Krauss apologizes for dissing philosophy

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.

79 Comments

  1. Vishnya Maudlin
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Again, Krauss dishonesty doesn’t have an end.David Albert knows at least as much physics as he does. He coauthored papers together with Aharonov who he mentions, and the very work of Aharonov and Bohm from many years ago shows how one of the claims of Krauss’ physical claims is wrong (as David Albert pointed out at a different place, despite the fact that he ” One cannot tell from the review if the author actually read the book (since no mention of the relevant cosmology is made) or simply misunderstood it.”)

    David Albert: ” Professor Kraus’ argument for the ‘reality’ of virtual particles, and for the instability of the quantum-mechanical vacuum, and for the larger and more imposing proposition that ‘nothing is something’, hinges on the claim that “the uncertainty in the measured energy of a system is inversely proportional to the length of time over which you observe it”. And it happens that we have known, for more than half a century now, from a beautiful and seminal and widely cited and justly famous paper by Yakir Aharonov and David
    Bohm, that this claim is false.”

    I like particularly his little rhetorical tricks such as ” There have been people who one can CLASSIFY as philosophers”.
    The guy is a crybaby. And he knows perfectly well Albert’s credentials.

    It there any physicist who is publicly defending Krauss? Or is he just appealing to the atheist community to defend him from a “bad philosopher” thinking we would defend him no matter how bad arguments he gives? What a terrible disappointment when one encounters this kind of behavior!

    • Andrei
      Posted April 28, 2012 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      Do you mean this comment by David Albert at
      http://philocosmology.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/an-explanation-from-nothing/#comment-275 ?

      It’s bollocks. First, he says that he did not present his objections based on physics properly because “the space allotted me by the Times was very limited”. So he decided to go for metaphysics instead.

      Then he tries to accuse Krauss in ignorance about certain details of physics. Namely, Kraus says at one point

      [...]recall that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the uncertainty with which we measure the energy of a particle, and hence the possibility that its energy may change slightly by the emission and absorption of virtual particles, is inversely proportional to the length of time over which we observe it.

      Krauss, Lawrence (2012-01-10). A Universe from Nothing (p. 164). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

      This is rather sloppy language, which is frequently used in popular literature, as Albert himself admits, but this is irrelevant to the point Krauss makes. He says that if a virtual particle carries away zero energy, it can exist for a long time, and this is why we can observe long-range interactions between, say, charged particles.

      Albert also seems to assume that the whole Krauss’s argument is based on virtual particles, but it is not. Krauss points out later that the “real” (that is, observable) particles can also be born out of quantum vacuum, if there is a strong enough field (electrical or gravitational) with which they can interact.

      This is by the way nothing new — Krauss refers to Hawkin’s conclusions here, which have been known for a while ago.

      If Albert has a decent background in physics, he should know better. I got an impression that he feels cornered (Krauss himself accused him of ignorance in certain areas of quantum field theory, and deservedly so), and he desperately tries to find any petty reason to counter-attack Krauss.

      Victor Stenger commented on the whole Krauss v. Albert here:
      http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4754

      He basically says, that Albert raised some valid issues (and I think he is very charitable to Albert here), but these can be easily answered.

      • Vishnya Maudlin
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        From Victor Stegner:
        ‘To define “nothing” you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!’

        He doesn’t claim that Albert’s complaints can be easily answered. Rather, he says you can talk about physical nothing as void. Then the question is “Why there is something rather than a void?” Krauss can be interested in any question he wants, but then do not pretend that you are answering a different question.
        As I already said that question is a question not a philosopher would be engaged in today (most of them thinks it is just a meaningless question). One thing that is a characteristic of philosophers is that they are precise in the usage of the terms and very careful.
        With respect to knowledge of physics David Albert has not only a decent knowledge of physics – he can pair with Krauss any time (of course Krauss would never agree because it would show how things really stand).
        Krauss showed more vanity and public display of dishonesty than anyone recently I can think of. It is a very sad state of affair because I would think (as an atheist) that ethical behavior should trump anything.

        • Andrei
          Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          With respect to knowledge of physics David Albert has not only a decent knowledge of physics – he can pair with Krauss any time

          If this is so, then he had a good opportunity to demonstrate his extensive knowledge of physics, but for some reason he failed.

          Michael Behe has excellent credentials in biochemistry, it does not make his attacks on evolution any less moronic.

          The only thing David Albert demonstrated is his willingness to bend or set aside good physics in order to accommodate for some religion-friendly philosophy.

          • Vishnya Maudlin
            Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

            Your attitude is exactly of someone with no intellectual integrity. Being able to criticize arguments even is we agree with their conclusions is what makes someone an honest thinker. David Albert is not criticizing Krauss because he is accommodating some religion-friendly philosophy, but rather because the book is bad. Even people with whom opinions we agree with could write bad books. Atheists do not have gods (and shouldn’t have them). Our only guidance is our critical thinking and if we abandon our critical thinking we are not better than followers of religions.

            • Andrei
              Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

              Oh, now let’s talk about my attitude. :)

              The book is good. One does not have to rely upon authority of a physicist-turned-philosopher. All you need is a little background in physics and, of course, critical thinking, then you can easily tell the difference between real physics and semantic games designed to obfuscate things rather than clarify. Without even looking at credentials of the authors.

              David Albert clearly put himself into this second category (obfuscate), there is no way out. Appeals to his credentials won’t work, it’s an appeal to accept his opinion uncritically. An opposite of critical thinking which, I presume, you advocate.

              • Vishnya Maudlin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 11:26 am | Permalink

                I wonder who is playing a semantic games – Krauss or Albert? Hey, “I will tell all of you ignorant guys how something came from nothing! That would do for that theological question. The only problem is I will regard as nothing whatever I want and not what you think it is!”
                Whoever disagree with my analysis either he/she is a supporter of religion or moron.
                The problem is Krauss questioned Albert’s credentials and it is not the case that Albert was talking about his education. It all started because of Krauss’s ad hominem arguments against Albert (and philosophy) instead of showing why Albert is wrong. Suddenly, when it is shown that Albert knows physics his credentials don’t matter any more.

                I do not have a problem with you liking a book, just do not defend Krauss for the wrong reasons. There are others who also know some physics and can think and are not blinded by loyalty but are guided by reason.

                And, there is no excuse for Krauss’s behavior.

              • Andrei
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

                Well I’ve tried to give my reasons the best way I could. If you still don’t like them, there is nothing else I can do. I just restate where I am.

                Krauss has nothing to explain. And nothing to apologize for, at least, before the likes of David Albert. If you don’t see this for yourself, read Stenger’s comment again. Then Krauss’s book. Then Albert’s review. And then ask yourself, who exactly needs to apologize, Krauss or Albert.

  2. johnnyrodgersmorris
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I like Krauss. I don’t think he needed to apologize. Honestly, sometimes he comes off as so arrogant, but in this case he seemed pretty humble.

  3. JamesM
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    How often has philosophy actually contributed to and pushed forward science? Popper’s falsifiability is often mentioned and I like to ask the mentioners how exactly scientific experimentation and conduct changed as a result? (The answer is not at all for those wondering).

  4. MadScientist
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy has it’s uses. I see the claim all the time – but where is the evidence?

    • Graeme
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know, I look around me and see life influenced by democracy, ethics, human rights, logic and numerous other developments that have taken place over the millenia due to the work of philosophers; I’d say that’s good evidence. And because I like to read and understand the history of my species and its (note the correct use of the apostrophe) ideas, I recognize the where these concepts came from.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        What makes you think that the way people behave and organize is any way related to the musings of philosophers?

        • couchloc
          Posted April 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

          Well, let’s see. What might make one think that the way people behave and organize is in any way related to the musings of philosophers? Here is a list of ideas that were first proposed or developed over the years by people we think of as philosophers. Anyone who thinks that philosophers don’t make extremely important contributions to society doesn’t know their history very well.

          # Socrates – Critical reasoning
          # Aristotle – Formal logic
          # William of Ockham – Ockham’s razor
          # Adam Smith – Capitalism
          # Machiavelli – Political philosophy
          # Francis Bacon – Scientific method
          # David Hume – Empiricism
          # Voltaire – Civil liberties, freedom of religion
          # Montesquieu – Separation of powers
          # John Locke – Liberalism, natural rights
          # Thomas Hobbes – Social contract
          # René Descartes – Analytic geometry
          # Liebniz (w/ Newton) – Calculus
          # Jeremy Bentham – Utilitarianism
          # Karl Popper – Falsification
          # Godel, Frege, Boolos, Foundations computing theory (basis of modern computers)
          # C.S. Peirce – blinded, randomized experiments
          # Singer – Animal rights movement
          # Rawls – Just democracies

          (Of course, these ideas have had little affect on how people behave in our society. One wonders why philosophers continue to waste everyone’s time with such things!)

          • Kevin
            Posted April 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

            Can you explain how they have impacted how people behave? I don’t see how they would have influenced, say, my ethics or my political beliefs or what I think to be a violation of civil liberties. Sure, they have talked about these issues, but how have they, as he claimed, influenced my (or society’s) position on these topics?

            As far I am concerned, my political beliefs are based on what we have tested and worked (i.e. scientific method). We prefer certain systems because we have tested many and thrown out the ones that failed. The American experiment has been somewhat successful so we have a certain amount of respect for it; communism, not so much. These are empirical observations that form the basis for preferring capitalism over communism. I couldn’t care less what a philosopher has to say on the subject since the outcome of the experiment trumps his words. The only benefit they can have is if they behave like scientists.

            Do I value the separation of church and state because of what Voltaire said or because I have observed how theocracies operate and don’t want to live in that system? Do I value civil liberties because of what Voltaire said or because I prefer not to feel violated? Do I value science because of what Bacon said or because I have seen it be a great method for solving problems and creating new technology? My justification for my position is the latter, every time, and the input from philosophers is irrelevant. We might reach the same conclusion, but that is of no consequence. I fail to see the contributions being made because I haven’t benefited from them.

            I’m also curious as to why you included economics, mathematics, as well as science as instances of philosophy. How are you defining ‘philosophy’? I have a degree in math, does that make me a philosopher?

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:04 am | Permalink

              That’s like saying you don’t care what Einstein said about gravity, because it’s only the experimental results that matter. The point is that we wouldn’t know what experiments to do without Einstein (or someone like him) proposing a coherent hypothesis for us to test.

              Similarly, we couldn’t do social experiments involving democracy, ethics, civil liberties, secularism, and so on without the ideas of philosophers to tell us which hypotheses might be worth testing. If you think the American Revolution could have succeeded without a core group of intellectual leaders codifying its philosophy, then as couchloc says, you don’t know your history.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

                So you think that philosophers are merely suggesting testable hypotheses and are not drawing conclusions before the experiment pans out? Really? I don’t that vibe from reading philosophy or listening to philosophers.

                Do you think that the whole of philosophy could be renamed as hypothesis formation? This is already part of the scientific method. You could subdivide science into hypothesis formation and testing, but this distinction makes scientists no more than lab workers/mice performing experiments. In this picture, philosophers are merely taking on the role of what scientists currently do. Surely, this distinction is superfluous.

                That is not to say that philosophers can’t do science, since they can, along with anyone else who produces good ideas. This reminds me of a small group of philosophers who came up with the term ‘experimental philosophy.’ As far as I can tell, it is indistinguishable from the scientific method.

                Perhaps this will make my position clear; ‘philosophy’ is useful when it emulates science. However, at that point, I just call it science, not philosophy. If you still want to call this philosophy or you want to call science philosophy or you want to call writing down one’s position philosophy, be my guest and water down the term even more, but it doesn’t give any more value to those with the title of philosopher.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

                Einstein drew conclusions in advance of the experiments. Why is that OK when he does it, but bad when philosophers do it?

                Indeed, given the high costs of real social experiments, wouldn’t it be incumbent on social theorists to do extensive argumentation and gedanken-experimentation in advance? To thoroughly examine their ideas in the abstract before putting them into practice?

                If your response is “but then they’re not doing philosophy” then I claim you’ve simply gerrymandered the definition of philosophy to deliberate exclude any useful results it produces.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

                From what I recall, Einstein didn’t accept his hypothesis before testing it with the position of Mercury.

                I don’t think that line of argument is that persuasive. I think we need more social experiments. To find out the best way, we experiment, or test our ideas with observation. To save cost, we can appeal to history (experiments already run) or we can do it on the local level (small scale experiments). Did you have any specific examples in mind?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                You recall incorrectly. Einstein famously said that if the observations don’t agree with the theory, too bad for the observers, because the theory is correct.

            • couchloc
              Posted April 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              Kevin,

              “I fail to see the contributions being made because I haven’t benefited from them.”

              I think you maybe are missing the larger influence that is occurring through contributions by philosophers. It is not that we had the concept of these things called “civil liberties” and then, later, some philosophers came along and commented on them and then maybe you read these comments and were affected by them directly. The very concept of civil liberties was created by philosophers like Voltaire. So I think you are missing the broader point. Adam Smith wrote a book called Wealth of Nations, and this book CREATED capitalism as an economic system. John Locke wrote a book on systems of government, and this created the idea of modern liberal democracies (upon which the American system is based). Descartes wrote his works on analytic geometry, and created this as a subject. So it’s not that these people are merely offering us some comments on these subjects which have been around for a while. These fields were created by these individuals and now form the fabric of our society. To say that “I don’t really know how Voltaire has influenced my views about civil liberties because, well, our society develops by trial and error, ignores the fact that the very existence of the discussion we’re having right now depends on Voltaire’s work. It’s like saying that da Vinci shouldn’t get credit for painting the Mona Lisa because he’s not contributing to your immediate interpretation of the painting when you’re standing there in the Louvre.

              “I’m also curious as to why you included economics, mathematics, as well as science as instances of philosophy.”

              I don’t know what you mean “instances of philosophy.” Each of the subjects I listed was created or developed by people we think of as philosophers.

              Take economics. Adam Smith was professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University and his book is recognized as the first modern book of economics. The distinction between philosophy and economics only comes later, and if you asked Smith he would say his contribution was in “moral philosophy.” The fact that we now call his discipline something else is immaterial.

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Smith

              • Kevin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                “It is not that we had the concept of these things called “civil liberties” and then, later, some philosophers came along and commented on them and then maybe you read these comments and were affected by them directly.”

                Quick wiki for civil liberties: “The formal concept of civil liberties dates back to the English legal charter the Magna Carta 1215, which in turn was based on pre-existing documents namely the English Charter of Liberties, a landmark document in English legal history.”

                What’s this about Voltaire creating something that existed 500 years before his birth? Civil liberties are nothing more than legal enforcement for certain things. You have a right to life if we as a society punish those who murder. We have a right to property if we as a society punish those who steal. This is hardly a new concept that was created in the 1700’s (and probably pre-dates 1215) and we didn’t need someone dedicated to a field to figure it out. Maybe the rights Voltaire suggested were new, but the general concept was not. I don’t know what you mean when you say that a philosopher “created” civil liberties. Please explain.

                “Each of the subjects I listed was created or developed by people we think of as philosophers.”

                I fail to see why this is meaningful. If they were developed by artists, would we say that art contributed to their creation? I previously said that philosophers can also do science. They can also cook. This doesn’t mean that philosophy contributes to science and cooking.

              • couchloc
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                I’m talking about the modern concept of civil liberties that relates to our recent understanding of such notions. So I see the influence Voltaire had was more constructive than merely commenting on someone else’s notion from previous periods. Here is how his influence is described in the New World Encyclopedia. This is a neutral source that describes the influence (i.e., contribution) he made to our society’s development.

                “Voltaire’s legacy has been immense. Voltaire envisioned a secular, tolerant society and emphasized progress through scientific advances and social and political reform, and through transcending the confines of religious dogma and superstition. The influence of these Enlightenment ideals would survive the reaction of the Romantic era and, following the Industrial Revolution, emerge in the twentieth century in a renewed rationalist challenge to the truth claims of revealed religion.

                Voltaire’s emphasis on reason and justice, his icy wit, and his formidable gifts as a satirist and polemicist influenced such Enlightenment figures as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. His affirmation of civil rights and the principle of religious freedom would find expression in the U.S. Constitution and its guarantees of freedoms of speech, the press, and religion.”

                http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/voltaire

                Voltaire was a philosopher of sorts and I take it his contribution to our political system was philosophical. He does not stop being a philosopher or making philosophical contributions because we have new terms for the disciplines that developed from these ideas (e.g., “politics”). The influence between philosophy and other fields goes in many directions.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

                From the encyclopedia you cited: “The philosophes, including Voltaire, Montesquieu, d’Alembert and Diderot, were not philosophers in the technical sense of the word, neither were they academically trained scholars operating in the official institutions of their time. Through their background, many were fortunate enough to enjoy the best education available and their talent allowed them to make full use of it. Their philosophical writings are the forerunners of what today would be called ideology, i.e., the polemical use of ideas to promote a cause, often with little in-depth exploration.”

                So they weren’t academics, were not philosophers, didn’t explore the ideas they promoted with much depth and have more in common with someone promoting an ideology rather than, say, a professor. This doesn’t sound like someone who I would want input from, even if you do consider them to be philosophers. Just because we happen to agree on some stances doesn’t mean I respect the way that they reached that stance. Is this really the example/source you want to use? Perhaps you should dig down into his reasoning and give examples of where philosophy helped guide Voltaire to the appropriate conclusions.

              • couchloc
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                I think you are not reading this properly. You
                read this as saying that they were “not philosophers,” but that’s not what it says. It says they were not “philosophers in the technical sense.” The point is that they did philosophy along with other subjects and, hence, were not to be understood narrowly as philosophy professors who primarily worked in the academy (cf. Kant). Note that later on in your quote it states “their philosophical writings are the forerunners ….” So it is clearly stating that they produced philosophical writings. To be more precise:

                “Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher”
                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voltaire

                I will grant you that Voltaire falls somewhere between all three of these, and so his case is not the cleanest one to discuss. But this does not imply he didn’t produce philosophical works and contribute to philosophical discussions.

                “This doesn’t sound like someone who I would want input from….”

                This is a red herring. What we like or don’t like is not the issue here. How Voltaire arrived at his ideas or whatever does not detract from their influence. While the article raises interesting questions here about the depth of his work, it is unequivocal about his influence on our society.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                “How Voltaire arrived at his ideas or whatever does not detract from their influence.”

                It does detract from their relevance to the discussion.

      • Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        And in any of those areas one would care to choose, you seem to leave unnoticed, that progress is quite often had by disturbing a great philosophy with the inconvenience of mere facts. Sometimes not. So it seems we have the case that advances of knowledge happen despite countervailing philosophical thinking, and that it happens in conjunction with philosophy. That the presence of philosophy is no more able to retard progress than necessitate its advance does not indicate to me that philosophy was a key factor. Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It’s just not consistent in its outcomes.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Really? Well, you still need to show that philosophy produced that. John Locke had some interesting political ideas, some which were tried and many which failed and were dismal horrors. How does that make philosophy a superior contributor to politics than a fat guy with a printing press who didn’t identify as being a philosopher?

        Ethics? Oh, really now – do demonstrate how ethics are formed by philosophy. Philosophy tries to claim ethics as the various religions do. And yet philosphy has never formulated a useful framework for ethics – at best philosophers have made a few observations which other people had made as well.

        It’s absolutely laughable how philosophers wish to claim logic as their invention. Logic was applied in mathematical proofs preceding Socrates, the alleged root of philosophy, by over 200 years. Formal logic may have had some trivial contributions from some of the early philosophers, but if you really want to understand logic you should read books on mathematics, not philosophy. The study of logic in mathematics bears little resemblance to the primitive logic of philosophy.

        • couchloc
          Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

          You make me laugh, MadScientist, because your arguments are so funny.

          “John Locke had some interesting political ideas, some which were tried and many which failed and were dismal horrors.”

          Right, and Newton had some interesting physical ideas (gravity), some which were tried and many which failed and were dismal horrors (alchemy, occult studies).

          Shall I infer from this that Newton’s contributions to science were irrelevant?

          In case I need to explain this, Locke is a superior contributor to politics because the notion “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in The Declaration of Independence, which forms the basis of the most advanced, modern liberal democracy in the world, comes from his thought. Show me the fat guy with the printing press who’s quoted in The Declaration of Independence and I’ll agree with you.

          On Logic, you again make me laugh, because in order to substantiate your point you have to rewrite the history of an entire field. Here is a description of the history of logic and its development, which begins with this claim:

          “The earliest sustained work on the subject of logic is that of Aristotle….Aristotle’s system of logic was responsible for the introduction of hypothetical syllogism, temporal modal logic, and inductive logic.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logic#History

          Aristotle is a philosopher. This is exactly what I claimed and consistent with the historical record. Your claim appears to be consistent with hot air.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 28, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

          I know, right? For someone who has never learned anything in philosophy class, I sure know a lot of ‘philosophy.’

          Logic? The class was titled mathematical logic. Epistemology? Learn probability and epistemology becomes easy. Learning probability also helps expose several fallacies. Was introduced to ethics (John Stuart Mill & Bentham) in high school economics. However, I feel as though to learn more about ethics (i.e. answer ethical questions) requires learning more about people (i.e. psychology). I’m now being told that economics, law, and government are included in philosophy, yeah, took a couple of those classes.

          To put it facetiously, I guess my takeaway conclusion is if you want to learn about philosophy, don’t study philosophy.

          • couchloc
            Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

            This is a bit of a straw man. Nowhere did I claim that “economics, law, and government are included in philosophy.” What I said was that philosophers have contributed to all these fields and that their philosophical contributions don’t cease to be so just because they are affecting those disciplines, which is a different point. E.g., Adam Smith was a philosopher who contributed to the development of economics–this does not mean he’s an economist and not a philosopher or something. It means philosophy contributed to the development of economics.

            Also you seem to be missing the obvious point here–that philosophy has been influential and has affected the study of economics and psychology in other fields. Bentham doesn’t cease being a philosopher because he’s taught in an economics class as well. I don’t doubt that you can learn about some of these individuals in other areas of the university. I don’t think that’s a mark against philosophy, but for it.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

              “Nowhere did I claim that “economics, law, and government are included in philosophy.” What I said was that philosophers have contributed to all these fields and that their philosophical contributions don’t cease to be so just because they are affecting those disciplines, which is a different point.”

              You put it a little more strongly than that. You said that philosophers, and by implication philosophy, “CREATED” these fields, as in, these are the fruits of philosophy that we wouldn’t have had without the use of philosophy. If this isn’t what you meant, I don’t know what your point was in bringing those examples up.

              “E.g., Adam Smith was a philosopher who contributed to the development of economics–this does not mean he’s an economist and not a philosopher or something. It means philosophy contributed to the development of economics.”

              No it does not. You’re pointing out a correlation while trying to show causation. Like I said, he could have been a chef who developed economics, but this doesn’t mean that cooking classes are helpful for developing economics. Just because someone carries the title of philosopher doesn’t mean that everything they do or touch is an instance of philosophy in action.

              “Also you seem to be missing the obvious point here–that philosophy has been influential and has affected the study of economics and psychology in other fields.”

              It depends on how you define philosophy. If I say “let’s apply science to people”, we get psychology. If I say “let’s apply science to how people trade”, we get economics. If you want to call this philosophy, then the conclusion I draw is that we don’t need the input of philosophers since it’s as simple as saying “that interests me, I want to learn more about it”, then apply scientific method or “we have a problem here,” then apply scientific method. I don’t need philosophy to apply science to a problem; or do I? Again, it depends on how you define philosophy, which I am sure that you will get a lot of disagreement and have no means of finding out who is correct; gee, sounds familiar, we must be doing ‘philosophy’.

              • couchloc
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

                “You put it a little more strongly than that. You said that philosophers, and by implication philosophy, “CREATED” these fields….”

                Yes this is what I said. But this isn’t equivalent to the claim that philosophy includes the other fields merely as a subset. I would like to say this if I was being slightly more thoughtful: The issue of Voltaire’s contribution requires some care, since, as you rightly note, he was developing previous ideas about civil liberties and was not the first person to invoke this notion. I would say he still made a substantial contribution, but this doesn’t fit the language of “creation” as smoothly as I would like. But consider the other examples that were mentioned. Here is a description of Adam Smith:

                “The Wealth of Nations is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. It earned him an enormous reputation and would become one of the most influential works ever published. Smith is widely cited as the father of modern economics and capitalism.”

                http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Smith

                “First modern work” and “father of modern capitalism” seem pretty clear to me. Or take the quote from Aristotle I offered above. It says that

                “The earliest sustained work on the subject of logic is that of Aristotle….Aristotle’s system of logic was responsible for the introduction of hypothetical syllogism, temporal modal logic, and inductive logic.”

                It clearly says he “introduced” (i.e., created) these things.

                Finally, I think the distinctions you are drawing to substantiate your point about causation, etc. are overly subtle and won’t stand up to historical analysis. This is not a mere quip on my part. There’s just no sensible way of separating out the “philosophical” vs “other” contributions to the Wealth of Nations as you suggest. Yes, Smith’s cooking breakfast doesn’t imply that philosophy contributed to the development of cooking. But this isn’t what’s going on. Here is a description of his books content:

                “The Wealth of Nations, as it is most often called, is not a book on economics. Its subject is “political economy,” a much more expansive mixture of philosophy, political science, history, economics, anthropology, and sociology.”

                http://www.iep.utm.edu/smith/

                It clearly says philosophy is part of the nature of the work itself. Join this to the fact that Smith worked as a professor of Moral Philosophy and wrote books on ethics and my claim seems pretty reasonable. You seem to be having to do a lot of cartwheels to deny this evident fact.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                I still don’t even know how we are defining philosophy here! I have asked in this forum and have been told it is a wild-goose chase. You can’t say X has contributed to Y without knowing what X even is. I think that I have been fairly straightforward with saying that I think that science is the means for discovery, and this includes proposing hypotheses. If you think this merits being called philosophy, then there is no disagreement here. However, then this distinction doesn’t bode well for the prospects of philosophers.

              • Peter Beattie
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                » Kevin:
                I still don’t even know how we are defining philosophy here! I have asked in this forum and have been told it is a wild-goose chase.

                No, you have not. You were told that the quest for precision for its own sake is a wild-goose chase. You were also offered a definition of philosophy as the study of how to think well. Would it be asking too much to request the minimal respect of representing other people’s statements fairly?

              • couchloc
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

                Well, I don’t think I need to enter into a broad discussion of philosophy to address these issues in a sensible way. It’s fairly evident to me that Aristotle, Voltaire (sort of), and Adam Smith are philosophers and contributed to various subjects by any reasonable standard. Thanks for the discussion.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

                “You were also offered a definition of philosophy as the study of how to think well.”

                This would mean that ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, etc. are not subjects of philosophy. Also, how would you evaluate what is thinking well? I would suppose you take the ideas that lead to true results (maybe not since this is a consequentialist approach and a large percentage of philosophers are not consequentialists?), but that would involve comparing your hypotheses to physical reality, not logical possibilities. This would mean that the tool of the philosopher, thought experiments, would nearly be useless.

                I’m still confused as to how this could conceivably be described as philosophy. Is this supposed to describe what ‘pure’ philosophy is or what actually occurs inside the walls of philosophy departments?

                “Would it be asking too much to request the minimal respect of representing other people’s statements fairly?”

                I’m doing my best, It’s hard to remember positions from different people across several days. Although I do feel like I’m on a goose-chase.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      I would submit this as evidence.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        That’s very poor evidence. Even before Popper was born, induction was not used to ‘prove’ something – it was used to make predictions which were then tested. The methods of testing and falsification were even printed several hundred years ago – I thought this was by an englishman named William Gibson but that name seems to be purged from the internet or else I got the name wrong. It was “natural philosophy” which favored induction in proofs and one of the reasons that modern science was divorced from philosophy (philosophy didn’t work!) As I’ve said many times before, Popper’s work is more of a commentary or a post-hoc rationalization of science and not essential to anything.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted April 29, 2012 at 1:30 am | Permalink

          » MadScientist:
          Even before Popper was born, induction was not used to ‘prove’ something – it was used to make predictions which were then tested.

          If the “test” was still used to assume the truth of a hypothesis, then that doesn’t change the fact that that’s an inductive inference. Cf. this formulation of the problem of induction (Popper, Objective Knowledge, p. 7):

          Can the claim that an explanatory universal theory is true be justified by ‘empirical reasons’; that is, by assuming the truth of certain test statements or observation statements (which, it may be said, are ‘based on experience’)?

          There is no question, I think, that deductive reasoning from falsifying instances has been used throughout history: however charismatic a shaman you are, if too many of your predictions turn out to be wrong, your hypotheses will tend to be disbelieved. There is no question either, however, that all manner of confirming observations were taken as proof (if only collectively) that, for example, Newton’s theories were in fact true.

          The methods of testing and falsification were even printed several hundred years ago … [by] William Gibson

          I assume you mean Whewell? What exactly do you think he wrote that substantially anticipated Popper’s work? (Any actual quotes would be much appreciated.)

          It was “natural philosophy” which favored induction in proofs and one of the reasons that modern science was divorced from philosophy (philosophy didn’t work!)

          When Whewell coined the term ‘science’, induction was still very much alive, as the (for quite some time) prevailing belief in the truth of Newton’s theories (as well as all manner of justificationist ideas well into the 20th century) attests. The science of the natural philosophers (Newton primarily, but Darwin and Thomson would still have called themselves that) did actually work very well.

          As I’ve said many times before …

          And you expect repitition to be persuasive why exactly? If your goal is not just to appear to be winning an argument, you’d do rather better to make sure that some understanding of your position is achieved.

  5. Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps this bedeviling question about whether philosophy is useful for doing science could be disappeared if the philosophers would make slightly obvious the extent to which, in rather precise terms, the evidence of their having done something in science qua philosophers exists. I’d hate to think that some of them are confusing talking about science with actually doing science.

    Of course, I’d be happy if they’d all get together and finally determine what exactly philosophy is. Near as I can it seems to be a tarted up synonym for thinking.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      I’ve actually had a philosophy student give me a more general definition. Basically, he defined philosophy as trying to determine/get to the truth. I asked him whether this meant that simply gathering data was considered philosophy; yes. Massive eye-rolling followed.

      I think that most ‘philosophy’ becomes clear when you simply think of it as semantics (which explains why it doesn’t advance). It’s an entire field devoted to defining terms. Now, this is important for forming hypotheses to have terms that are able to be quantified and tested, which is where we get the “science uses philosophy” sound bite. However, I think that this is as dishonest as saying that science is dependent on literary theory since scientists talk to each other. Scientists are fully able to talk without the help of English professors, and consequently define terms without the help of philosophers. Ironically, its the philosophers who tend to detract from the dialogue with pointless questions such as “who’s to say that’s what X (e.g. morality) means.”

      • Joseph Frantz
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:38 am | Permalink

        So you’re saying a question like “does objective moral truth even exist?” is just a waste of time? We shouldn’t address those questions? I don’t get it. Of COURSE scientists do their jobs fine without the help of philosophers; that says nothing about whether philosophy helps to figure out the truth of some things. Are we to ignore logicians, say, because they’re not scientists? Philosophers of mind?

        • Kevin
          Posted April 28, 2012 at 5:43 am | Permalink

          I’m saying the question “do objective moral truths exist?” becomes obvious, or at least philosophers’ input becomes useless, when we define the terms. There is only debate because we have people disagreeing on what ‘objective’ means, what ‘moral truths’ means, and sometimes what ‘exists’ means. When you have people arguing over semantics, yes, I do think it is a waste of time. Some people would like to get beyond this (e.g. Harris) so they have correctly ignore to some degree the input of philosophers.

          We pay attention to anyone that contributes to science. If you produce testable hypotheses that look promising, it doesn’t matter who you are. There is nothing from what I can see that prevents philosophers from applying the scientific method (i.e. doing science).

          • Joey Frantz
            Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

            Except that Harris uses equivocation and thought experiments to prop up a “moral realism” whose predictive value is exactly zilch. His arguments are relatively low on actual science for a popular science writer, and he feels free to offhandedly dismiss empirical research that he can’t handle, like Jonathan Haidt’s.

            The big deal here is that you say “define the terms” like that’s some straightforward issue. No problem–just define the terms and test! Turns out that many terms are difficult to define, including “morality,” “art,” and “truth.” If deceptive definitions are used, the problem that’s supposed to be under scrutiny might not even get addressed. If one defines “morality” is “the study of well-being” as Harris does, that doesn’t mean a study of well-being addresses moral issues, because the definition might be way out in left field.

            Your knocking of “semantics,” typical of those who think philosophy is useless, is telling. Semantics concerns the relation between language and meaning; without clear use of language, meaning gets distorted. That’s what a lot of philosophers want to avoid. Scientists like Lawrence Krauss quite obviously should put more of a premium on it.

            • Kevin
              Posted April 28, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

              “that doesn’t mean a study of well-being addresses moral issues, because the definition might be way out in left field.”

              You’re making the same mistake that I was criticizing. Harris is saying morality is X and I’m going to investigate it. You’re saying that X doesn’t even address morality. How is this so unless you have two conflicting definitions of morality? You have essentially criticized Harris for not using the same terminology as you use. You have created a disagreement over semantics, which is a waste of time. If you think that X is not a worthwhile pursuit, then criticize it on those grounds, not because it doesn’t fit into your notion of what ‘morality’ is supposed to mean, whatever that means. Do philosophers even agree on what the problem is?

              Someone saying that they define their terms as such and such and then proceeds does not mean that they are equivocating. Just because there is another definition for a word out there doesn’t mean the user is equivocating. As long as they are clear from the outset and stay consistent, the charge of equivocation carries no merit. I don’t have trouble interpreting what Krauss and Harris have said in this respect, but that might just be me.

              Words like truth, art, and morality are not difficult to define. They are just difficult to get everyone to agree on what the definition is, which is nobody’s problem. This is why no progress gets made because you are then arguing over semantics. When someone comes along and tries to define them, someone else objects. This doesn’t happen in any other area besides philosophy.

              • Joseph Frantz
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

                “You have created a disagreement over semantics, which is a waste of time.”

                “This is why no progress gets made because you are then arguing over semantics.”

                You twice write as though semantics were a waste of time. This is false. I don’t know why I should have to say again that clarity matters. If we do not observe the relationship between language and meaning we’ll end up talking about the wrong things.

                “Words like truth, art, and morality are not difficult to define.”

                No word is hard to define provided your definition doesn’t have to reflect how the word is actually used. But if one opts to define a word in an oddball way–that is, a way that doesn’t reflect common usage–one will end up not addressing what that word normally refers to. For example, if one defines morality, as Harris does, to be the maximization of human well-being, then one will end up not addressing what 99.9 percent of all people are talking about when they talk about morality. Idiosyncratic definitions are also often used to manipulate connotations, because words maintain their connotations over new definitions. One can get a lot of leverage out of redefining an ideologically loaded term like “morality.”

                You say “Someone saying that they define their terms as such and such and then proceeds does not mean that they are equivocating.” But I never said that this was so. I’m merely pointing out that taking advantage of verbal ambiguity to advance one’s interests is equivocation. That’s what Blackford has demonstrated Harris to have done, and what Pigliucci has demonstrated Krauss to have done.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

                “You twice write as though semantics were a waste of time.”

                I agree that defining one’s terms is significant. Do we need an entire field devoted to defining terms? No, the person speaking does that. Do we need input from philosophers on how to define our terms? I see no reason why we do. Also, in the examples given, the input is not over what the definition was, but over the mere fact that a definition was given. This is just a lesson in futility.

                “For example, if one defines morality, as Harris does, to be the maximization of human [slight correction, he limits it to conscious creatures, not to humanity] well-being, then one will end up not addressing what 99.9 percent of all people are talking about when they talk about morality.”

                Why should we care what the population thinks? Let’s say that we come up with the word ‘atom’ and everyone agrees that the definition means that the thing in question is indivisible, it cannot be cut. We label what we think is the most basic building block ‘atoms’ and we have consensus on the meaning of the term. One problem, the thing we called atoms can be cut. Do we say, “oh no, we can’t call those things atoms because people agreed that atom means indivisible and those things are not indivisible” or do we simply accept the new definition? If the physics community wants to re-define the term ‘atom’ or the astronomy community wants to re-define the term ‘planet,’ I don’t care what most people think. As long as they are clear in their communication they should be able to do so and I think that Harris has been sufficiently clear.

              • Joseph Frantz
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                I agree that the physics community can go on using the word “atom” however they wish, but that’s precisely because nobody is really getting the wrong message, and nobody is trying to PUSH the wrong message. Similarly, nobody is trying to say “Pluto doesn’t matter” by saying “Plato is not a planet.”

                I’m really not with you on the idea that Harris has been sufficiently clear. It would be sufficiently clear of him to say, for example, “Since my term ‘morality’ does not refer to anything that anybody should do, let me be clear that I am in no way arguing against various religious notions of morality; nor am I engaging the philosophical literature on morality; nor am I disputing what the man on the street may think about morality. Their term
                ‘morality’, which refers to what one is rationally obligated to do, has nothing to do with my term ‘morality’, which just means ‘what maximizes the well-being of conscious creatures.’”

                He wouldn’t want to say that, would he? That would make it painfully clear that he’s not really addressing the issues he would appear, at first, to be addressing. That would make it clear that his ‘science of morality’ is in fact just an ideologically loaded reconception of a field that already exists–positive psychology–and one that does quite fine without moralistic mumbo-jumbo.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

                “Since my term ‘morality’ does not refer to anything that anybody should do”

                I think you mean to say that his term ‘morality’ does not cover the is-ought gap, which means that it only calls to action those who value the thing in question. He does express this sentiment. He says that values are facts about us. Not everyone shares these values, so we are going to be compelled to do different things. It is pervasive through his examples. For example, if you don’t value evidence, then there is no evidence that I can give you to change your mind; you simply get left out of the science discussion. Health is defined by being free of illness, but if you value illness, then you’re not going to get invited back to the health conference; you simply get left out of the science discussion. Similarly, those who don’t value morality get left out of the morality discussion. I don’t know how else he could say it to make it clearer. I don’t get where the confusion comes from.

                “Their term ‘morality’, which refers to what one is rationally obligated to do,”

                Whose term? Again, who cares what they think it means. They should be able to compare their definition to Harris’s and see if they are talking about the same thing. When I hear a theologian talk about divine command theory, I don’t accuse them of dishonestly representing what others use the term ‘moral’ for. I simply ask them (or ponder) why I should pay attention to what they have to say. Similarly, you should ask Harris why you should listen to what he has to say and the response maybe that you shouldn’t listen. I suspect that his response would be that his talks are only relevant to those who have empathy, so if you don’t have empathy, then don’t feel any obligation to listen to what Harris has to say.

                “He wouldn’t want to say that, would he? That would make it painfully clear that he’s not really addressing the issues he would appear, at first, to be addressing.”

                I didn’t get that vibe. Can you give an example of his deceptive advertising?

                “positive psychology”

                Yeah, this is closely related to Harris’s position, but its also closely related to utilitarianism. Some people have said that Harris has re-packaged utilitarianism and I would agree with that assessment. Utilitarianism has had its place in morality for awhile so I don’t see the need to eliminate the moral terminology.

            • MadScientist
              Posted April 28, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

              So what is this research by Haidt which Harris “can’t handle” and dismisses?

              • Kevin
                Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

                It’s basically a survey of the different ways that people/cultures define morality. If I were Harris, I would ignore it too since its completely useless information for what he is interested in.

              • Joseph Frantz
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 12:31 am | Permalink

                It’s research on the psychological foundations of moral thinking, which shows, among other things, that moral beliefs are almost entirely driven by emotions, and that our moral psychology is based on multiple foundations, not just the harm/care foundation that Harris emphasizes. It’s not just a “survey of the different ways that people/cultures define morality,” as Kevin claims, and Harris is not justified in ignoring it. He just ignores it because it butts up rather painfully against his view of moral psychology.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                Sorry, I was not familiar with that aspect of his work. I thought you were referring to his Moral Foundations Theory, which basically reduces to how different people value different ‘moral’ values. Do you have a link to that research? I would be interested in looking into it.

              • Joseph Frantz
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

                This (http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/moraljudgment.html) is the sort of work I was talking about. It does, of course, overlap with moral foundations theory.

              • Caroline52
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

                Harris doesn’t “ignore” Haidt’s work. He discusses it in detail in his book The Moral Landscape. I find his critique there thorough, cogent, and completely persuasive. Many of Haidt’s psychologist colleagues, some of whom are eminent, find his analysis of the moral emotions problematic. See, for example, a colloquy over at the Edge website, in which Haidt’s peers respond to an Edge talk he gave about liberals and conservatives among social psychologists.

                Harris’s thesis is consistent with current cognitive psychological research on the moral emotions: there’s a roundtable discussion on the Edge website in which Harris, Haidt, and other researchers discuss their research and its implications for understanding the moral emotions.

              • Kevin
                Posted April 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

                What do you think conflicts with Harris’s thesis? Is it the different people have different values? Or is it the our answers to moral dilemmas change based on our surroundings? I don’t see how the first point conflicts at all and Harris even used examples of the second in his talks, so its not like he’s ignoring it.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        I’ve made the same observation independently. Philosophy leads to hypotheses – and sometimes a hypothesis is tested – and then progresses no further. Science on the other hand tests hypotheses, creates models and frameworks, and makes verifiable predictions. Scientific models in turn rely on mathematics and mathematicians (at least since the era of Euclid) rely on a rigorous system of proofs and a minimal set of axioms.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      » Justicar:
      Of course, I’d be happy if they’d all get together and finally determine what exactly philosophy is. Near as I can it seems to be a tarted up synonym for thinking.

      The quest for a definition of “what exactly philosophy is” is, in Popper’s words, a wild-goose chase: “Every increase in clarity is of intellectual value in itself; an increase in precision or exactness has only a pragmatic value as a means to some definite end.” Consider concepts such as ‘space’, ‘time’, or ‘life’. There simply are no definitive, agreed-upon definitions for these terms, and yet the relevant disciplines get along just fine.

      Philosophy certainly is not just thinking; at least you could have made reference to the oft-quoted “thinking about thinking”. Which I think can be slightly improved upon by saying that philosophy studies the question of how to think well. And this can then be made more concrete as the problem in hand demands.

  6. Caroline Packard
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree that studying the psychology of human moral emotions through the experimental method is “applied philosophy,” simply because previously only philosophers tried to understand morality — any more than, say, astronomy is applied philosophy simply because at one time only philosophers tried to understand what made the stars shine in the sky.

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think this “clarification” by Krauss really helps much. If what he wants to talk about is the minimal set of initial conditions from which the universe we see can emerge, then fine; that’s interesting; let’s talk about that, while being very clear that that’s what we’re talking about.

    But to insist on calling that minimal set “nothing”, and to denigrate anyone who disputes that usage, sheds no light on anything. All it does is sow confusion and bad feeling. If the word “nothing” is that problematical, he should stop trying to lay claim to it and get back to talking about the physics in clear, unambiguous language.

  8. Neil
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Krauss is just a free-wheeling, free-speaking guy. We need more like him. I wish all these pompous jerks would lay off. Krauss is simply saying what we all know to be true–the emperor (philosophy) has no clothes.

    • Posted April 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

      I think one would be hard-pressed to class Jerry as a pompous jerk. Nor do I see a great deal of that happening in his comments sections. When someone is being a jerk (not even a pompous one), Jerry steps in restores civility.

      The one article I’ve seen Jerry write where he was actually being a jerk hang stale for a day before he publicly issued an apology and regret for having written it. Even *then* he wasn’t to my mind being pompous.

      • Neil
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        Why would you think I had JAC in mind as a pompous jerk? I had in mind those who prefer to obfuscate issues with ponderous argumentation, many of whom happen to be philosophers.

        I could think of some adjectives for JAC, but pompous isn’t one of them.

    • Joseph Frantz
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s right! If only people had the balls to make false statements! All those people who point out how philosophy is useful–they’re just jealous because they’re not scientists! We really need more people like Krauss who aren’t going to let things like honesty or intellectual standards get in their way!

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 27, 2012 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      “…what we all know to be true…”

      Please don’t presume to speak for everyone. Even Krauss disagrees with you on this, as he makes plain in the article.

  9. gluonspring
    Posted April 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    “That’s basically applied philosophy—Gedankenexperiments submitted to subjects”

    I thought that was called psychology.

    That philosophers contribute to science is indisputable. I expect they contribute to the culinary arts also. That any special philosophical gizmos are employed in the process strikes me as more doubtful.

  10. Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    I find it odd that people are using the word “philosophy” as if we either do or could know how to identify a single thing or activity under that name. We don’t and can’t.

    Philosophy, etymologically, is love of wisdom. This is an orientation or affect rather than an object or practice.

    Historically it grew from being, essentially, a Hellenic and Hellenistic way of life (the early schools are more like religions than University departments) through its (never simple) relationship with theology in medieval Universities, into an academic discipline in its own right via the assertion of the independence of human rationality through the renaissance and enlightenment (lack of capitals entirely deliberate).

    In contemporary academic philosophy there is little or no consensus on what the proper object, goal, or practice of philosophy is.

    None of this is problematic, philosophy departments shelter a range of people thinking about a range of things in a range of ways. They all have to call themselves philosophers to gain that shelter and sometimes feel the need to contest ownership of the name. Sometimes that’s productive, sometimes it isn’t.

    Sometimes they think, speak and write about science, either its relationship to knowledge and evidence (the historic sub-discipline of epistemology, sometimes about its relationship to morality, sometimes about its relationship to (what is now) the sister discipline of theology. Sometimes this is productive, sometimes it isn’t.

    To suggest that there’s a single thing called “philosophy” that might or might not be universally useful is, frankly, absurd.

  11. corio37
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    @Kevin: “I think that most ‘philosophy’ becomes clear when you simply think of it as semantics (which explains why it doesn’t advance). It’s an entire field devoted to defining terms.”

    Exactly so. And the moment at which it goes wrong and starts producing the kind of risible nonsense that Krauss has commented on is precisely the moment at which its practitioners and their audience forget that, and assume that they are actually discussing facts rather than meanings, and things rather than words.

  12. Posted April 28, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    sub

  13. basnight
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    It appears to me that if physicists have earned the right to define “things”, they obviously have earned the right to define “nothing”. Physicists make generic statements about “things” all the time. For example, physicists talk about The Theory of EVERYTHING. Some philosophers might question the coherence of such an idea, but it isn’t considered impolite or arrogant for a physicist to discuss The Theory of Everything entirely within the framework of physics and math. When physicists say something about the stuff of the universe, we grant that they know what they are talking about. We grant that they can do it without consulting philosophers. But when it comes to Nothing, suddenly it’s… you know, BAD. Why is that? Some said that it’s because Krauss’s definition of nothing is very different from our intuitive idea about nothing. But physicists’ definition of things is also very different from our intuitive idea about things.

    If we have to do this philosophically-correct thing, we’ll have to do it consistently. Every time a physicist uses the word “law”, let’s nitpick on the semantics of “law”. Let’s nitpick on “space”, let’s nitpick on “causality”, let’s nitpick on “time”. I, for one, want to avoid it. It simply is because this approach hasn’t worked at all.

  14. Peter Beattie
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:50 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, Krauss says: “In science, there are no authorities”. But why aren’t there? The thing is, if you believe that science is about induction, then by definition you believe in some kind of authority. It is exactly Popper’s debunking of induction, and replacing it with the deductive method of falsification, that established the notion that ‘there is no authority in science’ as a logical fact (hence the title of his book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery).

  15. Rudi
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    As with all fields, there are good philosphers and bad philosophers. But in science, bad science is quickly routed out and exposed, as a natural consequence of the way science works. To my mind, the trouble with philosophy as a discipline is that it is much harder to separate the wheat from the chaff – how else to explain the relative success of someone like Mary Midgeley?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Of course Sturgeon’s Law applies. 90% of everything is crap. But that doesn’t justify the position of some here that 100% of philosophy is crap by definition.

  16. Posted April 28, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Philosophy is just local wordplay and ideology — how many empirical predictions can it make?

    It’s an obsolete language.

    • Posted April 28, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Are you implying that science is the only human activity that has any worth? This seems an extraordinary claim to make. I can’t believe there are many scientists who spend ALL their time and energy on “making empirical predictions” and I feel very sorry for any who do.

      • Graeme
        Posted April 28, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        I think that’s what many of the commentors here are saying, or at least that philosophy is only worthwhile if it contributes empirical information to science, and because it doesn’t, therefore it’s worthless.

        There are also a few that appear to make the bizarre assumption that all human behaviour and societal organization is entirely divorced from what thinkers in the past might have thought or said about it. In spite of the fact that we didn’t have democracy or republicanism or the concept of rights or logic or utilitarianism or atheism until someone thought them up.

        That’s the value of making conceptual distinctions and thinking about the meaning of things. It enables humans and groups of humans to take a different view on the bare facts, on what they mean for us.

  17. Posted April 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    §

  18. Vishnya Maudlin
    Posted April 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Just to see what a real physicist thinks. Maybe Krauss will learn something:
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/


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