One thing that really angers Massimo Pigliucci is when a scientist either criticizes philosophy or (in Pigliucci’s mind) practices philosophy in a “simplistic” way, particularly if said scientist doesn’t have at least one Ph.D. in philosophy. So Massimo is really peeved at Larry Krauss’s new profile/interview in The Atlantic. Some of Krauss’s statements are to Massimo as a juicy antelope is to a hungry lion. Pigliucci writes, for example:
Here is another gem from this brilliant (as a physicist) moron [Krauss}: “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever. … they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”
(NB: I haven’t yet read Krauss’s interview, though I will.)
Note that Pigliucci calls Krauss a “moron,” a term that Krauss himself applied to philosophers like David Albert, who unfavorably reviewed Krauss’s book in the New York Times (Albert, however, is also a physicist!).
But name-calling aside, Massimo makes some good points. First, Krauss was wrong in saying that philosophy doesn’t progress. It has, not—and Massimo admits this—in the sense that philosophy gets us closer to the truth about nature, because that’s not the business of philosophy. Rather, philosophy sharpens its arguments over time, and finds errors with other people’s arguments in a way that can inform science (I’m particularly fond of ethical philosophy, at least that part that helps us understand what we really think about morals). Unlike theologians, philosophers don’t repeat bad arguments once they’re decisively refuted.
Also, as Massimo notes, logic can be considered a branch of philosophy, and there’s no doubt that logic, or at least the ability of philosophers to think more logically than many scientists, has also contributed to science. One example is the work of Philip Kitcher, a philosopher at Columbia who continues to use logical tools to attack flawed science (two of my favorites are his dissection of creationism, Abusing Science, and his critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t add Dan Dennett, who has clarified for many of us (including scientists) the importance of Darwinism and the formidable problems involved in studying consciousness.
Finally, Krauss appears to have made some statements that look simply silly, and Massimo calls him out on them. One is this:
Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, [Krauss] claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” Seriously? I’ve practiced science for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any claim that he might be wrong.
Yep, Massimo’s right. I’ve never seen a scientist be delighted to be wrong (fortunately, I’ve never had that experience 🙂 ), though some are more gracious than others in admitting error.
More important is the oft-discussed question about whether a quantum vacuum, which to Krauss was the starting point of the universe, can be described as “nothing.” The Atlantic interviewer, Ross Andersen, asks Krauss whether that’s justified, since a quantum vacuum has “properties.” Massimo’s take:
. . . in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”
But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”
In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.
Now Massimo and I have had our differences, and I’m generally a fan of Krauss (though I didn’t much like Krauss’s new book), but I’m on Massimo’s side in this one. Despite the famously dismissive statement by Feynman, I think philosophy can be of real value to scientists. It has helped me, for example, rethink and clarify my notions of “free will.”
But it’s also true that areas previously only the purview of philosophers, like the notion of “free will,” are increasingly coming into the ambit of science. Philosophy, like religion, will have to yield to—or at least deal with—the facts. And it won’t pay philosophers to be dismissive. It would have been much better for Massimo to have left out the last part of this paragraph in his critique:
Nonetheless, let’s get to the core of Krauss’ attack on philosophy. He says: “Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” This clearly shows two things: first, that Krauss does not understand what the business of philosophy is (it is not to advance science, as I explain here); second, that Krauss doesn’t mind playing armchair psychologist, despite the dearth of evidence for his pop psychological “explanation.” Okay, others can play the same game too, so I’m going to put forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that… you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).
No, I don’t agree that Weinberg, Hawking, and Krauss suffer from some jealousy of philosophy (the Oedipus complex, for those of you who have forgotten, is Freud’s notion that boys often desire to sleep with their mothers and kill their fathers). So I think Krauss has hit a nerve here: yes, philosophy, insofar as it deals with facts about nature, can be subservient to science.
On his website, Massimo all too often devalues his arguments by being so obviously defensive about his turf. In this case, Pigliucci should have deep-sixed the Oedipus argument, which makes him look a bit petty. Stick with the critique and forget the psychoanalysis. Still, I think we do need to take seriously Massimo’s defenses of philosophy. After all, the man has degrees in both science and philosophy.