theorizing about truth, trying to determine *which* conception of truth best suits our application of the word to sentences — whether in natural science, social science, ordinary language, etc. — is a substantial, important task that is decidedly non-empirical in nature and the province of philosophy, not science.

    The same is true re: justification and warrant, although these, obviously are epistemic, rather than semantic notions. Insofar as justification is defined in terms of truth, however, how our theories of justification fare is tied to our conception of truth. Part of the reason why Coherentist accounts of justification have difficulty, is because they are hard to square with the concept of truth.

    As for the other stuff, you’ve already defended people like Dawkins acting like jerks and I’ve already explained why I find your defense completely unconvincing. I see no reason to rehash that argument here.


    There has been a tremendous amount of work done in epistemology since Gettier, and any number of philosophers have abandoned the TJB model of knowledge. Indeed, the difficulty in refining that model is part of the reason why some epistemologists, like Keith Lehrer and Nick Wolterstorff have revived interest in Thomas Reid and the philosophy of common sense, which approaches the question of knowledge in a fundamentally different way. Of course, there is also the vast area of epistemology, where we find theories of justification — Foundationalism, Coherentism, Web of Belief, Naturalized epist., and the like — all of which have advanced our understanding of the subject to a substantial degree.


  7. In response to Aravis, Coel suggested that the job of both scientists and philosophers often entails the question:

    It is therefore just as much within the purview of philosophers as physicists to require EVIDENCE for scientific claims.

    In a NOVA Science video Niel deGrasse Tyson, in the guise of a scientist, claimed that falling in a hole through a large body of matter results in oscillation through the hole.

    This claim has never been backed by empirical evidence. Alert, conscientious philosophers ought to take him to task for that.

    It is well within our technological ability to build a small scale version of Tyson ‘s enactment, to discover “how things actually are.”

    But his enactment is on NOVA Science. Tyson is a veritable god, so he gets away with his sloppy pseudo science.

    Adding to Tyson’s “success” (credibility) is that he presents the standard prediction in an ENTERTAINING way. He makes us smile, so the unwary consumer believes him.

    Philosophy could use a media-savvy marketing department like Tyson’s. It’s so darn stuffy around here. Challenging the alleged scientific content of Tyson’s claim would lend some action and brighten things up in the otherwise ho-hum world of philosophy.


  8. Leafology

    Socates whilst walking through the park came across his friend Enstein standing in the shade under a tree. After some greetings Socates asked, “what brings you here today?” Enstein replied,” I am here doing some very important scientific work scientifically measuring the number of leaves that have fallen from this tree.” “For what reason” Socates asked, Einstein answered, “to prove the measure of nature or the science of physics is most certainly, quantifiably, or quatum mechanically, wave mechanically, particle physically absolute.” “Is Nature measurable” Socates asked? Then asked further, “how many leaves have you counted here today?” Enstein replied “5.” “Are you absolutely certain of you measurement” Socates asked? Enstein responded, “to make certain I should count them again.” As he counted a light breeze came up and flipped a leaf over exposing yet another leaf. “Well well well”, Socrates said, “how many leaves do you count now?” Enstein smiled and counted again and said,”now there are 6″. “Would you wager everything you know Enstein that scientifically your measurement is absolutely correct?” Enstein showing some discomfort now said, “ahh yes, yes I would. I am certain there are 6. And to prove it to you I will right here and now count them again.” As he began to count a bit of a wind came by and blew all of the leaves away, much to Enstein’s dismay. Now it was Socates time to smile and ask, ” if science is the measure of all things, and yet it cannot even count the number of leaves fallen from a tree, then what can science measure, anything at all?” Eistein turned to Socates and said hmmm, smart question, is it measure that is in need of measure?” Socates relied, “perhaps we will both find the truth there.”



  9. For every question, it always has an answer. If an answer cannot be found for a question, most likely it is a wrong question. Science is in general the best way for answering the Nature questions. But philosophy is the best way of examining whether the questions are asked correctly.

    After 100 years of trying, the quantum and GR (general relativity) are still not unified. A simple question should be asked is whether they are the matching pieces in the puzzle. Keeping trying working out the wrong pieces with earnest effort is just wasting the time. Many questions on this issue can be asked by street walking people with some comment facts.

    F1, everything (stars, lives, intelligence, etc.) is the emergent after this universe came into being, governed mainly by the laws of physics.

    F2, both QFT (quantum field theory) and GR are FIELD theories.
    Q1, can lives, economics and politics be described with field theory of some sort? If not, why not?

    Q2, There could have two different emergent processes.
    P1, emerging as the axiomatic theorems.
    P2, emerging as the out-of-blue-pops.
    Is there any other (third) emergent process?

    Q3, can field theories encompass all emerging processes? If not, …

    These simple questions can be asked without any knowledge of physics while they can be the guiding light for physics. Yet, the fact is that:
    One, philosophy does not provide any guidance for physics in the past 100 years.

    Two, philosophy does not even provide any meaningful CHECK for the results of physics research. The recent check on the development of Multiverse from philosophy (by using the falsifiability) is weak and wrong. While theories could be falsified, the true truth cannot be falsifiability by DEFINITION. The Popperianism could be a useful TOOL for a defined mission, but it is fundamentally wrong in principle. Again, philosophy failed to provide guidance on this.

    Well, it is wasting time for just outlining the big framework. I should just show some solid examples (hopefully 10) of what philosophy (not knowing anything about physics) can CHECK the physics.

    Example 1,
    Quarks and leptons of Standard Model (SM) are facts.
    The mission of M-string theory is {string-unification}, writing out those SM fermions as string-expression of some sort.
    M-string theory failed on its mission after 45 years of relentless effort by thousands of top physicists.

    Physics: if the string which describes the fermions has the internal structure, the quark must be composited. The composited particle could be pumped into an excited state. This is a physics testable issue.

    Philosophy (not knowing any related physics): if there is a LANGUAGE (not a theory) which describes quark (see ), fulfilling the dream of M-string theory, is there any philosophical meaning to it (in addition to the physics)?

    More details, see . This is an issue which can be addressed by philosophy (even not knowing any related physics). Why is philosophy not doing it? More examples, next.


  10. Robin, Miramaxime: An example is The Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis and a new theory of free will. It is based on articles published in peer-reviewed philosophy journals. It says that quantum mechanics is wrong and proposes a hypothesis to fix it. The whole thing is contrary to textbook knowledge. If it were right, physicists would be interested. But those ideas were rejected about 80 years ago.

    No one says that science is useless. But Kuhn and other philosophers do deny that science makes progress towards truth, and portray scientists as irrationally jumping from one paradigm to another like popular fads. I call that anti-science. Kuhn’s description of incommensurable paradigm shifts has very little to do with the actual history of science. I am sure Weinberg has his biases, but at least he has respect for the scientific process.

    The split between physics and philosophy is not some artifact of the 1990s. It goes back decades before that. Even before Kuhn.


  11. To reach consensus means starting with points of agreement and working out, examining how areas of contention arise. It would seem to be general agreement that framing is foundational to knowledge, whether it is anthro/cultural/educational centric, or simply how one frames a question or conducts an experiment. Then there is the spectrum, from the post-modernists, who view all of reality as framing and nothing is ontological, to the scientistic view that science is inherently objective and one only need to calculate from observation and measurement. Now it is reasonable to conclude there is no one point of agreement that would ever be settled on, because not only do we all have our own perspectives, but then use them to encompass some particular finite set of observations. Which is to also observe that the very act of framing creates biases. I would say the most fundamental bias is for a static interpretation of a dynamic reality. Even our eyes function like movies, flashing sequences of brief images, essentially frozen out of that larger dynamic. This necessary consolidation then feeds on itself and we come to believe reality is inherently static, such as a mathematical platonic universe, block time, etc. Now if the philosophy of science were to really step back and take on an issue like that, then the physicists would really have to take notice.
    Another idea to stir up controversy; What if gravity is not a single force, in and of itself, but is a broad spectrum effect of everything from magnetism to quantum wave collapse, to vacuum effects. For instance, energy released from mass, be it structural, chemical or atomic, expands because it takes up more space, thus creating pressure. So all effects which serve to condense energy into mass would work together in an overall vacuum effect. For example, on the outer fringes of galaxies, there is proposed dark matter, to explain the forces holding those outer edges of the galaxies together. What if this was more of an electrostatic effect among the various cosmic rays, gases, etc. which are populating those regions?
    Now it could well be wrong, but it would be an interesting proposal to make, given the science tendency to focus more on the details, than the broad array of input.

    I do agree with some of what you say. For example, if one thinks in terms of waves, rather than particles, essentially the discovery of lasers disproves the initial concept, as the peaks and troughs have to be synchronized.
    I would take issue with some of your concepts though. For one thing, an instant, as in a dimensionless point in time, is a contradiction, as it doesn’t exist. Like anything multiplied by zero, it would be zero. Like taking a picture with the shutter speed set at zero. To freeze time would be to freeze motion and so it would be equivalent to a temperature of absolute zero.
    Now you are right to say that we can’t really measure motion in action, only clock its rate from one point to another, but that does present a larger question, as to whether anything can exist without motion and if it is in motion, how can it be said to occupy an exact location? Wouldn’t a car in motion essentially be blurred at one spot on the road? Yes, we can create extremely fast frames, but still they must have some duration, in order to at least let the light move and since everything is energy…..
    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.
    For example, there are many places in the world today, where different people apply different frames to the same spaces and events. Otherwise known as politics. What happens is that there is no absolute frame and the result will eventually be some form of compromise, when sufficient energy has been exhausted and the two sides have melted/dissolved into some composite, aka entropy.
    Similarly this debate has no one final answer, only that the participants will tire before many minds are changed.


  12. In my previous post with Tyson’s video, I tried to quote Coel’s remark with angle brackets. This made the quote disappear. Between the first and second paragraph the following quote from Coel was intended to appear:

    “what is the nature of reality?”, and the related issue of what we even mean by that term, . . . that is very much a scientific issue that really needs to be addressed using empirical evidence about how things actually are.


  13. Hi richardbenish,

    I have to disagree with you, vehemently, on just about everything you said pertaining to Neil Tyson’s Nova clip.

    There is physical evidence for what he said, in the shape of the very many experiments that confirm that Newton’s laws of gravitation and the more recent general relativity are consistently pretty accurate, the latter extremely so, in just about every scenario we can concoct to put them to the test. I would say one of the points (if not the only point) of forming such laws is to predict the behaviour in advance of systems we have not yet observed. I mean, we may never have observed the trajectory of a 500 gram purple African elephant being catapulted in a vacuum at an angle of 45 degrees with initial velocity 1m per s in standard gravity, but working it out is pretty elementary and there’s no reason to take physicists to task for doing so without actually genetically engineering a tiny purple elephant and building the apparatus.

    Like the scenario I describe, Tyson’s is unrealistic but working out the behaviour predicted by the laws that have been so well tested is not hard. It is the laws themselves that have been experimentally confirmed and this constitutes evidence that his description of what would happen is accurate.

    Now, you are quite right that we can’t be absolutely sure without actually conducting the experiment, but this is somewhat beside the point for two reasons.

    Firstly, the idea that the system would behave other than how Tyson describes would be very very surprising. It takes a move of such extreme skepticism to seriously entertain this notion that you’re in the same ballpark as wondering if you’re a brain in a vat. Your doubts could prove correct, but in the face of such extreme skepticism almost nothing is certain, which would mean calling just about any scientific claim at all pseudoscientific, rather defeating the point of that label. All of science’s claims are provisional, but we have a very high degree of confidence in many of them, and this is no different. Actually spelling out this provisional status every time a scientist opens his or her mouth is tedious and impractical.

    Secondly, you are quite wrong to suggest that we could easily subject Tyson’s claim to experimental test.
    Actually carrying out an experiment similar to that he describes is completely infeasible. For a start, you would need to have a massive object (massive enough to have a significant gravitational pull) with a perfectly straight hole through the centre of gravity in a relative zero gravity environment (e.g. orbit). To say that this is not easy to arrange would be a gross understatement.

    Now, there are of course ways you can make compromises and test similar scenarios without actually going to the trouble of drilling a perfectly straight hole through a huge asteroid. You could for example use magnetic attraction instead of gravitation, and use ball bearings confined to a low-friction track instead of zero gravity, but once you start doing that you are open to skeptical criticism such as yours that your findings don’t necessarily reflect what would happen in the actual case described by Tyson.

    In fact, such compromises have been made and do agree with Tyson — indeed the humble pendulum can be seen as such a compromise.

    But, honestly, if not how Tyson describes, how else would you expect the system behave? What other behaviour would be consistent with what we have been able to test directly?


  14. @Aravis Tarkheena

    I’m not sure that being told that some epistemologists are taking a renewed interest in the work of an 18th-century “common sense” philosopher in order to find alternatives to the views of a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago counts as a compelling evidence that “epistemology has made great strides”, especially since I explicitly asked what major discoveries have been made in epistemology since the end of the eighteenth century.

    As for the other positions you mention, foundationalism has been around at least since Descartes, coherentism and web-of-belief holism of various kinds were popular amongst neo-Hegelians more than a century ago, and naturalised epistemology (which was arguably already being practised by Hume) asserts that epistemology should be undertaken as part and parcel of natural science and has no need of extra-scientific philosophy anyway.

    But if all of these positions “have advanced our understanding of the subject to a substantial degree”, perhaps you could mention some of the most important discoveries or findings that epistemologists have made about the nature of knowledge in the past 200 years? After all, if someone asked you what “great strides” have been made in any of the various disciplines and sub-disciplines of mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, cosmology, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, engineering, meteorology, medicine (etc. etc. etc.) in the past 200 years, you would be able to cite many hundreds of important contributions to the collective pool of human knowledge. So what have epistemologists established about the nature of knowledge, and what use has any of this been to those who are actually in the business of the production of knowledge (i.e. scientists), or to anyone else for that matter?


  15. Whether the philosophical method has been useful in Twentieth Century science should not be a debate: Frege, Russell, Poincare’, etc., were also full blown philosophers.

    Many, if not all, of the top, fundamental physicists, used the philosophical method. The Foundational debates were all deeply philosophical always (as early as Aristotle, Averroes, Tycho, Bruno, Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Gauss, Riemann, Maxwell, Mach, Cantor, etc.).

    The fight between Einstein and his sponsor Planck about the photoelectric effect was philosophical.

    Bohr defended (his view of) Quantum Mechanics with philosophy (thanks to Born’s interpretation it became permanent).

    Better: Karl Popper engaged in a correspondence with Einstein about Non-Locality. Out of that came the Popper experiment and the EPR.'s_experiment

    Science is after truth. Philosophy is also after truth. Both are also after defining what truth could be, and what propositions may be formulated and which ones may be provable.
    Introducing only observables in physics was attributed to Einstein by Heisenberg, in a heated exchange about the Copenhagen Interpretation, where Heisenberg accused Einstein to have taught him that way.

    But Einstein had got the notion from Poincare’. As found in Henri’s “La Science et L’Hypothese” plus Poincare’ papers on what Poincare’ called the “Principle of Relativity”, complete with the constancy of the speed of light, which, latest news, is not really constant (as I expected).

    Philosophy is also after truth.
    Even the truth that there are no truths about some matters.

    Science also excels at the truth that there are sometimes no truth about some matters… and science has learned to overcome that: for example there is no definition, stricto sensu, of elementary particle. Elementary, yes, particle, no… But that does not prevent physicists of discovering them, at least in Feynman diagrams.

    The difference between the notion of truth in philosophy and in science is just a matter of degree.

    Buridanus established the erroneous labeled “Newton’s First Law” in a treaty he wrote about Aristotle. That same Buridan taught students, and established with them the basic idea of graphs, and what became the Oxford Computing School.

    Aristotle, fully admirable and experimentally oriented in biology, was spectacularly wrong about inertia. That became a big deal as his students Antipater, Craterus and Alexander established a fascist political paradigm that was to reign until, well, Buridan’s time.

    Thus truth in philosophy, politics, society and science are entangled.

    This stays true to this day: “High Energy Physics” was long well financed, in part because the leaders of the military-industrial complex cannot fail to have noticed that they need “high energy”.

    So why all the recent aggressivity of second, third, of even lower order physicists against “philosophy”? Simply because incoherent Quantum Field Theory and complete flight of fancy (SUSY, Strings, Inflation Now, etc.) have ruled physics, under the chimp like mood “shut up and calculate”, in recent decades.

    Many philosophers of science have directed sharp critiques at contemporary elite thinking in physics, and their judiciousness has made physicists furious (because they feel threatened, they remember the cancellation of the SSC).


  16. By the way, I find it ironic that Massimo claims that philosophers “don’t equate ‘conceptual’ with philosophical, though some scientists do (erroneously) equate ’empirical’ with scientific” just after the only other professional philosopher here (Aravis) had stated that science “cannot speak to questions of justification, warrant, truth, and the like, because these are not empirical questions”!

    Don’t worry: I only have two comments left now, after which you can stop squirming on these hooks (do philosophers feel pain?).


  17. tientzong (and Brodix & Marko) – “F2, both QFT (quantum field theory) and GR are FIELD theories.
    Q1, can lives, economics and politics be described with field theory of some sort? If not, why not?”

    Read my post above directed to Brodix & Marko’s confidence in the logic of physics about the U.P. You also have confidence in “Field Theory” and the U.P. So answer directly, if you can, without branching into your various speculations and spinoffs. Just simply logically analyse the FACT that BY DEFINITION, motion & direction (momentum) are two spatial & temporal psoitions, for motion & direction between them at one position in one instrant, there is a freeze-frame. That is not motion or direction, by DEFINITION, it is not moving and not directing.

    Perhaps the idea of “freeze frame” is unfamiliar, as there may be physics jargon for that state, like STATIONARY. It arises when something is at one spatial posotion (not moving or with direction) at one insrtant. Very simple, and not abstract. As I said, once you accept that reality, rather than onbfuscating about it and writing illogical books about it, physics can move on to METAPHYSICS. A “field” is always measured RELATIVE to particle, rather than as a “putative” wave-function in it UNMEASURABLE momentum in passage between particles. It is measured when give & taken, at each end of the passage.

    My view, which is a bit old fashioned, but very useful in my own work, is to use basic logic. Basic logic for basic facts. The problem with phsyics’ logic is two-fold: phsyics is as closed to logic as it is in this blog, where physicists continually isgnore these key issues and repeat reliance upon the U.P (and other “logic” of physics I could list given time and space!). The way physics has dealt with those issue in this blog speaks for their approach to logic – which is an issue for EVERYMAN – every person who relies on logic- they IGNORE it.


  18. Adam:

    The foundationalisms and common sense philosophies of the current day represent substantial developments from their originals. Just as Utilitarianism today is not just Bentham or Mill, Virtue Ethics is not just Aristotle, and Deontology is not just Kant, Foundationalism is not just Descartes and common sense phi. is not just Reid. Indeed, in my own work in epistemology, I have interpreted Reid’s idea of “common sense” in terms of the Wittgensteinian concept of hinge-propositions, partly under inspiration from PF Strawson, who drew explicit connections between Hume and Wittgenstein, with the aim at finally getting at the problem of skepticism.

    Click to access Reality_in_Common_Sense.pdf

    Now, you might think that in doing so, I have failed to advance our understanding of these questions, but obviously I disagree (or I wouldn’t do it), the students who take my courses disagree (or else they would take something else), and the universities that have hired me disagree (or they would deem my work unsatisfactory). I guess you could say that they are all wrong, but, of course, anyone can say anything.

    Part of the problem is that you are defining ‘success’ and ‘furthering our understanding’ in ways that only apply to science, so of course, your conclusion that philosophy doesn’t do it follows automatically. If by “advancing our understanding” you mean providing information that will solve concrete problems, then obviously, philosophy does not advance our understanding, but I would reject such a conception of understanding as too narrow. I would also reject your characterization of ‘knowledge’ as something that only scientists are in the business of producing. Beyond the obvious example of mathematics, I would maintain that artists and novelists contribute to our knowledge and understanding to as great a degree — although in different ways — as scientists do. My understanding of human nature and the human condition has benefited from my encounters with art and literature as much as — or even more than — from my studies in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and even philosophy.


  19. ejwinner,

    “With all due respect, your examples are completely irrelevant. Whether any scientist, mathematician or engineer uses or consults philosophy when in their practice, neither validates nor invalidates the usefulness or importance of philosophy.”

    I didn’t claim that philosophy in general is useless or unimportant. I didn’t claim that the philosophy of science is useless or unimportant. And I genuinely don’t like physicists when they deride the philosophy of science. But I also gave two examples that illustrate what physicists actually do. Could you tell me how any explicit knowledge of the PoS could help these physicists? It can’t, it’s as simple as that. And that goes long way to explain why many physicists – perhaps most? – feel that the PoS is not useful *to solve problems in physics*.

    Ah, but there are examples of physicists who claim(ed) to be inspired by particular philosophical positions or convictions. Schrödinger showed some interest in Indian philosophies, Einstein was convinced the Lord doesn’t throw dice, and the physicist who taught me algebraic QFT thought the measurement problem in QM is a waste of time. But it’s not as simple as that. For a physicist, these statements are observations. To make these observations convincing, at lot of work needs to be done. First of all, one needs to show that these philosophical points of view really were relevant. Whatever the philosophical convictions of Heisenberg may have been when he discovered QM, Schrödinger and Dirac didn’t share them and arrived at physically equivalent results. Then one has to give a convincing argument that this philosophical inspiration plays a role that’s more than marginal. A colleague of mine went out to make a walk when he was stuck in a long, complex calculation. When I was at CERN, physicists played ping pong or darts. It’s perfectly possible that making a walk or playing darts or whatever is far more effective to help you solve difficult physical problems than knowledge of the PoS. Perhaps not, we simply don’t know. But given the lack of interest for the PoS it’s not very plausible that it plays an important role in the daily work of a scientist (although it *describes* some aspects that play a role).

    I’ll give you a challenge. Take a finite mathematical group, with the following property: if two subgroups H1 and H2 have the same number of elements, then H1 = H2. Show that the group is cyclic. It’s an elementary property of the simplest type of group one can imagine, the cyclic group. The proof is easy, stuff for first year students of mathematics or physics. Now read any number of works and papers about the philosophy of mathematics and tell me how they helped you to find the proof.

    I’m not offering this challenge as a proof that the philosophy of mathematics is useless. I’m just asking to give physicists a break. They shouldn’t claim that the PoS is useless and they should be criticized when they do. But it’s also true that the PoS was of very, very limited use for my friend when she had to assess the reliability of that microswitch. You gave the analogy with the lumberjack and Hegel. When I first read it, I thought Hegel stood for the physicist and the lumberjack for the philosopher of science. But perhaps I can offer my own analogy. Take Messi and a guy who’s very proficient at playing soccer games on a computer. Messi is one of the best players in the history of football, but that doesn’t give him the right to deride the performance of the gamer – there’s a good chance he would suck at the computer game. But Messi is entitled to say that the opinions of this gamer are useless when he’s playing Real Madrid – no matter how large the “overlap” between the computer game and the real game is, no matter how often the gamer assures Messi that he *knows* both are different, no matter how often the gamer claims that his analysis of football tactics and strategy is subtle and deep.


  20. Some people have questioned the “usefulness” of philosophy, or asked “what problems has it solved.” It seems to me that such people likely have an impoverished understanding of the contributions of philosophers to society. Here is a list of ideas that were first proposed or developed over the years by people we think of as philosophers. Anyone who thinks that philosophers don’t make extremely important contributions to society doesn’t know their history very well, I would suggest.

    # Aristotle – Formal logic
    # William of Ockham – Ockham’s razor
    # Adam Smith – father of Economics
    # Machiavelli – father of Political philosophy
    # Francis Bacon – Scientific method
    # David Hume – Empiricism
    # Voltaire – Civil liberties, freedom of religion
    # Montesquieu – Separation of powers
    # John Locke – Liberalism, natural rights
    # Thomas Hobbes – Social contract theory
    # René Descartes – Analytic geometry
    # Liebniz (w/ Newton) – Calculus
    # Russell — modern logic (nobel prize)
    # Jeremy Bentham – Utilitarianism
    # Karl Popper – Falsification
    # Godel, Frege, Boolos, Foundations computing theory
    # Sen — Social choice theory (nobel prize)
    # Singer – Animal rights movement
    # Rawls – Just democracies


  21. I can’t keep up Aravis,

    I’m only on page 43 of the Kenny book on Wittgenstein while in middle of two popular books I am finding really interesting (Andreas Wagner ‘Arrival of the Fittest’ & Evan Thompsons latest), and now I want read your stuff on common sense.

    Seriously though, thanks, all the links are appreciated 🙂


  22. Sci Sal

    What do you make of my logic concerning the U.P.? You must be curious about how the logic of physics measures up to logic itself! What’s you view? I may not get any replies from the others, as I have not to date, despite reading continually about their reliance on certain principle of phyics without answering my objections. Could it be that they object to caps, and refuse on that basis? Let’s hope not..


  23. @Aravis

    It’s nice to know that you have been inspired by two 20th-century philosophers to interpret an 18th-century philosopher’s idea of common sense with a view to “getting at” a pseudo-problem which even most philosophers do not think worth posing any more. However, what I asked was for you to cite the most important discoveries that epistemologists have made about the nature of knowledge in the past 200 years. All you have said so far is that a lot has been written and that since universities hire philosophers and students sit in their classes, they must have contributed something valuable to human knowledge. Surely you can do better than that? What are these “great strides” you and Massimo are talking about? Why is that question so hard to answer when it would be trivially easy in any other subject bar theology? And what about “metaphysics” (the other “core area” of modern philosophy)? Can you cite a single contribution to human knowledge made by a “metaphysician” in the past fifty years? If so, please do tell us what it is. If not, why are universities continuing to employ these people at the tax-payer’s expense?


  24. Hi Adam,

    I think Aravis was pretty clear about progress that has been made in epistemology- he cited Edmund Gettier (who wrote within the past 200 years, meeting your timeframe demand) showing that the true + justified belief model of knowledge is inadequate, and that other philosophers have proposed new ways of thinking about knowledge that work better. These are all very important contributions.

    It might be worth showing Aravis’ post once again- “There has been a tremendous amount of work done in epistemology since Gettier, and any number of philosophers have abandoned the TJB model of knowledge. Indeed, the difficulty in refining that model is part of the reason why some epistemologists, like Keith Lehrer and Nick Wolterstorff have revived interest in Thomas Reid and the philosophy of common sense, which approaches the question of knowledge in a fundamentally different way. Of course, there is also the vast area of epistemology, where we find theories of justification — Foundationalism, Coherentism, Web of Belief, Naturalized epist., and the like — all of which have advanced our understanding of the subject to a substantial degree.”

    You responded to Aravis by saying that many of these views have been around for centuries, therefore pointing out that these topics are being revived and discussed doesn’t show progress.

    However, I think this argument really doesn’t work. Think of it like this- Darwin’s theory of evolution has been around for quite some time, but it has changed quite a bit since its inception (just ask Massimo about the modern synthesis and the looming extended synthesis). We all think progress has been made in the field of evolutionary biology despite the fact that the same view has been around for quite some time. Similarly, foundationalism, coherentism, web of belief, etc. have been around for awhile, but they have been changed and advanced over time.

    If that doesn’t convince you, here is a new important advancement that has been made: there has been recent proposal of the epistemological position about justification called infinitism which hadn’t been seen before by Peter D. Klein in 2000 . So, not only are old views being improved on, new views are being birthed. See the paper in the philosophical review or here


  25. Adam:

    You really are a strange fellow. You open with a hostile, insulting attack on my professional work and then issue a series of demands that I justify myself and my profession to you, all on behalf of the American taxpayer.

    While I’m sure that the taxpayers are moved by your concern, why, on earth, would I choose to engage in such a conversation?


  26. Marko,

    “when using a notion in some argument, one should provide at least *some* definition, even one that is, say, too restrictive and does not describe the notion properly. That is still more useful than discussing the notion without any definition whatsoever.”

    If possible, yes. But sometimes that’s not the best strategy. I just taught my intro students, for instance, that in some cases the best strategy is to provide examples of exemplars, and then of more difficult cases, so that one develops a mental “search image” of the concept. That, of course, is very much in line with Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance concepts.

    “But then when you write a paper about dunes, is it better to use the term “sand dune” without defining it at all, or is it better to provide a rigorous but arbitrary and not-all-encompassing definition?”

    Good example. Now, how many papers on sand dunes you know that actually begin with a definition of their object of study? Not many, I bet. Instead, geologists just talk about sand dunes assuming that their audience is familiar enough with the concept — via exemplars — that a formal definition is not necessary.

    “if both parties refrain from using any definition at all, and reach contradictory conclusions, there is no way to decide who is right and who is wrong, and the debates about the conclusions are endless and ambiguous, often talking past each other. That is something physicists denote as “philosophizing”, in the derogatory sense”

    Right, and I wager that those scientists have never actually read a philosophy paper, since philosophers — especially in the analytic tradition — are very careful with their use of language.


    “many philosophers would much rather talk about these questions and reference other philosophers talking about these questions”

    True enough. Then again, I see scientists mostly referencing each other too. It’s the nature of specialized academic work, not unique to philosophy. Hence the need for cross-disciplinary work, and public talk, which is what SciSal is about.


    “you shared both those responses in the video, but while amusing, I don’t think either are worthy of consideration as serious arguments (do you?).”

    Obviously not. Why, you think Feynman’s remark should be taken as a serious argument?

    “Feynman’s rejection of philosophy of science is prima facie reasonable, as his interests lie in science and not in philosophy of science, and being successful at the former does not require an interest in or knowledge of the latter.”

    So why didn’t he make that sort of remark about the sociology of science, or the history of science? Or bongo playing?


    “the area I was refering to is called epistemology. I don’t agree that this is “philosophy” about which science has nothing to say. It is an area of overlap between science and philosophy.”

    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 disagree, I’d say that scientists have just as much or more expertise there as philosophers.”

    Not if one understands epistemology in the meta-sense above.


    “Failure at solving any problems. As we see, this leaves physicists free to dismiss philosophy as useless.”

    As others have pointed out, the contributions of philosophy to knowledge and understanding cannot be framed in terms of solving problems, not in the way in which scientists solve problems. Take ethics, for instance. If we understand it as the discipline that is concerned with how to live a moral life, or how to make the morally right decision, then philosophers have provided 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: it explores solutions in logical space, not in empirical one. As such, there will likely (I would say always) be more than one good “solution” (I prefer “framework,” or “way to think about”) any particular problem. But discovering, rejecting, or improving on these different ways is definitely progress.

    “It has not solved one important problem. If it had then it would have some happy customers.”

    It has plenty of happy customers. Just to give you a personal example, my meetup group in New York has more than 1500 eager members, who want to get together and talk and learn about philosophy.


  27. Adam, honestly, you appear to not be reading Aravis’s posts. Try reading the last paragraph of his post ending with the words “my studies in psychology, sociology, anthropology, and even philosophy.” again.

    I’m not a philosopher or scientist. I’m a businessman and entrepreneur with an associates degree in computer programming. However, I do pay a lot of taxes. I think philosophy and other humanities are important in universities because humanity itself is important.

    The advances in science are directly produced by the exercising of human qualities which themselves cannot be ‘advanced’ upon. They can only be reinforced, reemphasized, remembered, broadened, and hopefully exercised. Wonder, love, perspective, the desire for meaning, for communication, consolation, desire for excellence, equanimity, creativity, justice, compassion, etc. All of these capacities are the necessary conditions for science to even exist. Imagine the advances in medicine compelled by compassion or in physics compelled by wonder. Philosophy (and other humanities) remind, emphasize, and reinforce these qualities. Without the humanities, there would not only be no science– there would be no humanity.


  28. Patrick G,

    “I’m just asking to give physicists a break.”

    Are you kidding? Both Aravis and Massimo work at publicly funded universities; Adam has made the suggestion that such funds should be cut off and Aravis and Massimo unemployed, since according to him, only the sciences produce knowledge.

    This issue arises from the dismissal of philosophy by physicists. No philosopher I know of has suggested that scientists should be driven from the universities because they contribute nothing to philosophy.

    Whether any scientist makes direct use of philosophy in the practice of science is irrelevant. The importance of philosophy does not hinge on its immediate usefulness. Nobody has asked any scientist to stop and read philosophy before practicing science. So why for heaven’s sake are some scientists like Adam so dismissive, even threatening? What is their motivation?

    Although most people use technology in their daily lives, most people do not engage in or use scientific knowledge. Most people just don’t care. So perhaps we should only fund those science departments that are technology-productive? who needs the theory as long as we can get new toys?

    Sounds ridiculous? The Islamic Republic of Iran just loves the technology of nuclear energy. I highly doubt there is a university in Iran where research into evolutionary biology is allowed; and probably no philosophy, in any Western sense of the term.

    Because the sciences are increasingly fragmented, it is possible to pick and choose which we want to finance and teach. Perhaps it is time to get rid of research into theoretical physics – nobody has much use for it, not lumberjacks, philosophers, nuclear power plant designers, or weapons manufactures. It hasn’t produced any new bombs in decades.

    I am not making that suggestion; but if immediate use is to be the standard by which we judge the importance of study, then there are a number of sciences the suggestion could be made for.


    The United States was born of ideas generated in the Enlightenment – a philosophical, not a scientific, cultural revolution. The sciences began flourishing at the time because philosophers began asking, what can we know and how can we know it.

    These philosophers also bequeathed the hope of a republican government with democratic aspirations. Such hope necessitates providing the citizens of such government at least the opportunity to not only gain new knowledge, but also to develop understanding and wisdom – which, as Massimo noted in the dialogue, overlap but are not the same. This is why we fund philosophy departments and history departments and the humanities – because we value a kind of knowing that’s also understanding, and an understanding that deepens into wisdom.

    If you can’t see the value of philosophy to the culture of such a republic, more’s the pity for you. But don’t expect me to give myself over to an elite of unelected scientists who pretend to know all that there is to know, and who treat others with contempt. Your rhetoric isn’t winning any convert here.


  29. Not to be too blunt here, but physics does not seem to be able to go back and examine prior theories as assiduously as they claim to examine the measurements on which they are based. Yes, there are some very exact conceptual blocks of knowledge, but then we have a large number of truly far fetched concepts to fudge over the gaps. Inflation, strings, dark energy and multiverses are only just the latest. What are the social and professional pressures preventing re-examining old theories, to see if something might have been overlooked, yet easily allow enormous new forces of nature to be proposed and accepted, to fill gaps between theory and observation, with little argument???? Wouldn’t that be an issue for the philosophers?
    As I keep pointing out, trying to say space expands relativistically, without recognizing that the speed of light would have to increase proportionally, in order to be relativistic, means they are completely willing to overlook the fundamental logic of the very theories being used, in order to patch a particular paradigm. I also keep pointing out that while our minds think sequentially, i.e. past to future and physics codifies this by treating time as a presumably static measure of the duration between events, this completely overlooks the process of these events being created and dissolved, i.e. going future to past. Which would make time an effect and measure of action, like temperature. Yet no one is willing to consider these particular observations. I have enough experience with these debates to know that if my points had apparent holes in them, someone would quickly and surely point them out, so to me, the silence is deafening. Now I can understand why physicists really don’t want to address issues like this, as the younger ones don’t want to risk careers on anything detrimental to the canon and the older ones have already devoted their lives to these models, yet I would think some of the philosophers would be interested in ideas that might put observations in a different light.
    It’s okay to talk about multiverses and the firewall issue, but to consider that, for example, the earth doesn’t travel/exist along a fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, but that tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates, is just too controversial to even attempt to refute? So what does philosophy do, if not consider such questions? Do they think all worthwhile issues have been resolved and its just punctuation left, or only those ensconced in the university are valid sources?

    I did respond to your points.


  30. Sci Sal & Marko

    >“when using a notion in some argument, one should provide at least *some* definition, even one that is, say, too restrictive and does not describe the notion properly. That is still more useful than discussing the notion without any definition whatsoever.”

    If possible, yes. But sometimes that’s not the best strategy. I just taught my intro students, for instance, that in some cases the best strategy is to provide examples of exemplars, and then of more difficult cases, so that one develops a mental “search image” of the concept. That, of course, is very much in line with Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance concepts.<

    I think you are both on target there. You dont have to be a trained philosopher or scientist to use logic. It is logical to have definitions or else your argument just swims about in a slippery mess. Logical definitions must be used, and they must conform to facts. Its just logic and fact, no more, no need to obfuscate into byways. Now, the exemplar of the misuse of logic & fact – the logic of definitions of motion & direction, and the fact of measurement of events, is the Uncertainty Principle. That "exemplar" combines the use of logic and fact, and is very basic for you to use in class in discussion with your students. As regular people who use logic, your students, while untrained in the matters you discuss here with Marko, will be able to make the connection between logic and fact, and how they always go together.

    The issue with phiosophy & science as bedfellows pales into insignificance beween the logic of regular people (as in my explaianation of the U.P.) and both phsiosophers & scientists. After all, phiosophers have been going at the same gaps for centuries, but they persist. I am a regular person, not a trained "philosopher" or "scientist", and I rely on logic and fact. Your students are not yet trained, so it would be good to catch them before they are trained, while they still have the capacity, like children, to see things "regularly". Many educators now promote that approach. If philosophers or scientists want to depart from regularity and change the very definitions of motion & diurection, for example, they must account for it. But they do not, so we have befuddlements and huge gaps in philosophy & science. I am suggesting the teachers among use ultilize the simple capacity of regular people, rather than try to knock it into whatever shape you claim your rigors currently "purport" to have.


  31. Coel,

    What you said. Many points, all correct. I especially like your defense of Krauss (on “nothing”), whose book I haven’t read, but who clearly is trying to take ideas from the ivory tower to Main Street. And on Main Street, a vacuum of space clearly counts as “nothing”. Never mind a state where not even space exists and all that there are are natural laws! Some philosophers seem to think that philosophy exclusively owns certain words or certain questions. They need to get over it.

    I think it’s precisely because many philosophers defied your excellent advice, by erecting barriers between scientific and philosophic domains, that philosophy has stalled, and drawn somewhat deserved criticism. And if they were more aware of the growing trend of deeply scientifically-informed philosophy – this blog being a good example – they’d sing a different tune. I’m not arguing for this hypothesis, just putting it out there.


  32. Adam says:

    “Can you cite a single contribution to human knowledge from a “metaphysician” in the last fifty years? If so, please do tell us what it is.”

    Sure this is easy. David Lewis was a leading metaphysician at Princeton who died recently. He wrote an extremely influential book called Counterfactuals, in which he gives us a formal framework for thinking about “conditionals” and their role in “counterfactual reasoning.” Counterfactuals are central to understanding concepts like “causation,” which is central to many forms of scientific explanation.

    This work by Lewis has since been explicitly picked up by Judea Pearl, the computer scientist at UCLA, who wrote a widely influential book called “Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference.” The influence of this work is hard to understate in academic circles. Based on this work, in 2004 Pearl won the ACM Turing award, which is the highest distinction in computer science. It was said his work revolutionized our understanding of causality in statistics, psychology, medicine, and the social sciences. This work is explicitly based on Lewis’s work, who Pearl credits in his work. Here is an article from Pearl who discusses Lewis’s work directly so you can see for yourself.

    Click to access Pearl_RWCAE.pdf


  33. Elise Crull, on the most recent Rationally Speaking episode and in relation to this post, said there are as many scientific realisms as there are philosophers. Massimo chuckled in seeming agreement. And still less than 80% of philosophers believe in scientific realism. This is the most agreed upon subject in philosophy according to Chalmers’ survey! I think this belies the philosophical progress argument.

    I also listened to the Rebecca Goldstein interview on Philosophy Bites about progress in philosophy and it was rather sad. Nigel, being the great interviewer that he is, actually pressed her on the claim and she floundered. Her “best” argument was that philosophy helped abolish slavery. That’s quite a stretch.

    Massimo, you keep invoking the modern “sophistication” of philosophy. I think you are mistaking complexity for sophistication. All of these ethical theories are just elaborate opinions. The theories are so abstract that they have no relevance to everyday ethical life. (That includes virtue ethics). And philosophers are still wasting their time debating moral realism! I tried for a bit to actually find out whether I was a moral realist or irrealist and as I read I discovered the debate isn’t about anything! It makes no difference whether you are a moral realist or irrealist. Both sides express their ethical opinions in the same manner. If I tried to explain the difference to my lay-friends, they would laugh. I think we have plenty of sophisticated ethicists outside of academia. They’re called advice columnists.

    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 think logical space is adequately explored in the private sector, through books and journalism and such.

    I’m afraid I agree with Adam quite a bit. Philosophy doesn’t seem to make any progress and that’s why it’s getting flack from outsiders.


  34. SciSal:

    “many philosophers would much rather talk about these questions and reference other philosophers talking about these questions”

    True enough. Then again, I see scientists mostly referencing each other too. It’s the nature of specialized academic work, not unique to philosophy. Hence the need for cross-disciplinary work, and public talk, which is what SciSal is about.

    Roger: It’s true that scientists reference other scientists’ work, but at least in biochemistry, which is the area I know, this mostly occurs in the Introduction, Materials and Methods and Discussion sections of a paper (except for reviews), and not as much in the Results section, because in that section, they’re trying to present results and answer questions. I admit I haven’t read that many academic philosophy papers, but from my admittedly superficial vantage point, it looks like they’re mainly just talking about questions and not trying to answer them. I’m just thinking out loud, but I wonder if having definite sections like Intro., Methods, Results and Conclusions in philosophy papers would be helpful in communicating the output of philosophers to other fields?


  35. Wm. Burgess, that third paragraph in your latest post hit me right between the eyes!. Sometimes what seems simple speaks with a greater eloquence than the most erudite argument. This particular issue has come up more than once here. Thank you for your contribution.


  36. I’m going to comment on a few things here:

    Here’s what I get from all the ornithology discussion:
    1) Philosophers have no value for teaching scientists to fly.
    2) Physicists might not be smart enough to “get” philosophy.
    3) Philosophers are doing good work saving endangered species of physicist from extinction.

    “Why there is something rather than nothing — or a Universe from Nothing” Here I quite agree with Massimo and Dan Kaufman. To me there is no escape from absurdity. It’s turtles all the way down. While there is more than one kind of explanation, with the causative kind, if you say there’s a first principle then it is by definition unexplained. Other kinds of explanation will encounter analogous problems, I believe. Krauss’ book may have much to say — I find Dennett’s _Consciousness Explained_ invaluable even though I don’t consider it to have explained consciousness — maybe it provides a good descriptive model just as the the current flavor of expanding universe is a model, but I can’t buy that it “explains” the universe any more than saying God created it explains it (with God, you have to posit that somehow that potential for everything we see was present within him (her, or it) as a potential, and that’s just sweeping things under the rug.

    Somebody should take responsibility for book titles, given that with any influential book, for everybody who’s read it, there are at least 100 people who just know the title and that it proved whatever it’s supposed to have proved. Indeed, were giving the usual treatment to Krauss’s book back whenever it was, and on this intellectually respectable site, it sure looked like they were saying that Krauss might have finally(!) found the explanation why there is something rather than nothing.


  37. Massimo,

    “when using a notion in some argument, one should provide at least *some* definition, even one that is, say, too restrictive and does not describe the notion properly. That is still more useful than discussing the notion without any definition whatsoever.”

    If possible, yes. But sometimes that’s not the best strategy. I just taught my intro students, for instance, that in some cases the best strategy is to provide examples of exemplars, and then of more difficult cases, so that one develops a mental “search image” of the concept. That, of course, is very much in line with Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblance concepts.

    True, I agree — developing a mental image through examples can often be a very good alternative to a formal definition. Sometimes we use that strategy in physics as well.

    I guess it goes down to the level of skill of the person writing the paper — they should either provide a formal definition, or enough illustrative examples, or maybe even employ some other strategy to clarify the concept they are talking about. Failing to do any of that probably results simply in a lousy-quality exposition of otherwise profound and important ideas. And physicists, being outsiders to philosophy community, don’t distinguish these levels of quality in the philosophy literature.

    Actually, we have a similar problem in physics — some very important results may be published in an obfuscated or ill-presented style, lacking proper definitions, clarity and systematic exposition of material. If the result is really important, other people will probably invest the the effort to rephrase it in a clearer way. And then it goes down to the insider knowledge-of-the-trade which papers one should read, and which to avoid. 🙂

    If the communication between physicists and philosophers is to be stimulated, perhaps it would be a good idea to create some service which could point physicists (and others) to high-quality expositions of philosophical ideas, on the following lines — if you are interested in (for example) absolute idealism, it was most conclusively covered by the works of (say) Hegel, and (since Hegel’s original work might be a terrible pain to read and understand) the best exposition of that work is provided by (insert name here). And so on for every topic in philosophy. Of course, a similar thing could be done for physics as well, and I think that this kind of advice (what literature is most worth reading) would go a long way in helping the two communities understand each other better.

    Otherwise, a physicist might read only the original (say Hegel’s) work, get confused and frustrated by lack of definitions, context, imperfect translation to English, etc., and wrongly dismiss the work as nonsense — eventually developing the Krauss-like opinion on philosophy in general. 🙂 I think we have just seen precisely this kind of confusion happen in the case of Badiou’s video lecture and Nola’s satirical critique, a couple of essays ago.


  38. Jake Zielsdorf,

    “I think we have plenty of sophisticated ethicists outside of academia. They’re called advice columnists.”

    If you’re going to tell jokes like that, let me give it a try. I’ll start from a point I previously made – most people have no use for the theoretical knowledge grounding the sciences.

    So maybe it’s about time we get rid of it. It’s old hat, it doesn’t effect anything in the world in which we live.

    Of course we want the technology; but we have engineers and programmers and such who can give us this. All we want are the toys, who needs the theory behind it?

    BTW, concerning my previous remark on Iranian universities, I checked a few of them out, and I was right – no philosophy courses, no evolutionary biology courses – and, surprise! no theoretical physics courses (since such would include the Big Bang theory, and that violates the Koran). But – plenty of engineering and technology courses. Because one doesn’t need the theory to build a better gizmo.

    Again: in a technologically dominated world, the theoretical sciences are out of date.

    Who cares if they “advance” (which they haven’t done in any major way in the past twenty+ years), we don’t have any immediate use for them in our lives, we no longer need them, we can get rid of them.

    Should we then really turn the matter over to angry taxpayers? Close to 50% of whom don’t think evolution is a fact? Many of whom don’t want stem cell research because they think it violates the sanctity of life? Many of whom are concerned that research in the sciences is a Pentagon scam to produce more destructive weapons, more intrusive surveillance systems? Some of whom are concerned that vaccines are dangerous? “We eat organic foods, genetics is bad!” Do you have any idea how thin the ice is, that you are walking on?

    Show me the use I can make of the Big Bang theory at my job. Show me the use of radio-carbon dating of fossils on foreign policy. Show me the use of molecular biology in the question of whether I should marry my girl friend or murder her.

    The sciences are worthless. They helped us progress to the point where we have many new toys to play with. But we have engineers to take care of that now. We don’t need the sciences anymore. They belong to history; and, as apparently many scientists are willing to agree, history has no value.

    Krauss may well have finally answered the question “why is there something rather than nothing,” but because he’s a scientist, he’s a has-been – so, who cares; the question is not relevant to our lives.

    So – haha! – Scientists are on no safer footing in the culture at large than philosophers.

    On a serious note: The charge that, because philosophers disagree, this evidences the weakness of philosophy, is baloney. Philosophy teaches the importance of diversity in thought – a cornerstone of a democratic republic.


  39. DisagreeableMe has implied that my brain lives in a vat, so I would defend myself as follows.

    As to feasibility of Galileo’s experiment, I have corresponded with physicists who acknowledge that the Earth-based version is possible using a modified Cavendish balance. A couple of these correspondents are mentioned in the paper:

    Click to access Gravity-The-Inside-Story.pdf

    The space-based version has been proposed by various authors. A review by Larry Smalley is linked here.

    Click to access 19750014902.pdf

    (None of the proposals were carried out because, as G-measurements, they were deemed to offer little if any improvement over Earth-based measurements.)

    As to motivation, I would firstly mention, as you have admitted, that we really don’t know the result of the experiment. The danger of assuming that we do know is eloquently expressed by Herman Bondi:

    “It is a dangerous habit of the human mind to generalize and to extrapolate without noticing that it is doing so. The physicist should therefore attempt to counter this habit by unceasing vigilance in order to detect any such extrapolation. Most of the great advances in physics have been concerned with showing up the fallacy of such extrapolations, which were supposed to be so self-evident that they were not considered hypotheses. These extrapolations constitute a far greater danger to the progress of physics than so-called speculation.”

    The assumption that we know the fate of a test mass that falls inside a gravitating body is based on extrapolations from evidence of falling outside gravitating bodies. “Self-evident,” perhaps. But a far cry from an observation of Nature, such as Galileo would have wanted, and as scientists should properly arrange, if possible.

    Additional reasons for doing the experiment are contained in a recent essay submitted to the Gravity Research Foundation 2015 contest:

    Click to access Galileo’s-Belated-Experiment.pdf

    Arguments that build on argument #3 in the above essay may be found in:

    and references contained therein.

    Finally, I wish to thank DisagreeableMe for giving me the opportunity to answer the objections that he or she so “vehemently” wrote against me.


  40. I would like to give a general comment on the line of argument that runs: “show me, what has Y really done for us in the last X years”, since I think it might well be the poster child of a “sophisticated” form of anti-intellectualism:

    Please first note that this type of reasoning pops up in many domains of discourse at different scales and times alike. Some scientists launch it against philosophy, some physicists launch it against sociology, some experimental physicists launch it against theoretical physics, some theoretical physicists launch it against string theory and some string theorists launch it against … … well, no, string theorists seem at the end of the food chain here.

    But the argument is just a very poor one when talking about domains of genuine epistemic “ignorance”. We typically have no rational expectation with respect to “how much” knowledge a “productive” (sub-)discipline is supposed to generate in any given frame of time and comparing apples to fighter jets is not likely to yield any deeper insight.

    Maybe the advancement in some fields of inquiry is or could only be measured in centuries. So what? We pack our stuff and leave the field alone? How does that follow?

    It might give policy makers some hints with respect to prioritizing funding, but if you think some field receives too much funding, you better have some very compelling arguments for alternative uses.

    Maybe you think the questions that are asked in the field are inconsequential or even nonsensical. You better be prepared to back that up!

    Or you think all important questions have been “solved” so that nothing of interest remains in the field. Then go ahead and demonstrate it!

    But if you can’t be asked to do any of the above, please simply step aside and let the others get on with their work. Because, as it stands, you are now offering nothing more than distraction to those who are in sincere pursuit of knowledge.


  41. ejwinner,

    “Both Aravis and Massimo work at publicly funded universities; Adam has made the suggestion that such funds should be cut off and Aravis and Massimo unemployed, since according to him, only the sciences produce knowledge.”

    I would hate to see Aravis unemployed, because he is the contributor I practically always agree with. I would love to have him as a teacher. Aravis, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think your position on free will could be described like this:

    1) Humans are made of electrons, neutrons and protons.
    2) We have very accurate physical laws describing these particles.
    3) But these facts are of very limited relevance when we discuss free will.
    4) Physicists may disagree, but sorry, they should know their place in this debate.

    I agree with this position. And my position on the PoS runs more or less like this:

    1) Yes, scientists have extra-scientific opinions, convictions, intuitions, interpretations etc. Some of these might be called “philosophical”, by virtue of being studied by philosophers.
    2) PoS has some very interesting things to say about these opinions, convictions etc.
    3) But these things are of very limited relevance for physics.
    4) Philosophers of science may disagree, but sorry, they should know their place.

    For some physicists, this is enough to deride the PoS and declare it useless. I despise the derision, but when they are saying it’s useless … well, they do have a point, haven’t they? They almost certainly never need to know anything about the PoS to do their job. It is useless for them. Philosophers will counter this by saying that the PoS has other aims, methods etc. and that physicists stubbornly refuse to accept this. I wonder if this is true. It’s enough to read 3 papers on the PoS to see that it’s not quite physics (just look at what counts as an “observation” in the PoS!).

    Perhaps the two disciplines should accept that they are very, very different. Perhaps they should stop trying to have a “dialogue” where none is possible or fruitful.


  42. Hi Massimo,

    > Why, you think Feynman’s remark should be taken as a serious argument?

    Well, kind of. With a laconic, witty aphorism he captures the idea that just because philosophy of science is about science it does not follow that scientists need to understand it — even as they implicitly and unselfconsciously manifest some of its ideas. That’s the kind of point that could be quite important in an actual argument.

    > So why didn’t he make that sort of remark about the sociology of science, or the history of science?

    Well, I don’t know the context in which he made the remark, but I would presume it was because he was on the subject of philosophy of science rather than its history or sociology. I would imagine he would have been quite happy with similar remarks on those subjects (although actually it seems to me like some knowledge of the sociology of science might actually be pretty useful).

    With regard to bongo-playing, he obviously didn’t make such a remark because there is no presumption from any quarter that scientists ought to be proficient bongo players (even though he was himself).


  43. How can current philosophy influence the future of theoretical physics?
    Here would be my best debate response (in brief):

    The development of (constructive) type theory, stemming from the work of logician, philosopher, and mathematical statistician Per Martin-Löf, is based in considerable part on philosophical logic and the philosophy of mathematics. And theoretical physics in the future looks to be increasingly type-theoretic.
    see also

    (Obviously this would apply not only to theoretical physics but to other theoretical sciences as well.)


  44. Let’s backtrack a little. Massimo claimed that “epistemology has made great strides”. I asked him to cite the major findings of epistemology since the end of the 18th century. If epistemology has made great strides, I suggested, there ought at least to be some consensus about what it is they’re studying. So I asked: What is knowledge? Plato defined it as justified true belief. What does cutting-edge, state-of-the-art epistemology have to say on the matter? I have still not received an answer to these questions. Rather, I have been told that “a tremendous amount of work done”, that some epistemologists have a renewed interest in an 18th-century philosopher, and that there have been developments in foundationalist, coherentist and holist theories of knowledge.

    Not satisfied by such vague answers, I requested that someone explain what epistemologists have established about the nature of knowledge, and what use any of it has been to anyone. In response to this I was told assured that “foundationalisms and common sense philosophies of the current day represent substantial developments from their originals”, and that one cannot expect philosophy to be of any use in solving actual problems, but that that would be a very narrow and unreasonable expectation. So I asked again: what are these “great strides” in epistemology? And what about “metaphysics” (the other “core area” of modern philosophy)? Could anyone cite a single contribution to human knowledge made by a “metaphysician” in the past 50 years?

    I was then told that “philosophers have proposed new ways of thinking about knowledge that work better” than Plato’s account. I was given no details, but once again assured that they “are all very important contributions”. The only support offered was a comparison with biology: just as evolutionary theory has been around for 150 years and made astonishing progress, “[s]imilarly, foundationalism, coherentism, web of belief, etc. … have been changed and advanced over time”. Once again, I was told nothing about the nature of these supposed advances, but only referred to a paper which has been cited an average of once per year since it was published 15 years ago.

    Only one answer was offered to my request that someone cite a contribution to human knowledge from a metaphysician in the last fifty years: I was told that the work of the highly influential computer scientist Judea Pearl — known for his work on Bayesian networks, artificial intelligence, mathematical causal modelling etc. — “is explicitly based on [David] Lewis’s work”. This is a huge overstatement: in the preface to his major work Pearl acknowledges dozens of people; Lewis is not among them. In the book, and the paper linked to above, Lewis’s work on counterfactuals is used as a foil for his own very different approach. Even the SEP article on counterfactual theories of causation does not link Pearl’s work to that of Lewis, but calls it “an alternative counterfactual approach to causation that employs the structural equations framework … which has been used in the social sciences and biomedical sciences since the 1930s and 1940s” and “received its state-of-the-art formulation in Judea Pearl’s landmark 2000 book”.

    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. I am willing to be convinced, but can you really expect the man on Main Street to be persuaded by the above?

    You’ll be glad to note that my post and word limits are now up.


  45. The debate has been hopelessly muddied by what seems like incurably confused thinking, by both philosophers and scientists. To see that one must simplify the argument to essentials.

    Society, in broadest terms, is made up of five categories:
    We are all consumers so that is not a separate category.

    To judge one group by the criteria of another group is an elementary category error. Science is an enabler while philosophy is an influencer. Enablers measure their progress by their success in solving their problems and advancing their enabling function. Influencers measure their progress by the spread and impact of their ideas on thought and behaviour. This is an entirely different kind of measure.

    Philosophy is a foundational influencer because its subject is the quality of our thought. Our complex society is held together by thought. The quality of our thought determines the quality of society. The spread of the ideas of influencers and their impact does not lend itself to the simple measures by which science guages its progress. Their impact can only be seen by stepping back and taking a big picture view over a significant period of time.

    For physicists to compare their progress in solving problems of the material world with philosophers’ work to spread ideas that enhance the quality of thought is just plainly naive and thoughtless. It is an elementary category error of the kind we should expect of people who see life only through the eyepiece of their instruments.

    I think it might well be the poster child of a “sophisticated” form of anti-intellectualism:

    Yes, indeed. The hubris of some physicists is a form of anti-intellectualism that refuses to see or acknowledge the contributions of others.

    William Burgess,
    Philosophy (and other humanities) remind, emphasize, and reinforce these qualities. Without the humanities, there would not only be no science– there would be no humanity.

    You have made a very important point.


  46. Adam – Right on! The discipline is moribund in the west and deserves all the flack it attracts. Time to look elsewhere for progress in philosophy.


  47. Adam
    “Not satisfied by such vague answers, I requested that someone explain what epistemologists have established about the nature of knowledge, and what use any of it has been to anyone”

    I will help you out. My basic logic about the Uncertainty Principle will remain unchallenged here, as it is sound. I will deal with methodology. It is not well applied in discourse or discovery. Epistemology can be entirely removed and replaced by methodology – the use of consistent logic for observable facts, conforming to definition. This is not merely “the scientific method” which moves incrementally skimming of actual results, it is the fact that progress is only made by consistent logic applied to conforming facts. The place of induction-deduction (this might be a bit advanced for you) is merely to induce a future based on secure deduction in the past. We apply that process by inducing from deducing to test a new secure deductive basis to induce again – and so on. It is your past and future to progress in building secure (deductive) knowledge always open to inductive challenge for falsification. If you follow that logic, falsification is best, to leave induction open to new paradigms with reference to as many facts as existing paradigms, but reconstructing rather than incrementally advancing them. You cannot confirm anything, really, the past bases and future predications are always open to challenge – as Popper said, even falsifications are always subject to falsification – methodology is an endless process of improved knowledge, and that leaves Epistemology nowhere, not needed. There is no actual definition of knowledge, because everything is always open to challenge or improvement.
    Add to that the limitations of human awareness, based on a plastic brain with abstracts all over the place. Human discourse here, for example, is full of abstracts. They are difficult to follow and often rely on jargon – words for opinions about facts, as if the opinions have weight as facts. The facts have weight and their logic speaks for itself, but we haven’t framed its logic using our logical methodology. That is where metaphysics comes in. It is merely the result of logical enquiry, when it reaches its end at a structure that is a basis for observation (measurement) but not measureable in itself – the overarching logic and facts, if such a level exists. Like methodology, it can never be simply “known”, and it might not exist (or it might). Perhaps it is just around the corner for you and other readers. One thing I share is your sentiment, as I do not think a philosopher or scientist will come up with a metaphysical structure. As I explained about the U.P and many other awful gaffs in other fields in the past few topics, they are way off track.


  48. Adam,

    It’s become a common trend that you ignore much of what people are telling you. It’s likely that massimo and now Aravis aren’t bothering to respond to you because they see that it’s a hopeless endeavor to persuade you since you seem intent on dismissing philosophy. But just o ensure other readers don’t get seduced by your claims (and, frankly, arrogance) here’s a bit more to say.

    First, pretty sure you have just outright ignored everyone who has made the whole Edmund gettier reference.

    Second. You really want people to sit here and explain to you the details of advances that have been made? Nobody is taking you up on that because there is already something for that- Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Just check out what that has to say. And come back to us and tell us why you think there has been no progress. If you want to dismiss a field of study, then do a bit of work to see if your claims are justified. You seem to think that your requests that we justify the field obligates us with the burden of proof to justify the field. It doesn’t.

    Third, you pick on epistemology and metaphysics. Most likely because you know they have been around for much longer than other fields, and so their form of progress will be a much easier target for attack (I mean hey, the metaphysicist peter unger wrote a book claiming metaphysics hasn’t made progress in 50 years, so this is obviously a great field to attack if you have anti-philosophic tendencies).

    However how about we level the playing field and pick a sub field of philosophy that has been around for, relatively, only a little while? Philosophy of mind.

    -here are some Breakthroughs that definitely will meet your standards:

    -modularity of mind
    -computational theory of mind
    -the hard problem of consciousness (whether or not you disagree with it)
    -access vs phenomenal consciousness.
    -generative grammar

    And that’s just a start.

    Go ahead and look up the landmark books or papers on any one of these subjects and I think you will be happy with the citation count (definitely in the thousands to tens of thousands). Not to mention almost all of these ideas have been adopted and incorporated into the conceptual repertoire that cognitive scientists employ (just look at the stunning number of times scientists involved in neural science, cog psych, and vision science have co authored papers with philosophers). Want examples? See the entire journal of trends in cognitive science by cell press or read through some of the cognitive psychology, vision science, or linguistics literature. It won’t be hard to find appeals to many of these ideas.

    Also ejwinner,

    I enjoyed your post a lot. Thanks


  49. Oh also note that These topics in Phil mind count as metaphysical topics. So there are
    More than 5 breakthroughs. While on that note- here are 5 breakthroughs in perceptual epistemology within the past 200 years.

    – g.e Moore here is a hand argument
    -dogmatism by Jim Pryor
    – Susanna Siegel on insidious knowledge feedback loops

    I think there can be no more complaining on this.


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