Brontosaurus and the nature of philosophy

0021by Leonard Finkelman


What I say now ought to be uncontroversial, but bears repeating: philosophy has a public relations problem. Specious criticism from unreflective popular figures has done its damage. Inquisitive laypeople are routinely exposed to philosophy in one of two contexts: as an activity that works at best as a pointless diversion, or as an activity directed towards defending itself from charges of pointless diversion. I have discussed this problem before, but the situation remains largely unchanged [1]. I will therefore court controversy with a potentially helpful suggestion: we should start proclaiming, loudly and repeatedly, that one the most significant works of philosophy this year was “A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda),” and we should remind people that this is the work that brought Brontosaurus back [2].

I mentioned this paper in an offhanded comment made during a panel discussion earlier this year and members of the audience interrupted with applause. Politicians may be able to buy publicity like that, but we can’t. I believe that philosophers can harness the enthusiasm for this work in a way that not only improves the field’s public image, but also gives non-philosophers a better understanding of how philosophy works and why philosophy is useful.

In the discussion below, I will make clear what I mean by “philosophy,” lay out the history of debate over the name “Brontosaurus,” explain how Tschopp et al 2015 resolved that debate, and demonstrate how their resolution fits my model of philosophy.

What I do not intend is to denigrate any of the more clearly philosophical work done by my colleagues, nor do I intend to misrepresent the rigorous quantitative research compiled by Tschopp et al. We can all get along. My intention is to demonstrate why we should.

What is philosophy?

We have a running joke in philosophy: that when you ask n philosophers to define what they do, you will receive n+1 answers. Humor is clearly not our best tool for improving public relations.

It is telling, I think, that the words that I speak most often while teaching are “by that logic.” I doubt that I’m alone in this: other philosophers certainly use that phrase very often in conversation. I say these words so often that I now include a full lecture at the beginning of each semester that explains what those words mean. “By that logic…” statements are common tools in philosophical practice. These tools are a philosopher’s shorthand for conceptual analysis.

Concepts, being abstract entities, do not suffer the same sort of poking and prodding that scientists use for testing observations. If we mean to test a concept, then we must probe the concept’s limits through thought experiment. Philosophers do this by considering apparent contradictions among applications of the concept’s definition. If the apparent contradictions can be resolved, then the concept passes the test; if they cannot, then the concept ought to be rejected as false.

For example, here is a conceptual analysis of one common definition of the term “dinosaur”:

Dinosaurs may be defined as gigantic reptiles that have been dead for a very long time. By that logic, a cloned T. rex like the one in “Jurassic Park” wouldn’t be a dinosaur. But a cloned T. rex like the one in “Jurassic Park” should be considered a dinosaur; therefore, the suggested definition of the term “dinosaur” must be false.

Whether or not you disagree with the details of the example is irrelevant; what matters is how the analysis works. Definitions are universal principles, meant to apply to all possible instances of the term. If the definition cannot apply to one possible instance of the term, then there is an apparent contradiction that must be resolved. The resolution happens in one of two ways: either the suggested instance is reconsidered in such a way that the definition would in fact apply or the definition is discarded.

I’m not suggesting that philosophy is just semantics. Yes: we are trying to figure out what words mean, but that only tells half the story. I am reminded of a quote from Epictetus: “How then did Socrates act? … If the adversary had defined envy, he did not say, ‘You have defined it badly, for the terms of the definition do not correspond to the thing defined’” [3]. Socrates wanted to show how definitions must be constrained by reality. It is not just that we’ve found inconsistency in the application of the words “dinosaur” or “envy”; the reason that we’ve found those inconsistencies is that dinosaurs and envy are real things and our understanding of those things needs improvement. Conceptual analysis is intended to improve our understanding of these real things.

This goal is reflected in how we resolve apparent contradictions in conceptual analysis. If one considers the definition to be truly universal, then the possible instance will be reconsidered; if one considers the possible instance to be a true misapplication, then the definition will be rejected. Using traditional logic, the goal in either case is to preserve truth. Unlike empirical truths discovered through scientific observation, however, the truth preserved by conceptual analysis is reasoned truth, discovered through philosophical argument.

Conceptual analysis may not be necessary for all philosophy, but I do think that it is sufficient for philosophy. This kind of analysis is not science because it is not empirical; it is not linguistics because it is about more than just words; it is not semantics because it examines more than just meaning. Here is where philosophy steps in: to examine meaning as it is related to reality itself.

What is Apatosaurus?

For over a century now people have believed that Brontosaurus was a real thing, only to be told by dinosaur enthusiasts that it was not. No matter how many times dinosaur enthusiasts pointed this out, however, the real name — “Apatosaurus” — seemed to be outside the lay public’s memory capacity. This is why Tschopp et al 2015 was so welcomed by the public despite being a 298-page discussion of the minutiae of caudals and distals and such: because the purported “real thing” had such a comparatively disappointing name.

The history of the layperson’s disappointment gives important context to the new paper. It is also important because it reinforces a point made above: that we are debating whether or not something is real, not simply whether or not we should prefer one name to another.

Brontosaurus’ story began in 1877 when a team led by Othniel Charles Marsh excavated a partial sauropod skeleton in Colorado. The individual specimen, now named YPM 1860, became the type specimen (i.e., reference point) for a new genus and species that Marsh named Apatosaurus ajax. Two years later another of Marsh’s teams unearthed parts of a larger sauropod in Wyoming. Citing the differences in size, as well as some differences in vertebral anatomy, Marsh used the second specimen — now named YPM 1980 — as the type specimen for another new genus and species, Brontosaurus excelsus. Shortly thereafter everyone became very, very confused.

In 1903 paleontologist Elmer Riggs wrote a review of then-known sauropods, similar to the work that would be done a century later by Tschopp et al. In that review Riggs argued that the differences between YPM 1860 and YPM 1980 could be explained by growth and development: in effect, that YPM 1860 should be regarded as a teenager and YPM 1980 as an adult within the same genus. The name “Apatosaurus” was coined earlier and so Riggs renamed the Brontosaurus species “Apatosaurus excelsus.” Riggs’ paper was published while the American Museum of Natural History was planning to mount a restoration of the larger specimen; since the museum’s curator preferred the name “Brontosaurus,” the skeleton was so labeled when it was unveiled in 1905. Thus began 110 years of separation between received scientific wisdom and popular perception [4].

Marsh is often criticized for sloppy scholarship in his zeal to name more dinosaur species than his hated competitor, Edward Drinker Cope. Much of that criticism is justifiable. Nevertheless, Marsh wasn’t sloppy or overzealous when he distinguished Brontosaurus from Apatosaurus.

Darwin once likened the fossil record to a “history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect … only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few short lines” [5]. The classification of dinosaurs depends on inferring information about whole species and genera from isolated, scattered, and incomplete skeletons. Sauropods in particular have been problematic. It’s rare that paleontologists find a specimen that includes more than half the animal’s skeleton. It’s even more rare that the skeletons include the part most useful for classification: the skull. Still more rare are multiple specimens found in a single location. These are severe handicaps in determining classifications.

Of over 100 described genera in the Sauropoda, many (if not most) are known only from an isolated humerus, femur, or collection of vertebrae. Sauropod classification therefore tends to lean heavily on five kinds of trait: vertebral anatomy; limb anatomy; presumed adult size; geographic location; and geological period. Many living species, much less genera, vary widely in these particular traits. Riggs’ point was that paleontologists should try to use the same naming standards adopted by other taxonomists. For his part, Marsh was just using the information he had available.

Paleontologists didn’t have much more to work with even after another hundred years of research. Consider this diagnosis of the Diplodocidae, the family that includes Apatosaurus, from McIntosh’s 1990 study of sauropods:

“Long snouted skull with superior nares and weak peg-like teeth confined to the front of the jaws, cervicals and anterior dorsals opisthocoelous, posterior dorsals amphicoelous, short cervical ribs, deeply divided V-shaped neural spines in and on both sides of the shoulder region, very long tail with elaborate wing-like transverse processes on anterior caudals, caudal centra gentle proceolous with weak chevron pacets, elongated middle and distal caudals, fore and aft expanded forked chevrons in the mid-tail region, tail ending in a whip-lash, short metacarpals, and metacarpal II or III:humerus = .32 to .37.” [6]

While there is mention of some general features of skull anatomy, most of the diagnostic traits of the taxon are subtle, technical features of vertebral anatomy. Just as you should make lemonade when life only gives you lemons, you should diagnose a fossil taxon by backbones when the ground only gives you backbones.

But just as a master chef can make astounding and surprising concoctions from lemons, so too can paleontologists draw astounding and surprising information from relatively small collections of fossils. The increasing sophistication of statistical analysis allows modern researchers to test hypotheses upon which Marsh and Riggs could only speculate.

What is Brontosaurus?

The stated purpose of Tschopp et al 2015 was not to comment on the validity or invalidity of “Brontosaurus” as a genus name. Instead, the authors set out to clarify the evolutionary relationships within the family of dinosaurs that includes Apatosaurus. Doing so required specification of conditions for species-level and genus-level distinctions, and so the commentary on “Brontosaurus” became almost inevitable.

What made the authors’ commentary different from Riggs’ or McIntosh’s is that Tschopp et al employed one of the sophisticated modern statistical methods of classification. It is called numerical taxonomy.

Numerical taxonomy is a method of drawing distinctions between biological taxa, first proposed by Sokal and Sneath in 1963 [7], which intends to make classification more objective. The method suggests that biologists should tally all of an organism’s traits and compare those traits against variations found in other organisms; through statistical analysis taxonomists could then designate a taxon according to which organisms are more similar to each other than they are to members of other taxa [8].

In the 2015 paper Tschopp et al compared variations of 477 traits found among 81 well-described sauropod specimens (2015, 162-164). Many of those traits are relevant to vertebral anatomy; many are not. Previous attempts at classification put undue influence on the body parts of sauropods that have preserved best in the fossil record, but by tallying so many other traits the authors could potentially mitigate the effects of preservation bias.

Buried about 2/3 of the way through the authors’ 298-page analysis is the passage that has so captured the public’s interest:

“… the clade comprising A. ajax YPM 1860 + A. louisae type is separated from its sister clade Brontosaurus excelsus YPM 1980 + mdA by eleven changes … the analysis with implied weights suggests the presence of two different genera, whereas only specific separation is supported with equal weighting. As mentioned above, also mean pairwise dissimilarity between specimens of Apatosaurus and those of Brontosaurus (0.2606) supports generic distinction: intrageneric mean pairwise dissimilarity is lower (0.1831 for Apatosaurus, and 0.2149 for Brontosaurus) than what is found between the two groups.” (2015, 195-196)

Obviously, when I say “the passage that has so captured the public’s interest,” what I mean is “the passage that has been reduced to a three-word social-media-friendly sound byte and lost most of its context in the process.” Allow me to restore some of that context.

When the authors compared uncontroversial members of the genus Apatosaurus — YPM 1860, the reference specimen for A. ajax, and specimens in the species Apatosaurus louisae — with other specimens in taxa that evolved later, they found consistent differences in at least eleven traits. Narrowing the comparison down, the authors found that specimen YPM 1980 — the one originally named “Brontosaurus” by Marsh — differed from members of the genus Apatosaurus in about 26% of its traits (the particular differences may have varied in specimen-by-specimen comparisons). By contrast, members within the genus Apatosaurus tended to differ from each other in only 18% of their traits.

To simplify further: the specific dinosaur skeleton originally named Brontosaurus” (YPM 1980), later reclassified as “Apatosaurus,” differs from other specimens originally named “Apatosaurus” in just over one quarter of its measured traits. Uncontroversial specimens in the genus named “Apatosaurus” differ from each other by less than one quarter of their measured traits.

From these particular facts the authors drew the conclusion that “Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus should therefore be considered valid genera” (2015, 196). Cue fanfare.

What is dinosaur philosophy?

Tschopp et al did not observe a distinction between the genus “Apatosaurus” and the genus “Brontosaurus.” Dinosaur fossils do not come out of the ground with nametags. Their observation, if it can indeed be called an “observation,” was made indirectly, through application of a generalized principle.

Indirect observation is a combination of direct observation with philosophical argument. Consider another example of indirect observation in paleontology: evidence for feathers in the species Citipati osmolskae. Several specimens of the species have been found associated with a nest of eggs in a posture that birds assume while brooding [9]. We therefore have direct evidence that C. osmolskae assumed a brooding posture while sitting on its nest. This itself is not evidence for feathers, but as a general principle ornithologists and paleontologists believe that brooding is an effective means of nest incubation only when the brooder is feathered. As an application of that principle, then, we conclude that C. osmolskae must have had feathers. Neither the empirical observations nor the conceptual argument alone would be sufficient to show that the species bore feathers. When the two are combined, however, that truth can be reasoned through.

If I am correct, then Tschopp et al needed a general principle from which they could conclude that Brontosaurus is a valid genus. That principle is given shortly before their analysis of Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus:

“Within Diplodocinae, specimens considered to belong to the same genus exhibit values below 0.181, whereas different genera show values of 0.222 and higher. Two generally accepted species within a single genus (Diplodocus carnegii and Diplodocus hallorum) have a value of 0.1195.” (2015, 171)

In other words: two groups in the family Diplodocinae (a subgroup of the titular Diplodocidae) should be considered distinct genera if members of one taxon tend to differ from members of the other taxon in at least 22% of their traits. This principle was generalized from analysis of comparisons between members of species that are “generally accepted” to belong within the same genus and members of species that are generally accepted to belong in different genera.

The principle also shows why the authors’ conclusion about Brontosaurus cannot qualify as a purely empirical observation. If the conclusion were a direct observation, then when I write, “YPM 1980 differs from Apatosaurus specimens in 26% of its traits on average,” the most natural inference on the part of a reasonable reader would be, “I guess that Brontosaurus is a valid genus, then.” That inference would be invalid because “22% pairwise difference” doesn’t always mean “different enough to qualify as distinct genera.”

Tschopp et al admit that “the present analysis was designed for the study of diplodocid intrarelationships, and is not suitable for inferring the phylogeny of clades outside Diplodocoidea” (2015, 180). The principle “differences between at least 22% of two specimens’ traits is enough of a difference for distinct genera in diplodocids” is one they derived from painstaking observation. If the reality of the genus Brontosaurus was observed at all, then it was observed indirectly through application of that principle.

Here, then, is the argument for restoring “Brontosaurus” as a valid genus name:

  1. The sauropod specimen YPM 1980, currently classified in the genus named “Apatosaurus,” tends to differ from other members of the genus Apatosaurus in about 26% of its traits.
  2. Among members of the dinosaur group Diplodocinae, which includes the genus Apatosaurus, specimens that differ from each other in at least 22% of their traits are different enough to be classified in different genera.
  3. Therefore, YPM should be classified in a genus distinct from Apatosaurus; since YPM 1980 was originally classified in the genus named “Brontosaurus,” the distinct genus should have that name.

What we have here is a general principle being tested against a controversial particular instance. Tschopp et al established what it means for taxa to be different enough to qualify as distinct genera in the family Diplodocinae. The particular genus Apatosaurus seems to violate that principle: one of its purported members, YPM 1980, should be different enough to be in a distinct genus. Since the classification of YPM 1980 was originally controversial, and since their principle has been demonstrated empirically, the authors reasoned that the particular instance should be reconsidered to fit the principle. What we have here is conceptual analysis of what it means for Brontosaurus to be “different enough” from Apatosaurus.

This is why I consider Tschopp et al 2015 — or at least the part that argues for the reality of a genus named “Brontosaurus” — to be such a vital work of philosophy. The authors have employed an important philosophical method to advance an ongoing discussion that has significant public appeal. Their argument about Brontosaurus simultaneously puts the lie to two common misconceptions about philosophy: that philosophy fails to make progress and that the progress philosophy fails to make is in irrelevant or esoteric topics.

I do not mean to say that Tschopp et al 2015 is not a work of paleontological science, nor do I intend to claim any credit for their work. The authors have painstakingly accumulated a great deal of quantitative data towards the end of answering empirical questions about extinct organisms. But the passages quoted above put the lie to a third common misconception about philosophy: that philosophy is wholly distinct from other disciplines. Paleontology and philosophy are not mutually exclusive pursuits; they are complementary.

It’s easier to see this relation once we accept conceptual analysis as sufficient for philosophy. Considered as the testing of definitions against the constraints of reality, conceptual analysis should be part and parcel of the sciences. While Tschopp et al may use scientific methods for deriving a definition of “different enough to be distinct diplodocid genera,” they must wear a second hat — the hat of a philosopher, in addition to the pith helmet of the paleontologist — in order to test that definition. It is possible and in many cases necessary to act as a philosopher while working as a scientist.

Why, then, do we need philosophers at all? If a scientist must also be a philosopher, and if one of our best works of philosophy can’t even really be categorized as such, then haven’t I already conceded too much to the critics I mentioned earlier? No. I am reclaiming conceptual ground that philosophers never should have ceded in the first place. Scientists are trained in empirical and mathematical methods; that is their expertise. What I have shown is that they sometimes borrow from the expertise of philosophers — from our work in logic, semantics, and metaphysics — as is to be expected in an academic community. Whether they do it consciously or not is irrelevant. My point is that it happens. We would all benefit from conscious acknowledgement of that fact: the philosophers’ image would be improved and the scientists’ work could be given added depth.

Sometimes the depth is already there. Without philosophy, we could gather exactly this much from the research done by Tschopp et al: that the fossil taxon including YPM 1980 is quantifiably different from the fossil taxon including YPM 1860. To demonstrate that the taxa are different enough to qualify as distinct genera, however, the authors had to engage in philosophical reasoning. That philosophical reasoning alone wouldn’t be sufficient to show that YPM 1980 should be classified as “Brontosaurus,” but neither was the empirical work. Tschopp et al have done all this with aplomb and deserve credit as such; my goal is only to call things what they are. I am very much a philosopher in that sense.


Leonard Finkelman is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Linfield College (OR). He received his PhD in Philosophy from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2013, under the supervision of Massimo Pigliucci. His research focuses on issues in the philosophy of biology, particularly those related to paleontology and classification. In addition to this research, Leonard has written on topics in ethics, possible-world semantics, and human nature. He will also occasionally indulge interests in astronomy, prehistoric art, science fiction, and graphic novels.

[1] The Value of Public Philosophy to Philosophers, by M. Pigliucci and L. Finkelman, Essays in Philosophy, 2014.

[2] A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda), by E. Tschopp et al., PeerJ 3:e857, 2015.

[3] Discourses, Book II, by Epictetus. Thanks to Massimo Pigliucci for bringing this passage to my attention through his daily social media postings of Stoic meditations.

[4] Among those confusions: the idea that Brontosaurus was discarded as a valid genus name because the American Museum of Natural History restored YPM 1980 with an incorrect skull. It is true that the original mount included the skull of Camarasaurus supremus, a sauropod that had been described by Edward Drinker Cope in 1877. This was a practical move: the museum did not want to display a headless skeleton. Nevertheless, this mistake had no bearing on the controversy over the name “Brontosaurus.” One story holds that Cope engineered the mistake by hiring a mercenary to plant a Camarasaurus skull close to the quarry from which YPM 1980 came, but this is neither substantiated nor relevant.

[5] On the Origin of Species, by C. Darwin, pp. 310-311.

[6] Dinosaur Systematics: Approaches and Perspectives, ed. by K. Carpenter and P.J. Currie, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[7] Principles of Numerical Taxonomy, by R.R. Sokal and P.H.A. Sneath, W.H. Freeman & co., 1963.

[8] Detractors highlight a number of limitations inherent in the numerical method. In particular: the designation of traits and variations thereof must often come down to the researcher’s choice. That, too, is a place where philosophy can make significant contributions to the life sciences. But that is an essay for another day.

[9] A nesting dinosaur, by M.A. Norell et al., Nature 378:774-776, 1995.


83 thoughts on “Brontosaurus and the nature of philosophy

  1. Eric,
    All is Science, …, I wonder where this is from and its context?
    It is Coel’s signature tune.

    Does it truly reflect the battle that we are engaged in
    I would prefer a discussion to a battle but ideologues do seem to prefer battles.

    I was the one who “ratted you out
    Hey, that’s OK, if I overstep the mark I deserve to be brought to account.

    my ideologue Coel.
    While I admire your ideological solidarity I admire the truth even more.

    There is a causal connection between all things real, I think, and therefore “All is Science
    That is a metaphysical assumption and has never been empirically demonstrated, which one might think should be a requirement since we are after all talking about science. You should read Massimo’s essay, On the (dis)unity of science. And you should also read Human Nature and the Limits of Science, by John Dupre.

    You don’t seem to realise that the causal unity of reality is foundational to classical theism. And so every time an atheist makes this assertion, somewhere a classical theist smiles in amused agreement. Radical contingency and disunity of the sciences is precisely what one would expect if the atheist hypothesis were true. But I am in no hurry to stop atheism from shooting itself in the foot.

    re Krauss, I was greatly amused when in one interview he said this:
    Philosophy used to be a field that had content … It has no impact on physics what so ever

    and then in another interview he said this:
    we’re trying to take an empirical approach to try and understand what the absence of something is and I think there are deep philosophical issues that we’re not going to resolve in this program

    Which is it going to be, ‘a field that had no content’ or ‘there are deep philosophical issues’?
    With rather more justification than Walt Whitman he could say:
    Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multiverses“.

    Presumably his contradictions are all true in some unobservable multiverse. This explanation could have great utility. ‘Your honour, in the 10^10^128th universe I did not commit this crime. The innocence of one is the evidence of the innocence of all because innocence is indivisible’. Multiverses could transform legal doctrine.


  2. Peter J.

    How the universe, as we know it, began is an interesting question. And it is a question for science, not philosophy.

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?” where “Why” is understood as having some sort of teleological significance, is completely uninteresting — and I think nonsensical — outside of a theistic framework, which holds zero interest for me and for most anglophone philosophers. The question, therefore, is an historical relic.

    So, I cannot agree with your view that the failure to address this subject represents some sort of failure of analytic metaphysics. Indeed, that sub-area is doing quite well, thank you. Theories of ontological committment; theories concerning the nature of properties, relations, and numbers; realism, anti-realism, naturalism, etc…. Plenty of interesting, genuinely philosophical work going on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow! 🙂 So here I am, just back from a conference, only to find another fascinating essay on SciSal giving rise to yet another turf war between scientism and philosophy. Game on! 🙂

    That said, I am genuinely curious why these turf wars happen in the first place. My naive opinion is that this has an irrational sociological cause — some people ignorant of philosophy proper, like Krauss and DeGrasse Tyson, start bashing philosophy as part of “science popularization”, and then some philosophers develop a fear that such a view on philosophy is (or will become) a mainstream consensus in science (which is far from true, btw.). And then they start justifying the usefulness of philosophy by invoking things like critical thinking, logical reasoning, exploring conceptual possibilities, etc. Due to the fear of being marginalized in general public, they often overplay such justifications, up to the point of claiming that any use of logic and critical thinking is an application of philosophy (which is of course ridiculous).

    On the other side, scientismists get the impression that if usage of logic and critical thinking automatically implies philosophy, then philosophers would be in an unfairly superior and privileged position, posing as “experts in critical thinking”, and thus unjustifiably declaring themselves experts on any and every topic that employs this critical thinking — in particular, science. So scientismists develop a fear that philosophers will become self-imposed “judges” of science, lecturing everybody and anybody how to use logic, and putting themselves in the mix as overarching experts in every possible debate or discussion (which is also a completely ridiculous fear). And since there is a fine line between being smart and being a smart-ass, scientismists tend to consider that philosophers are crossing that line. So in return they overreact themselves, claiming that any usage of critical thinking actually means doing science, rather than doing philosophy (and here I need to mention the word “ridiculous” yet again).

    As a consequence, the rest of us get to enjoy the entertainment of yet another turf war. 🙂

    And while all this is happening, mathematicians are in a genuine ROTFLMAO state, watching scientismists and philosophismists exchanging blows on who has seniority in logic and critical thinking, like two kids in the park arguing “my dad is stronger than your dad”… 🙂

    As opposed to these two fundamentalist camps, serious scientists and philosophers alike are aware of the limitations and boundaries of their respective domains, and have no incentive to expand their turf beyond the capabilities of either science or philosophy. Both acknowledge that they are not an expert for the other domain, and instead try to learn from one another. Which is actually appropriate rational behaviour, and the purpose of SciSal in particular…

    But turf wars are more fun, so by all means, don’t let this comment distract you from the debate! 😀

    Liked by 4 people

  4. In regard to whether or not the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” should be important in philosophy, I have to agree with Peter J. If it weren’t a question of importance to humans in general, it would have stopped being asked a long time ago. If it had been answered to peoples’ satisfaction by philosophers or others, it would have stopped being asked a long time ago. Despite philosophers’ claims that it is meaningless and not worthy of study, that doesn’t appear to be satisfactory to anyone besides academic philosophers. People still think there’s some missing answer, and I agree. So, the failure of philosophers to provide satisfactory answers to the question doesn’t make it unimportant or unworthy of being studied. My guess is that it will be eventually be answered by non-academics because they seem a little less stuck by academic philosophy’s endless ‘isms and convention.


  5. #5
    … I find this information almost beyond belief.

    Maybe it will help if I give you a brief potted history.

    All cultures have aetiological narratives. That is narrative accounts that purport to explain origins of things in metaphorical form. This is an innate tendency since our lives have a beginning, an arc and an end and so we project this experience onto existence in general.

    Thus religions also have their aetiological narratives. It is well understood that these are metaphorical accounts, with a spiritual intent, and not scientific accounts. Science and philosophy do not deal in metaphorical narratives, that is the domain of literature, and so these disciplines have steered clear of aetiological narratives.

    Consequently in science and philosophy, existence was assumed to be a brute fact without an origin. There was no reason to think otherwise. This began to change in 1927, when the Belgian priest, Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant mathematician, closely examined Einstein’s work and concluded that the Universe was expanding from a singularity, which he called the ‘primeval atom’. The Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedman, independently came to the same conclusion. Einstein famously reacted to Lemaitre’s conclusion by exclaiming, “No, not that, that is the creation”.

    This summed up the feelings of academia and the ideas of Lemaitre/Friedman gained traction very slowly. But there was a problem. The expansion of the Universe should be unstable. Fred Hoyle ingeniously accounted for this with his hypothesis of the steady state theory( and he famously derided Lemaitre’s hypothesis as ‘that big bang theory’.

    Then in the early ’60s the cosmic microwave background radiation was detected and this stunningly confirmed the hypothesis of Lemaitre/Friedman, which ironically, became known as the Big Bang theory.

    For those with a strongly atheistic bent, this was a most disconcerting result, since it confirmed a central claim of Christianity, that the Universe had a beginning. The problem for them got worse when it was realised that the laws of nature are exceedingly fine tuned. Not only did the Universe have a beginning, but it seemed tailored for our existence, or as one noted scientist put it, it seemed to be a ‘put up job’.

    All of this sparked a concerted effort to find a random, naturalistic explanation for the origin of the Universe and this was led by scientists with strong atheist convictions. The end result is an unprovable hypothesis of infinite universes birthed randomly from nothing. Ironically, science is also making demands on faith.

    Christian philosophers looked on with amusement as they considered this huge fuss to be a complete non sequitur. Their reasoning was straightforward. If a creator God existed then he created the laws of nature that were responsible for the origins of the universe as well as the operation of the universe. Let science do its job and it would reveal what God had intended should happen through the laws of nature.

    It is no accident that the leading proponents of ‘something from nothing’ are militant atheists. But it is a horribly pointless exercise since we theists agree with them about ‘something from nothing’.


  6. Hi Robin,

    Krauss seems to be under the common impression that “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “how can something come from nothing?” are considered a profound and important question in philosophy.

    You seem to be under the impression that Krauss’s book was intended to be primarily about a philosophical question. It isn’t; the handful of asides mentioning philosophers such as Plato and Aquinas add up to about one page in the whole book.

    The book is primarily about science. It’s about tracing the history of the universe back to the Big Bang, and then asking where the Big Bang came from. The origin of matter can be explained by quantum fluctuations in a space-time continuum. It then discusses the possibility that a quantum gravity fluctuation would involve space and time itself, and thus may not even need the prior space-time continuum.

    This is a valid and interesting science question, and it’s also a question of interest to the wider public. It’s up to you whether you find it interesting.

    He then quickly ran through the issue showing that it was mostly just a question of semantics, …

    You cannot settle how the universe can behave by turning to semantics. Let us suppose that it were possible that a quantum-gravity fluctuation were self-contained (and contained both time and space within itself), and was self-complete in the sense that it had no causal links to anything other than itself, not to any prior or other state. Then such a fluctuation could arise “wherever/whenever” and could arise “from nothing”, since it would not be dependent on anything else.

    Now, I don’t know whether that is possible (and we don’t yet have a theory of quantum gravity), but I’m pretty sure that neither semantical analysis nor human intuition can tell us the answer. We can only learn that (if we can at all) by watching how nature behaves.

    Hi Marko,

    So scientismists develop a fear that philosophers will become self-imposed “judges” of science, …

    Don’t worry, we don’t “fear” that. They’d just get ignored if they tried. What is more interesting is the epistemology. If, as seems to be the case, nature is a unified whole, then knowledge about nature would be a unified whole. Labels for different areas of that whole can be useful, but the borders would be porous and unmarked. As I see it, all attempts to make demarcations by subject area are misconceived.

    Hi labnut,

    It is this preconceptual, myopic and instrumental thinking that has biased the writings of Dawkins and Krauss, …

    You needn’t think you’re succeeding in demeaning those authors by such remarks, all you’re doing is revealing how unhappy you are that such people openly disrespect religion and, worse, sell lots of books saying so.

    “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself; I am large – I contain multiverses“.

    Now that one was funny!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Aravis – I cannot comprehend your position. Is philosophy not the attempt to solve philosophical problems? Perhaps for many philosophers it isn’t. I shall need time to digest this information. It has the potential to explain many things.


  8. The problem with the Kraussian view (perhaps shared by the “scientismist”) is best explained in the essay “Physicists Are Philosophers, Too”:

    “Krauss reveals traces of platonic thinking” (“the belief that the objects within the models of theoretical physics constitute elements of reality”) … “those who hold to a platonic view of reality are being disingenuous when they disparage philosophy”.

    In any case, the two questions

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
    “How can something come from nothing?”

    would seem to be approachable by either scientists or philosophers (in their own languages).


  9. I watched this discussion from the distant and beautiful land of Sicily, and I can only observe that a number of people must have missed Leonard’s only comment on this thread. I repost the relevant section:

    “I can only quote myself: ‘I do not mean to say that Tschopp et al 2015 is not a work of paleontological science. … It is possible and in many cases necessary to act as a philosopher while working as a scientist.’ This does not imply that the scientist who acts as a philosopher is not a scientist, or that philosophical reasoning employed in scientific practice is separable in practice from the scientist’s work, or that philosophy intrinsic to science is not philosophy. To borrow an analogy from a conference session I attended earlier today: a brain may not work if it isn’t somehow connected to a heart, but if your neurologist then concludes that there isn’t any real difference between those organs then you need to find a new neurologist.”

    Liked by 3 people

  10. A few words about “Something rather than nothing,” as it’s discussed in Heidegger’s philosophy (bearing in mind that this is my own non-obscure interpretation, but I think fair:

    The question “why is there something rather than nothing,” has an answer, but Heidegger preferred to reiterate the question, because the answer, given bluntly, tends to close off thinking rather than expand it. Briefly: there is something because there is a consciousness that can encounter it, and as long as there is such a consciousness, there is not nothing – yet there is nothingness at the horizon of this consciousness at every turn, the nothingness that always threatens to negate what the consciousness is conscious of; and, finally, it will negate the consciousness itself (in death), and this is no threat, but an inevitability.

    In this manner Heidegger hoped to reinterpret the Ego-centric epistemology of modern philosophy into an ontology – Consciousness and Being are intimately related as Different modes of the Same.

    It’s necessary to put it this way to avoid relapsing into pure epistemology, which, in the 20th century risks folding into psychology – hence Heidegger’s rejection of Sartrean Humanism. Consciousness is not disembodied – “Being and Time” is the description of its embodiment – but it is not to be identified with either something generically human, nor with the Self (until careful thinking in its concerns achieves authenticity): Dasein is Consciousness that arrives as generic but tasked with discovery of authenticity.

    One thing to add for clarity – For Heidegger, Consciousness is always culturally and historically condition; this is what sets off his theory from similarly abstract thinking on Consciousness such as we find in Fichte; but it is not as radical turn from the Idealist tradition as Heidegger believed, since the notion of socially defined thinking is implicit in Hegel, and then later emerges concretely in Dilthey and the Sociological tradition. However, in Heidegger, the situation is that the generic human – the ‘one,’ as in “anyone might say this,” is socially embedded but unaware of this; authentic Dasein, on the other hand, has accepted the burden of responsibility for living at the boundaries of this embedded condition. That boundary is also the horizon – and the horizon defines the Nothing beyond as both what is unknowable, and what awaits.

    This may still seem obscure; it may be frowned upon or criticized or simply dismissed. I studied this thinking deeply for a half-dozen years, and found it useful; I have since moved on.

    But it’s important to see that the questions raised by Heidegger’s “Question concerning Being” have not much at all to do with any question concerning the origin of the universe, which Heidegger was satisfied to leave to scientists. It should also be noted that kinds of issues raised by Heidegger’s “Question” can be very useful in thinking about the ‘human condition,’ and about problems of knowledge considered from a certain perspective. It is also useful because it does link in interesting ways to a number of historical lines of thought.


  11. Thanks for your response Labnut. So Coel has his own song? Beautiful! This doesn’t surprise me in the least — I find the English to be amazingly talented! As mentioned previously however, in a technical sense I’d like us to remove the term “is” from our definitions. But I do suppose his song would be far less catchy if it went something like “It’s useful to define the term ‘science’ such that it concerns all aspects of reality…”

    Physicalists such as myself believe that everything functions in a cause/effect manner, and so events have reason from which to occur as they do. Thus in the absense of causality it can be useful to say that “magic” occurs, or effects do not have founding causes from which to occur. Over the past few centuries science has been in the business of explaining how things work, and thus transforming our explanations from “magic,” to modern notions of “causality.” You’re right that this dynamic hasn’t been “proven,” since nothing has ultimately, but to me causality seems about as solid as it gets.

    I say this however, even when the physics community has an exception known as “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal.” Like Einstein, I suspect that even quantum mechanics functions causally in an ultimate sense, with discrepancies simply reflecting our ignorance. Coel and Marko haven’t mentioned if they agree with me or not (though I should have asked you as well Patrice). ( I also wonder what my new “causal heros,” Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin would say about quantum mechanics being ontologically uncertain. ( Would they contradict their own causality position, or rather observe that we’re just too stupid to understand what’s going on?

    Labnut I’m very happy that you see us in “discussion” rather than “battle.” Though I do happen to be an extreme naturalist, I’ve always hoped for theists to objectively assess my ideas from the position of “So, does Philosopher Eric have valid ideas regarding the Divinely created human?” In the end I suspect that if science does decide that qualia defines good/bad for the conscious entity, then religions will eventually agree that yes, this is what God created us to be. Notice that it should be far less unpalatable to decide that God made us selfish, than his standard responsiblity for all pains, tragedies, and so on…

    As far as the Aravis/Peter J debate goes, if “something” were to come from “nothing,” (depending upon the definitions used) this would seem like a classic noncausal circumstance, or “magic.” I would be more inclined to believe something different. Nevertheless I’m happy to hear from Aravis that philosophers aren’t spending time on this specific issue, since it just shouldn’t get settled. Yes there are plenty of important things for philosophers to be working on right now, and I personally believe that we stand at the cusp of a great new revolution — or one in which important philosophical agreements will be reached that elevate the field into the realm of science!


  12. Labnut – Thanks, but I find your potted history of the origins problem naive. You mention a few scientists and some Christians. It is not a scientific problem and saying ‘God did it’ doesn’t work either. It is a metaphysical
    problem, always has been and always will be.

    To imagine that science can construct a testable theory of origins is to misunderstand the problem. It is embarrassing that it takes a physicist like Paul Davies to write a decent book about it. He doesn’t quite solve it but his discussion is, while ‘popular’, sophisticated and open-minded. He is under no illusions that science is going to solve it and recognises that there is a logical problem involved that is prior to science. Physicists shouldn’t be showing us how to do metaphysics, but if nobody else is going to do it I suppose they’ll have to.

    Roger writes “My guess is that it will be eventually be answered by non-academics because they seem a little less stuck by academic philosophy’s endless ‘isms and convention.”

    I would agree, but feel that the reason is not this but just a lack of curiosity and a terminal pessimism. The big problems are pushed aside for the sake of squabbles over the details, none of which can be sorted out until the big problems are dealt with. It seems to be lost discipline.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Philosopher Eric,

    I suspect that even quantum mechanics functions causally in an ultimate sense, with discrepancies simply reflecting our ignorance. Coel and Marko haven’t mentioned if they agree with me or not

    I did answer that, see here. QM simply cannot be interpreted as ultimately causal, and the experimental violation of Bell’s inequality rules out the possibility that randomness is merely an artefact of our ignorance.

    I also wonder what my new “causal heros,” Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin would say about quantum mechanics being ontologically uncertain. […]Would they contradict their own causality position, or rather observe that we’re just too stupid to understand what’s going on?

    I answered that as well, here. The upshot is that U&S uphold causality as much as permitted by QM, but not more than that. Causality holds for all events in the theory, except for the future ones, which are being acausally created by the “event generator” and placed somewhere in the future causal structure of previously created events. So the process of generating each new event has a causal, deterministic component, as well as acausal nondeterministic one. The end result is therefore nondeterministic.

    Also, just at the level of heuristics, I’d say that Lee knows QM all too well, and he would not propose a model incompatible with it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi labnut,

    Einstein famously reacted to Lemaitre’s conclusion by exclaiming, “No, not that, that is the creation”.

    The exclamation can’t be that famous if Google gives only one hit to it, and that by you yourself on another blog. Any chance of a citation for this?

    By the way, your suggestion that cosmologists are motivated by a phobia of anything smacking of theology is rather a theo-centric view.


  15. Buongiorno, Signore Pigliucci! So, you’re saying that your student was writing as a philosopher of biology, and not a philosopher in general? I’ll accept that caveat!

    And, per an email I sent Massimo while he was abroad (thinking, by his Twitter feed on Jim Carrey he might be back in the States), I further recommend this new book, which even references Massimo. (I’ve also read an earlier book by Francis about Ev Psych, and think he might be a good guest commenter here.)


  16. There have certainly been more posts than I expected in the couple of days that I’ve been traveling! Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to think and to contribute.

    I can offer this much right now, without having yet read all of the comments closely: my earlier analogy was mistaken. A more accurate analogy would be between the brain and the body: one may be an integral and integrated part of the other, but no one in their right mind would identify the two completely or claim that recognizing the one implies the denial of the other’s existence.

    The error that some commenters have made was best stated earlier: one contributor offered (and I must paraphrase), “I don’t see any philosophy; only observation and logic” That is perhaps a good (if incomplete) characterization of science, but it implies a poor understanding of philosophy–it effectively says, “I don’t see any philosophy; only observation and the stuff that philosophers study.”

    A great many scientists–a number of whom attended the ISHPSSB conference that so occupied my time in the last few days–readily admit that their work benefits from the critical analysis of philosophers. To wit: the Field Museum is currently employing philosophy postdocs to review conceptual issues underlying debate over the classification of Archaeopteryx and other early birds.

    Science may encompass some forms of philosophical reasoning. There ought not be anything wrong with identifying the philosophical component with science. Doing so certainly doesn’t imply that a scientific study employing philosophical reasoning is not science.


  17. Leonard Finkelman wrote:

    “The error that some commenters have made was best stated earlier: one contributor offered (and I must paraphrase), “I don’t see any philosophy; only observation and logic” That is perhaps a good (if incomplete) characterization of science, but it implies a poor understanding of philosophy–it effectively says, “I don’t see any philosophy; only observation and the stuff that philosophers study.”

    Having been cited for making the best statement of an error, I do think there was a loss of nuance in the paraphrase. I said ‘logical reasoning’, not ‘logic’. “Logic” is some of ‘the stuff that philosophers study’; ‘logical reasoning’ on the other hand is employed by all normal people all the time. Surely you don’t mean that any employment of logical reasoning is philosophy.


  18. Philip Thrift,

    Thanks for your pointer above to the May 8 Stenger, Lindsay, and Boghossian article. I’m certainly the least “in the know,” but if philosophers have been taking this much heat from physicists, doesn’t it feel good to also land some blows in the other direction? Here it’s argued that some very prominent physicists are not only acting as the philosophers that they personally denigrate, but perhaps relatively bad ones (in my own opinion at least) by displaying platonic characteristics! Then there is the whole “Science has made philosophy obsolete” nonsense. So then perhaps these physicists could explain which branch of science today is responsible for figuring out how we properly lead our lives and structure our societies? Where exactly does the equivalent of an “ethics” exist in science, or a source of epistemic good/bad theory?

    (Nevertheless in order to actually earn the right for such a merger, from my own definitions the philosophy community would need to have its own generally accepted understandings. So then what might they be? Agreeing upon the nature of definition would be a good start, and I personally would hope for a “banning of the is” feature as mentioned previously here, though this is my 1000 word discussion on the subject: ( Furthermore agreeing upon the nature of good/bad for the conscious entity should be an amazingly productive step as well.)

    If philosophy and science are intimately connected, as the majority of us here seem to believe, then what non-theist today is able to intelligently argue that we must have more than one essential classification from which to explore the nature of reality?

    Hi Marko,

    Well I didn’t realize that you had given your final answer, since every one of the arguments that you’ve presented concerns epistemology, while my question concerns ontology. Furthermore I believe you did once mention something like, “As far as ontology goes, I just don’t know.” Let me emphasize that I’m not really theorizing the nature of reality itself here, but rather proposing some reasonable definitions. We obviously don’t know everything, but notice that for the standard concept of “magic,” there is no causality — otherwise it just wouldn’t be what we consider “magic.” Furthermore apparently all accepted aspects of physics do concern causality, except for the Heisenberg uncertainty principal. So either this one aspect of reality happens to be noncausal/magic in an ontological sense (as is generally presumed in the physics community), or an associated causality does exist, though we simply happen to be ignorant of it.

    (Observe that this is where the philosopher uses nothing beyond logic to challenge the perfectly epistemic physicist. The physicist naturally doesn’t want to refer to his cherished “natural uncertainty” as a supernatural aspect of reality, though there really isn’t any other choice in a definitional sense. Because each concept happens to be defined by noncausality, “natural uncertainty” and “magic” do equate extremely well! 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Coel,

    You seem to be under the impression that Krauss’s book was intended to be primarily about a philosophical question.

    You keep saying this and I have no idea why you should think so or why you think it is even remotely relevant.

    Whether it is a popular science book, a philosophy book or the cosmological equivalent of “The Origin of the Species ” as Dawkins says in the afterword is quite beside the point.

    What I am saying is that Krauss makes some claims in the book about things outside his area of expertise, which are demonstrably false and which it did not even occur to him to attempt to check.

    I was using that as another example of how a brilliant scientist can be far from brilliant outside of his own area of expertise, and that in the history of ideas, even my own meagre expertise vastly outweighs his.

    Evidence is important even in a popular science book

    It isn’t; the handful of asides mentioning philosophers such as Plato and Aquinas add up to about one page in the whole book.

    We are talking about most of the preface about a third of chapter 9 and about half of chapter 11 as well as various asides elsewhere He even fills the space with the Euthyphro argument for reasons best known to himself.

    But again, that is irrelevant. Getting stuff wrong because you don’t bother to check is bad thinking whether it covers one page or many.

    It then discusses the possibility that a quantum gravity fluctuation would involve space and time itself, and thus may not even need the prior space-time continuum.

    Which idea would cause Plato and Augustine of Hippo to exclaim “Aha, we were more or less right” but kind of misses the point about the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”

    The explicit form of the question comes from Leibniz, and the argument does not depend upon any specific answer, nor even that the reason be teleological, nor even any specific definition of nothing (the question in full “why is there something rather than nothing or, given that there must be something, why is it that way, rather than some other?”), only that there is, in fact a reason why there is something rather than nothing or that something is the way it is rather than another.

    The science Krauss presents is interesting, undoubtedly, but it does not really cause the metaphysical argument to ‘shrivel up’ as Dawkins has it. If anything, it confirms Leibniz’ premise. Not that I am suggesting Leibniz’ argument is sound.

    You cannot settle how the universe can behave by turning to semantics.

    Whoever suggested that you can?

    A little examination of semantics can, however, clarify the question and prevent wasting time on pseudo problems. As my friend said “something can come from the potential of something ” is trivially true and was never in question, not philosophically interesting. “Unmarried bachelor” stuff.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. In the section ‘What is philosophy?’ the author seems to conflate ordinary concepts and scientific concepts. Both, it seems, are in need of “truly universal definitions”.

    But our ordinary concepts are typically vague and messy and ambiguous, and, I would argue, they are perfectly fine nonetheless – because the reality they reflect is similarly complex and indeterminate. Our ordinary concepts need to be flexible. They are used in subtly different ways, and are always sensitive to context, etc. Even ambiguity is useful sometimes (when trying to be diplomatic, for example).

    It seems to me to be a major mistake, a major error of judgement, to try to make ordinary language concepts subject to scientific-concept-like definitions.


  21. Is the difference between superstition, religion, philosophy and science only the quality and quantity of the empirical evidence used to reach their conclusions? They are all methods of “explaining” externality as observed via our sensory inputs and all are, or have been, in their way and time “useful”. They form a naturally evolving sequence, a spectrum progressing from initial primitive superstitions through (with increasing degrees of phenomenal certainty) to established (but never “Absolute”) scientific “Facts/Laws”.

    Like any spectrum with given names for different regions there will always arise problems of boundaries and their precise definitions. Asking if/when/where Philosophy metamorphoses into Science is a philosophical waste of effort. That the former precedes the latter is undeniable. Scientific knowledge never springs fully-formed into existence. And IMO much that goes by the name of contemporary science should still be better and more correctly referred to as philosophy, -or even akin to religious beliefs. (Dark matter and dark energy, the far distance in time or space for example?)

    Or is it that “scientists” are identifiable by being never wholly satisfied with reasoning logically only from the already known evidence but are also always searching for new or better evidence?


  22. Hi Leonard,

    There ought not be anything wrong with identifying the philosophical component with science. Doing so certainly doesn’t imply that a scientific study employing philosophical reasoning is not science.

    I’m very close to agreeing with you wholeheartedly. My only reservation is the points in the OP (highlighted in my first comment) where you seemed to place some of this outside science, perhaps reflecting the common notion that something has to be either “science” or “philosophy” but cannot be both. (This sort of insistence on over-categorisation being one foible of us humans.) If you’re actually arguing for “both” then you have my support (though may get into trouble with your fellow philosophers).

    Hi mogguy,

    And IMO much that goes by the name of contemporary science should still be better and more correctly referred to as philosophy, -or even akin to religious beliefs. (Dark matter and dark energy, the far distance in time or space for example?)

    I don’t think that’s fair. The ideas of dark matter and dark energy are very much empirically driven, and are our best attempts to model facts about the universe. They are thus fully “science”. The fact that “dark matter” is “dark” just means it doesn’t interact with light, which means it has zero electromagnetic charge. But such things are already accepted (neutrinos & neutrons, for example). Just because the primary human sensory system is visual doesn’t mean there is anything unscientific about stuff that doesn’t interact with light, it just makes it harder to find.

    Hi Robin,

    In your repeated fulminations against Krauss you still haven’t quoted what he actually said that you consider wrong, and you’ve written far more than he did in his few-sentences asides about Plato, Augustine and Aquinas in that book. Again, his book wasn’t about the philosophical history of this topic (on which of course he is not an expert, nor did be pretend to be), it was about modern cosmology and what modern science says about various scientifically defined versions of “nothing”.


  23. Coel,

    “My only reservation is the points in the OP (highlighted in my first comment) where you seemed to place some of this outside science, perhaps reflecting the common notion that something has to be either “science” or “philosophy” but cannot be both.”

    Leonard’s (and my) position is that science and philosophy overlap and interact, but are not identical. So, yes, there will be some sort of discourse that is philosophical and not scientific, and vice versa. Much of what goes on in ethics belongs to the former, all of what, say, botanists do in the field to the latter. Do you disagree? Do you actually see the sets of concerns and methods of philosophy and science in complete overlap, identical?


  24. Hi Massimo,

    Do you disagree? Do you actually see the sets of concerns and methods of philosophy and science in complete overlap, identical?

    I’ve used up my comment quota, but since you ask me a direct question I’ll attempt a concise reply:

    As I see it philosophy is a style of doing science/scientia, in the same way that observation, experiment, theorising, and computational modelling are different styles of doing science (with all being linked and all contributing to the whole). I do not see any divide on subject area. (In a similar way, I see the distinction between science and pseudoscience as being one of quality, not one of subject area.)

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Coel, I let the extra comment pass because it crystallizes our differences. Good for future reference, since I’m sure we’ll talk about this again… 😉


  26. #5
    Does anyone else feel a fragile sort of peace settling in? So who is going to mess this up?

    Hi Massimo,

    In my opinion you are well within your rights to define science and philosophy such that they overlap, but not fully. Anyone can make any definition at all, and when I’m reading that person’s work, it is certainly my obligation to use that person’s definitions in the attempt to understand. Nevertheless my position (and I believe Coel’s) is that we may find it more useful to have one essential study of reality, with various classifications inside it, and this is given that all of reality seems to be connected to itself. (This assumes non dualism/theism, of course, though most of us already do find this concession helpful anyway.)

    (Furthermore I go further. I say that there are various philosophical dynamics to reality which are not yet understood, that render our mental and behavioral sciences still “primitive.” No need take things this far right now however!)

    So can we indeed make some peace, and so get to work building sensible ideas, both in “critical” and “theory building” capacities? 🙂


  27. Eric,

    I’m all in favor of productive dialogue and cross-field collaborations, but I do maintain that philosophy is a (partially) distinct activity from science, with its own problems and methods. Look, the basic idea can be grasped by anyone who actually compares side by side a scientific paper (any scientific paper) from a peer reviewed journal with its philosophical equivalent. I challenge anyone who goes through this exercise to seriously telling me that the two activities are one and the same.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Philosopher Eric,

    This is getting off-topic, but since you’ve asked, I’ll take the opportunity to clear things up.

    I didn’t realize that you had given your final answer, since every one of the arguments that you’ve presented concerns epistemology, while my question concerns ontology.

    I answered the ontology part as well. Let me requote my words from the relevant part from the link I pointed at previously:

    So the experimental data is in straight contradiction with causality. Moreover, any ontology you may imagine must fit the above data (otherwise it is just wrong), so determinism won’t work for any choice of ontology.

    In other words, knowledge trumps metaphysics, epistemology trumps ontology. If nature is epistemologically known to be nondeterministic, ontology must be adjusted to accommodate that (since otherwise it is ruled out by experiment). So causality cannot be fundamentally valid, neither from epistemological nor ontological perspective.

    notice that for the standard concept of “magic,” there is no causality

    This is not standard understanding of magic. Usually, magic is understood as the belief that one can cause certain things to happen (typically engineer the “destiny” of other people) by performing certain rituals, under the assumption that these rituals can induce various hypothetical forces or entities into influencing the future outcome of events elsewhere (like placing a “curse” on someone or such). So magic is an idea that is very “causal” in its foundation (in contrast to religion, etc.). I see absolutely no points of contact, or even any remote similarity, between magic and uncertainty in QM.

    You can of course define the word “magic” differently, but I am not really interested in debating terminology.

    Observe that this is where the philosopher uses nothing beyond logic to challenge the perfectly epistemic physicist. The physicist naturally doesn’t want to refer to his cherished “natural uncertainty” as a supernatural aspect of reality, though there really isn’t any other choice in a definitional sense.

    Of course there is a choice, and there is nothing supernatural about QM uncertainty. The only problem, IMO, lies in the fact that your intuition about nature is too indoctrinated into the concept of causality, so you consider lack of causality as “supernatural” by “definition”. Many people have that problem, but it has nothing to do with physics or even metaphysics. It has only to do with limitations of human intuition and corresponding definitions it imposes. That’s why science is qualitatively harder than stamp-collecting — a scientist often needs to readjust their intuition when confronted with data. 🙂

    I hope this clears up that topic.

    Liked by 3 people

  29. Massimo, Coel,

    Where science and philosophy blends (just to take one subject area): The papers at UCNC 2015 (and previous years of Unconventional / Natural Computation). There there are papers from people working in science departments and in philosophy departments.

    To take another area: AI. Even a paper having nothing to do with computer science on Kant might blend into an AI paper on cognitive modeling. Artificial Consciousness and Creativity are two other sciences that blend in philosophy.

    Another area: Data Science (social networks, cognitive lattices, etc.).

    The point is I don’t think one can claim that any philosophy is sufficiently pristine to be forever severed forever from some science-to-be.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Mogguy’s suggestion is interesting: that “the difference between superstition, religion, philosophy and science” are matters of degree, depending on “the quality and quantity of the empirical evidence used to reach their conclusions”. He must be onto something because how else would one explain the difficulty we are having in defining science and philosophy, and separating the two from each other.

    The distinction between these two disciplines should be quite straightforward, as Massimo suggests, nevertheless it is a bridge too far for the participants at SciSal. I suspect that this problem extends throughout the science and philosophy communities. [The smart philosophers probably walk away from science and thus do not have to deal with snide remarks from opinionated empiricists – and vice versa. 🙂 ]

    This inability to resolve such relatively straightforward challenges should be a warning to us philosophrasters that the underlying assumptions in these fraternal disciplines may be wrong. Logic, reason and evidence are not sufficient even when diligently applied.

    What is always left out, by necessity, is the personal psychological element, but unless we can find a solution to this, we are damned to go in circles for ever. My co-worker, Johannes Lubbe, has looked into the foundations of this problem in some detail: (

    We have a lot of creative work to do, we can’t just keep on repeating what has come before.


  31. The point is I don’t think one can claim that any philosophy is sufficiently pristine to be forever severed forever from some science-to-be


    Not sure what being pristine has to do with the question.

    If you think — as I and many others do — that philosophy is primarily critical and linguistic in nature, then it simply is not in the same business as science.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Phillip, I have no doubt that some issues in, say, ethics will forever remain free from science. Why? Hume’s good old is/ought distinction, for starters.

    Ditto in aesthetics, per the first piece I wrote here for Massimo, and the old maxim: De gustibus non disputandum. Whatever science can tell us about auditory, visual or other sensual processing, there are many aspects of aesthetics the hard sciences will never be able to tell us about, and a fair amount that “soft” sciences will not be able to tell us.


    Coel crystallizes my differences with him, too. Philosophy is FAR more than “a style of doing science.” I’m sure a fair amount of professional Ph.D. scientists who, unlike Massimo, have not had real professional philosophical study would agree with Massimo in disagreeing with you. And, like him, on future threads where it’s clear your comments are coming from the same working space, I’ll probably be more likely to pass than comment.


  33. I’ll take this last opportunity to clarify some salient points:

    –Good science of course employs critical reasoning, but it is philosophers who study the workings and use of critical reasoning as such. This ought to be as uncontroversial as saying that good science employs math, but it is mathematicians who study the workings and use of math as such.

    –My reason for claiming that Tschopp et al 2015 is an example of good philosophy is that the authors do more than apply critical reasoning to their observations; they also make an effort to examine the logic and justification of that reasoning.

    –Insofar as this is an example of scientists engaging in philosophy in order to strengthen their scientific work (and it warms my heart that no one has yet made the claim that paleontologists or taxonomists are not engaged in real science), Tschopp et al 2015 ought to show that research can be both scientific and philosophical (at least in some respects), and classifying work as one does not imply that it is not also the other.

    And some other musings:

    –I tend to think that defining science broadly enough to encompass all study of reality is both disingenuous and harmful to science. As an empiricist, I favor the view that thinkers such as Bacon and Locke and Hume really did elaborate a distinctive and special kind of inquiry. I am studying reality when I roll over in the morning and try to ascertain the time of day; I would hope that the inheritance of the empiricists is more valuable than that.

    –It is certainly harmful to define philosophy simply as science that hasn’t become science yet. There are many reasons for saying so, but I believe the most important is that it absolves modern thinkers from responsibility for poor philosophy. Just as we don’t blame the ancient Greeks for mythologizing fossils because paleontology had not yet become a science, saying that ethics is just a science-to-be would imply that we can’t fault a modern supporter of slavery because we don’t yet have a science of right and wrong to demand otherwise.

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