Practicing critical public discourse

dialogueby Daniel Tippens

[Note from the Editor-in-Chief: beginning with this post we will begin to implement an updated policy for commenting. The relevant bit is as follows: “The Editors at Scientia Salon do their best to keep the dialogue both civil and productive. This means that we do not hesitate to reject an unsuitable comment, either because it is offensive or because it is not understandable by a general audience, grossly incorrect, or largely off topic. Whenever that happens, the author of the comment is alerted to the fact and allowed to resubmit a modified version of it, if s/he so wishes.”]

Many define philosophy by both its subject matter and its method. The subject matter (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, etc.) is what much of Scientia Salon attempts to bring to Main Street through essays, book reviews, and interviews. However, if the subject matter were the only thing fostered, half of what characterizes philosophy would be left out — the method. What follows attempts to foster this other half.

What is the method of philosophy?

As broadly speaking as possible, the method of (analytic) philosophy is clear argumentation and use of the tools that make an argument successful. Success, here, is the acquisition of true propositions and the rejection of false ones. Those tools that make an argument successful are critical thinking, logic, and other reasoning skills. Let’s include these all under the umbrella term of “critical thinking” for now.

What the tractor is to an agricultural farmer, critical thinking is to a philosopher. Yes, it is true that most other fields employ critical thinking as well, but many go so far as to say that philosophy is critical thinking “on crack.” Since critical thinking is the crucial pillar of philosophical practice, philosophers not only master its use, but spend time improving on what good critical thinking is. One reflection of this is perhaps the fact that Philosophy majors tend to score very high on standardized tests like the LSATs, which demand honed critical thinking skills. Such skills are on a hair-trigger for the philosopher.

In addition to the benefit philosophers find in employing critical thinking in terms of constructing good arguments, there is both pragmatic and intrinsic value in developing good critical thinking skills and clear argumentation skills. Not only can these skills be applied to almost any practical decision making problem one may encounter, refining these skills and employing them is a pleasurable activity in and of itself.

We want to make Scientia Salon the best possible forum for good quality intellectual exchange, and therefore for exercising our writers’ and readers’ critical thinking. What follows, then, is a compilation of what some bad habits of thinking and arguing that the editorial staff at SciSal has found to be common in the comment threads at the magazine. Our analysis is meant as a set of tips to keep in mind while continuing SciSal’s dialogue between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, hopefully making everyone’s experience on this site of even higher quality than it already is.

Epistemic sadism

This takes place when an interlocutor operates merely at the level of factoid disputes. Often, such interlocutor seems to simply take pleasure in factually correcting another, regardless of how much (or whether) this advances discourse.

Example:

Interlocutor A: Perhaps it is the case that what we are phenomenally conscious of is more than  what we have access to (can attend to and report on). Consider this argument X.

Epistemic Sadist: Science has shown that we are not phenomenally conscious of more than we can attend to. Your view is outdated.

Here, the epistemic sadist has ignored argument X and simply stated that interlocutor A is factually incorrect. He has not deployed actual critical thinking in his response to interlocutor A. Had he shown how argument X is unsound due to scientific conclusions this would be constructive, but as it stands he has not done so.

Abouting

Someone is “abouting” when they hide an argument for a conclusion under the term “about,” or they use “about” ambiguously such that their conclusion either trivially follows or is false. Consider the following cases:

Hidden argument case:

Suppose my friend has unexpectedly impregnated his girlfriend and is ambivalent about staying around to support the child. I tell him: “This decision isn’t about you, it is all about the baby, so you have to stick around to support it.”

Here the implicit argument (or something like it) is that what ought to determine your decision is what action of yours will be best for the baby. Since it would be best for the baby for its father to be around, my friend ought to stick around to support it. This argument can be challenged, but it is harder to do so when it is not explicitly stated and is hidden under the term “about.”

Ambiguity case:

Two people are discussing whether or not scientists are experts on topics discussed in philosophy of science. Someone says: “Science is all about philosophy of science, so scientists are obviously experts on the subject.”

If “science is all about philosophy of science” means that scientists are practicing the methods that philosophers of science are questioning the purpose of (do the methods get at the way the world is or simply predictive success?), then it is trivially true, but it does not warrant the conclusion that scientists are experts on the philosophy of science.

If “science is all about philosophy of science” means that scientists are frequently thinking about, and publishing papers on, whether or not scientific methods can tell us something concerning the way the world is vs. mere predictive success, then the claim that “science is about philosophy of science” is clearly false, and does not warrant the conclusion that scientists are experts on the philosophy of science.

Rathering

This is a term taken from Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Someone is “rathering” when they claim, “it’s not the case that X. Rather, Y is true.”

Here, one has made it look as though they have made an argument for Y, but really they have not. Additionally, they may have committed a false dichotomy — it could be that case that both Y and X are true.

Example:

“The problem of free will is not a metaphysical problem about whether or not free will exists. Rather, it is a semantic problem about what we mean by the term free will.”

Here, we see “rathering” because there has been no argument for the claim that the problem of free will is merely a semantic problem. We have only seen two assertions: that there is no metaphysical problem of free will, and that there is only a semantic problem of free will. Additionally, it could be the case that there is both a metaphysical problem of free will and a semantic problem of free will. So, it is possible that a false dichotomy has been created.

Humpty Dumpty semantics

This is when somebody decides to redefine a term arbitrarily, thereby neglecting the reasons we employ certain terms to begin with: to make useful conceptual distinctions, or reflect the way we use language for practical purposes. This can either be by broadening a definition, or by changing a definition completely.

Example 1: Making useful conceptual distinctions

Just as one billiard ball causes another billiard ball to move when one strikes the other, so too 1+1 “causes” 2 when the axioms of the mathematical system in question make this the case.

Sometimes we use our terms to help us make useful conceptual distinctions. Regarding this example, we think that the physical relation of causality that obtains is different from the “causal” relation between mathematical statements. For example, that one physical event causes another is a contingent truth in the world (something that didn’t logically have to obtain, but it just so happens that in our world it did), whereas 1+1 “causes” 2 is a necessary truth (something that is true in all possible worlds, that we couldn’t imagine being false), one that follows deductively from a set of axioms. Broadening definitions arbitrarily doesn’t respect one of the reasons we use terms: to make useful conceptual distinctions. Additionally, it would fail to make clear what the obvious differences are between the two senses of “causality.”

Example 2: Reflecting the way we talk for practical purposes

“Science is anything that employs observation, reasoning, and critical thinking to draw conclusions.”

Sometimes we have practical reasons for defining terms the way we do. One can choose to define “science” in this broad way, but it wouldn’t reflect the way that the term is ordinarily used (to pick out an enterprise that performs systematic observations or well-controlled experiments and publishes results in scientific journals). Additionally, it would be pragmatically harmful to define “science” this way, as it would collapse the distinction between pseudoscience and science, which are things we want to distinguish for practical purposes: to advise against employing one vs. the other.

Happy commenting!

_____

Dan Tippens is Assistant Editor at Scientia Salon. He received his Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy at New York University. He is now a research technician at New York University School of Medicine in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory.

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93 replies

  1. “Nature is wont to hide herself.” –Heraclitus

    I haven’t felt the need to comment on this post since the underlying premise that the publisher of SciSal is entitled to editorial control regarding content and commentary on this site is to my mind uncontroversial. I’m going to approach this post as one that was made in good faith to address what many feel are comments that unwittingly, or perhaps intentionally, disrupt the flow of fruitful discourse for the at-large readership. I suspect that this may in fact contribute to the paucity of engagement in the discussions by the OP’s. As a result, we get–at best–one or two charitable comments from OP’s applauding our engagement in argument for argument’s sake, but the suspicion remains that there isn’t a feasible point for the OP to begin engagement, given that much of the commentary is a sort of side-bar of cross-talk that doesn’t directly engage the OP’s thesis. These distractions don’t encourage submissions from those who are truly interested in public discourse. To those alphas out there who repeatedly indulge themselves in their personal manifestos: Please stop. You made your points many, many comments ago. Have pity on the poor horse that you’ve beaten to death.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. I appreciate the original post, as well as labnut’s first list and many of the other posts as well. I think when motivated to contribute a comment we all would do well to consider the source of that motivation.

    Is it that we have something novel contribute that both engages the original argument and perhaps also presents an alternative viewpoint that allows for a progressive dialog, or is it to prop up ones prior views as right or true while labeling the original argument as wrong or false.

    In post long arguments from professionals in their field surely there is some space of overlap between our prior view and the argument being made. I am going to try my best to consider that space before commenting, consider how it might influence my prior view, and only then consider if I might have something to contribute to the dialogue. Hopefully that process might make my entries better considered and more contributory in the future.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Some vocal scientists attract crowds with claims that their views of ethics, or religion, or politics are proven by science. They suggest that refusal to accept their conclusions demonstrates we are unscientific. Thus they are really forcing everyone’s hand to examine the boundaries of what science can prove.

    It would be great if scientists as a group said “hey wait a second that is not really science.” But they, with notable exceptions, don’t. I can think of a few reasons for it. 1) They may agree with the conclusions and so they are disinclined to go against someone who is “on the same ideological team” and 2) it’s really not science so they don’t feel qualified or interested to address the issues.

    IMO the question of what is or is not science, is not answered by doing science. Similarly what is, or is not arithmetic, is not answered by doing arithmetic. IMO this question is most naturally answered by philosophy of science. (Which I encourage scientists to participate in.) We build labs to answer questions about quantum mechanics, we do field work to answer questions about evolution, but we don’t build labs or do field work to answer the question – what is science. It would be great if doing enough lab or field work could answer this question. Unfortunately we are stuck with other tools, like discussion and logic.

    If people are making faulty claims about what science proves or doesn’t prove, it’s in all of our interests to sort this out. If people begin to accept that these highly controversial/dubious views are really “scientific” then science as a whole will lose the respect it deserves.
    Definitions and Main Street:
    I remember discussing philosophy on a chess forum. We were talking about something that had nothing to do with epistemology. As time and misunderstandings piled up we eventually discovered we had drastically different views of what “beliefs” or “knowledge” are.

    He understood knowledge and beliefs to be mutually exclusive. You know how people will say “I don’t believe it, I know it!” He took that literally and said it was impossible to believe something you know. I tried to suggest that the traditional view is “justified true belief.” He said my text books must be dated because Gettier disproved that version decades ago. I actually was well aware of Gettier’s objections. I do agree the objections are well made, but I nevertheless thought justified true belief was a good starting place for defining knowledge.
    Lots of time was wasted on misunderstandings *before* we even realized the issue. But here is the thing. I was talking with a philosophy teacher with an advanced degree in philosophy. I think my take away was 1) if you want to converse with Main Street you need to have patience and spend some time addressing what words mean, and 2)philosophy is huge. People can study it for years and still not have common ground on basic definitions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The Six Degrees of Truth

    In my last comment I discussed the natural roles that people assume in a discussion. Some were dysfunctional and some were productive. Here I turn to the advantages of consciously assuming different deliberative roles that are designed to progressively disclose the six degrees of truth.

    Edward de Bono, in Six Thinking Hats, maintained that the truth of a matter could only be found by considering the matter from six different viewpoints, what I call the six degrees of truth. He called this the six thinking hats, each of which he gave a colour, as an aid to visualisation.

    1. The Blue Hat
    Managing – what is the subject? What are we thinking about? What is the goal? What really is the issue? Take a broad perspective.

    2. The White Hat
    Information – considering purely what information is available, what are the facts? What is the history? What is the context? What is the logic? This is analytical thinking.

    3. The Red Hat
    Emotions – intuitive or instinctive gut reactions or statements of emotional feeling. It also addresses motivation.

    4. The Black Hat
    Discernment – logic applied to identifying reasons to be cautious and conservative. Look for the negatives, the risks, the disadvantages, the unintended consequences and the negative outcomes.

    5. The Yellow Hat
    Optimistic response – logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony. Look for the positive, for the advantages, the positive outcomes.

    6. The Green Hat
    Creativity – statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes. Look for alternative points of view. Generate ideas. This is creative thinking. Do not disqualify ideas, that can wait until later.

    Analytical thinkers believe there is only one perspective and so they always wear a white hat. But the real world defies white hat thinking. De Bono’s genius was to understand this and suggest that we consciously don the different thinking hats in turn.

    Some of the disagreements in discussions stem from the simple fact that people are wearing different coloured hats. Put on the other person’s hat and try thinking as if you were him. De Bono called this ‘as if‘ thinking, a very deliberate process of assuming different roles so that you discover the six degrees of truth.

    People tend to wear yellow hats where their own projects or beliefs are concerned and black hats when considering other beliefs. This creates an intellectual straightjacket that must be broken by deliberately donning other hats. Practice ‘as if‘ thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. > interestingly I think that the tensions between scientists and philosophers arises mostly between physicists and philosophers, but not as many other types of scientists and philosophers.

    I think it was William James who made the distinction between tough-minded and tender-minded people. He used it to describe the relation between two types of philosophy if I remember correctly.

    I’ve always found “tough-minded” a good description of the attitude of physicists (I use the expression without the connotations it had for James, and I certainly don’t mean it as a value judgement). If you think some physicists here are derisive about philosophy, you should hear how fiercely critical they can be about physical ideas with which they disagree. Tender-minded people might be shocked.

    Another personal observation: as a breed, physicists show remarkably little respect for “authority”. Deference is not considered a virtue in physics. Few physicists I know are impressed by the fact that Einstein said something (or Heisenberg or Weinberg or even Witten). You can image what they think about an argument from authority by a philosopher.

    Physicists know that “philosophical beliefs” have sent astray more than one great scientist. Einstein is one example, perhaps Chew is another one, and some physicists might add Prigogine to the list. Too much philosophical awareness can be an obstacle. Physicists did astonishingly good work without losing time answering philosophical questions, like “why does a mathematically nonsensical trick like renormalisation work”?

    Physicists are in search of things that *work*, and they are good at finding them. The prediction of the Higgs-Brout-Englert particle – half a century before it was discovered – is just the most recent example. Perhaps they have the impression that philosophy of science is good at finding all sorts of reasons why things *don’t* work. If this hunch is correct, then a conversation between a physicist and a philosopher is always is going to be a confrontation between two different mindsets. Physicists are more than prepared to discuss among themselves why certain theories don’t work – but they’re not going to accept criticism from a philosopher, unless the philosopher has done something that *works* in the eyes of the physicists (and I don’t think many physicists consider a coherent logico-verbal description from a suitably abstract point of view as something that *works* – their standards are higher).

    A last remark (and a rather delicate one on SS): philosophy has little or no use for the overwhelming majority of active physicists. It’s great to have discussions about all sorts of philosophical problems but I have this horribly complicated mathematical formula and now I have to extract useful information about the behavior of particle-like excitations on two-dimensional surfaces … Behavior that has been shown experimentally … You have any idea how your philosophy can help me?

    These are few sociological observations that might help to explain why discussions between philosophers and physicists always are going to be difficult. Please note that I wasn’t describing my own opinion.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. It appears there is a tendency on the side of some people here to count only the good philosophy of science along with the clueless philosophy-bashing of individual scientists, and a parallel tendency on the side of some others to count only the good science along with individual scholars’ “you scientists don’t really know anything because problem of induction”-ing, postmodernish or religiously motivated depreciation of natural science, and tedious turf-defense that tries to claim indispensable elements of the scientific method as really being philosophy. The thing is of course that all of that happens, not only the stuff that specifically annoys the individual in question…

    Like

  7. Unfortunately, I am a victim of peek-a-boo. So, scratch that “like” re Philip G’s post (no offence intended).. It was unintended. There’s a lot of back and forth that would aim at describing this artificial conundrum as one involving physicists and philosophers. This is a gross oversimplification. Forget it. Some would like to reduce the purpose of this webzine to a couple of guys who think shoving at each other accomplishes anything.. It doesn’t.

    It is cleat to me at least that many commentators on this site have one point to make, and that is that most philosophers are largely unneeded “back-seat” drivers. Thus, we get completely unexplicated statements along the line of “nature is our authority” as if the concerns of those who are “philosophically” inclined might somehow be engaging in an “unnatural” activity and are a nuisance. Nonsense. The purpose of this site is to engender discussion, not to genuflect before someone’s sketchy monolithic–quasi-religious–notion of science that occasionally throws a nebulous Quinean bone toward the misinformed, as if, by so doing, it nullifies what is clearly an idiosyncratic orientation that borders on a sort of elitist classism.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Patrick,

    If you think some physicists here are derisive about philosophy, you should hear how fiercely critical they can be about physical ideas

    Very true. In public settings we tend to constrain ourselves (bite our tongue, keep our mouth shut, try to not sound insulting), but within the community of physicists, criticism of various physics ideas can be very merciless. The referee reports for a submitted paper are typically the most cruel, and that’s where we practice the “convince the referee or die” game. 🙂 Because our professional survival depends on publishing relevant and correctly implemented ideas. The only people who are worse than physicists in this respect IMO are mathematicians, due to their severe amount of nitpicking (their own professional survival depends on having airtight proofs…).

    You can image what they think about an argument from authority by a philosopher.

    We think it’s a fallacy, and a pretty obvious one. If an argument has any merit, it doesn’t really matter who said it. If an argument doesn’t have any merit, it also doesn’t matter who said it. 😉 We mention names mostly to give credit where credit is due, which has nothing to do with the actual reasoning process.

    Physicists know that “philosophical beliefs” have sent astray more than one great scientist.

    You mean Einstein’s biggest blunder about a static everlasting Universe? True. Or the debates about epicycles being right/wrong? True. There are probably other famous examples. That said, there were also cases of successful usage of philosophy engaging physics, like Mach’s criticisms of Newton’s mechanics (influencing Einstein), etc. In that particular case, it turned out that Mach correctly pointed out where Newton was wrong about inertia, but his own proposed solution was also wrong (as shown later by Einstein). So this is a half-half case. 🙂

    I don’t think many physicists consider a coherent logico-verbal description from a suitably abstract point of view as something that *works* – their standards are higher

    Of course. If an idea *works*, it better be able to work quantitatively, i.e. produce some numbers. If these numbers are related to experimental data, it deserves serious attention. If the numbers constitute a prediction, it’s a major game. If the prediction is successful, it’s champagne time. Otherwise, if there are no numbers from the idea, it’s just handwaving. Anybody can wave their hands and claim they have this fantastic logically-consistent idea about how reality works. It doesn’t make them right.

    philosophy has little or no use for the overwhelming majority of active physicists. […] You have any idea how your philosophy can help me?

    I think physicists can be divided into those who are aware that philosophy is not supposed to provide any concrete help in science, and those who are not aware of it. The latter group gets severely disappointed by philosophy, and dismisses it completely. The former group is more tolerant, and tries to find some other, non-scientific benefits from studying philosophy.

    Please note that I wasn’t describing my own opinion.

    Pray tell, whose opinion is it? Can you provide a name? Are they a physicist? Because I’d love to meet them. 🙂

    Like

  9. Patrick G,

    (1)

    “Physicists are (…) not going to accept criticism from a philosopher” – AFAIK, any ‘criticisms’ philosophers offer scientists has to do with the language used to articulate scientific knowledge as theory and practice. Such articulation is necessary to build a body of scientific knowledge that can then be presented as the systematic description and explanation of the world in which we live, that will be useful, not only in other sciences, but in education of the general public. Without such articulation, physics is just a hobby, and sooner or later the public will wonder why they are paying for it.

    “You have any idea how your philosophy can help me?”

    We really need to ask why this point is recurrently raised here by some physicists and others in the sciences.

    First we note that it does not constitute an argument. It is really a demand for an argument – basically, ‘produce the reasons a physicist should care about philosophy of science.’

    But no such argument is needed in response. Philosophy of science is not to be of necessary immediate value to scientists; it’s offered as a reflection on scientific knowledge, and *can be* of value if scientists choose to learn from it. If they don’t, their own discourse *may* grow impoverished over time, but if so, that would result from a choice they are free to make.

    This is baldly obvious. Why then do some with scientific backgrounds keep interjecting this unnecessary demand in a webzine devoted to finding intersections between science and philosophy in a manner that would appeal to and educate the educated public?

    As far as I can tell, it appears to be intended to close down the conversation. It appears to be a back-handed way to say, ‘finding such intersections is unimportant; really, you shouldn’t be reading this stuff; trust us physicists, and stop bothering with any intellection besides science, because only science *is* intellection.’ Or, reduced to the old slogan – ‘shut up and calculate!’ Which, when applied to those of us uninterested in calculation, reduces to – ‘shut up!’ That’s what I hear from those who insist that philosophy is worthless if not immediately applicable to physics – ‘shut up!’

    In what way do you think that would appeal to me enough to submit to that demand?

    I can’t see any other reason to keep bringing up this same issue, over and over, utterly ignoring reasonable replies to it – I really can’t. How, then, can such a demand be anything other than disruptive? It demands an argument no one needs to make, and ignores alternative reasons for pursuing philosophical inquiry.

    Again, it has been responded to, over and over, without recognition from those positing it, to the point where I for one, have had my fill. Sometimes one wants to shout, ‘All right! Philosophy can’t help you! don’t read this, go do something else!’ It’s just tiresome to read repeated attempts to stifle the discourse here, which do not further inquiry, understanding, or even real debate.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. Patrick G,

    (2)

    As an educated outsider from Main Street, coming to this site for learning and conversation, interested to learn of both contemporary philosophy and science, I have to say that getting told to ‘shut up!’ by physicists repeatedly is not discouraging me from my intellectual endeavors; but does appear to me one more reason not to advocate support of the sciences in the political arena. If some physicists (or other scientists) want to cut themselves off from potential allies, and confront religious fundamentalists and corporate vultures alone, they should go ahead; let them see how far their arrogance and hyper-rationalism gets them with the Koch Bros.; it will make an interesting show.

    Right now, physics has a problem – universities are producing way more research PhDs than are needed, institutional politics have calcified, certain monies needed for research are politically threatened; internally, at least some physicists are aware that there has been no major theoretical break-through in three decades. Physics is not yet moribund, but seems headed there fast. Yet the dominant voices in physics – at least as represented here – seem to be saying, ‘no innovation needed! shut up and calculate!’

    Well, I for one am not going to shut up; and I am not going to calculate. I am going to continue to reflect on what I consider epistemological and social problems that have developed concerning science over the past few years from my reading of it. If some physicists don’t like that, they might as well ‘shut up,’ because I will no longer be listening.

    One last point: “You have any idea how your philosophy can help me?” I worked in the health care field for more than twelve years – in geriatrics. I had to deal with literally a death a week. I had to communicate with the dying, I had to comfort their families. I don’t remember any physicist helping me learn how to do that. Fortunately I had read Heidegger, and William James, and learned compassion from the Buddhists. If physics can’t contribute to such understanding, one might wonder what use it has beyond developing microwave ovens and atom bombs. I don’t share that opinion, of course. But many people do.

    Maybe scientists need to stop snapping at their potential friends, those of us who think the cause of science worthwhile, but who are also interested in larger issues the sciences inform. Maybe finding intersections between science and philosophy, between the Ivory Tower and Main Street, would be useful to keep all of us better informed and in more cohesive communication.

    Massimo,

    By the way, having written that sentence, I have one small nitpick about this site’s slogan – although ‘ivory tower’ is the common language usage, this is actually a corruption of ‘ivied tower,’ a reference to the ivy vines that lace the outside of some buildings at European universities. I won’t bring it up again; but ‘ivory tower’ has always annoyed me – as though college buildings were made out of elephant tusks.

    Liked by 10 people

  11. Hi Dan and Massimo, I liked the essay and even if there are some potential issues raised by the various categories and how they are applied I’m sure they will be managed fine. SS has had a track record of making smart changes… except the like button for posts which I am still uncomfortable with 🙂

    That was my 2 cents.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. ejwinner,

    Dantip asked a question: why do the tensions between scientists and philosophers arise mostly between physicists and philosophers?
    I find this an interesting question. These tensions have made more than one discussion on SS unpleasant to read. I don’t know the answer, but at least I could try to offer some suggestions.

    You feel that physicists shouldn’t demand that philosophy be useful. But you also write: “Fortunately I had read Heidegger, and William James, and learned compassion from the Buddhists.” Clearly, philosophy has been useful for you. Isn’t it quite natural to expect that the philosophy to science is useful for science? If it’s not, OK, fine. But the expectation doesn’t seem to be weird at all.

    Personally, I think it would be a good idea to work with stickers on the forehead of physicists and philosophers of science when they meet.

    The physics sticker could read “This person probably has a tendency to forget that the tools of her/his trade and her/his tough-minded attitude don’t work in all areas of life. Feel free to point this out to her/him.”

    The philosophy sticker could read: “This person might perhaps stress a bit more forcefully that his/her work is largely or entirely irrelevant for physics-as-it-is-practiced. Feel free to point this out to her/him.”

    Stickers like these might make discussions easier, because they avoid misunderstanding. It’s just a start of course, if you have better ideas don’t hesitate to let them know. The texts I propose are a bit too long to put on a sticker that has to fit on a forehead.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Hi EJ,
    that is an interesting point about the ivied tower. It turns out that both terms are acceptable and ancient.

    Here is Samuel Johnson in ‘The Works of the English Poets: Prior’, page 131, dated 1771

    A thousand artists shew their cunning power,
    To raise the wonders of the ivory tower.
    A thousand maidens ply the purple loom,
    To weave the bed and deck the regal room;

    And here is ‘Poems’, by Michael Woodhull, page 136, dated 1772

    The genius of my natal hour,
    Tho’ pensive oft, who rarely grieves,
    From his dark seat, yon ivied tower,
    Whose bulwarks rent speak desolation,

    Modern usage overwhelmingly favours ‘ivory tower’, as can be seen in Google ngram: http://bit.ly/1alWny7,
    though usage in the 1800s favoured ‘ivied tower’.

    John Barclay has just caught my eye,
    Rejoice Evermore, page 432 , in 1767

    Thy breasts, like two playing roes,
    My eyes they have captive led,
    Being the center of my repose,
    O thou my dear innocent maid,
    Thy neck’s like an ivory tower,
    So glossy, so lofty, so sheen,
    Thine eyes like to diamonds are pure,
    All pleasant, all sparkling, all keen.

    This is a reference to an even more ancient source, Song of Solomon (7:4)

    Your neck is like an ivory tower.
    Your eyes are pools in Heshbon,
    by the gate of Bath-rabbim.
    Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon,
    overlooking Damascus.

    Poetry is so much more interesting than listening to physicists’ philosophical grudges 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I had prepared a comment but when I came to paste it into SS, I found that ejwinner had been there before me. Not for the first time, she has articulated much of my opinion and done it well. I will add a bit of my own in this case on Marko’s response to Patrick G.

    “….if there are no numbers from the idea, it’s just handwaving.”

    “I think physicists can be divided into those who are aware that philosophy is not supposed to provide any concrete help in science, and those who are not aware of it. The latter group gets severely disappointed by philosophy, and dismisses it completely. The former group is more tolerant, and tries to find some other, non-scientific benefits from studying philosophy.”

    I had judged from previous comments that Marko was among those physicists who are “aware that philosophy is not supposed to provide any concrete help in science”, but the first quote above suggests my judgement was wrong. And the last sentence in the second quote contains two indications that seem to confirm this. Firstly, “tolerant” strikes an underwhelming chord. It’s the sort of word that flatters our feeling of magnanimity when we listen to the meanderings of a doddering old relative with no outward show of impatience. And what exactly are “non-scientific” benefits? If an understanding of philosophy improves one’s performance in whatever field, what is non-scientific about that?
    I suspect that the “edge” that sometimes creeps into even the most rational of comments comes from an often unacknowledged turf war. Peacemakers often try to patch over differences by separating the protagonists and asking them to confine themselves to their own areas. I don’t believe that this is possible in the case of philosophy and scientism. Scientism lays claim to the entire space of human discourse. Every question of any importance is, or will be, adjudicated by the empirical methods of science. Therefore, while philosophy may continue to make the occasional contribution around the margins, it is largely redundant, says the scientismist. Philosophy disputes this but when it is persuasive, it is only intellectually persuasive and this is not enough when the turf being fought over is not science or philosophy, but Main Street. Massimo is making the effort, but how many other philosophers are willing and capable of helping out? If philosophy cannot shake off its crippling elitism and find its popular voice, it may end up being consigned to a dusty attic in the Ivory Tower, to the detriment of all of us.

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  15. ej, about the ivory tower, yeah, I know, and indeed I’ve always been annoyed myself at that, but of course that’s the way people refer to it, I doubt it would help to start switching to ivied tower all of a sudden…

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  16. > I suspect that the “edge” that sometimes creeps into even the most rational of comments comes from an often unacknowledged turf war.

    Perhaps the fundamental problem is that philosophers and physicists don’t acknowlegde sufficiently that there is (almost) no turf to fight over.

    Philosophy is an ancient, very respectable occupation with its own fields of interest, its own tools, its own aims and standards etc. It’s a worthwhile endeavour in its own right. It doesn’t need a certificate of approval by physicists or other scientist. Physicists should acknowlegde that. They should refrain from making ill-advised judgements about philosphy and philosophy of science, in the mistaken belief that their own tools Work in All Areas of Life. If they enter a philosophical discussion, they should understand that it’s not a discussion between physicists – they’re on other turf, other customs apply.

    On the other hand, as soon as a philosopher writes about physics, thinks about physics, talks about physics and has discussions with physicists, he has to acknowlegde perhaps more clearly the limitations of the philosophical tools he’s using, the limited scope of his results, their limited importance for physics-as-practiced etc. If he does claim that his results are important for physics, well – then he’s on physicists’ turf and their customs apply. He should be prepared for the treatment that physicists give each other: tough-minded, no respect for authority, we’re interested in thing that *work*, if we see one, just one flaw in your reasoning or your observations you’re finished etc.

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  17. I can only echo the well-worded sentiments of Thomas Jones, ejwinner, and others. Especially this, from ej:

    “We really need to ask why this point is recurrently raised here by some physicists and others in the sciences.

    First we note that it does not constitute an argument. It is really a demand for an argument – basically, ‘produce the reasons a physicist should care about philosophy of science.’

    But no such argument is needed in response. Philosophy of science is not to be of necessary immediate value to scientists; it’s offered as a reflection on scientific knowledge, and *can be* of value if scientists choose to learn from it. If they don’t, their own discourse *may* grow impoverished over time, but if so, that would result from a choice they are free to make.

    This is baldly obvious. Why then do some with scientific backgrounds keep interjecting this unnecessary demand in a webzine devoted to finding intersections between science and philosophy in a manner that would appeal to and educate the educated public?”

    That’s exactly right, and it is one of the main reasons I no longer read much of SS. Who wants to read another comments board with “scientismists” saying this over and over and over? That’s not productive conversation- it’s just marking territory. And, Massimo -with all due respect- the problem isn’t people getting in a unnecessary dudgeon about some light ribbing. It is a consistent pattern of scientists dismissive of philosophy as a discipline and the humanities in general. And no, people won’t actually shut off their computers, they will simply go elsewhere.

    I’m not sure what you think you’re accomplishing with the site, but it is hardly effective communication with Main Street, IMHO. If someone like me with a strong interest in cross-disciplinary communication and an advanced degree in the humanities gets turned off by the toxic scientismist comments section and the increasingly complex and abstruse nature of the articles, what about the other people on Main Street? I remember your initial conversation with Kaufman on Bloggingheads, where at the end he asked if SS doesn’t fall between dumbing-down and over-technicality. I’d say that increasingly, SS has been lurching to the over-technical side, with the scientismist nature of the commentary turning things into a bit of a circle-jerk. No offense, but as a lurker on Rationally Speaking, I think that had a healthier environment than SS. Ej’s right that being told to “shut up” over and over again doesn’t make one all that gung-ho for science funding, and it doesn’t make one all that gung-ho to be a participant in the SS community, either. My recommendation- either lift the comments limit (in retrospect I regret having supported that, since it did no good) or enforce a strict rule that posters cannot dismiss each other’s disciplines. It is unproductive and blocks any fruitful discourse from developing.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Dan I’m not totally sure that scientist-philosopher conflicts are narrowly specific to physics. At a minimum, noted representatives of biological-related sciences Jerry Coyne and Christof Koch have had enough nuttery to say on free will and volition issues to get the attention of plenty a philosopher, including Massimo.

    Now, chemistry, which has fewer metaphysical implications yet, that may be true.

    Massimo, why can’t we work together to promote “ivied tower”? More seriously, my pet project is to retire the word “race.” I’m using the word “ethnos” myself for the stage in human cultural-genetic grouping above that of “ethnicity.” Everybody else is welcome to join in, or suggest their own word. (But, you’re not welcome, in my corner, to claim that “race” is something genetically real, etc.)

    Thomas, I’ve already liked both of your second-page comments. But this deserves reposting:

    It is clea(r) to me at least that many commentators on this site have one point to make, and that is that most philosophers are largely unneeded “back-seat” drivers. Thus, we get completely unexplicated statements along the line of “nature is our authority” as if the concerns of those who are “philosophically” inclined might somehow be engaging in an “unnatural” activity and are a nuisance. Nonsense. The purpose of this site is to engender discussion, not to genuflect before someone’s sketchy monolithic–quasi-religious–notion of science that occasionally throws a nebulous Quinean bone toward the misinformed, as if, by so doing, it nullifies what is clearly an idiosyncratic orientation that borders on a sort of elitist classism. …

    Please stop. … Have pity on the poor horse that you’ve beaten to death.

    Exactly.

    I think, beyond general interest, this is why I welcome yet more pieces with the intersection of philosophy and the social sciences, as long as we get no anti-historical understandings of historical methodology, etc.

    Patrick G is arguably at the edge of “rathering,” even if that is not his own opinion. As for this:

    It’s great to have discussions about all sorts of philosophical problems but I have this horribly complicated mathematical formula and now I have to extract useful information about the behavior of particle-like excitations on two-dimensional surfaces … Behavior that has been shown experimentally

    Tosh, to use that British English word.

    Many of the physics-philosophy issues discussed here have been at least tentatively connected to various schools of interpretation of QM, which have been repeatedly shown to NOT have falsifiable predictions. Here, and in other things like “paradigm shifts” (which, as Massimo showed recently with biology), philosophy intersects very clearly with science in general or a specific science in particular.

    But, to move beyond the edge of “rathering,” or away from it, let me ask Patrick, and rhetorically, others who might agree:

    WHY do you think “philosophy has little or no use for the overwhelming majority of active physicists”? Better yet, to ask the question beneath that: “WHY do you think most physicists believe philosophy has little or no use for them?”

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Good afternoon Everyone,

    Since this thread is about improving the quality of discussion, here’s a suggestion. If you are commenting about other comments or general patterns of comments, it helps to focus things if you quote a specific example of what you’re discussing.

    There are lots of comments above which I read and think, ok, but who has actually said that? To take my own advice, I’ll cite:

    ejwinner,

    Yet the dominant voices in physics – at least as represented here – seem to be saying, ‘no innovation needed! shut up and calculate!’

    I’m baffled, can you quote any physicist, here or elsewhere, saying anything along those lines?

    Hi Patrick,

    While I agreed with much of your earlier comment, I don’t agree with:

    … about philosphy and philosophy of science … If [physicists] enter a philosophical discussion, they should understand that it’s not a discussion between physicists – they’re on other turf, other customs apply.

    I don’t agree that understanding of the nature of science is “other turf” where “other customs apply”. Understanding the nature of science is both “science” and “philosophy”.

    That’s why I’ve repeatedly said (as have others such as Massimo) that a two-way conversation about such topics is needed. I’ve also advocated the view that all such areas of knowledge are a seamless whole, with epistemology being fundamentally the same across that whole.

    That is not in any way dismissive of contributions from philosophy — any more than saying that chemistry is part of that whole is dismissive of chemistry — nor is it saying that philosophers should “shut up” or anything similar (ditto chemists). Indeed, seeing everything as part of that enterprise is quite the opposite of being dismissive.

    Hi ejwinner,

    … scientists … who claim to find the solution to ethical problems through (claimed) scientific extrapolation, like Sam Harris?

    Harris is not a scientist, he’s a writer (though, yes, he did a PhD in neuroscience). Harris’s views on morality are not widely held in science. He is arguing for moral-realist objective morals whereas the majority view in science is that morals are subjective (at least that’s my perception, though I don’t have a poll).

    Hi Thomas Jones,

    Thus, we get completely unexplicated statements along the line of “nature is our authority” as if the concerns of those who are “philosophically” inclined might somehow be engaging in an “unnatural” activity and are a nuisance.

    Absolutely not. If philosophy is also about finding ideas that match reality, then great, they’re involved in the same enterprise as science.

    The point I was making is that, in physics, discussion of “causality” is all about adapting ideas of causality to match how the real world actually is.

    I presume (am I naive to so presume?) that philosophers see their discussion of causality the same way. If so then two-way conversations about causality are presumably the best approach.

    Hi dadooq,

    I had judged from previous comments that Marko was among those physicists who are “aware that philosophy is not supposed to provide any concrete help in science” …

    This also baffles me. Part of what science is about is understanding science. If something helps to understand science then it is a help to scientists. It is not the case that one can do science well without understanding it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. jarnauga111 and everyone else,

    I keep doing this – with Dan’s and Phil’s help – because I believe dialogue both within the IT and between it and MS is crucial to an open democratic society, and I wish to do my bit.

    The repetitive and sometimes obstinate dialogue you see here is actually a microcosm of society at large, so seeing it on display here, I hope, will help us getting past it.

    Also don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of readers do not comment, and they probably don’t read the comments either, they just enjoy the – I think – high quality posts we publish. I certainly never read even the NYT’s comments on articles, not because they are not good or interesting, but because I haven’t gotten the time. I feel happy enough when I managed a number of good essays in any given week.

    So, we’ll persist, for now at the least.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Whether your language* is one from a science camp, one from a philosophy camp, or wherever, pick one and develop something useful, and don’t worry too much whether one camp likes it.

    * http://www.technologyreview.com/review/536356/toolkits-for-the-mind/

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  22. Everyone,

    I’ve seen a lot of comments suggesting that there is a turf war between science and philosophy. I do not think so. I think that there is a turf war between scientism and philosophy, which is not the same thing. As a scientist who is not a scientismist, I feel the need to point out that distinction. The same applies to the “Shut up!” claims, the science-can-answer-all-questions-in-life claims, the philosophy-is-useless claims, etc. Those are arguably scientismists talking, a group not every scientist wants to be associated to.

    I started out participating in SS with the idea of helping others understand science better, and getting help myself in trying to understand philosophy better. But most of my input has ended up being completely different — trying to point out to scientismists (and everyone else) what science *cannot* do and *does not* say, vastly more often than pointing out what it can do or does say. While this is arguably also important, I am surprised that I was somewhat pushed into that situation, by the substantial presence (here on SS) of scientistic fundamentalism (much like religious and atheistic fundamentalism). And just like in the case of religion and its fundamentalist misinterpretations, and atheism and its militant faction, some commenters on SS (usually the Main Street bunch) seem to ignore the distinction between science and scientism. It’s not the same thing, folks!

    Dadooq,

    “….if there are no numbers from the idea, it’s just handwaving.”

    I have a feeling you quoted me out of context. The above applies to ideas in physics, not in general. I was illustrating Patrick’s statement regarding the high standards physicists apply to any candidate idea that aims to “work” in physics. So my statement is obviously not intended to be applicable to ethics, poetry, religion, aesthetics, plumbing, etc.

    SocraticGadfly,

    WHY do you think “philosophy has little or no use for the overwhelming majority of active physicists”? Better yet, to ask the question beneath that: “WHY do you think most physicists believe philosophy has little or no use for them?”

    First a disclaimer — phrases like “overwhelming majority” and “most physicists” are debatable. So I’ll just imagine substituting both those phrases with the phrase “some physicists”, because I have no idea how many of them actually hold such beliefs.

    Then to answer your question — whatever may be the extent to which some physicists believe philosophy is useless for doing physics, the reason is that physics is done by expressing ideas using math, rather than ordinary language. If you tell me some idea in English, I may or may not pay attention, depending on the context. But if you write an equation, I will definitely pay attention, because that is something much more material — it is a clear and unambiguous statement, which can be recast into various equivalent forms, quantified and evaluated, compared to other such statements, maybe compared to experimental data, etc. It has content and substance beyond a statement expressed in English (or any other everyday language). It has a level of concreteness and precision that makes it vastly more useful to a physicist than any ordinary language.

    So a philosopher making statements about physical content of Nature should better learn and use the relevant math, or he will be ignored by the physics community. Exceptions to this do exist (like the story of Mach and Einstein), but are very very rare.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. All,

    If I got on some people’s nerves, apologies.

    > Tosh, to use that British English word.

    SocraticGadfly,

    Marko gives a very plausible explanation why philosophy almost intrinsically has little or no use for physicists. But you’re right to point out that it’s a belief. I arrived at this belief after spending two years in a dept. of theoretical physics (and then giving up all thoughts of an academic career …). I can’t recall a single moment when somebody mentioned that philosophy was important for what he or she did. Not one single moment, in a group of about 25 people doing high energy physics, statistical mechanics, theoretical solid state physics etc. If philosophy was useful for them, they kept remarkably quiet about it.

    But yes, it’s a belief. It could be checked if it’s true. One could read every peer reviewed article about PoS in the last 25 years and read every peer reviewed physics article in the last 15 years and check if the PoS has left undeniable traces – by helping physicists to find solutions or by sending them astray. A comparison should be made with other things that give physicists a burst of inspiration – playing ping pong, going out for a walk, making love. Is the PoS more effective than going out for a walk? It would be a mammoth undertaking, and nobody is ever going to try it.

    As things stand, I think that every claim that PoS is useful for physics-as-it-is-practiced should come with very good arguments. Confirmation bias should be avoided. No taking a physicist on his or her word – but careful checking if there are objective indications that the PoS indeed has played the role it’s supposed to have played. Critical thinking in other words, something the PoS is good at.

    However, I don’t feel it’s necessary that the PoS is useful for physics. Physics raises all sorts of philosophical questions that deserve to be examined. I’m happy society is employing people to think about these questions and I want to keep it that way (and yes, I think scientism is more or less intellectually bankrupt). The question is how to have a mature, fruitful dialogue between physicists and philosophers about this philosophical work. I get the impression that the “common ground” idea is popular on SS. I personally don’t think that’s going to work. I think that the participants in such a dialogue should start from the fact that their disciplines are very, very different – different tools, different culture (tough- vs. tender-minded), different views on authority, different attitudes towards “the original text” etc. etc. If you look at the daily grind of active physicists and philosophers, the difference becomes mindboggling (with the exception of faculty meetings and office politics). Acknowledge it, and start from there.

    And before you ask me the question: a claim by a physicists that he has something relevant to say about the PoS, should be examined very critically too.

    Like

  24. So here is a thought, guys (and I mean that in a gender-neutral fashion): let’s simply agree to have a moratorium, for some time, about any generic all of science and/vs philosophy. Who cares? And even if we did care, I think even the casual reader on this site knows exactly where every regular commenter (yours truly included) stands on this matter.

    Instead, from now on we will only allow comments that deal with specifics: don’t tell me what scientists or philosophers in general ought or not ought to do. Tell me why you have a problem with a specific claim made by a scientist or a philosopher, and why. How’s that?

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Massimo,

    Instead, from now on we will only allow comments that deal with specifics: don’t tell me what scientists or philosophers in general ought or not ought to do. Tell me why you have a problem with a specific claim made by a scientist or a philosopher, and why. How’s that?

    I think this is a great idea! 🙂 That said, I have an impression that (bar this thread) the above was actually common practice already for a while now. The editors weren’t doing that much filtering, but it seems to me that comments in most previous threads were actually addressing very specific claims. Nevertheless, paying more attention by participants and active filtering by editors will certainly increase SNR, improving overall quality. I’ll certainly support it! 🙂

    Oh, and I forgot to mention in my previous comment —

    Labnut,

    Welcome back! You’ve been missed! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Massimo,
    let’s simply agree to have a moratorium, for some time, about any generic all of science and/vs philosophy

    Yes, indeed. But it will help to articulate a clear rationale.

    Marko called this fundamentalism and that is an accurate label. We are potentially confronted by three(or more) kinds of fundamentalism:
    1. Science fundamentalism, militant forms of scientism.
    2. Religious fundamentalism, mainly of the Evangelical type.
    3. Atheist fundamentalism, militant forms of New Atheism.
    There may be lesser varieties(economic, political, cultural, etc), but for the purposes of this discussion, all forms of fundamentalism can be lumped together.

    The presence of fundamentalism, of any stripe, tends to be harmful to productive discussion. This is because fundamentalists operate outside normal rational discourse. They will display many of these characteristics:

    1. They have a fixed, unyielding viewpoint which is impervious to discussion.
    2. They are obsessively persistent to the point of excluding other subjects.
    3. They use every opportunity to advance their point of view and so frequently go off topic
    4. They generally have an enemy.
    5. They devote much energy to sniping at, demonising or otherwise discrediting their enemy.
    6. They are uninterested in considering alternate points of view.
    7. They are generally uninterested in nuance, background, history or context for fear it might present a more palatable picture of the enemy.
    8. They may establish outposts in the enemy camp where they can be maximally disruptive.
    9. They are convinced of the superiority of their viewpoint and so often display triumphalism or even schadenfreude.

    These characteristics make their presence in discussions harmful because undue energy must be spent trying to cope with their disruptive posts. We have just seen this in abundance.

    Believing in scientism is not the same thing as being a fundamentalist. S/he becomes a fundamentalist when s/he displays one or more of the above behavioural traits. This is equally true of atheists and evangelicals. So we judge them, not by their beliefs, but by their behavioural traits. The problem is thus one of discouraging certain forms of behaviour and not the banning of certain topics.

    As a rule it is easy to spot the fundamentalists and I am sure the moderators are acutely aware of their identity.

    It should be noted that I am making a clear distinction between belief-fundamentalism and behavioural-fundamentalism. It is the behavioral branch of fundamentalism which is so harmful, whether that involves discussion bombs or suicide bombs.

    This is the problem we are dealing with, some people are obsessed with tossing discussion bombs into the forum. For the most part they are damp squibs but they are still disruptive.

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  27. So, let me try to clarify things a bit more. First off, we are not going to micromanage commenting: if I comment is rejected, it will be for general reasons that seem to us to benefit the general discussion; a brief explanation will be sent to the author, but we will not engage in lengthy private back and forth. No time, little point.

    Moreover, this whole thing is evolving, and the policy may be revised if we see that it isn’t efficacious, or that it takes too much time and energy.

    Finally, please people, get over your bruised egos. Dan didn’t pick on Coel in his examples, it just happens that Coel (who is indeed one of our most valued commenters) does often engage in those sorts of commenting and his contributions are paradigmatic ally clear. But plenty of others have done the same, and we have already rejected a number of comments. Don’t take it personally. Remember, we don’t actually know who you are!

    Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

  28. EJ Winner said:
    “Ivory Tower is actually a corruption of ‘ivied tower,’ a reference to the ivy vines that lace the outside of some buildings at European universities. I won’t bring it up again; but ‘ivory tower’ has always annoyed me – as though college buildings were made out of elephant tusks.”

    I belong to the philosophical school that holds that not only the Devil, but also goodness, lives in the details.

    “Ivory Tower” comes from the (partly) 31 centuries old Song of Songs, or Salomon’s book. There a woman’s neck is compared to an “Ivory Tower”.

    The expression became well known with Montaigne, who celebrated the isolation and elevation his especially made tower gave him (Montaigne’s enormous tower still stands).

    Because of the prestige of the Essays, the expression became chronic in French philosophy and poetry (Sainte Beuve, De Nerval, Flaubert, etc.) before invading science (Letulle, etc.).

    Henri Poincaré, 1904, speaking of philosophers: “Votre science est impeccable, mais elle ne peut le rester qu’en s’enfermant dans une tour d’ivoire et en s’interdisant tout rapport avec le monde extérieur.” (Your science in impeccable, but can stay so only inside an ivory tower, while forbidding all contacts with the exterior world.)

    As Coel tried to explain, science is neither as causal, nor as logical as those who don’t know it well, think. The same holds for mathematics: this is why mathematicians fear and ignore logicians.

    Much physics and mathematics has more to do, at crucial junctions with sketching, guessing, or outright poetry (the Multiverse).

    [Second submission, rest of comment amputated.]

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  29. I have no quarrel with the general principles by which SS operates or with most of the details. However, I do feel that the five day deadline for comments may unintentionally undermine some of the purpose of the blog in some respects. I understand the desire that discussions should not trail on interminably. However, I wonder whether a deadline as short as five days doesn’t affect some possible participants more than others, in a way which favours participants from the ivory tower rather than from Main Street.

    I do know from my past experience that academics don’t exactly lead lives of leisurely contemplation. Still, perhaps responding to posts fits rather better into the workflow of those whose daily life places then in front of computers during the working day. By the time I’ve got round to reading the main articles and the early comments, digested them a bit, and sometimes looked up some background reading, I’ve sometimes found that my time was up before I got round to posting. Perhaps a little easing up on the time limit might draw more people into active participation. Or maybe that just me.

    I’m sure that one reason for shortening debates is to lighten the load of moderation on the editors. I suppose that there is no reason why any of the regular responders shouldn’t set up a parallel blog as a forum to continue some of the discussions in parallel with SS itself, without placing demands on and Daniel? I don’t know whether others think that might be worthwhile?

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  30. gwarner, the (admittedly arbitrary) limit to 5 comments, 500 words/each, over 5 days has a nice symmetric ring to it, which satisfies my obsessive compulsiveness… Seriously, I understand your point, but you yourself actually recapitulated the reasons why the policy is in place. Nothing focuses attention (and reduces the already pretty high burden, by blogs’ standards, of the editors) as the 5-5-5 rule. It’s also easy to remember…

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  31. Interesting discussion and as one who commented on the initial thread last year, concerning the new format, I and others agreed with Massimo that it was necessary to limit the personal attacks and private discussions by eliminating the embedded replies and limiting the replies so this would not turn into sidebar discussions.

    Massimo is a philosopher but with his biologist background I believe he wanted us to similarly bring our own backgrounds to the forum but stay within the bounds of good philosophical discussion. I believe some take the word argument too literal when argument is a synonym for discussion.

    Interesting from some of the above comments by physicists who study the most fundamental aspects of nature which evolve into everything in the universe; with the pinnacle of evolution being the human brain and mind which is the philosopher’s domain. When physicists talk to philosophers there is every discipline in between including biochemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, art, religion, history, politics……..

    On the previous discussion thread for Dr Pincock’s paper on abstract explanations in science I noted Dr Shrimplin’s youtube talk on the influence of science in Michelangelo’s fresco paintings in the Sistine Chapel. I didn’t see Robin’s considerate reply (myth’s are ‘pet peeve’ of his) until a few days later after the thread closed.

    I can understand Robin’s factual explanations since we all have our own ‘knowledge conceit’ coming from our own academic and occupational backgrounds.

    Seems to me that art and religion add a lot of complexity to these discussions but the human sociology is complex because of all of those intervening disciplines cited above which compose the human brain and mind. Art, psychology and entertainment or as we call it today American Political Discussion, have always served as a vehicle to slip messages into the human mind.

    Below is a very interesting work of entertainment satire in which the writers poke at everything from literature in the opening scene, religion where they depict the crucifixion, entombment and resurrection, plus philosophy and the scientific method were lampooned. Of course human sexuality as well…..The movie was made eighty years ago.

    A little levity never hurts.

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  32. A stimulating and interesting post. I’d say that the standard of discussion here is higher than in many blogs; with much more of the philosophical/charitable mode than the political/demagogic form of too many online debating.

    I have to admit that this is partly motivated by the feeling I’ve often had that I want to look some long-standing antagonists in a room and not let them out until they’ve clarified their individual views and mutual differences, squeezing out the accusations of misrepresentation, fallacy and so on.

    I think DM and Aravis have a point about rathering. Whether or not a writer is rathering depends on the wider context of their argument; we can’t use the kind of construction Daniel gives in his example as conclusive proof, only a prima facie cause for suspicion or alertness. As Dennett says, “Some rathering is just fine”.

    Hi DM:
    You’ll recall that we had a longish discussion on your blog last year, in part over what I saw as your Humpty Dumpty semantics, when you tried to run together the means of the terms ‘syntax’ and ‘semantics’. Of course you wouldn’t agree that you were doing that; as I recall you thought that your somewhat , um, individual interpretation of mathematical Platonism justified this equally eccentric use of terms. I suspect that this will often happen; most others believe a commenter is Humptying, while that person is convinced that the others are missing their vital and unconventional distinction. Self – monitoring may be the hardest form; but perhaps Daniel’s post will help keep us aware, or at least provide a ready vocabulary to point it out.

    I’ve often thought that online technology could give us a new form for organising discussion, to supplement the traditional papers, formal face-to-face and written debates, colloquia, online forums and blogs etc. This would be a blend of Wiki, online forum software, concept mapping program. Starting with a framework based on Rapaport’s Rules; either requiring main participants to outline their respondent’s views, or perhaps to work together in a Wiki-format to draft an agreed text, which they can sign of on, at least provisionally. No doubt equivocations and mutual misunderstanding would emerge during discussion, and these could lead to further iterations of (possibly shared) editing, with changes logged automatically. At the next stage, the key differences could be explored and teased out and defined as clearly as possible, and either resolved or stated as unambiguously and accessibly as possible. I’m envisaging this differences as nodes and connections in a map, with the facility to attach commentary explicating the differences. Over the top of this, other participants could be given the rights to enter the discourse in various ways; asking questions, requesting clarification, suggesting redraftings and so on. The end result would be a clarified mapping of the debate that could act as a resource for further work.

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  33. “I think one of the problems with internet comments regarding philosophical issues is that they often tap into larger fundamental differences beyond the focus of the particular essay. Questions like what it means to “know” something, what is “morality”, or “truth”, or “science,” etc […] I’m not sure there is an easy solution. But perhaps consider a few (maybe like 5-10?) fundamental/definitional essays that those topics can be offloaded to. It would be on a strictly as needed basis.”

    I think I agree with Joe.

    Basically static pages that could be updated as need be. Not so much SEP or Wikipedia style, but (much) shorter, more overview style with accessible language, simple grammar, and point form, graphics or concept maps if possible, and links to more in depth resources.

    Not sure comments on those pages would be a good idea. But maybe a front page post from time to time that would address the static pages, and other ‘site’ topics(like here), and people could comment and give their input on those posts and on other things that might be considered ‘off topic’ if posted on the site elsewhere.

    Just some thoughts.

    I’m really enjoying the site and its evolution as is !

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  34. Hi, Labnut

    Thanks for this very constructive and apposite post.

    I’m going to risk breaking your fourth rule, by questioning that very rule. It seems to me that your fifth rule does most of the useful work, by insisting on common courtesy and style of argument that generates more light than heat. I take your point in rule 3 – it’s not good to fly off at a tangent, ignoring the essay author. But, in the flow of conversation, don’t you feel that it’s OK to question another commenter’s argument, in a positive and civil manner? If all discussion here is in a hub-and-spokes form, with commenters addressing only the author’s points directly, won’t that often make for a less rich discussion, where implications are drawn out?

    I have to wonder whether I might have been thought guilty of breaking your first rule in the discussion on Mark Bishop’s Artificial Stupidity essay. I don’t want to restart that, but to take it a case in point. Clearly I didn’t focus on one of his key points – artificial stupidity is more than a threat the AI. However, that was because I felt that many commenters had rushed past a a possible important weakness in Mark Bishop’s argument, {the unsupported assumption that nonconscious AIs would not be a threat) to in their enthusiasm to rehash the debate about the Chinese Room, which was not really the distinctive aspect of Mark Bishop’s essay. I set out to engage others in discussing that point, without success. So my point may have been uninteresting, but was I violating rule 1? I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure I broke rule 11, through elaborating similar points too often. I was aiming at rule 12, to enrich the debate- it looks as if I missed – sorry!

    Thanks Labnut

    Liked by 1 person

  35. I am very interested in this commentary. I don’t think ignoring these views or politely pretending they don’t exist is the answer. My own profession is often criticized very harshly. But I also think when people understand what lawyers do, they also tend to gain respect.

    My issue is with the claim modern science is more successful and produces more results than philosophy. First I wonder what exactly they mean. At one level I think they are saying to philosophers “produce an ipad or gtfo.” But of course, they might mean produce a vaccine or medicines that have helped people live longer and of course there are allot of things modern science brought us. I think there are at least 3 important responses.
    1) It is certainly arguable that philosophy produced modern science. Modern science didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came from the critical thinking skills that have been the tools of philosophy for so long. Yes the body of knowledge has grown and so we no longer lump all science into the rubric “natural philosophy.” And the term “philosophy” seems to only stick to the topics that do not blossom out into huge bodies of study in and of themselves. But arguably using the critical thinking of philosophy helped produce science. It’s hard to imagine a society not using logical thinking producing modern science. Now I realize this is somewhat fuzzy because it’s somewhat unclear what science is and when it started. But it seems to me that science is the offspring of philosophy.
    2) I really don’t know how to quantify the results my critical reasoning being sharpened through the disciplined study of philosophy. How many bad deals did I avoid thanks to that? It’s huge and really impossible for me to quantify. That is on the practical side. But then from the intrinsic value side of things there is value in thinking about difficult questions. Even if I can’t entirely answer everything to everyone’s satisfaction that does not mean no progress is made. Perhaps philosophy is like quantum mechanics in that way. Just because no one has packaged it all neatly doesn’t mean people haven’t found things out. Moreover thinking about difficult philosophical issues teaches us more than the ins and outs of the particular topic. It teaches us a certain humility.
    3) Extending life is not really the biggest question. It seems to me the more important question is what should we do with our lives. If I make a factory that produces other factories at some point some philosophical type will ask – “why are we producing these factories anyway?” If I live only to make things that help me live longer that is similar. I’m not against living longer, or building factories, but we also need to *think* to help us gain perspective. We should at least wonder what we should be doing (if anything) while we are living. It seems unnatural for a human animal not to at least wonder about these issues.

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  36. Hi Joe,

    But it seems to me that science is the offspring of philosophy.

    That’s sort of true, but it would be more accurate to say that both grew out of an entwined “natural philosophy” that was just as much science (observation of nature) as philosophy. Later those came to be seen as distinct and divorced, which is perhaps a pity.

    Hi Massimo,

    Instead, from now on we will only allow comments that deal with specifics:

    Good idea. Actual criticisms of scientism would be a lot more interesting that just expressing dislike of it, of which there seems quite a bit on this thread.
    In which case I’d better address a specific issue:

    Finally, please people, get over your bruised egos. Dan didn’t pick on Coel in his examples, it just happens that Coel … does often engage in those sorts of commenting …

    It’s not a question of bruised egos, it’s more that Dan was presenting a rather dubious set of examples of supposed fallacies. The most blatant was about pseudoscience.

    The difference between a pseudoscience such as homoeopathy and real medicine is that the evidence is that homoeopathy doesn’t work and yet the practicioners believe in it despite that, and indeed actively avoid critical thinking on the issue.

    Yet Dan claims that adopting: “Science is anything that employs observation, reasoning, and critical thinking to draw conclusions” would be harmful as it would: “collapse the distinction between pseudoscience and science”.

    Well, no it wouldn’t: defining science it terms of critical thinking does not collapse the distinction between critical thinking and lack of critical thinking. In such ways, Dan was making a set of dubious claims and yet was presenting them as examples of good practice.

    Hi labnut,

    Ah, we’d missed your “commentaries” about New Atheism and scientism! Just wondering, if you were to score yourself against your list of characteristics, how would it go? 4, tick? 5, tick?, let’s see, 7, tick? heck, maybe just tick 1 to 9. 🙂

    Hi Massimo,

    Nothing focuses attention … as the 5-5-5 rule. It’s also easy to remember …

    Maybe you should be generous to labnut and allow him 6-6-6 ? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  37. Coel,

    “That’s sort of true, but it would be more accurate to say that both grew out of an entwined “natural philosophy” that was just as much science (observation of nature) as philosophy. Later those came to be seen as distinct and divorced, which is perhaps a pity.”

    If you go back much further, religion and math/philosophy/science all started as efforts to both describe and explain natural order. Suffice to say, they became distinct and divorced. It might be interesting to examine the physical, biological, cultural and philosophical reasons why and how this branching out between our more liberal examinations and the more conservative cultural and social consolidations around the various conceptual structures that emerge continue to work today.

    Like

  38. marc (quoting Joe I think): “I think one of the problems with internet comments regarding philosophical issues is that they often tap into larger fundamental differences beyond the focus of the particular essay. Questions like what it means to “know” something, what is “morality”, or “truth”, or “science,” etc […] I’m not sure there is an easy solution. But perhaps consider a few (maybe like 5-10?) fundamental/definitional essays that those topics can be offloaded to. It would be on a strictly as needed basis.”

    I agree that this is a problem, but I’m not sure that new essays would offer much advantage over essays already available at the SEP. Perhaps the moderators could provide a list of useful links, or recommend their favourite introductory book.

    Coel: “That’s sort of true, but it would be more accurate to say that both grew out of an entwined “natural philosophy” that was just as much science (observation of nature) as philosophy.”

    Good point. Saying that science is the offspring of philosophy is a little like saying that humans evolved from apes. It’s important to distinguish between “apes” in the sense of the modern group of species and “apes” in the sense of the common ancestral species. Similarly, the common ancestor of contemporary science and contemporary philosophy happens to be given the same label, “philosophy”, as one of its offspring, but we must be careful not to be too influenced by labels. It might be disputed whether this common ancestor was equally distant in content and method from contemporary science and contemporary philosophy (as implied by your “just as”). But that judgement would have to be based on thinking about the actual phenomena, and not by relying on the fact that we continue to use the word “philosophy”.

    More generally, we must beware of over-reifying concepts like science and philosophy, treating then as well-defined objects with an essence that continues over time. Reificatory language (like “science does X”) can be a convenient way of speaking, but when we’re trying to settle difficult questions about science and philosophy we must look below the surface of this vague language, and think about more specific details.

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  39. richardwein
    “I agree that this is a problem, but I’m not sure that new essays would offer much advantage over essays already available at the SEP. Perhaps the moderators could provide a list of useful links, or recommend their favourite introductory book.”

    I think the SEP is a terrific resource. But it is not interactive at all. If I don’t understand, or question something on SEP I am out of luck. Loose ends remain completely loose.

    For me the interaction is key. I don’t want to just read random articles. If I did SEP would be a good thing to read. But I want to understand how it would relate to my own views. I also like to read what others think regarding what was written. I like to read philosophy but often I would like to ask the author, or others, questions. That is why I like the internet.

    Also reading SEP won’t help me understand what the commentators here believe.

    Brodix
    “If you go back much further, religion and math/philosophy/science all started as efforts to both describe and explain natural order.”

    I tend to doubt this. Philosophy deals with all sorts of things and religion often deals with how we should live – not really what the natural order is.

    Like

  40. Oy. I guess Coel is now going to take us into “no true Scotsman” territory. For his benefit and per request, I quote:

    Harris is not a scientist, he’s a writer (though, yes, he did a PhD in neuroscience).

    Tyson’s not an astrophysicist then, either? Sagan stopped being one after he had written X number of books?

    If you modified your statement to say “Harris is not a currently practicing scientist” or similar, I might accept it. And, it should also be noted that, in the same sentence, in the original, in a portion that Coel elided, EJ also mentioned by name Leonard Susskind, as “clearly engaging in metaphysics.”

    So, yes, I think Coel is making a “no true Scotsman,” and would seem to be seizing on Harris as primarily an author as the easiest way to do that.

    Again, since you’ve had the commission by yourself of specific logical fallacies pointed out before, and have chosen not to directly reply, you are, by my lights, invited to include yourself in the bruised ego brigade, should you so choose. (The specific pointing out was several posts ago, and referenced by me once since then and before now.)

    That said, per my previous comment, and note to Patrick G. I think EJ is right here.

    As for the meta-issue of “rational belief”?

    Tosh to that, including myself at times. We’re all lesss rational than we’d like to think, and that’s without even factoring in the Dunning-Krueger effect, named, of course, after criminally failed “skeptic” Brian Dunning and horror movie villain Freddy Krueger.

    Joe I think people in such cases are confusing applied and research science, or even more, confusing technology/engineering with science in general.

    Liked by 3 people

  41. I think this topic, at least as I conceive it, deserves far more attention, but the topic as I conceive it barely makes an appearence in the comments following the main article. A narrow view of the topic is that it conderns mechanics and ground rules for making our discussions in SS fruitful and productive, but we seemed to mostly just elaborate on the ongoing topic of mutual antagonism between philosophers and scientemists and/or physicists.
    But for a long time, I have been interested in a broad generalizatin of the original topic, namely, how in general do we set up environments for communication that will most effectively nudge the participants to discover, locate, or generate “good” (mostly in the sense, I think of useful and/or accurate) discourse. The domain can be as simple as the SS forum, or as broad as the academic discourse of a specific scientific discipline, or that of all scientific disciplines, or that of all academic discourse, or still broader. It is conceivable out of somewhere might come a cultural shift that could favor greater flourishing, more stable and vibrant democracy, and a greater tendency towards peace in the world.
    It is the thing that got me interested in Massimo in the first place, as his book _Nonsense on Stilts_ has much that bears on the idea. Of all the popular books decrying nonsense and proposing wasy to become better thinkers, this was perhaps the first to pay serious attention to shifts in our institutional structure, such as. the proliferation of Think Tanks paid to advocate certain points of view, yet perceived by many as a viable alternative to traditional academia.
    Bits and pieces of this sort of thinking exist, and even go back to Greek or Roman times when legislatures had “rules of order” intended to produce fair and productive debate (I believe Boorstin’s _The Discoverers_ provides a glimpse at some humor that illustrates the point. A sort of crude water clock was used to allot speakers a certain amount of time, and one speaker was being urged to drink the water as a way of trying to shove him off stage). Since then, there have been many sets of rules of parliamentary debate (e.g. 5-5-5), and institutional traditions such as seminars, conferences, and peer-reviewed journals, and the general rule that reproducability confers authority on an experimental result whereas failure to reproduce leads to skepticism and obscurity.
    If what you want to capture is the majority view on a certain issue in and of itself, much analytical thinking can be applied to making elections fair in a way which can be monitored by opposing parties. The court systems have their methodologies to achieve a combination of fairness and accuracy, and Larry Laudan have even shifted much of his attention away to the study of social epistemology in the courts rather than in the scientific community.

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  42. Another way that Massimo’s _Nonsense on Stilts_ went beyond the run of the mill literature on nonsense, “rationality” and critical thinking was the attention he paid to social epistemology (examining epistemology in the locus of social processes) per Alvin Goldman, Helen Longino, et al, which encompasses just what I’ve been talking about. He also took on the more postmodern leaning doppelganger of social epistemology (which lays claim to the same name) of Steve Fuller, Bruno Latour, and others, excoriating Latour who was recently cited favorably by a guest writer on SS — a discussion in which Massimo never made an appearance. This “social epistemology” shades into Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, a perhaps overly naturalized version of the philosophical approach to social epistemology.

    Again, bits and pieces of the sort of thinking I’m talking about have cropped up, but Alvin Goldman has suggested a possible umbrella for uniting it into a real discipline, under the name “System Oriented Social Epistemology”, laid out in “http://fas-philosophy.rutgers.edu/goldman/Systems-Oriented Social Epistemology.pdf” I view it as little more than a sketchy program, but a program for something badly needed.

    Massimo’s latest (I think), _Philosophy of Pseudoscience_, has a chapter on “Argumentation and Pseudoscience: The Case for an Ethics of Argumentation” by Jean Paul van Bendegem, and perhaps he’d consider putting that out for discussion on SS, so that we might get deeper into this topic. Actually, again by my understanding of the topic, we hardly got into it at all, but went off on tangents about mostly scientemists and/or physicists vs philosophers, and who the biggest jerks are (my crude and impressionistic impression to which I’m sure many exceptions can be made).

    Also, I wonder whether treatment has been done of the general topic of how online discussion groups have tried to keep their discussions fruitful and enlightening. If all the various approaches were rounded up there would certainly be a lot to talk about.

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  43. Joe,
    Much further back, say when the precursors of astronomy and astrology were the same topic. The zodiac is based on a fairly detailed study of cosmic movements.

    A good book on the topic would be Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion.
    http://www.amazon.com/Stages-Greek-Religion-Gilbert-Murray/dp/0486425002
    http://sacred-texts.com/cla/fsgr/index.htm

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