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. The philosophy of naming biological specimens will always be a lot “fuzzier” than say, defining mathematical structures or even fundamental physical ones (i.e. all electrons are exactly the same). We know that the term species is a difficult one since closely related species really blend together and in some cases, could in theory still reproduce with one another. Genus is just one step up from species (again an artificial nomenclature created by humans/scientists/philosophers in an attempt to classify things in a helpful way. We also know that there have been cases of different dinosaur species that on additional examination were found to be the same species as another dino but just at a different stage in development. Check out why brontosaurus being back makes challenges my ability to change my mind.


  2. I enjoyed this and found it well argued. I’m not sure, however, that it does much to rescue philosophy from criticism.

    It defends philosophical thinking as applied in a scientific context, (or perhaps it is just defending clear thinking), but although it quotes Epictetus it does not seem to defend his approach, by which philosophy would be a far more profound and wide-ranging affair than is discussed here. It would be a good thing if more scientists recognised their dependence on philosophy for currently it seems that many do not even see it, but many people who criticise philosophy could happily concede the points made here and go on being just as critical as ever. Obviously it is not the purpose of the article to deal with all objections, but I would question the value of improving the PR situation or making efforts to educate scientists while the real problems of philosophy remain untouched.

    What was helpful to me was the discussion of philosophy’s multiple roles in the area of semantics and conceptual analysis and how these are inextricably related. I find this a difficult issue to tidy up and felt that it was neatly clarified here.

    This statement bothered me.

    “…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.”

    Inquisitive laypeople may be routinely exposed as stated, but they are not forced into these channels. A lay philosopher has much more freedom than this, and probably more freedom than a professional. Serious criticism, not at all specious, also comes from reflective figures, popular or not, and many of them lay people. To deal with a core problem with ones product that is causing poor sales as if it is a PR problem may work to some extent but it is not good management.

    ” 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.”

    If only this really were the way philosophers behave. The truth is that where a favourite concept does not pass the test idle sophistry often comes into its own, sometimes at book length.

    These comments relate mostly to philosophy, however, and not to the article, which I found useful and informative.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. One can make a charitable interpretation of this essay. In one sense it is entirely correct. In order to properly understand the world we need not just empirical facts, but also thinking about those facts, and that requires abstract concepts. It requires ways of organising empirical knowledge and creating “theories” about the world. One can, if one wants, use the label “philosophy” about thinking about these abstract concepts.

    But, there is one way in which this article goes badly wrong. That is in regarding any part of the above as “not science”. Because of course it is science, including the thinking about abstract concepts. No part of that Tschopp et al paper is “not science”. It is just flat-out wrong to regard “science” as akin to stamp-collecting, only the accumulation of empirical facts, and that abstract concepts about those facts are something different.

    One can thus, entirely sensibly, use the label “philosophy” for certain styles of thinking that are part of science, but the article goes wrong in trying to distinguish those philosophical aspects *from* science.

    Concepts, being abstract entities, do not suffer the same sort of poking and prodding that scientists use for testing observations.

    That is 100% wrong. Theoritical concepts in physics are abstract concepts. The inverse-square law of gravity, for example, is an abstract concept. (Have you ever seen an inverse-square law in a telescope or microscope?)

    Hence: “Using the abstract concept of Newton’s theory of gravity, the planet Mercury would be in position X; Mercury is not in position X; therefore our abstract concepts need improvement.”

    Whatever one calls the reasoning of that last sentence, it is most definitely “science”. Thought experiements are just as much science also! Thinking about the consequences of physical theories is exactly what theoretical physicists do day-in day-out.

    This kind of analysis is not science because it is not empirical …

    Science is a matter of empirical evidence AND thinking about and developing concepts about empirical evidence!

    While Tschopp et al may use scientific methods for deriving a definition … they must wear a second hat — the hat of a philosopher … in order to test that definition.

    Wrong again, both hats are part of “science”, though personally I’ve no objection to the latter being labelled “philosophy” as well.

    Scientists are trained in empirical and mathematical methods; that is their expertise.

    And abstract concepts, and thinking, and theorising, that is their expertise also!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reading this I was digging to find where “philosophy” is exactly. In data science (which one reads a lot about today) there is a big focus on how data is to be named, organized, and classified, how knowledge is to be “mined” from data, and so forth. Data science includes applying formal concept analysis, concept graphs, and concept lattices. So a question would be “Is this philosophy or a (current) data science methodology?”


  5. Philosophy and science are two extremities of the cognitive spectrum. Each of them is both knowledge and method. They are tied together, and go together being the opposite poles of cognition. Science as a body of knowledge, is what is known, for sure. Philosophy, as a body of knowledge, is what ought to be true.

    Science as a method is the category (Aristotle!) of all ways to ascertain what is absolutely true. Science enables a plane to successfully take off, more than once a second, worldwide.

    Philosophy, as a method, determines not just what “ought” to be true morally, but what “ought” to be true, as an educated guess. Thus, all and any application of the scientific method, requires the philosophical method. The philosophical method is the first approach, always.

    And what of art in all this? Well, it’s the third pole of cognition, where emotion finds truth, before philosophy and, a fortiori, science, ever can.

    Both art and philosophy need just one fact, one intuition, to make a world. Science finds, painstakingly and patiently, what this world is really made of.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really enjoyed the article: it is well-written and entertaining. But I must agree pretty much down-the-line with Coel above. And maybe I’ll go even further: the attempt to separate “philosophy” from “science” may be futile. Isaac Newton, the first practitioner of what we today call “science” (using the narrow definition of using the methodology) called himself a “natural philosopher,” that is, a “philosopher of nature.” I believe that science is one branch of philosophy. As a physicist, I never hesitate to point out to my students that my PhD is, after all, a doctorate in PHILOSOPHY – just the branch that focuses on the philosophy of nature.

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  7. I would disagree with “science is one branch of philosophy”. What began with a philosopher may end up inside a science — e.g,, formal concept analysis inside data science, constructive type theory inside programming languages (computer science). But isn’t philosophy supposed to be the generator of yet-to-be-invented vocabularies?


  8. I may have missed an important idea in this essay.

    If the summary below is fair, I cannot see why the essay should be a defence of philosophy against overconfident scientists. I strongly suspect that most scientists (of good or bad will) would simply reply with “of course one has to combine decent data with a minimum of systematic thought. Otherwise one is doing either stamp collecting, or something akin to theology/mathematics. What would convince us of the value of philosophy is an example of a good scientific tool that we scientists cannot (now) manage to come up with without your help. The example you just presented does not give us that, and so we remain unconvinced of the (current) value of philosophy in the (modern) scientific context.”

    Such a reply might not be entirely fair, but certainly an indication of the fact that the article is not as convincing to those in the scientific community who are “too arrogant/confident” as it is to the author of this essay.

    Then again, I may have missed an important point and I’d love to be educated.


    SUMMARY: It is not always easy to divide the world into different categories without at the same time also introducing ambiguities or inconsistencies. This is especially the case if we do not proceed very carefully by relying on intuition, vague thinking and sloppy data collecting/processing. In order to resolve the specific question whether (the fossilised remains of what used to be called) “the brontosaurus” should be considered part of the same kind (whether it be species or genus) as (the remains of what used to be called) “the apatosaurus”, scientists proceeded as follows.

    First, they associated to each fossil a collection of numbers that represent lengths, circumferences, ratios, and so on. The researchers then developed a mathematical model that uses these numbers. This allowed them to compare different fossils and express how close or how far apart these fossils are (in a precise, but still non-unique way). Finally, the researchers noticed that some fossils seemed to cluster together more closely (using the mathematical model) than other fossils did. This suggested a cut-off (a certain percentage of dissimilarity?) and that the collection of fossils should be divided into (at least) two kinds: one of which corresponds with the old fossil of “the brontosaurus”, and the other one with the fossil that was originally used to define “the apatosaurus”. (This method makes sense in species that are still alive.) The article concludes that of all the sauropods that used to roam the earth, one kind may be called brontosaurus, while a different one can be called apatosaurus. People tend to be (surprisingly) attached to some names and often do not care about the scientific arguments that involve them.


  9. Coel,

    How are using the word ‘science’? You seem to use an old-fashioned definition that is much broader than many physicists would want to use.

    I think you make a convincing case that science, as you would define it, cannot do without philosophy. This is obvious if philosophy is defined so as to include the formal study of logic, linguistic rigour, conceptual clarity and clear thinking.

    If we take into account the fact that philosophy extends well beyond this form of science in the extent of its enquiry then it is clear that philosophy encompasses science. The argument about whether science needs philosophy in this fuller sense therefore seems ill-conceived. It seems to me that it is only when we set out interpret scientific theories that we would we need to do any real philosophy, just in order to avoid talking philosophical nonsense.


    As you will have spotted I would disagree that philosophy and science are two extremities on the cognitive spectrum. This would be an unnecessary polarity of opposites. They explore categorically different subject matter and thus require categorically different methods but it’s all just human beings investigating what is going on as best they can using the most appropriate methods. .

    Perhaps a loose definition would say that science is concerned with contingent or relative truths and philosophy with eternal or absolute truths. But any definition is hopeless. For me metaphysics would be a science, a process of making and testing hypotheses in logic. For some mysticism would be a science, a process of testing hypotheses in experience. I wonder if it matters.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. As a practicing physicist and philosophy enthusiast, I agree completely with Coel, Harry Ellis, and WoMoe. Even if we owe critical abstract thinking to the discipline of philosophy, it is no longer associated exclusively to it. On the other hand if we start describing every thing modern science owes to philosophy, the list will include much more important items than the Brontossauros debate. I really don’t think this is an appropriate example, as it stands.


  11. Also: this is almost completely irrelevant, but I can’t help myself …

    The dinosaur in the picture is neither a brontosaurus nor an apatosaurus. It represents a brachiosaurus. Carry on! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  12. @ Peter J:

    I seemed to have expressed myself not clearly enough. I agree with Coel, Harry Ellis, WoMoe and Henrique Gomes. I am also a physicist and mathematician, so I know very well that all of physics and mathematics emanate (but are not restricted to) philosophy, natural… or artificial.

    Philosophy is crucial, because it allows to evaluate, to guess, what is important, be they empirical facts, abstract concepts, etc. The philosophical method can make a world out of one idea, or feeling (similarly to mathematicians making worlds out of sets of axioms).

    Science and philosophy are not opposed, but imbricated. Neither can do without the method(s) of the other.

    A confusion comes from the fact any type of cognition will divide into a method, and a body of established facts.

    To say science and philosophy are in different “categories” is not correct. Philosophy cannot contradict science, and cannot do without facts, and that means science, when those facts are established with certainty.

    The concept of “eternity” is related to the one of infinity, and that’s a mathematical theory already found in Euclid (who thought he had proven it, through a theorem establishing it). However, drastic philosophical inspection (of my own) shows that Euclid’s reasoning rests on unexpressed axioms.

    Some, who believe they know mathematics, will scoff, reading this (I know several professional research mathematicians who came to agree with me, and checked their work accordingly. However, Euclid had neglected to consider Archimedes’ axiom. (Archimedes flourished two generations after Euclid).

    That axiom has to do with the nature of infinity. This has very practical consequences, about infinitesimals and the theory of infinite numbers (in contradistinction with cardinals) which were noticed only around 1950, 23 centuries later.

    But, as I said, it is not the final word: the philosophical approach questions infinity… And only philosophy can do so.


  13. Without agreeing with the definition of science proposed by Coel, I would lean toward agreement with him and others. At best, I’d call this philosophy of science, while not thinking it’s about philosophy in general. That said, I agree with Peter J to avoid polarities thinking on this issue.

    Michael J I had no idea you were a philosopher. You’re teaching where? With what academic background?

    This somewhat ties back to the previous essay. What is philosophy? How is it defined?

    And, Dan and the absent Massimo, watch out, I’m going “meta.” Is there such a thing as philosophy of philosophy?


  14. Hi Socratic,

    Yes there is such a thing as “philosophy of philosophy.” It is also called (more commonly, I think) “metaphilosophy.” It primarily looks at the nature of philosophical investigation. For example, one important recent work in metaphilosophy is a book by Herman Cappelan called “Philosophy without Intuitions.”

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Dinosaurs were a very advanced species of philosophers.

    The great Fregean puzzle of Apatosaurus is Brontosaurus

    The amazing body mind problem of how such a tiny brain and mind could have such a huge extended body; “Agito, ergo sum”.


  16. Hi Coel,

    And abstract concepts, and thinking, and theorising, that is their expertise also!

    In a particular area.

    I have often pointed this out before. Mlodinov and Hawking may be brilliant physicists but when they turn to the history of science (in particular the subject of what Aristotle said) they make silly beginner mistakes and attribute ideas to Aristotle that even I, with my sketchy knowledge of him, can immediately see are wrong, even before I check. They say things about the medieval attitudes to science that are just not true.

    When moving out of their area they have completely abandoned any principles such as having evidence for what they say, or checking. They just uncritically believe nonsense.

    Take Krauss on the subject of what philosophers and theologians would have thought about ‘nothing’ 100 years ago. He gets it completely wrong because he just does not check. He gets the same thing wrong about Aquinas and Plato and again even someone like me with sketchy knowledge of Aquinas and Plato can see that he is wrong and even think of counter examples and find them fairly quickly.

    It seems that he just assumed it was true because it seemed right to him and it did not even occur to him to check. He would never do that in physics, but outside of physics he seems to think it OK. He seemed to think that it was OK to act as an authority on a field in which he did not even have minimal familiarity.

    So the idea that scientists have some greater facility with critical thinking than intelligent non-scientists is a fallacy. They are experts in a particular field.

    So I don’t understand your resistance to the idea that there might be someone who has a speciality in the philosophy of science, who can devote the time to researching it, collaborating with various scientists and developing the ideas to maturity.

    Liked by 4 people

  17. “We have a running joke in philosophy: that when you ask n philosophers to define what they do, you will receive n+1 answers.”

    The real joke is how does one define a philosopher, and who would the definer be? The simplest questions are really not simple at all.

    n x n answers?


  18. Speaking of Krauss, t is interesting to ask what philosophers would have said a century ago if you had asked them if empty space was nothing. Knowing the philosophers of that time, it is more than likely they would have rolled their eyes and told you not to waste time with such things.

    If pressed they might have given the obvious answer that of course empty space is not ‘nothing’, since it has properties it is not nothing (and even a century ago, or a couple of millennia ago, it was obvious that empty space had properties).. And of course no theologian would say that empty space was ‘nothing’ since they hold it to be created. Aquinas also speaks of the material properties of empty space. Plato call empty space a receptacle. Aristotle helpfully remarks that it was the opinion of most philosophers that empty space is not nothing.

    Some scholastic theologians even suggested that the properties of empty space might depend on such things as the relative speed of the observers. Such crazy impractical ideas are why they are held in low regard.

    Even a layman like me can find out such things with a little, you know, research.

    Now it seems to me that if you had asked a physicist whether empty space was ‘nothing’ a little over a century ago they would have said “yes”. Otherwise what is the need for the concept of ‘ether’? Maybe I am wrong about that, I have not researched the idea, although AP French suggests they had such thinking in his book “Special Relativity”.

    But if this were the case then it would have been useful for them to have run the idea past a philosophers or even a theologian who could have pointed out the fallacy in such thinking..

    It was perhaps not a coincidence that it was a physicist who knew quite a good deal about philosophy and talked a lot with philosophers who pulled all the current ideas about the universe into a new and fruitful theory.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Thanks all for the thoughtful comments. Not much time for me to reply, but I’ll try my hand at brevity.

    @Coel: The inverse square law is an empirical theory. Physical objects can be poked and prodded to see if they behave in ways described by the theory. The theory itself–the abstract concept to which you refer–remains utterly unaffected by the poking and prodding. After all, the theory is taught precisely as Newton conceived it even though our poking and prodding has proved that it does not always describe how objects in the world behave.

    @{Coel, Harry, WoMoe, possibly others}: 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.

    @WoMoe: The pictured dinosaur would now be classified as Giraffatitan, but in any event I can claim credit only for the words and not for the pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I’m afraid, as sympathetic as I am to the author’s cause, I must agree that the article is not making the best case for it.

    What I’m reading looks something like this:

    Thesis: An important function of philosophy is the clarification of concepts; scientists engaged in the clarification of concepts are engaging in philosophy; scientific classification involves the clarification of concepts; philosophy is thus a beneficial complement to scientific classification. Case study as example: the history of the conceptualization and classification of brontosaurus.

    Well; maybe. This is actually a fairly weak example. The clarification of the concepts comes before the clarification of the classification, to such an extent that we can ask whether Tschopp et al. are engaging in the kind of theoretical reflection that intersects philosophy, or if it is just a matter of refined methodology.One can think of more important, and more obvious intersections of philosophy, in physics, biology, and most importantly in the social sciences.

    This article could use some sociological input, frankly; but then it would be a different and much longer study, no doubt.

    Moving on, I would like to raise a separate issue, after reading through the comments here and in previous articles. I think a serious topic worth later discussion is the place that can be found in philosophy for the non-professional who philosophizes. Before the internet, the topic fit a small niche referred to (sometimes in whispers in the academy) as ‘independent scholarship.’ (It was called such, because when these writers published, the strictures of good scholarship were still insisted on). Such independent scholarship could be found in a host of fields, from mathematics to literary criticism, and certainly included philosophy. The internet, which allows anyone to ‘publish’ anything, has so overloaded us with ‘independent’ theorizing, that it’s become difficult to determine the worth of theories through ‘editorial standards’ (and this I think has effected print publishing as well, sadly). Nonetheless, there is no doubt in my mind that there are some independent – non-professional – theorists and critics worth reading on the web. But what is the place they have – could have, should have – in larger conversations that might include professionals?

    I am not arguing here that SciSal should go back to its policy of open submission (from non-professionals). Rather, I am asking for some possible discussion – from professionals – concerning non-professionals working intelligently, coherently, and with merit, in their fields.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. I got quite excited at the beginning of the article: I thought some sophisticated numerical methods were going to be applied to the question of what philosophy is!

    I’m with Coel et al. on this. Can’t see why this is a pro-philosophy piece. If anything, it shows that scientists are perfectly competent at making sophisticated semantic distinctions, so philosophers can safely retire and leave them to it.

    Much more interesting would be the question of whether you can attempt to classify philosophy using the kind of methodology used by Tschopp. Firstly, Tschopp is using an entirely descriptive methodology to arrive at what will become prescriptive definitions. Would that work for philosophy? Could we assess the features of philosophical argument, and on that basis define what philosophy is, then hold philosophers to that definition?
    Secondly, Tschopp is working from the relatively small corpus of fossils; philosophy is vast. Would the numbers simply render the method unworkable?
    Or is philosophy always a movable feast, definable only in relation to the other subjects around it? Or must it be teleologically defined in terms of its objectives?


  22. @Leonard Finkelman Thanks for taking the time to reply!

    a. Have you gotten feedback from some of the scientists we all have in mind in this context? If so, were they convinced of the value philosophy after having been exposed to the brontosaurus/apatosaurus example? I’d love to hear the answer is “yes, maybe”, but I still fear the typical answer will be “no, not at all.”

    Others may have thought about this more carefully and in more detail, but I believe there are at least two straightforward ways to address the concerns of those scientists. One can either give them what they want (that is: demonstrate that current philosophy-that-is-not-already-“a-part”-of-science is necessary to make significant advances in current science) or one shows that their requests are unreasonable (for example by showing that their demands need to be reconsidered, that they are making unreasonable distinctions or demands, or that they are moving the goal posts, …).

    And although I believe your essay is interesting to many, it does not satisfy those who need it most.

    b. You have suggested that the depicted dinosaur was giraffatitan, and I’d love to have a link to an argument that supports this claim. (It would seem that there are some similarities between the giraffatitan/brachiosaurus and brontosaurus/apatosaurus stories.)

    If I had to guess, I’d say: Spielberg intended to represent the “biggest” (in some sense) of them all, which at the time was thought to be a brachiosaurus. Later some of the corresponding fossils from Tanzania were reclassified as giraffatitans.

    Thanks again for the feedback!



  23. I am sympathetic to the the presence of overlap and interplay between philosophical and scientific thought (why else would I reading this blog), but…

    Doesn’t logic look more and more like a branch of mathematics? The mathematicization of science has been discussed here previously, and the arguments about taxonomy are more and more statistical ones – what are useful criteria for natural categories, where nature is what scientists specialize in studying. Even the various problems of induction that philosophers have elucidated have particularly mathematical and statistical solutions in scientific practice viz Neyman-Pearson, Fisherian fiducial inference, Edwards’ likelihood principle, various flavours of Bayes, and less mainstream approaches like Solomonoff induction (which do look attractive to me).

    It is unclear what people use the phrase “scientific logic” to mean, but it is, I think, informal logic that includes a number of heuristics enriched by philosophical thought eg Koch and Bradford-Hill criteria for causation in epidemiology, Popper (whether or not well digested), a vaguer smattering of logical positivism (perhaps just the spirit), and the statistical schools mentioned above. It is just rigorous enough to avoid getting into trouble in the long run.

    So were IAU discussions about the definition of a planet philosophical? They certainly involved reasoning and dialogue and rhetoric, and I don’t think they involve any particular hypotheses that can be tested. They are probably not particularly important to the future direction of the science either.


  24. I was looking for discussions of “scientific logic” and can’t resist sharing

    Nothing could have been contrived; every thing owes its existence to the remarkable course of scientific logic. It is not false modesty when I say that I feel myself to be merely the instrument of this logic.

    Wilhelm Reich The function of the orgasm


  25. Hello Leonard,

    I very much appreciate all the great young talent Massimo has been showcasing lately — each of you bring me hope! As for philosophy’s “PR problem” however, your essay itself demonstrates the issue to be a serious one. If you had been able to quote generally accepted principals in the field regarding the nature of definition, for example, then perhaps the issue would be just as superficial as you suggest. Nevertheless your ideas in this regard do seem quite useful, so perhaps we’ll have such principals soon enough.

    Please do also consider a “friendly amendment” however. It seems to me that your ideas would work even better if we were essentially to restrict terms such as “is” in our definitions. Rather than ask your colleagues “What is philosophy?” you’d then ask them, “What is a useful definition for the term philosophy?” Furthermore when considering the work of another, it would always be that person’s definitions which apply — we’d never again tell someone that they have presented “false” definitions (since their definitions would be true by definition) though they may indeed be “nonsense.” (Here you wouldn’t need to justify an “absolute false” from your “Jurassic Park scenario,” but could rather say that the presented definition was not very useful given that we’d want to use the term “dinosaur” for modern creatures that display such characteristics.)

    Your following statement is simply wonderful:

    …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.

    Yes even in a purely critical capacity, philosophy will still remain a study of reality (and a very important one!) In fact, once it achieves accepted practices regarding things such as definition, it might also be considered one of our most important “sciences” (as I define the term). I believe that your generation will be responsible for such a revolution, but watch out — not all philosophers welcome change!

    If you can put the above flattery aside however, what do you think of my “anti-platonic” take on definition? Could you see generally exchanging the question of “What is…?” with “What’s a useful definition for…?”?


  26. The End is Nigh, the End is Nigh, …“,
    All is Science, All is Science, All is Science, …

    The ancient art of soap-boxery has not changed much, the message may vary but the methods remain the same.
    Soapboxists have learnt a long time ago that they have only a small slice of time to catch the attention of passers-by. And so the message is projected loudly and forcefully, without nuance or careful distinctions.These are thrown are thrown under the passing bus as they have no useful function.

    It is all very entertaining and the more unkind among us will snigger as we hurry along.
    It does however get tiresome when we are forced to pass the soapboxist every day and we yearn for him to say something different and something interesting. But that is not to be. The demands of soap-boxery will not permit it.

    There is a superficial but misleading resemblance between the academic and the soapboxist. One is a pedagogue and the other is a demagogue. One teaches from the lectern while the other preaches from the soapbox. Strangely, some academics cannot see the difference. Soap-boxery blinds one to any remaining distinctions that were not thrown under the Number 10 bus.

    Turning now to the academician, Coel, who, unsurprisingly, given his revolutionary ideas, teaches at The Kremlin on the Hill[1]. He also maintains that all is science. His university does not agree with him, which may explain why he has turned to this venue as an outlet for his feelings. The Kremlin on the Hill, in its contrarian manner, maintains three faculties, Health, Humanities/Social Sciences, and Natural Science. I am not sure why his university has ignored his message but, on the well known principle, that revolution begins at home, I invite him to light the scientistic revolution in his home. After all, there can be no better host for the revolution than The Kremlin on the Hill 🙂 That will give us a breathing space while we search for the distinctions that were crushed under the passing bus.

    [1] The Kremlin on the Hill, also known as the University of Keele, –



  27. Hi Leonard,

    The inverse square law is an empirical theory.

    It’s an abstract concept that is about empirical entities. But then all and every abstract concept is also about empirical entities. (Any abstract concept that is not ultimately about empirical entities is quite literally meaningless.)

    For example, the abstract concepts discussed in the OP are about the classification of dinosaurs. You don’t directly observe “inverse square laws” nor indeed “species”, one develops those abstract concepts about what we do observe.

    Where I disagree with your essay is the idea that the abstract thinking about abstract concepts is “not science”. If we regard philosophy as a particular style of critical thinking (which is how I would see it) then “philosophy” is indeed indispensable to science. But that’s because it (the critical thinking) is fully part of science!

    I reject any scheme that regards the science as merely the stamp-collecting, the accumulation of empirical facts, and says that the abstract thinking is “not science”.

    Hi Robin

    I note yet another of the anti-Krauss broadsides which seem to be a feature of SS. I’m not going to respond in detail unless people give actual quotes of where they regard Krauss as wrong, since a large proportion of the previous criticisms have been unfair and have simply misrepresented what he said (that includes Albert).

    Note, though, that most physicists are not that interested in the history of the topic for its own sake. Where they refer to history they are usually doing so as a pedagogical device to further understanding of the modern picture. They thus can over-simplify history to that end. Whether that is ok or not depends a bit on ones point of view.

    Note also that Krauss’s book was primarily a popular-level exposition of modern cosmology. And as a pedagogical device he takes the concept of “something” and gradually pares it down to various degrees of “nothingness”, ending up with the question of where “empty space” came from. There is nothing wrong with that approach! It is not a historical approach, it is a pedagogical approach. You freak out over the fact that, through that progression, the earlier stages of “nothing” are not “philosophers’ nothing”. You’re right, they aren’t, but he did know that!

    So I don’t understand your resistance to the idea that there might be someone who has a speciality in the philosophy of science, …

    To me philosophy is “critical thinking” (at least, it is when it is done well; when not done well it is uncritically indulging ones intuitions). Thus I see philosophy and science as entwined, and am not at all resistant to the idea that you suggest.

    What I am resistant to is the idea that “science” is only the accumulation of empirical facts, that the thinking part is “not science”, and thus that scientists need help from “not science” when it comes to the thinking.

    Liked by 3 people

  28. The nature of philosophy: If you are still searching for truth study nature. But rather than scientifically measuring and dividing nature, unite it, become One with it. Truth is One. =


  29. WoMoe,

    “… I believe there are at least two straightforward ways to address the concerns of those scientists. One can either give them what they want (that is: demonstrate that current philosophy-that-is-not-already-“a-part”-of-science is necessary to make significant advances in current science) or one shows that their requests are unreasonable. ”

    This is an easy one. It is not the job of philosophy to aid significant advances in science. It would be daft to suppose that where philosophy is not part of science it has to care what scientists think. The job is to make significant advances in philosophy, not science. .If scientists are concerned that philosophy is not much help to them then they are a little muddled about its subject matter and purpose. As a philosopher I feel no obligation to offer any help to scientists, and in respect of philosophy they often appear to be well beyond it.


  30. Supporting what Coel said, repeatedly: a note on whether the inverse square of the distance law of gravitation is empirical, or not. Initially, Kepler thought gravitational attraction’s strength was inverse to the distance.

    Then a French astronomer, Ismaël Bullialdus’ made an abstract, mathematical reasoning to demonstrate that gravitation was inversely dependent upon the square of the distance. Bullialdus became a member of the Royal Society of London, and his idea was used by a number of people, from England to Italy. Later Newton used the law, getting into a fight with Hooke about who discovered it (Newton declared Bullialdus had done so).

    The gravitational law implied Kepler’s laws, Newton claimed (it’s not clear he really proved it). Later the attraction was experimentally checked. However, it turned out Mercury’s perihelion was precessing abnormally. A planet was searched to explain that, and not found.

    Einstein’s tweak to the preceding theory explained the precession: time slows next to the sun.


    To make experiments one needs, at the very least, to be able to abstract what one is going to check experimentally. Abs-tract means to draw-away. One needs to draw away what one is going to test.

    Thus, theoretical work is always entangled with experimental work.

    This is beautifully represented when checking Non-Locality in Quantum Physics: the theoretico-experimental started nearly a century ago; the discussions with Popper, the EPR paper was part of it, then Bohm’s view that spin would be convenient for a test, then Bell’s theoretical work on spin, and finally a long list of subtle experiments… Only the later are rewarded with prestigious prizes.


  31. HI Coel,

    I note yet another of the anti-Krauss broadsides which seem to be a feature of SS. I’m not going to respond in detail unless people give actual quotes of where they regard Krauss as wrong, since a large proportion of the previous criticisms have been unfair and have simply misrepresented what he said (that includes Albert).

    First of all, I referred to more people than Krauss and my point was that scientists are experts in their own fields only.

    If you have read Krauss’ book you will know from the information I have given to what I am alluding.

    I have not misrepresented Krauss in the slightest. I am happy to supply the actual quotes if you can’t recall Krauss’ claim that philosophers 100 years ago would not have complained if you had equated empty space with ‘nothing’ or his saying that he was fairly certain that Aquinas and Plato would have thought of empty space as nothing.

    You freak out over the fact that, through that progression, the earlier stages of “nothing” are not “philosophers’ nothing”.

    No, I did no such thing. I said something quite different, NIce way to deflect my criticism of the book.

    I was referring to a specific claim of verifiable fact that Krauss got badly wrong because he didn’t bother to check.

    It is a matter of verifiable fact that neither Aquinas nor Plato thought of empty space as nothing. There may have been some people a century ago who thought of empty space as nothing, but philosophers and theologians would not have been among them.

    And he uses these inaccurate claims to justify his using ’empty space’ as his first version of ‘nothing’.

    Using inaccurate information about a field in which you have no knowledge and which you didn’t even bother to try and check to justify your first step in an argument is not good practice.

    And that is just what he does.

    The process he takes from there on is something I did not touch on as you claim, it is not really relevant to my point. But out of interest I had a quick recheck of the book. He starts with ’empty space’ and pares it down to a multiverse by chapter 11. Nice paring.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Hi Labnut,

    Unfortunately I didn’t see it before but please refrain from the very personal attacks. I would have moderated your last comment had I read the last part of it with more care. Let’s keep things civil, please.


  33. Dan-T,
    Let’s keep things civil, please.

    My only wish was to bring some humour to the discussion.
    I apologise for giving offence with my parody.


  34. I must agree with ej winner. I don’t find any philosophy in this. Only statistical observation and logical reasoning. In fact, is one really doing philosophy if not in conscious touch with a group of perennial themes and disciplinary techniques and their historically recorded lineage and development? Isn’t there a distinction to be made here between using philosophy and doing philosophy? Is there not maybe a confusion of philosophizing with theorizing? If these paleontologists are using philosophy, it’s a bit like M. Jourdain’s using prose. Any stoned hippy can dream up the allegory of the cave. Philosophy’s raison d’etre must that that it is an unavoidable edifice, the accumulation of the furthest efforts of history of thinking, justified precisely as pure scientific research — and much cheaper! Since Diogenes philosophical contention has been recognized as an irresistible pursuit.

    May I also suggest that proving the usefulness of philosophy via paleontology begs the question of the usefulness of paleontology? Admittedly I know not of a world where people applaud offhanded reference to Tschopp, et al.

    The patent on non-empirical logical reasoning expired long ago. Its use by scientists cannot be credited to the account of today’s philosophy faculties.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. I think there is general agreement that the author produced a very well-written and organized essay. I have no personal interest in dinosaurs, but was surprised that the author was able to craft his discussion around this particular example to make his point and still hold my interest. But, like some other commentators, have a bit of a problem with statements like “No. I am reclaiming conceptual ground that philosophers never should have ceded in the first place.” The average reader is going to have a problem with this sort of assertion. It seems to engage in unnecessary line-drawing. (And I’ve seen it from the other side too.) My point has already been made by others here, particularly ejwinner. The use of this example to support this assertion seems tenuous at best and, perhaps, even trivial. Worse, it unwittingly risks being characterized as what it seeks to avoid: philosophy being characterized as a “pointless diversion.”

    On the other hand, there is the viewpoint espoused by Coel, who oddly enough seems intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, in this case, when he presses on like Sherman marching through Georgia. With due respect, hey bud, don’t you know when you’ve made your point? Instead, we get this:

    “I reject any scheme that . . . says that the abstract thinking is ‘not science’.”

    Sure, this is an incomplete quote, but no one, including you, is claiming that scientists don’t engage in critical thinking. So, this seems a red herring. At any rate, from the viewpoint of joe public, fetishizing either position is self-destructive and IMO is largely cafeteria conversation among academics who understandably are concerned about the public perception of their occupations and projects.

    Liked by 3 people

  36. While it is true that scientists do (or should) engage in critical thinking, the fact is that many scientists go about their business without really considering the philosophical aspect of the science that the do. They may not be concerned, or even aware, of the basic assumptions that they are making when they do science, such as does science tell us about reality or is it just a way to predict phenomenon? Why should be expect the universe to operate by regular law? I’m more of a scientist than a philosopher, but I certainly see the value of philosophy in science.

    Liked by 2 people

  37. I wrote:

    “sorry — I meant philosophy is justified precisely as IS pure scientific research–”

    3rd thought, the word ‘precisely’ is incorrect and rhetorical. I’ve often noticed that Zizek is always doing that, using ‘precisely’ meaning ‘sort of like’. And now I catch myself doing the same thing. Embarrassing.


  38. One thing this brings out is that the public have an incredibly distorted view of what philosophers do and I think that this is what the article in question is trying to address.

    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.

    They are nothing of the sort and never have been. They are not even a blip on philosophy. Plato touches on the issue tangentially, but there is very little that Plato does not touch on at least tangentially.

    Leibniz is not considered a major philosopher (correct me if I am wrong), his metaphysics are frankly pretty kooky, brilliant man though he was. A prime example, in fact, of my point about brilliant people outside their speciality.

    If any mainstream philosopher today brings up something like “how can something come from nothing?” then it is probably just to illustrate some point of semantics.

    One of my main beefs wth Krauss’s book is that it reinforces this silly misapprehension that these are major philosophical problems. His book is the classic “ask a silly question, get a silly answer”.

    Long ago, long before the physicists had weighed in on the issue, I asked a friend, an academic in philosophy “How do you know that something cannot come out of nothing?”. He replied (I paraphrase) “Good question, it really depends upon upon what you mean by ‘nothing’, the phrase refers to absolute nothing not the so-called ‘pregnant nothing’, it is trivially true that something can come from the potential for something”

    He then quickly ran through the issue showing that it was mostly just a question of semantics, they way the phrase reifies ‘nothing’ or that if you mean ‘nothing, not even the potential for something’ then it is just tautological that nothing can come of it.

    I would say that he dealt with all that is interesting about the questions in under 2 minutes and we went on to discuss more interesting and important things.

    So, by all means, let’s get the public familiar with what philosophers really do and clear up such misapprehensions. But, like some of the others, I don’t think that the brontosaurus example is really the poster boy we are looking for.

    Liked by 1 person

  39. What is philosophy? Other than “That is what philosophers do”, an agreed upon definition is not offered.

    A common approach is to say, nowadays, what philosophy isn’t. Not science, mathematics, accounting, economics or law. Nor is it art or literature or history. Not a lifestyle nor a spiritual service. All these disciplines are fairly easy to identify, either by methods, goals or results. This approach is not useful because the list of easily recognizable activities is endless.

    Philosophy is more than an orphan, but is it as fundamental and foundational as its adherents claim? The answer, I think, lies in relation to the question of what would we lose if the UN Central Committee on Education banned it from academia because it had been displaced by science and technology.

    We would lose: enquiry beyond the existing disciplines; independent pursuit of original ideas; destruction of institutional dogmas; research into the impossible questions; finding answers were nobody has looked. Etc., assuming academic freedom and open minds prevail.

    Philosophy is therefore more than just entertainment and diversion, but it has been under attack. Internally, the valid criticisms of the postmodernists have not been adequately addressed. Externally, stinging accusations that philosophers have not been keeping up with science have been met with staunch denial. The truth is, keeping up with everything from paleontology to molecular biology is impossible.

    Philosophy has been on the defensive with a circling of the wagons. Hence the rather questionable approach, i.a., of trying to establish the exclusive competence of the academy. SciSal should be commended.

    Another truth is that each person is their own philosopher.

    Liked by 2 people

  40. Robin writes: “What this brings out is that the public have an incredibly distorted view of what philosophers do …”

    Part of the problem is that philosophers are not in agreement about what they do. You present a particular view of what philosophers are and do these days which only applies to (elements of) the analytic tradition.

    “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.

    “They are nothing of the sort and never have been. They are not even a blip on philosophy. Plato touches on the issue tangentially, but there is very little that Plato does not touch on at least tangentially.”

    You ignore the Idealist tradition. And what about Heidegger who is generally recognized as a major 20th century philosopher? He devoted much of his life to this problem.

    “Leibniz is not considered a major philosopher.”

    Not so. Russell, for example, held him in very high esteem as a philosopher.

    Liked by 3 people

  41. My comments are:

    1. I agree with many other commenters that this essay, while interesting and well written, doesn’t seem to be a good example of what the value of philosophy is. If coming up with a general principle or definition and then seeing how things jive with that principle by doing thought experiments and using reasoning is philosophy, then:

    A. Isn’t almost everything where you use your mind and knowledge to reason things out philosophy?

    B. Was this method of thinking really a product of professional philosophers or did just everyday people come up with it on their own? Whoever came up with it, thank you; it is a good way of approaching things. And, I think it’s of value that philosophers teach people this way of thinking. But, I think many non-philosophers also use and teach this approach.

    C. Is this method of thinking all there is or is there something of value that philosophy has done lately?

    2. I totally agree with ejwinner when he said:
    “…there is no doubt in my mind that there are some independent – non-professional – theorists and critics worth reading on the web. But what is the place they have – could have, should have – in larger conversations that might include professionals?”

    ScientiaSalon is one place, but from what I’ve found it’s one of the very few places where professional philosophers or scientists might even briefly scan through an amateur’s comments. Many amateurs are crackpots, I admit, but not all of us are. And, from my minimal experience, the reasoning ability of many professionals is not much better than that of amateurs.

    3. In regard to the following lines in the essay:

    “If we mean to test a concept, then we must probe the concept’s limits through thought experiment.”

    “Conceptual analysis…is sufficient for philosophy. This kind of analysis is not science because it is not empirical”

    I think that if philosophers test concepts through thought experiments, then conceptual analysis and philosophy is in fact empirical and is, or could be, in fact a kind of science. My view is that at least metaphysics would be better served by treating it as science. That is, come up with some general metaphysical principles about reality. Build a model of reality using those general principles, make predictions, and then test those predictions. If the predictions don’t pan out, then try to rework the original general principles to do a better job. Kind of sounds like science to me. I like to think of this approach as philosophical engineering or metaphysics-to-physics and think it offers a chance to show the value of metaphysics and to come up with insights about our universe that neither physicists nor philosophers working on their own can do.


  42. @robin herbert: “Leibniz is not considered a major philosopher (correct me if I am wrong), his metaphysics are frankly pretty kooky, brilliant man though he was.”

    I believe you are wrong sir. I’m not sure that his metaphysics are kookier than any other metaphysics, but he is much more than a metaphysician. He is the locus classicus of rationalism without materialism, and his lifework demonstrates with a sophistication far above most contemporary definitions the interpenetration of philosophy, science, mathematics, history, law, etc. Don’t hold his silly wig against him. Some hold that he was the greatest mind of the 17th century.

    Liked by 1 person

  43. Why then philosophy?
    1. It all starts with a common experience, that sub-optimal thinking is widespread.
    2. and that sub-optimal thinking is responsible for a great deal of wrong.
    3. this is often because we are necessarily absorbed in the minutiae of our professions
    4. and cannot devote much time to thinking about how we think.
    5. and to compound the problem, our milieu biases or prejudices the way we think.
    6. layered on top of this, throughout our lives we are confronted by dubious truth claims.

    Philosophy is then a reaction to the problems in the manner of our thinking, consequently it is a desire to attain higher levels of thought and it is a desire to respond to the truth claims that surround us.

    How does it do this?
    1. Philosophy brings additional levels of clarity, understanding, precision, depth, meaning and perspective to thinking.
    2. It also teases out questionable assumptions, implicit biases and hidden motives
    3. It brings an obsessive attention to the quality of thinking, honed by deep training
    4. It brings special inclination for this kind of thinking and an aptitude for it. Each discipline similarly self-selects for the aptitude and inclination required by the particular discipline.
    5. It brings an accumulated body of knowledge about thinking.

    Now the scientismists of the world will immediately claim this is what they do in the practice of their science. But do they? In a narrowly technical sense they do. But their broader, integrative perspective is often deficient. The questionable stuff written by Dawkins, Krauss and Harris are perfect examples of this deficiency.

    It is instructive to examine why this should be so. Every scientist is embedded in a culture that shapes his motives and assumptions. This results in preconceptual science. Every scientist is deeply embedded in his work, restricting his conceptual horizon. This results in myopic science. Every scientist’s thinking is shaped by his tools and environment. This results in instrumental thinking.

    It is this preconceptual, myopic and instrumental thinking that has biased the writings of Dawkins and Krauss, (among others). Without the benefit of the clarity, understanding, precision, depth, meaning and perspective brought by philosophical thinking we would be vulnerable to the sloppy thinking of influential scientists.

    But I should not single out science for criticism, even if Dawkins and Krauss make it so easy. All segments of society suffer from the same problems and for the same kinds of reasons. Philosophy is a corrective to the suboptimal thinking that is commonplace throughout society.

    It is more than a corrective. We are all confronted in life by truth claims. We need to respond to them and we are easily misled by the persuasive power of others(as Dawkins and Krauss have shown). Philosophy equips us to evaluate truth claims in the following broad categories:
    1) what is the truth of the matter?
    2) what is the right thing to do?
    3) what may we hope or believe?
    4) what do we value and why?
    Science is only a small part of that.


  44. Robin Herbert

    – “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. … They are nothing of the sort and never have been”

    For once Krauss seems to be on the money. I began with this problem, having read Paul Davies’ excellent extended discussion if it in ‘The Mind of God’. It is a core philosophical problem and the gateway to a general solution. It is profound problems and it is the sort of problem that is the meat and drink of philosophy. If I were teaching the subject this is where I’d start.

    I also feel that poor old Leibnitz deserves better. A great thinker who is not a decent philosopher? Is that possible?

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Hi Labnut,

    “The End is Nigh, the End is Nigh, …”,
    “All is Science, All is Science, All is Science, …”

    I wonder where this is from and its context? Does it truly reflect the battle that we are engaged in here today? Regardless, I was the one who “ratted you out”. Though he doesn’t seem to mind, I can’t have people landing less than clean shots against my ideologue Coel. There are just too many obstacles set before us.

    Permit me to more clearly spell out how I see things: There is a causal connection between all things real, I think, and therefore “All is Science, All is Science, All is Science, …” Consider the raw power that science has provided humanity with during just the past few centuries that it might even be referred to with such a distinct term. Nevertheless increased power without a similarly increased understanding of how to effectively use that power, should be quite dangerous. This, in a nutshell, should explain the vast horrors associated with the human condition today. In a theoretical sense we neither understand how to lead our lives, nor structure our societies, effectively enough. While science has not yet prevailed in this regard, notice that the ancient discipline of philosophy sits squarely on the “ethics” branch of reality, or the specific one that should naturally be providing us with theory from which to properly lead our lives and structure our societies! Furthermore without such agreed upon theory, apparently our mental/behavioral sciences do remain quite primitive. How does one comprehend the technical dynamics of something for which existence can be good/bad, without identifying the nature of good/bad for that thing? Naturally these scientists (psychologists and such) now seem almost as sensitive as modern philosophers happen to be, crippling the key players that should otherwise be straightening things out. It’s all just a horrible mess!

    Labnut, you seem quite aware of how wonderful this situation happens to be for theists. Therefore you coddle the philosophy establishment, assuring them to the theme of “Those mean scientists just don’t understand!” But observe that my side does still have one great virtue going for us. Science (defined as a community with accepted understandings regarding observed reality) is still extremely young. Because human understandings are apparently increasing quite rapidly, this horrible “ethics void” in our understandings should be overcome soon enough. I seek to hasten this process along.

    Hi Leonard,

    I do hope that you haven’t forgotten about us! I suppose you knew that Massimo’s forum would be no simple walk in the park, though I hope you also consider me to be on your side. So what do you think of my “friendly amendment”?:


  46. Peter J:

    I studied philosophy for 10 years — undergraduate and graduate — at large, state institutions, and have taught since 1993. Never once has this topic come up, either in a class I took, or a class I have taught. Nor do I have any interest in it. Strikes me as exactly the sort of thing cosmologists should be doing. (Krauss’s bait-and-switch notwithstanding.)

    It is a classic, old problem, but not one that is very commonly explored or discussed in anglophone philosophy. I cannot speak to the continental tradition.

    You are right, of course about Leibniz. He is hugely important and certainly studied more in the anglophone world than Spinoza. I had to translate parts of the Monadology for my PhD language exam.

    Liked by 2 people

  47. Aravis

    “I studied philosophy for 10 years — undergraduate and graduate — at large, state institutions, and have taught since 1993. Never once has this topic come up, either in a class I took, or a class I have taught. Nor do I have any interest in it.”

    I hope this does not sound rude, but I find this information almost beyond belief. Could there be a more damning comment on university philosophy and the way it is taught? So much for metaphysics in academia. No wonder scientists feel that they have to venture into metaphysics and do the job themselves. I am quite genuinely surprised and amazed.


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