Over at Scientific American, Lawrence Krauss has written an apology for dismissing the importance of philosophy, as he seemed to do in his interview in The Atlantic. Apparently set aright by Dan Dennett, and reminded of confrères like Anthony Grayling and Peter Singer, Krauss admits that philosophy has some value after all, though not so much when it comes to guiding the progress of physics. He then clarifies what he meant by the “nothing” in “the universe from nothing”—a better explanation than, as I recall, he proffers in his book.
Krauss’s apology becomes a bit of a notapology in the last paragraph, though:
So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.
I think the dismissive last two sentences refer in part to David Albert, who wrote a critical review of Krauss’s book in the New York Times. I may be wrong, but I think Krauss was talking about Albert’s review when he wrote this in the Sci Am column:
Recently one review of my book by such a philosopher, which I think motivated the questions in the Atlantic interview, argued not only that one particular version of the nothing described by modern physics was not relevant. Even more surprisingly, this author claimed with apparent authority (surprising because the author apparently has some background in physics) something that is simply wrong: that the laws of physics can never dynamically determine which particles and fields exist and whether space itself exists, or more generally what the nature of existence might be.
This is in fact precisely what Albert said in his review. I’m not competent to judge that criticism, but if Krauss is referring to Albert, he shouldn’t have said that he’s a philosopher that “apparently has some background in physics.” Although Albert is a philosopher at Columbia University, he has a doctorate in theoretical physics, has published two books and a fair number of papers on quantum mechanics and other topics in physics. “Apparently some background in physics” doesn’t quite cover that.
Oh, well. Krauss is right that philosophers of science must keep abreast of science, and when necessary inform their work with facts from the real world, but I still think that philosophy can guide the thinking of scientists in a productive manner, not just, as Krauss implies, the other way around.
One example (two, really) is Philip Kitcher’s work on evolutionary psychology and creationism.
Another is the work by Marc Hauser and colleagues on the fact that novel moral situations tend to provoke similar judgments from people of different cultures and different faith—or no faith. (Yes, I know some of Hauser’s work has been retracted, but not the moral-survey work.) That’s basically applied philosophy—Gedankenexperiments submitted to subjects—and it may imply that some of our moral judgments are innate and therefore evolved. It’s early days for this speculation, but it’s an intriguing clue about the possibility of an evolved moral sense.