A few words in favor of philosophy

by Greg Mayer

Having just read of Jerry’s lamentable indisposition (get well!), I thought I’d write something brief that at least might get discussion going among WEIT readers till he can post again. (And in passing I note that perhaps encountering the greatness of salamanders in the wild for the first time caused a sensory overload which upset Jerry’s homeostatic equilibrium.)  So here goes.

Unlike some readers, I have no great qualms about philosophy as an academic discipline or realm of human endeavor. In fact, quite the opposite. For a considerable part of last academic year I was even the chairman of my university’s philosophy department (a fact still attested to at this time, due to the slowness with which webpages are updated; an unusual set of circumstances, mostly revolving around the fate of small departments at small universities, led to my being chair, but these need not detain us).

I think philosophy has much to offer us, and Jerry has remarked often upon the long traditions of the philosophy of ethics as the basis of secular ethics and a counterweight to faith-based ethics. But I’ll mention two things here that relate to philosophy of science in particular.

First, there’s conceptual clarification. Some ideas in science are difficult and complex, and philosophers have often contributed to the elucidation of the implications and assumptions underlying our ideas. Philosophers, qua philosophers, do not contribute empirical data, but by helping to clarify our ideas they help us think more clearly about our data and the world. Work by the late David Hull on species, and by Elliott Sober on the nature of selection are two examples that spring immediately to mind.

Second, understanding scientific methodology, and how/why it works, is a branch of epistemology– the study of how we know things. I found reflection on scientific methods, and what they imply about the nature of science, indispensable in my own development as a scientist (something I began thinking about in grad school). The understandings I achieved then, and their development over time, have been at the core of my nearly twenty years of teaching general education students about the nature of science, how we can evaluate claims about the world, and what claims can be said to be more or less reliable. It has also been very important in my teaching of statistics, for statistics is just a specific instantiation of the general problem of scientific inference. In this area, I think immediately of Philip Kitcher‘s contributions to a general understanding of the progress of scientific inquiry, and Elliott Sober and Malcolm Forster‘s contributions to statistical epistemology in particular.

I could go on, but I promised to be brief. Have at it.


  1. dongiovanni
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    That makes no sense. Please either state what you mean clearly and logically or get out.

    • Posted May 5, 2013 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Nonsensical comments preceding dongiovanni’s comment have been deleted. dongiovanni–thanks!


      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

        Would have been nice to have a context to understand dongiovanni’s comments, now gone thanks to the delete. Why keep dongiovannis’ comments then? A sentence on the nonsense would’ve helped in my opinion.

        • Notagod
          Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          Its a marker to acknowledge that some comments were deleted, which is much better than nothing at all. There is a statement that it was nonsense, I suspect that may have been as much sense as could be construed. It is difficult to know when to delete comments I’m sure but sometimes meaningless comments can derail any point of having the discussion at all.

          I’m like you, I suspect, in that I prefer to decide for myself but, there isn’t a method available that would both show the comments and also stop all discussion related to whatever nonsense was contained therein. It’s still a decision that the host is entitled to make. If we don’t like it we are entitled to leave.

          I’m staying.

      • neil
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

        How did you know it wasn’t a distinguished philosophy professor commenting?

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

          Content, not pedigree, is what matters.

          • strangebeasty
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

            This comment caused me to scan for a “like” button.

            • Diane G.
              Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

              + 1

  2. Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    It may be no surprise that I think this is well put.

    Whenever someone disses philosophy, the obvious (but important) response is:

    Do you think that people in general ought not do philosophy? Or that philosophy is bad? Or that it is a waste of time, and one should not waste one’s time? Or that philosophy does not generate real knowledge? Or that philosophical arguments do not justify beliefs?

    Clearly, of course, all the italicized terms refer to properties or entities that we need philosophy in order to identify. So the anti-philosophy position is self-defeating.

    Relatedly, there are only three possible positions one might take about the justification of trusting science:

    1. It is unjustified.

    2. It is circularly “justified.”

    3. It is justified by some field outside itself.

    Scientismists probably want to reject (1), and they want to reject (2) on pain of being forced to admit that religionists are justified in trusting religion. So (3) is the only real option, and one “field outside [science]” springs to mind immediately.

    (I would love to see WEIT host a debate (e.g. a few guest posts from both sides) about the value of philosophy, or about whether science can be justified without philosophy.)

    • Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Do you think that people in general ought not do philosophy? Or that philosophy is bad? Or that it is a waste of time, and one should not waste one’s time? Or that philosophy does not generate real knowledge? Or that philosophical arguments do not justify beliefs?

      People ought to do whatever they damned well please, so long as it doesn’t involve doing unto others what said others don’t want done unto them. At the same time, it’s also an effective strategy to help others and thereby get them to help you.

      That just leaves the question of whether or not philosophy generates real knowledge, and it’s overwhelmingly clear that the only thing that actually ever generates real knowledge is empiricism.

      You can dream up whatever you want however you want, but it doesn’t become knowledge until you’ve empirically verified it in the real world.



      • Darth Dog
        Posted May 5, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

        … the only thing that actually ever generates real knowledge is empiricism.

        Do you really believe that is true? So you say that you have never in your entire life thought about something and come to some conclusion? Wow.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:02 am | Permalink

          Yes, I believe that it is true.

          When I’ve thought about something and come to some conclusion, either it’s been a better fit for the observations I’ve already made or it’s remained provisional until later confirmed by subsequent observation.

          And the latter is much more common than the former. I can’t count how often something has “in principle” been perfect or significant but, upon attempted application, turned out to be not that big of a deal if not a complete waste or even downright counterproductive.



          • darrelle
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

            To paraphrase a famous quote, “No plan survives contact with reality.”

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink


              And that is all one needs know about the utility and justification of science and the futility and uselessness of philosophy.



            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

              I think the quotation is: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”, but you can be sure that Von Moltke’s intention was *not* to imply that for that reason planning battles was pointless.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

                …which is why, I’m sure, darrelle went with the paraphrase.

                Besides which, the important fact is that, whatever you think you know when you start out, it’s not until you’ve actually tested it that you can be sure that you actually do know it.



              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                How do we know that grass isn’t a cure for the common cold? Well we don’t, but you can’t test everything, you need a plan, even if it substantially fails when you come into conflict with the world.

                What I find somewhat galling about your evangelical approach to science, is that you seem to imagine that science and ideas are in some kind of conflict. “Science=1, philosophy=0” and that those who don’t agree are somehow anti-science. That’s just nonsense. Many of us fully agree on the importance of science and some of us perhaps are even scientists!? But, what we don’t agree on is that blindly measuring everything is the only way of learning anything.

                You have to plan your battles, even if in the heat of action some of your plans don’t work out the way you imagined they would.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

                Who mentioned anything about “blind measurement”?

                Over and over and over again, I’ve defined science as the rational analysis of empirical observation. How you get from that to “blind measurement” is beyond me.


              • darrelle
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

                “. . . but you can be sure that Von Moltke’s intention was *not* to imply that for that reason planning battles was pointless.”

                Really!? You really thought I meant something like that?

                Von Moltke’s quote was specifically about conflict and is a distillation of many factors from ‘you will never have complete information’ to ‘your opponent wants to win too.’

                Von Moltke’s intention was to imply, no to impress, that planning is not enough. That you have to understand that your plan will break down and that, when it does, you have to be prepared to respond to what is actually happening. In other words you have to plan for being able to adjust your plan based on the resulting data from testing it in action in the real world.

                In a similar way, you can think of an explanation for some phenomenon, but you need to be prepared for your explanation to be inaccurate when tested against reality, and be able to use what you observed from your testing to improve the accuracy of your explanation.

                This seems like a perfectly apt paraphrase of von Moltke’s original quote. Do you disagree? Why?

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

                Darrelle – No I agree with you on that, it’s a very apt quotation. What I was disagreeing with was Ben’s highjacking of the quote to imply that forward planning is worthless, which he is now back pedalling on, I think. The thing is we’ve reached the maximum indentation limit so I couldn’t directly respond to Ben’s post.

              • darrelle
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink


                I’ll just scoot on out of the way before I get burned. You guys are having too much fun for me to interfere. 🙂

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:21 am | Permalink

        Mathematics doesn’t measure anything in the outside world either, but is often just inference from a set of assumed axioms. For instance, Riemannian geometry arose from discarding some of the assumptions of Euclidean geometry and the tensor mathematics Riemann developed was essential to Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Riemann could hardly have done that on the basis of empirical knowledge, since the world does appear to be Euclidean. Whilst doing mathematics is mostly rigorous, what mathematics you do most certainly isn’t, since it is essential to decide which results are important and which are trivial and not worth following up. You can’t do that by any empirical method.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:05 am | Permalink

          Oh please, flogging that poor old horse!

          Mathematics is a) developed based on usefulness (else why use integers instead of hyperreals) b) developed based on useful methods (empirical heuristics for proof making), c) admitting possible errors and computer proofs.

          There are non-platonist mathematicians that deem it quasiempirical (Chaitin). So this is a clay foot to place the burden of philosophical relevance on. Philosophy of the gaps.

          • Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:04 am | Permalink

            “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world.” G.H. Hardy.

            Well as it turned out he was wrong – but in a way that shows why you are wrong: Some people think about stuff, because it’s interesting, not because they want to invent some new kind of toaster. Sometimes later, those thoughts may have some practical application that connects to something in the real world, sometimes not.

            Your last paragraph is an attempt at philosophy, so according to your own arguments it doesn’t have any relevance to anything. It’s a good example though of a self refuting argument.

            In any case I was just contesting here the ridiculous assertion that all useful thinking is “empirical”, which isn’t even false.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

              Sometimes later, those thoughts may have some practical application that connects to something in the real world, sometimes not.

              And how do we know that the thoughts were useful as opposed to not?

              Because somebody closed the empirical loop and actually put the ideas to the test. Duh!

              So many vocal advocates of philosophy seem to think that philosophers are the only ones qualified to think up new ideas, and that their ideas are so pure that they don’t need empirical validation. Such unevidenced hubris.



              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

                No, you can’t “empirically” test that the number of primes is infinite in the “real world”, it’s an a priori mathematical proof that has nothing to do with measurements of real world phenomena. Still it turns out to be pretty useful knowledge.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

                And what does the infinity of primes have to do with the price of Tea in China? It’s certainly the first appearance they’ve made on this thread.

                But, even there, with the most abstract of mathematical concepts, the only way we know anything about them is by extrapolation from empirical observation. It could have been that adding one apple to another apple resulted in three apples, or no apples or anything else other than two apples. Had that been the case, arithmetic as we know it would be an interesting idle curiosity and some other form of math would be used to balance a checkbook.

                Similarly, it is only through the empirical validity of the principle of non-contradiction that we are able to have any confidence about the infinitude of primes. But come up with just one empirical example of a violation of the principle of non-contradiction, and all of everything you think you’re so philosophically certain of will go out the window — just as all of science would crumble with a single violation of conservation.

                But then, you know what would happen?

                We’d observe this new phenomenon, attempt to reconcile our observations with our understanding of other observations (including historical ones), and see if there’s any rational analysis we can derive from our empirical observations.

                We’d do science, in other words — not philosophy.



      • Peter Beattie
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

        » Ben Goren (above):
        …it’s overwhelmingly clear that the only thing that actually ever generates real knowledge is empiricism.

        You can dream up whatever you want however you want, but it doesn’t become knowledge until you’ve empirically verified it in the real world.

        One or two things a philosopher would be interested in:

        What would we want to call “real knowledge”? Is there such a thing as “fake knowledge”? Actually, there is a very useful distinction that Karl Popper popularized, which is that between (the theory of) “subjective knowledge” and (the theory of) “objective knowledge”.

        Also, what do we mean by “verified” knowledge? Most people take that to mean “to find sufficient evidence for a belief so that the belief is justified”. The operative words here are “sufficient”, “for”, and “justified”. “Sufficient” usually implies an inductive inference, which has been comprehensevily shown to be impossible by Hume and, actually dissolving the problem, by Popper (see section 2 of this SEP entry). “For” tends to represent an uncritical method of looking for evidence that supports your ideas; again, Popper has something to say about that. And “justified” tends to focus on certainty and/or probability, which we know, again thanks to Popper, do not apply to our knowledge.

        Our knowledge (in the sense of objective knowledge referred to above) is always conjectural, subject to revision, and can only be tested critically, e.g. against empirical evidence. But it is always (at best) only the best knowledge we have. This knowledge may be true (if we are lucky and our critical tests thorough) with respect to the problems that inspired us to make a conjecture in the first place, but they are never The Truth™.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

          That’s a great demonstration of the difference between a philosopher and a scientist.

          The philosopher is looking for sky hooks, the magical mystery supreme justification from which to lower the rest of the theory from on high.

          The scientists starts with an idea, tests it, sees how well it holds up to the test. Did it work? Great — now what can I build with what I just made? Did it fail? Hmm…I wonder if I can try something different to help me figure out what went worng.

          And that is how we really know everything that we actually know. Including this epistemology itself — we tried other things, they didn’t work; we tried some things similar to this, they kinda worked, and we iteratively wound up where we are today.

          TL/DR: Science is a recursive process just like Evolution that builds from the ground up. Philosophy is a top-down, unsupported and unsupportable skyhook with no grounding in reality.



          • Bruce Gorton
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

            I would argue that philosophy is simply the field of figuring out how we know that.

            As such it is very useful to science because it systemises what we think we know and looks for gaps in the logic.

            These gaps can for example include those caused by selectivity biases which can lead to circular reasoning, or demonstrating the need for further research.

            While philosophy in and of itself may not strictly speaking contribute knowledge, any logic is only as good as the premise it is based off of, it is an important element to vetting and auditing the knowledge we have got.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

              I would argue that philosophy is simply the field of figuring out how we know that.

              That would be epistemology, which is but one small field the philosophers claim.

              And, as I addressed earlier, the moment we made it a recursive matter in the Age of Reason, empiricism and real science was born. Any questions about how we know what we know are now resolved by the rational analysis of empirical evidence.



          • Peter Beattie
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

            Since you didn’t engage with anything I said and referenced, allow me: How do we know that induction doesn’t work? How many empirical observations—which are the be-all and end-all of knowledge, as you say—would it take to verify that hypothesis? Is Hume right in this regard?

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

              How do we know that induction doesn’t work?

              Is this a serious question?

              Induction was unable to figure out that the Four Elements are nothing more than pleasant fiction. Induction was helpless in determining the geometry first of the Earth. then the solar system, and especially most recently the (Einsteinian and Quantum) geometry of the universe. Induction told us that the luminiferous aether was real, and that all life was originally designed by a master watchmaker. It’s induction that tells some of us that Jesus loves us and wants us to convert or kill all those dirty muslims.

              There comes a point where sanity demands you stop banging your head against the wall. If that’s not the case with respect to the philosophical worship of induction, I don’t know what is.

              Can it be an helpful filter, to weed out some bad ideas? Sure. Yes. Of course. Overwhelming empirical observations lead us to conclude that that which is contradictory doesn’t exist; if you can find an inherent contradiction in your sniny new idea, you know that there’s so little chance of it actually being useful that you can very safely drop it right there on the spot.

              But, just because your idea isn’t obviously self-contradictory means absolutely nothing. Until you’ve actually done the empirical analysis, your inductive ideas are no different from any other form of fiction.



              • Peter Beattie
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                » Ben Goren:
                Is this a serious question?

                More serious, apparently, than your answer—which again failed to engage with anything I said. Interesting choice, by the way, to use an inductive argument against induction. That was exactly why I suggested you have a look at Hume’s efforts, and Poppers systematization of them. That is, so that you wouldn’t spend a couple of paragraphs talking about things that I am either perfectly aware of or that are not at issue.

                And just for the record, your focus on “philosophical worship of induction” seems to be a prime example of verificationism (i.e. to stop looking once you’ve found positive evidence that convinces you of some theory’s truth), since the worship of induction was just as prevalent among scientists. Some scientists helped try to dispel the myth, among them Darwin and Einstein, but it was a philosopher who did the systematic work.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                Some scientists helped try to dispel the myth, among them Darwin and Einstein, but it was a philosopher who did the systematic work.


                Darwin didn’t even start on his master Theory until after his monumental work performing the most commendable body of empirical observations on his seminal voyage.

                And though Einstein did little or no actual research, himself, he started with a careful analysis of the studies of others, and Relativity would have long since been discarded as but another Luminiferous Aether had it not been for the remarkable record of subsequent empirical validations.

                But perhaps you can tell us how, inductively, and without resort to observation, one is supposed to conclude whether Creationism or Evolution is a better theory, or whether Newtonian or Einsteinian Mechanics is more likely to describe reality.



              • Peter Beattie
                Posted May 7, 2013 at 3:20 am | Permalink

                » Ben:

                Oh Ben, you still don’t even understand what I am saying—again, because you haven’t bothered to read a single word of what I referenced. You spend another three paragraphs ascribing to me a position (that of defender of induction) that I am explicitly opposed to, which you would understand if only you read what I suggested you read in this comment.

                And as I pointed out here, you are using induction yourself. To argue against induction. Without a hint of self-awareness. Which is why I asked you, “How do we know that induction doesn’t work?” Because it doesn’t, but that cannot be shown inductively, your efforts notwithstanding. So again, do you have a non-inductive answer to the question how we know that induction doesn’t work?

              • Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

                Ben, I don’t think you understand what induction actually is. Induction is generalizing from a subset of examples to a universal theory, saying that because the examples we have indicate X that therefore X is true. It’s invalid because it is always possible for there to be other examples that don’t follow the rule, and so can be false. Generally, induction is indeed what science does, and is precisely what caused us to figure out all of the things you talk about here.

                Since you cannot ever examine all examples, both that exist now and will exist in the future, no matter how many empirical measurements you take you will never overcome the deductive invalidity of induction. For the most part, however, for doing science that’s okay if coupled with a reasonable deductive argument; it works out well enough to work with and if we get later examples science will adapt to explain all of them.

                Philosophy does not worship induction. Philosophy worships DEDUCTION. Thus, it tends to reject inductive explanations and instead focuses on deductive ones, which are often very hard to obtain. What you are actually objecting to is “armchair philosophy” … which has been objected to for quite some time in philosophy (see attempts to naturalize philosophy and the objections to that).

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 7, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                It’s invalid because it is always possible for there to be other examples that don’t follow the rule, and so can be false.

                That’s why we have statistics.

              • Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

                & then along comes a black swan…


            • Posted May 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

              Diane G,

              Statistics has the exact same problem, as it can only work from the instances you’ve observed and give you a probability of it being correct based on that. Again, since you can’t observe all the instances it always proceeds based on incomplete information, and so the move from the specific instances to the general always can, in fact, be false. With enough instances — and good enough deductive reasoning about what those experiences have to mean — you’re just confident that it won’t turn out that way, and science accepts that if it finds new instances that contradict it that it will have to readjust.

              Induction and this sort of analysis are not bad, and in fact are pretty much the right way to go about doing something like science. It works less well for philosophy, though, and as it can be false philosophers want to see if they can get more certainty as opposed to mere confidence.

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:21 am | Permalink

            That’s a great demonstration of the difference between a philosopher and a scientist.

            And it’s also a great demonstration of the fact that philosophy is largely nothing but semantics.

            • Peter Beattie
              Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

              » Diane G.:
              And it’s also a great demonstration of the fact that philosophy is largely nothing but semantics.

              Which you, too, say without engaging with anything I said or referenced. For example, how do you assess Hume’s effort to prove the impossibility of induction? (Induction of the Baconian empiricist bent, which all scientists, by the way, were still convinced they were using at the time and that Ben Goren seems to be hung up on too.)

      • peterr
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        “whatever … doesn’t become knowledge until you’ve empirically verified it in the real world.”

        Counterexamples: the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem, the Godel Incompleteness Theorem,the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

          But those are all very well empirically verified!

          I’m not particularly familiar with the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem, but I do know that Cern’s recent (presumed) confirmation of the Higgs constitutes validation of the Theorem. The Incompleteness Theorem is equivalent to Turing’s Halting Problem, and that’s something that everybody who’s ever built or worked with a computer debugger can personally attest to. And the first person to discover a lack of a complex root would instantly become the most celebrated mathematician and logician in all of history.

          I mean, really. Next thing you’ll be suggesting that there’s no empirical evidence to support the Pythagorean Theorem.



          • peterr
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

            It seems that the index theorem had about 50 years after a rigorous proof before it became Ben’s version of the word ‘knowledge’ (though mathematicians had considered it far more than needed for the Fields Medal), and similarly for the others. Or have you done a little shift from “become knowledge” to “constitute validation”, Ben?

            I hadn’t read other responses before writing this or the earlier, but suspect many others have raised mathematical knowledge as a counterexample to “..doesn’t become knowledge..” That gets us into one of the few things we disagree about, one of us absolutely certain that every form of platonism is obvious nonsense, and the other not so certain.

            Actually, if I again take the devil’s advocate in supporting Tegmark’s famous speculation, his empirical knowledge is mostly just mathematical knowledge about one particular abstract system. Nobody here seems able to provide anything but unthoughtful gut feeling when one asks for a solid general definition of the difference between physical existence and (supposed) abstract existence. Is there any?

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

              It seems that the index theorem had about 50 years after a rigorous proof before it became Ben’s version of the word ‘knowledge’ (though mathematicians had considered it far more than needed for the Fields Medal), and similarly for the others.


              In exactly the same way that theories about the Luminiferous Aether were not actual knowledge until after Michelson-Morley demonstrated that it didn’t exist — at which point we knew that they weren’t actual knowledge before, either. Had we not found the Higgs…well, maybe the Theorem would have found applicability elsewhere, and it would still have been its isolated own self-contained imaginary universe.

              But, lacking that type of empirical validation, it was just yet another interesting fiction, albeit one with the potential to actually be an accurate representation of the way the universe really works.



              • peterr
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

                This response is moderately breathtaking:

                On the one hand we have a claimed analogy between a rejected physical theory (the ether) and a proved and much discussed theorem of mathematics (arguably among the 2 or 3 most important in the 20th century). That itself is hard to swallow.

                As for the ether, suppose that in 1870, one ‘result’ took the form, ‘if ether exists, then P’. (Surely many took exactly that form.) Now logically that is equivalent to ‘if notP, then the ether does not exist’. You seem to be asserting that, after physicists became convinced that the ether indeed did not exist, that latter statement was known to be non-knowledge rather than knowledge??

                I am interested to learn a reference to where someone has connected the Index Theorem to the Higgs explicitly. I hadn’t seen it, but it would be unsurprising, since both are closely connected to partial differential equations. (However, the standard 1995 reference to Quantum Field Theory, Peskin/Schroeder, seems not to mention it at all.) But asserting that the final verification, of existence of a certain quantum field (Higgs) which the standard model predicted to exist, should somehow convert an already proved theorem of mathematics from non-knowledge to knowledge, seems quite extraordinary. Among other things, physicists have long-known that the standard model cannot be quite correct itself (what with gravity and dark matter missing from it, for example).

              • peterr
                Posted May 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                Lacking a reply, probably the claim of knowing a connection between the Index Theorem and the Higgs field is a bit of hot air.

                Too bad—I pretty much agree with Ben’s withering criticism of philosophy as long as that last word is replaced by ‘most of what academic philosophers have produced in recent times, and not so recent as well maybe’.

                But the pat phrase about what all knowledge must be, or come from, is a bit too much like typical Usian simplistic quotes from the constitution, or even the bible!

                The debate on the virtues or otherwise of philosophy is certainly entertaining. But I prefer examples like particular theorems in mathematics to see if there is much more than hot air behind the generalities.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink


        I see several philosophical claims in your comment.

        An ethical claim: “[People ought not do] unto others what said others don’t want done unto them.”

        Epistemological claims: “the only thing that actually ever generates real knowledge is empiricism … it doesn’t become knowledge until you’ve empirically verified it in the real world.”

        What are your reasons for holdings those beliefs? Equivalently, what is your evidence for them? (My suspicion: It will be characteristically philosophical.)

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

          One might as well — and just as correctly — observe that they’re all also theological claims. And astrological claims. And Scientological claims.

          If you try to do something to somebody that said person doesn’t want to be done unto, repeated observation suggests two very likely outcomes. First your victim will resist. At the very least, you’re now wasting your own resources on overcoming the victim’s resistance. Second, others will likely attempt to do unto you that which you do not want done unto yourself, which is again counter-productive to your own ends. And, again, this is overwhelmingly well-evidenced empirical observations that really don’t need any more discussion than an observation that round wheels are more efficient than square ones.

          And science (and academia in general) is positively littered with things we once were sure we knew but which failed the empirical tests. Creationism, the Luminiferous Aether, geocentricism, humors, astrology, the Four Elements — on and on and on and on, time after time, the only way that we’ve ever learned anything is by actually putting ideas to the test.



          • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

            And science (and academia in general) is positively littered with things we once were sure we knew but which failed the empirical tests. Creationism, the Luminiferous Aether, geocentricism, humors, astrology, the Four Elements — on and on and on and on, time after time, the only way that we’ve ever learned anything is by actually putting ideas to the test.

            That empirical questions need to be settled with empirical verification is hardly surprising, but not all questions are empirical. It is part of philosophy to figure out if a question is empirical or not, and it is really hard to imagine how you can do that empirically without putting in a premise — such as, say, an assessment of utility — that itself would either be unjustifiable empirically or, perhaps, not justifiable at all.

            As an example, your empirical premises for ethics above fail to justify the stance, because you ignoring that you are starting from an unstated premise: one ought to do what benefits them the most. Which is Egoism, and leads to rather poor results ethically. If one challenges the assumption that one ought to act in ones own interests, your empirical justifications fail to be so.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

              As an example, your empirical premises for ethics above fail to justify the stance, because you ignoring that you are starting from an unstated premise: one ought to do what benefits them the most. Which is Egoism, and leads to rather poor results ethically.

              Pish, tosh, and balderdash.

              First, the simplest form of Darwinism is all that’s needed to know that only those who act in furtherance of their genomes actually survive.

              And it’s only the most unsophisticated, most childish forms of what you label as “egoism” that lead to “rather poor results.” Even our very first cursory empirical investigation into the matter demonstrated the evolutionary importance of cooperation and altruism, which are very logical and obvious outgrowths of the desire to further one’s own lot.

              “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is something even our least sophisticated simian cousins have figured out — with the distinct exception of philosophical apologists whenever these types of discussions arise.

              If this sort of thing is what passes for deep thinking amongst philosophers — and, empirically, it’s the sort of thing that always inevitably comes up — then it’s no wonder the field has such a piss=poor reputation.



              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                First, the simplest form of Darwinism is all that’s needed to know that only those who act in furtherance of their genomes actually survive.

                And why should that be the determining factor in what it means to be moral? If you argue this, then you’d have to advocate that we should, in fact, always be making our moral considerations in light of direct genome survival … so not, then, in light of empathy or, in fact, based on what harm it causes to others. If, then, you act so as not to harm others it isn’t because you think that it’s bad or wrong to harm others, but that you think that in that case it won’t benefit your genomes to not harm them, or to not do what they don’t want done to them. But it is clear, then, that if you could indeed increase the survival of your genomes by harming others, you would. And most people would call you immoral for supporting that, with justification.

                Add in that the futherance of your genome does not map directly to the survival of you as one entity and you might well have to choose your death in order to further your genome.

                And this leads to the issues with Egoism, which we can see in your two principles. In terms of the first, if you consider it to benefit you enough — by whatever standard you’re using — to do unto someone what they don’t want you to do, then the extra resistance is just something you have to overcome to get that benefit. So, if the cost-benefit analysis works out then you do it, just like buying a TV or going to a movie. There are a number of cases where we can easily see this happening. In terms of the second, you only get the benefit if the others also accept that principle; if not, you become a sucker taken advantage of by those stronger than you and can’t recover by taking from those weaker than you. Sure, if everyone accepts it it all works out, but anyone who can get away with taking from the weaker in some cases without paying the social costs will still make out better than those who don’t, and so again by your own standards you would easily find cases where you violate the very principles you claimed to justify.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                Again, I’m simply astounded that this type of sloppy thinking is what passes for common wisdom amongst philosophy.

                Really, truly, it’s no better than the religionists who declare that there is no morality without their gods, and then spin wildly tangential fantasy horror stories about how their coreligionists are the only ones justified in not going on murderous rampages of rape and pillage.

                And I’m not exaggerating!

                Your cartoonish caricature is exactly that unsophisticated, for it blithely waves away all second- and third-order effects.

                If you’re the type to go on murderous rampages of rape and pillage, you’re not going to survive very long; the non-murdering non-raping non-piliaging members of your society will band together and see to it. (If everybody in that society is like that, they’ll quickly entirely self-annihilate.) If you’re only somewhat immoral, again, either your moral peers will keep you in line or you’re now stuck with the burden of living in an immoral and dysfunctional society.

                If you take even the slightest look past the next five minutes of instant gratification, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that what’s best for the long-term prosperity of the species is also what’s most likely to permit you yourself to enjoy the fruits of such a prosperous society — and the leverage you can gain from such a cooperative effort is incomprehensible.

                Why, take this very computer you’re reading, and the network to which it’s attached. Do you think it came about because somebody was so short-sighted that they were wasting time with thoughts of the benefits of crushing their enemies and raping their women?



              • Peter Beattie
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                » Ben:
                If this sort of thing is what passes for deep thinking amongst philosophers — and, empirically, it’s the sort of thing that always inevitably comes up — then it’s no wonder the field has such a piss=poor reputation.

                There you go again with your philosophical worship of induction…

              • Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

                Ben, I find it odd that you think that philosophy has not examined your conclusions when they are basically what was described in Hobbes’ Leviathan, published in 1651. Social contract theory is covered in most introduction to ethics courses. So, congratulations on finally arriving, philosophically, at the 17th century.

                But what is mindboggling is that you somehow have missed the main point of my point, which is that by the view you espouse here you do not think that harming people is, in and of itself, morally wrong. You believe that it is morally wrong only when it doesn’t benefit you to harm others, and then try to argue that in all or most cases it isn’t to your benefit to harm others and so you will never harm others. But you seem to accept that you could harm others if it did benefit you, and that doesn’t bother you at all.

                So, how is that reasoning different from religious people who claim that if it wasn’t for the promise of heaven and the threat of hell they wouldn’t act morally? They say that they do not harm others because good things happen to them if they don’t harm others and bad things hapen to them if they do. You say the same thing. Most people think the former case is horrible, so why shouldn’t your case be equally horrible?

                Also note that your analysis of people who are willing to harm others if it benefits them is essentially cartoon villain simplistic reasoning. You assume, for example, that a group of people who are completely self-interested couldn’t work together to build a computer while still taking any opportunities that come along to advance themselves at the expense of others. But this is false; all they have to do is do the cost/benefit analysis and risk assessment and decide that the risk of punishment and the cost of it are outweighed by the benefits. As long as they stop short of creating a complete attitude of distrust, most of your objections fade away.

                And, ironically, the empirical evidence is against your theory. We have people who hurt others, and society has not collapsed, nor have all of them been caught or punished sufficiently so that the costs outweighed the benefits. Certainly, if everyone did it all the time or for no reason things would work out badly, but no one will, in fact, do it all the time or for no reason. They’ll only do it when they think that the benefit outweighs the risk … and by your reasoning that’s what they SHOULD do.

                And, again, that’s how Egoism fails: it demands that you harm and take advantage of others if you think you can get away with it. That you never think you can get away with it does not, in fact, improve your morality.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:00 am | Permalink

      Tom, I think you are confusing two different concepts: that of justifying science and that of justifying a preference for, for example, explanation A over explanation B.

      Problem is, in the sense of arriving at certain or even probable knowledge, there is no consistent way of justification—as the positivists of the early 20th century found out to their disappointment. What we can justify, though, if you must use that word, is a preference for A over B, if we have critically tested A’s and B’s implications and found those of A to correspond better to the facts. (This idea entails slightly more complex arguments with reference to falsificationism, or critical rationalism in general, and the correspondence theory of truth.)

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Peter Beattie,

        The claim that we don’t have any way of arriving at justification is a controversial, substantive philosophical claim, and many, many philosophers would disagree with you there. I don’t know that we can get into the details here, but I can suggest some sources or something.

        I think the idea of “critically testing” A’s implications and “finding” them to correspond better to the facts looks like another way of talking about justification.

        • Peter Beattie
          Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Not any justification, Tom, but only “in the sense of arriving at certain or even probable knowledge”. I referenced 20th c. positivists and how they, pretty much by their own admission, failed.

          As for sources, I referenced some in this comment above. Which includes a short exposition by Popper on falsificationism. That might be helpful, not just to clear up the confusion—which you again did not notice—between a justified belief and a justified preference.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:01 am | Permalink

      If criticism is generally “dissing” philosophy, it is likelier that the problem is that philosophy deserves dissing than that the analyst is wrong.

      If something is bad or good, waste time, et cetera is obviously an empirical matter. And a nitpick: “justified beliefs” is a philosophical idea of facts, not the statistical measure known to observe facts (uncertainty).

      As for the positions of “justification”, they don’t pertain to facts anyway. Facts are mostly in that sense “circularly justified” (observational constraints are tested with their observations), with a dynamics that break circularity as it proceeds (new observations). How observations and their constraints et cetera “justifies” religion instead of rejects it is a magical mystery at this point.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Hi Torbjörn,

        I see a few philosophical claims with no evidence, but I do see you conceding the epistemological debate to the religionists.

    • Ray
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      There are only three possible positions one might take about the justification of trusting PHILOSOPHY:

      1. It is unjustified.

      2. It is circularly “justified.”

      3. It is justified by some field outside itself.

      Seems like moving the justification of the scientific method off to philosophy just transfers the problem somewhere else. But, the reliability of science was never particularly in doubt. Do you seriously want to argue that science is untrustworthy? Over the internet, using computers? On the other hand, the reliability of philosophy is very much in doubt, so if we’re going to accept something without justification, the reliability of science is a much better candidate.

      Of course, I did offer some justification for trusting science with my flippant comment regarding computers, but is that a philosophical justification? Do I need a philosopher to tell me that scientists designed the bloody internet? I don’t think so.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink


        I don’t deny the reliability of science. I think it’s obvious, because I think some philosophical claims are obvious. (Appealing to reliability is an attempt at justification.)

        The justification of philosophy is circular, but the claim that circular arguments at least sometimes are unsound is a philosophical claim.

    • sailor1031
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      “Do you think that people in general ought not do philosophy?” – I don’t care if they do or don’t.

      “Or that philosophy is bad?” – maybe some is, some isn’t. Does it depend on the philosopher or on philosophy?

      “Or that it is a waste of time,” – yes

      “and one should not waste one’s time?” – No. Time wasted is some of the best time I have experienced

      “Or that philosophy does not generate real knowledge?” – well has it ever? if so how does it?

      “Or that philosophical arguments do not justify beliefs?” – looking at belief I fail to see where philosophy has had much to do with it. Revelation, spurious scriptures, rumour and wishful thinking seem to engender much of belief.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink


        I think philosophy has generated lots of knowledge. A few examples:

        – that science is trustworthy.
        – that the five senses are trustworthy.
        – that people should not be enslaved.
        – that people should not be murdered because of their ethnicity.
        – that, at fewest, some of our beliefs are justified.

        You could deny that those beliefs are knowledge, but I don’t see how you could deny that they are characteristically philosophical.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Philsophy has done no such thing.

          that science is trustworthy.

          No. Science works, bitches, as the meme goes.

          that the five senses are trustworthy

          Except that, thanks to science, we know that they’re very untrustworthy.

          that people should not be enslaved

          Empirically, societies with slavery do not thrive; they die out. If you do not wish your society to rip itself apart, if you wish to enjoy the full fruits of the labors of all your society’s members, you will strive to ensure that all have ample opportunity to achieve their own dreams. Slavery is the very antithesis of what makes for a successful society — and, again, as demonstrated empirically. Indeed, prevalence of slavery is an excellent proxy for overall social health.

          that people should not be murdered because of their ethnicity

          Huh? Are you claiming that murder is justified based on some criteria other than ethnicity? This makes no sense. Regardless, whatever you think you might have been going for, I’m sure it’s more than amply encompassed by my response to your previous point. A society in which murder is acceptable is one in which everybody’s going to be putting excessive resources into avoiding murder rather than building roads and bridges and hospitals and schools and concert halls and museums and what-not.

          that, at fewest, some of our beliefs are justified

          And how do we know which of our beliefs are justified?

          Why, of course, by rationally analyzing relevant empirical observations! Science, again, for the win.



          • sailor1031
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:06 am | Permalink

            Thanks Ben – beat me to it. I would add, in regard to slavery as an example, that it is considered by many to be a bad thing because we as a species seem to have an innate sense of fairness which dictates to us that enslaving others is a violation of this sense. A sense we apparently share with other primates who do not practice philosophy…

        • notsont
          Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

          Question, do you need philosophy to come to those conclusions? Because if so, my 2 year old rediscovered philosophy all on his own.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      I, and I think many others are perfectly happy with your (2). As Ben Goren said, empiricism is it, and there’s no issue with using rteferences to nature to justify our theories about nature.

      OTOH, I don’t think religious can lay any claim to (2) due to the internal contradictions they have. How many different accounts of the creation are there in genesis? How many different accounts of the commandments are there in exodus and other books? To give just two of the most obvious examples from the judeo-xian myth.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      Tom, it’s your position that’s self-defeating. If every belief needed to be given a justification, then we would need an infinite regress of justifications (since each justification must start from further premises which would in turn need justifications). That way lies total epistemic skepticism: we can’t know anything.

      We also don’t need to define or analyse our concepts, such as “knowledge”. Again, if we had to analyse our words before we could successfully use them, we would be faced with another infinite regress, since those analyses would have to use other words, which would themselves require analyses. We can use the word “knowledge” successfully because we have acquired comptence with the word, through our previous experience of hearing and using it.

      Our beliefs and competence with words are rooted in experience and non-conscious cognitive processes, not in conscious reasoning. When we start conscious reasoning we already have a wealth of knowledge and linguistic competence to draw on. Scientists can draw on those sources without having to engage in philosophy. Science has managed very well without significant input from philosophers.

      We don’t normally need to give any justification for trusting science. It’s a brute fact that we trust science because it’s been so successful in the past. That said, as a thorough-going skeptic, I have asked myself if I can justify trusting science, and my answer is yes, I justify it on the basis that it’s worked in the past. Traditional aprioristic philosophy, on the other hand, hasn’t worked, which is why I favour a more scientific, naturalized approach to philosophy.

      I’m not dissing all philosophy. It’s my thinking about philosophy that helps me see what’s wrong with your epistemology.

  3. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to comments… sub.

  4. Somite
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I do have a beef with philosophy and it is their indiscriminate use of the word epistemology to argue for alternate ways of knowing besides naturalism. Maybe it is a common misuse but in discussions of religion and atheism whenever someone brings up episthemology, I know the argument will be that humans can not understand God because he is outside of science and nature or some similar assertion that completely lacks evidence.

    Maybe it should be emphasized that only the study of epistemology within ontological naturalism is consistent with the observable evidence.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      It should also be pointed out that when someone says “human can not understand god,” he or she is presupposing a rather considerable knowledge of god. Of what possible value is it for someone to claim “I know that god is unknowable”?

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      This wouldn’t be a very good beef with philosophy, though, since philosophy is fairly explicit that just because something is outside of science doesn’t mean that we can’t know or understand it. And your “emphasis” is, in fact, precisely the thing that philosophy and epistemology is arguing over: ARE there alternative epistemologies other than naturalism? Noting here that you’d have to use “naturalism” in a different sense than “There are no supernatural entities”; in epistemology, naturalized would mean generally scientific in the narrow sense, and attempts to use those approaches to settle some of the critical problems in philosophy have failed miserably. And I’d argue that if the goal of philosophy is conceptual analysis then that’s exactly what you’ll expect, since concepts set the pre-conditions of the instances you can observe but aren’t bound by the instances you observe; what it means to be a moon isn’t determined by the moons you’ve seen or could see in this universe.

  5. Posted May 5, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Come on, Ben. Tell Chairman Mayer why he’s an ignoramus in need of an introductory philosophy class and a long evening learning about Stanley Milgam.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t need to be about understanding philosophy and science both.

      It could be about personal preference instead of general usefulness (see my other comments). Or akin to religious scientists, cognitive dissonance.

  6. neil
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Wthout doubt, philosophy is useful. Clarity does not seem to be a strength in the discipline, however.

  7. Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that Greg Mayer participated with this blog. I have great friends in the Philosophy Department at Cornell over the entire time I was a prof at Cornell (1969-2010).

    At the same time, I get pissed when philosophers talk about “nature of selection” or “nature of science.” The term “nature of” has taken over philosophy. The “nature of selection” means only the philosopher will talk about selection, or “nature of science” will talk about science. “Nature of” signifies that the philosopher is at work.

    For the last three falls of my 42 years of teaching at Cornell, I taught a course on human free will with Derk Pereboom, then chair of the Department of Philosophy, and David Levitsky. We had an argument about “nature of.” I said we had to get rid of false language in “the free will debate.” No “nature of” will appear in our language All three rejected human free will, and believed the term itself was part of our problem.

    Discussion is better with no “nature of.” We had a great time together with Law students and advanced undergraduates.

    Greg, lets hear back from you on “nature of.”

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t intend for the phrase “nature of” to have any special meaning. In the first instance, it was an allusion to the title of Elliott Sober’s book, The Nature of Selection, which itself I have always taken to be an allusion to “natural selection”. Among the issues relating to selection that might be addressed are levels/units of selection, the propensity interpretation of fitness, drift vs. selection, etc. As far as the “nature of” science, I was just using a parallel phrasing. I could have said the characteristics of science, or the key features of science, or the distinguishing traits of science, etc.

      BTW, for WEIT readers, I highly recommend Will Provine’s magisterial biography of Sewall Wright, one of the founders of modern evolutionary biology, and, just as good but slightly less accessible to the general reader, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, which I first encountered as an undergrad.


  8. Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Second, understanding scientific methodology, and how/why it works, is a branch of epistemology– the study of how we know things.

    Once upon a time, a long time ago in the golden age of philosophers, the time of Plato and Socrates, there was much we didn’t know — including how to know what we did and didn’t know.

    But ever since the Age of Reason, we’ve realized that empiricism is not only sufficient but the only thing that works. (Should anything be better than empiricism, of course, it will have to be empirically demonstrated to be superior.) And now that we’ve turned empiricism upon itself, these types of questions are even more firmly settled.

    For example, empirically, the peer review process works superbly. But it has problems, especially in terms of cost to publish and access to published works. We’re now experimenting with that and the empirical results so far suggest open access online journals are likely even better, though more experimentation and analysis is needed.

    And so I would argue it is with all other areas that philosophers ply their trade. Either they’re doing rational analyses of empirical observations — and, to be sure, many people who wear a hat labeled, “philosopher,” do exactly that — or they’re spewing bullshit.

    But the rational analysis of empirical observations is the heart and soul of science, not philosophy. Insofar as a philosopher is empirically analyzing epistemology or ethics or whatever, she’s not doing philosophy; she’s doing science. The moment she fails to submit her ideas to the crucible of empiricism, she’s practicing philosophy and her work is worthless. (With, as always, the caveat that teamwork is essential in the modern world and division of labor is useful and expected — but only if somebody else is actually doing the rest of the work.)

    And, yes — of course. We get ideas from all sorts of places, including dreams of snakes eating their own tails or even bullshit sessions. We don’t lack for ideas, and we don’t need philosophers to suggest them, and philosophers certainly aren’t the only ones capable of looking at the data and thinking up new explanations. Indeed, though a fresh perspective is often helpful, it’s the people who’re wading through the muck who often have enough of the pieces of the puzzle to start to put it together.

    What we do lack is testing and validation of ideas, and that’s entirely the domain of science.

    So, Greg: that would be my response. When philosophers do science, they can do good work. But that only happens when they’re doing science, not philosophy; as soon as the disconnect with empiricism happens, philosophy loses even its hypothetical utility.



    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Except that you’re either using “empiricism” strangely (scientific training can do that – textbooks of science often bastardize the history of philosophy too!). Any scientific hypothesis has been invented; this alone makes science as much rationalist as empiricist.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      » Ben Goren:
      But ever since the Age of Reason, we’ve realized that empiricism is not only sufficient but the only thing that works.

      Except we haven’t and it doesn’t. What you take empiricism to be is nothing but induction, i.e. the purported deriving of knowledge from a certain number of empirical observations. Which would be like observing a roulette wheel, the ball landing on red ten times in a row, and concluding that the ball always lands on red. Explanationsless prediction, which is what induction does, is impossible, as David Deutsch says in The Beginning of Infinity, which btw is an obscenely well-written book. There, he also writes:

      Empiricism never did achieve its aim of liberating science from authority. It denied the legitimacy of traditional author­ities, and that was salutary. But unfortunately it did this by setting up two other false authorities: sensory experience and whatever fictitios process of ‘derivation’, such as induction, one imagines is used to extract theories from experience.

      This is what I suppose Greg meant when he talked about “understanding scientific methodology”. And that is part of philosophy.

  9. abandonwoo
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Nothing to say, just tracking.

  10. Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Having gotten a degree in philosophy, I can certainly point to many things it taught me to do well- think critically and skeptically, apply formal logic, and consider foreign viewpoints without dismissing them out of hand. That said, I feel that these tools of inquiry shouldn’t be limited to the philosophy department of colleges. They should instead be part of the core curriculum for grade school pupils. These should be seen as standard elements of education, not special skills for those with an aptitude and an interest in the general mishmash of studies lumped together as “philosophy”.

    Which brings me to my main concern about philosophy as an academic pursuit: it is, simply, not sufficiently focused to provide meaningful additions to our culture. When asked to describe what, exactly, philosophy *is*, I often find myself at a loss. And on the rare occasion that I can come up with an answer, it usually takes some form of “the process of asking questions”, which is so overbroad as to explain nothing at all.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:49 am | Permalink

      I’ve always seen philosophy as more of a tool. It’s not a pursuit in itself, but it helps you to approach other issues and see them more clearly. Wholeheartedly agree that it’s something that should be made a part of the curriculum. In some way it may be even more useful than calculus in that it has the potential to be even more universally applicable–and perhaps more approachable for most, as well.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        William James wrote that “Philosophy is the unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly,” which is the best definition of philosophy I have ever heard.

        Also, have you ever heard of the Philosophy for Children movement? Something like it seems sorely missing in (most) of our schools.

  11. Dale Franzwa
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Kudos to you Greg. The study of philosophy is worthwhile in and of itself, even if only to make sure we don’t continue to make the mistakes of the past over and over again. Of course, it’s valuable to clarify our thinking on a variety of subjects. I’ll list some of those I remember from my student days studying the field half a century ago: Logic (from Aristotle to the present), Epistemology (how can we know what we think we know), Ethics (how do we distinguish right from wrong or can we), Metaphysics (what is the nature of the world and what are our limits in studying it), Politics (what is utopia or the ideal state), Aesthetics (what is beauty). My brief listing hardly covers all the areas in which you can find philosophy.

    Of course there is good philosophy and bad philosophy. There are religious philosophers and non-religious philosophers and all shades in between. Because there is bad philosophy and religious philosophers is this a good reason to toss out the entire subject of philosophy? We can learn from our mistakes and, perhaps, advance our thinking. We can learn what kinds of questions are worth asking and what kinds of questions are a waste of time.

    While I admire much of what Ben (and other anti-philosophers like him) contribute to this WEB SITE(!), I profoundly disagree with his broad condemnation of philosophy because it doesn’t discover new things (as scientific inquiry does). Philosophy can and does lay out the foundations of science and scientific inquiry, as well as its limits, often by examining the things scientists are doing. That is why philosophy is valuable and why it matters.

    • notsont
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      You say there is good and bad philosophy, what criteria do you use to distinguish between them, and can it be evenly applied to all philosophy?

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink


        This is the heart of the matter.

        Science has the rational empirical feedback loop to determine what works and what doesn’t. Nothing else has it, and nothing else works.

        Philosophy can either match the success of science by re-inventing the empiricism wheel and thus turning itself into science, or it can come up with something even better. But that “something even better” has to actually work better than science, and that is the opposite of demonstrated so far.



        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

          Ben, you need to consider what philosophy’s project is before you can answer those sorts of questions. For me, it isn’t to answer empirical questions about the world. It used to be when there was no one else to do it, but science split off as a separate field and does it well, so philosophy doesn’t need to focus on it anymore. So it can return to what I think it loves to do and is the best at, which is concepts. And thus, you test it by seeing how conceptually clear the conceptualization is, which may NOT be clear in terms of everyday language, and seing if the concepts are consistent, and seeing if they cover all of the instances of the concepts that science has discovered AND instances that would happen if the world was different.

          You seem to very much judge philosophy by what interests you. It is fine for you and others to find philosophy a waste of time wrt your own interests, just as, say, someone may find playing video games a waste of time while another may find travelling a waste of time, and neither is right. It’s only when you try to declare that opinion to be some kind of objectively justified claim that the fighting starts.

          • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            If philosophy is nothing more than an entertaining idle pastime, I’m all in favor of it — exactly the same way I’m in favor of the Society for Creative Anachronisms or even religion. Or, for that matter, people who wish to explore the culinary or recreational benefits of various herbs.

            But it’s when philosophy starts siphoning off valuable resources from serious work and actively detracting from it that I start to have a problem. When your history leads to the type of revisionism on display in the new Bush Library, when your religion prompts you to teach Creationism in the schools, when you start thinking that those flowers in your garden will cure your cancer — that’s when it becomes a problem.

            Philosophy is mostly benign in that regard, except for the huge wastes of academic resources spent on things like PoMo.

            My suggestion? Do away with the philosophy departments. Keep the useful stuff, of course — but move the logicians in with the mathematicians and computer scientists, transfer the ethicists to the medical school, and if any of the existentialists are actually doing anything significant they need to be paired up with the cosmologists and particle physicists.



            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

              Where would you put the political philosophers (if not up against the wall)?


              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

                That’s actually a great idea!

                But, in seriousness…well, the various social sciences are still very young compared with the harder sciences, and we’re still trying really hard just to get enough of the various problems in our minds to be able to create really good tools to figure out what’s going on.

                This isn’t the fault of those in the social sciences. Rather, it’s because the subjects themselves are so much messier and more complicated than even chemistry or evolutionary biology. Asimov had a really nice fantasy of what the subject might look like when it’s mature with his psycchohistory, but even he’d agree that the reality of wherever we wind up will be much different (and much more interesting and useful and wondrous) than he ever dreamed up.

                In the mean time, we need to keep beating up the social scientists to get them to that goal and to keep them from straying too far afield into philosophy and other forms of woo…but, at the same time, we should do so with the compassion that they’ve got unbelievably huge mountains in their way and that it’s going to be a while before anybody really figures out a good way of tackling them.

                It’s useful and not at all unreasonable to expect that one day politics and economics and criminology and the rest will be every bit as well understood as Newtonian Mechanics is today, though it seems likely that the explanations will be at least as complex and difficult to understand as Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics, if not much more so.

                But we’re not there yet — nowhere close, in fact — and you and I may well not live long enough to see that journey reach its goal.



            • Posted May 7, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

              Ben, you haven’t given the objective criteria to claim that philosophy is nothing more than that. Without that, you can express your opinion all you want but no one need accept that.

              It would probably be better if you looked at my definition of the project of philosophy and we started from there, instead of getting into this sort of circular opinion assertion.

  12. Posted May 5, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Very well said, so to say!

    I would like to add that not doing philosophy is as utterly impossible as not doing hypothesis testing. When you check three locales of decreasing prior likelihood one after the other in the search for your lost keys you are basically doing hypothesis testing. When you sit down with a friend over a few drinks and discuss the popular topic of “what is it all good for, if you come right down to it”, you are doing philosophy EVEN IF your conclusion is ultimately that life has no meaning beyond that which we give it.

    Dissing philosophy to feel superior to philosophers is thus precisely as ridiculous as a philosopher dissing induction to feel superior to scientists. Neither can avoid constantly doing both.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      I would totally disagree with you there. The gap between applying a little simple logic in looking for my car keys and what is commonly understood by ‘philosophy’ is so big as to constitute a difference in kind, like the difference between me writing this comment and Literature.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

        I think you’ve mixed up Alex’s examples.


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

          No, I don’t think so.

          Alex’s example (looking for car keys) was intended to suggest that we all apply logic in everyday life and therefore we all ‘do philosophy’, if I understand him correctly. And my point is, that fairly elementary activity doesn’t make us logicians or philosophers except in the most trivial sense, any more than writing this makes me an author or adding up my bank balance makes me a mathematician. Philosophy, literature, mathematics are all generally regarded as being the serious study of those subjects.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

            Oh, I see what you mean. Sorry, you’re right. I’ll restate my point using the right example – arguing about the universe over a pint is not what is normally considered ‘philosophy’, and I doubt whether most philosophers would accept that such arguments typically had any validity.
            I don’t think it changes the point I was making though.

    • Peter Beattie
      Posted May 7, 2013 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      » Alex SL:
      as ridiculous as a philosopher dissing induction to feel superior to scientists

      Which no informed philosopher does, because induction is not what scientists use when they arrive at actual knowledge. See this comment above for links to Hume’s logical refutation of induction and Popper’s arguments for why we don’t even need induction. The same point was made by Peter Medawar when he wrote “Is the Scientific Paper Fraudulent?” He says that it is—in its pretence of proceeding inductively.

  13. Posted May 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Reading Ben Goren again, it seems appropriate to also add that many of these discussions go so much in circles because they hinge on definitions.

    Massimo Pigliucci defines science so narrowly that – under his definition – he is correct in his claim that science cannot address the supernatural. He neatly excises the principle of parsimony, inferences to the best explanation, and the entire body of scientific knowledge to reduce science to a method for designing a single experiment at a time. But his definition does not agree with how science is commonly understood, nor with how it is understood by most scientists.

    Likewise, Ben Goren defines philosophy so narrowly that – under his definition – he is correct in his claim that philosophy is useless. All philosophy that he likes he just labels as science. But his definitions do not agree with how science and philosophy are commonly understood, nor with how they are understood by most scientists and philosophers.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      I don’t think the “narrowness” (actually, the broadness, re Coyne’s definition) of empirics and the clash with philosophical practice is the fault of science, it is the fault of philosophers.

      When engineers and/or instrument makers participate in science, they acknowledge they are doing engineering/instrument making within the domain of science.

      When philosophers participate in science (and mostly they don’t), they claim they are doing science within the domain of philosophy.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:48 am | Permalink

      Likewise, Ben Goren defines philosophy so narrowly that – under his definition – he is correct in his claim that philosophy is useless.

      First, empirically, “philosophy” is indistinguishable from “god” in that respect. I keep asking for a coherent definition of the term and get crickets in response.

      But I keep offering my definition of science: the rational analysis of empirical observation. If you’re in that business, even just working on a part of the problem, you’re doing science.

      Though there are philosophers who assist with the rational analysis of empirical observation, they’re such a small minority of the field it seems overwhelmingly clear that, whatever the actual definition of “philosophy” is, it encompasses endeavors other than the rational analysis of empirical observations.

      And, empirically, we know with overwhelming confidence that whatever the philosophers are doing is unreliable (however compelling or pleasing or whatever) until after it’s been through the crucible of science.



  14. Howard Kornstein
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Without Philosophy we would not have Philosopher jokes….
    My particular favourite:
    Question: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a philosopher?
    Answer: An offer you can’t understand.

    • peterr
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      The way I heard it:

      (Picturing a cross between Brando and Husserl) what will the phenomenologist mafioso say to you? “Let me make you an offer you can’t understand.”

      That one has a bit more bite and malevolence and grim humour to it, I think.

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:52 am | Permalink

    What I find annoying is the claim by _some_ philosophers that science is only legitimate because it has ‘philosophy’ to validate it. To which I would reply with a cartoon:

    I wouldn’t deny that science has its own philosophical bases (the ‘scientific method’, most notably) but this can’t be co-opted to legitimise other branches of what is loosely collected under the umbrella of ‘philosophy’.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      It’s probably the case that academic philosophy doesn’t have as good a set of checks and balances as science or mathematics does in order to distinguish good and bad work: For instance, Sokal’s hoax revealed the vacuity of much “post modern” philosophy and philosophers who are really theologians, such as Alvin Plantinga etc. don’t help to provide confidence in the field as a whole. Then there are the problems with semantics, where arguments are based on incorrect use of language, such as using words which express the relationship between concepts as absolutes. But, none of that is a reason for discarding philosophy as a whole; many ideas from philosophy have become a part of the common background of understanding that defines the intellectual climate within which science works.

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

        But, none of that is a reason for discarding philosophy as a whole

        It is exactly the perfect empirical demonstration of the futility of philsophy.

        Pons and Fleischmann burned the scientific community with their scams on cold fusion. Since then, studying cold fusion is practically an exercise in career suicide, barely one step above cryptozoology.

        Sokal just as effectively (though honestly, not dishonestly) demonstrated the scam that is postmodern philosophy, and yet it continues to thrive.

        Hell, that survey of philosophers linked to earlier is itself overwhelming empirical evidence of the futility of philosophy. You know that extended joke Richard makes in some of his stock presentations about what science journals would look like if they used the same principles as theologians? That’s exactly what philosophy journals actually do look like — and the evidence is right there in that survey!



  16. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Question: How many philosophers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    Answer: Let us first define ‘darkness’…

  17. deacon
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink


    BBC News, 3 May 2013
    A Point Of View: Ghosts in the material world
    John Gray revives the memory of a ghost story to discuss materialism – the theory that only matter exists.

    “In this view, science is a project of exorcism, which aims to rid the mind of anything that can’t be understood in terms of physical laws. But perhaps it’s the dogma of materialism that should be exorcised from our minds.”

    “The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.”

    Indeed, philosophers are of great help.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:40 am | Permalink

      Benveniste: Water molecules have memories.

      Blondlot: N rays.

      Fleischmann & Pons: Cold Fusion.

      Indeed, scientists are of great help.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:58 am | Permalink

        … and their errors were uncovered by philosophers…. NOT.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:10 am | Permalink

          The point was, in case it eluded you, that there are good and bad people in every field and it’s totally unscientific to produce some bad examples and then imply that the whole field is bad.

          And there really isn’t a competition between science and philosophy so that you have to get bristly in your defense of one over the other.

          • deacon
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:55 am | Permalink

            The history of physics is full of weird hypotheses, which are invalidated sooner or later and then removed for good. But the lovers of wisdom repeat the same mystical fantasies week after week–promoted by the broadsheet press–and never repent. And theology and philosophy are sisters in many National Academies.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

              Of the three areas of pseudo science mentioned, Cold Fusion and homeopathy are regrettably still very much alive; in fact, shamefully, homeopathy is supported and funded within the British NHS. We even have a chair of para psychology at Edinburgh university. Similarly, with theology and other dubious areas of philosophy. In any case your approach of condemning a whole field, based on some perceived deficiencies in areas of it, is unscientific in the extreme and has no more value as a theory than homeopathy does.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:59 am | Permalink

            “The point was, in case it eluded you, that there are good and bad people in every field and it’s totally unscientific to produce some bad examples and then imply that the whole field is bad.”

            And yet that’s exactly what you just did, isn’t it? And my point (in case it eluded you?) was that those false scientific claims you mentioned were uncovered by scientists, not philosophers.

            Yes I know that not all philosophers are full of it. There are, unfortunately, many examples of ones who are, as in the example Deacon quoted, who certainly seems to be attacking the basis of science. Or the post-modernists, see http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/dawkins.html.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:21 am | Permalink

              Philosophers of course critique each others work too. I agree about Sokal’s hoax, among other things as I already mentioned in a reply to one of your previous posts. The mistake you and Deacon are making is to try and tar everyone with the same brush, just because the word “philosopher” can be used to describe them. There are many areas within that very broad categorization that work in a complementary way with science.

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:30 am | Permalink

              And P.S. No that’s not what I just did! My post was intended to be ironic, but I thought that was too obvious to mention. Did you really read that and imagine that I was condemning science, surely not :).

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

                I thought you were being sarcastic rather than ironic. ‘Tone of voice’ doesn’t come over very well in print, a 😉 would have helped. Umm, 😉

                I do know there are useful philosophers, Dan Dennet or Stephen Pinker or Sam Harris for example (just the first three names who come to mind). It does seem to be a subject that attracts a lot of high-falutin’ nonsense though, possibly because (unlike science) there is no requirement for it to be anchored to ‘facts’.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 4:12 am | Permalink

                Actually I’ve just noticed that you made that point about ‘checks and balances’ (along with the obligatory Sokal reference : ) in an earlier answer. I wasn’t trying to hijack your points, just didn’t see your answer until I posted mine just above this.

            • Diane G.
              Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:38 am | Permalink

              And substitute “Muslims” for “philosophers,” and we have pretty much the exact same discussion going on here as in the Islamophobia post threads.

              Let philosophers clean up their own bullshit areas before they start preaching to us.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink


      I guess you were being ironic?

      “The belief that the world is composed only of physical things operating according to universal laws is metaphysical speculation, not a falsifiable theory.”

      C’mon. The world (or rather “everything there is” I guess) might not consist only of physical things, but it’s the only thing we can be somewhat sure about objectively exists. What does it help to consider what there might be out there that we don’t know exists? It can be anything. Trying to picture it just becomes hypotethical fantasies. Pointless.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 7, 2013 at 1:39 am | Permalink

        And damn close to theology.

  18. Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I’m almost finished with a degree in Genetics, but throughout the duration of my studies I made sure to include some study of philosophy–and I have never come to regret it. It is simply invaluable as a tool for critical thinking, as many other readers have already mentioned. In fact, I cannot understand why it is not more widely appreciated–especially at university level–as, personally, I see it as an important part of any science. It might not create any knowledge de novo, but it surely does allow us to understand and make sense of the knowledge we already have.

    May I also remind those opposed to the importance of philosophy in science that a PhD isn’t a doctorate degree in philosophy for no reason? You cannot produce data without thinking about it as well. Data without philosophy is worthless. 😉

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 6, 2013 at 2:14 am | Permalink

      I would say some study of logic, rather than philosophy in general, would be of more practical use. (Yes I know this invites a lot of dickering about what constitutes logic and what constitutes philosophy).

      Oh, and a PhD is named so for purely historical reasons – it no more denotes the holder as a philosopher than it indicates they’re a doctor. I’d no more trust a PhD in Marketing to philosophise than I’d trust him to operate on me. 😉

      • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        A Ph.D. does denote a doctor; it is an M.D. that has hijacked the term!


        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:26 am | Permalink

          Agreed – the ‘D’ doesn’t mean (our current meaning of) ‘doctor’, but then the ‘Ph’ doesn’t mean ‘philosopher’ either. As I said, you can get a PhD in Marketing!

          By the way, my comment about a doctor operating on me was also amusingly incorrect – the (eminent) heart surgeon who fixed up my leaky heart valve a couple of years ago was addressed as ‘Mr’ because, in this country at least and by tradition, surgeons aren’t ‘doctors’. I find that delightfully ironic.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 7, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

          @Ant – damn, I obviously meant ‘not agreed’ – I misread your post. But I don’t want to get into a side argument of the meaning of ‘doctor’ which is not relevant to the main point. Wish WP had an Edit function.

  19. Posted May 6, 2013 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    One area where philosophy and science substantially overlap is cognitive science. How would one categorize the position Hofstadter takes in his book: “Godel, Escher, Bach”, for instance, where he formulates some ideas to do with the nature of consciousness? It’s a concatenation of all sorts of ideas from philosophy of mind, logic, mathematics, computer science and neurobiology. Hofstadter himself is nominally a scientist, but he has also written material in conjunction with Daniel Dennett who is nominally a philosopher. In reality it makes little difference what you call ideas as long they are good ideas.

    • Richard Wein
      Posted May 8, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Agreed. I see the distinction between science and philosophy (done correctly) as a very fuzzy one. However, it looks more fuzzy if you think the right approach to such questions is a relatively scientific, naturalized one. And it looks less fuzzy if you prefer a more traditional aprioristic (and in my view misguided) approach.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Certainly philosophy has its use in society, since the justice system find ethical systems useful and philosophy can contribute with secular such.

    However, when it comes to science it is easy to find philosophy less than useful.

    1. Philosophy does not help specific science work.

    Yes, there are philosophers that have contributed to papers. So have engineers.

    While people love to put philosophy as useful, very few are interested in lauding the much larger contributions that engineers, computer scientists and instrument makers do.

    Clearly philosophic methods as such are of little value to science in general.

    2. Philosophy does not help us understand science.

    Instead philosophy has historically pretty much blocked the development of a science of science. Such efforts, such as applications of statistics and measurement theory, are instead fragmented and diversified into respective areas.

    Besides the large problem of diverting a concerted effort to empirically research empirics, the only known way we arrive at knowledge, philosophy obscures this field. For example, insisting that it is a matter of philosophy (“epistemology”) when it clearly is an empirical matter. After all, we learn by nature in nature.

    Clearly the presumption of philosophy is damaging to science. I can understand why some scientists accept philosophy, after all it doesn’t matter where ideas come from if they help you formulate hypotheses. But it is a matter of personal taste and not usefulness of philosophy to science in balance. You need to see both sides.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      You shouldn’t get hypnotized by categorizations. The fact is that people can still think whether you categorize them as philosophers, scientists, engineers or watchmakers. You seem to be attempting to encourage some kind of division in thought akin to C.P. Snow’s two cultures. Surely we can be done with all that and just evaluate ideas based on their merits.

  21. Posted May 6, 2013 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    “philo-scientific” – my adjectival neologism to describe explanatory investigations combining both philosophy and science, of which many discussions on this forum are examples.

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      What Pigliucci calls “sci-phi” (Answers for Aristotle).


  22. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I see the value of philosophy, especially when it comes to ethics. I took a biomedical ethics course once and I thought this was a worthwhile endeavour. I think where philosophy gets in trouble may not even be a fault of the discipline itself but the way it is applied – those who dogmatically stick to a form of logic that may not fit the situation and then tell you that you’re just wrong based on their faulty reasoning.

    The empiricist in me sees Ben’s point – what makes me value Ben’s perspective is the fuzziness I get with philosophy….often I either see things defined differently (again probably the fault of practitioners) or it’s just defined fuzzily. How I know this is so pervasive is when I had to read Kafka in German and Plato in Greek – it always made the language THAT much harder. I still maintain (in a joking way) that Nietzsche died because his nasty Greek teachers probably gave him pop sight translations in Plato too! 😀

    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      The thing is, where medical ethics is producing worthwhile results, it’s doing so because it’s using science. Patient survival and other outcomes are correlated with empirical observations of techniques used, for example — or there’s the almighty satisfaction survey.

      Something like informed consent sounds wonderful, but how do you know that the patients are actually getting informed (is another piece of paper in the pile to sign enough, or is a nurse or a surgeon better at communicating?) and how do you know that they’re actually consenting (same questions) or that it’s actually making any difference to the patience themselves? Maybe people don’t actually care about informed consent, and maybe the process of doing so reduces life expectancy and increases the chances of relapse.

      The reasons we have answers to those questions, the reason why informed consent is practiced and not just by waving a piece of paper under an unconscious patient’s nose, is because we (hopefully!) have the empirical data to back it all up.



      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        We were considering questions around euthanasia, on what basis do you distribute organs to people in need (lottery, triage, age, worth?), is it fair to compensate for blood donation, abortion.

        I agree that science informs ethics in some circumstances but the exercise of untangling the complexities in the questions is philosophical work. At some point science and philosophy intersect but I still see value in both.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          And how do you propose to make a rational, informed decision on those matters without doing actual studies and trials and empirically analyzing the results?

          Even on subjects such as euthanasia — or, a bit easier to discuss and rather similar, abortion.

          Even if you started with an abolitionist position, you’d still have all the back-alley abortions as data points. You could take the philosophical position that every sperm is sacred, but, empirically, that results in no fewer abortions but many dead women. Once you’re at that point, a philosopher could dig in his heels and insist on the sacredness of sperm, but an empiricist is going to have to figure out how best to treat all those women having unfortunate incidents with coat hangers and how to prevent their injuries in the first place.

          Really, I don’t see how you can even philosophically philosophize your way out of these types of matters. You need the cold, hard data, and it’s all but guaranteed that your philosophical impulses are going to cause much more misery than they’re going to solve until you tame them with empiricism.



          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

            Well, you could take the philosophical position for abortion regarding who is being harmed.

            One of the interesting discussions that came up were should we deny smokers heart transplants. We then couldn’t because of the slippery slop of we all do dangerous things (driving on a highway, going out in the sun, sitting too much, eating a lot of sugar). While empirical data informs us that these things are bad, the philosophical work brought us to a conclusion.

            BTW the TA in the course was a complete goof. He tried to tell us that ancient slavery wasn’t as bad as modern slavery (ie: the south) because Plato had slaves. What!? Ancient slavery was terrible!

            • Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

              But, again. It isn’t philosophy that tells you that punitive exclusions based on lifestyle will result in poor patient outcomes. That one is bleedin’ obvious, for starters, and it contradicts the very reason you’re ostensibly engaging in medicine in the first place.

              Now, triage might well suggest selecting recipients based on expected quantity and quality of life after the transplant. And it may well be the case that smokers have poorer post-recovery prospects than non-smokers.

              But how do you know if they actually do or not? You pull out the data, of course.

              If you challenge yourself, I think you’ll discover that there wasn’t a single conclusion that you came to in that class that was meaningful without justification through observations. Not that you did the observations yourself in the class — of course not; that’s not how those classes work. But you still had access to the data (or, at least, you should have), and your answers only have merit insofar as they’re supported by a rational analysis of said data.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

                “But, again. It isn’t philosophy that tells you that punitive exclusions based on lifestyle will result in poor patient outcomes.”

                – Not poor patient outcomes, slippery slope. Determining such logic was faulty.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Well, I did mention the “rational analysis” part of the scientific method, didn’t I?

                But I do explicitly mean poor patient outcomes. If the goal of medical care is to alleviate human suffering, doing nothing for suffering people is obviously not going to alleviate their suffering.

                The discussion of deciding who does and doesn’t get a transplant can only make sense in three contexts.

                Most commonly, it’s because we don’t have enough organs to go around and we have to decide how to ration them. This puts you in the realm of triage that I already discussed.

                It can also be a matter of selecting the most effective form of treatment. If smokers as an isolated whole have better outcomes with a non-transplant form of treatment, whether or not non-smokers have better outcomes with transplants is largely moot.

                Or it can be some sort of punitive moralistic crusade, which is entirely unrelated to the question of how best to alleviate suffering in patients. You’ve moved way beyond the question of medical ethics at all into a bizarro religious world of justifying actual torture based upon righteous indignation…I’d say, if that’s really what the discussion is about, the participants are in dire need of the services of a qualified mental health professional, not a philosopher.



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                I have to reply here because I can’t below.

                “It can also be a matter of selecting the most effective form of treatment. If smokers as an isolated whole have better outcomes with a non-transplant form of treatment, whether or not non-smokers have better outcomes with transplants is largely moot.”

                Are you really postulating that we make decisions like who should get transplants based on studies of who has the best outcome using control groups and such? That would mean dealing with a lot of confounded variables and a lot of time and money to get to the same place that ethics could get us to much faster, especially when making decisions on a case by case basis. Are you suggesting we replace ethics boards in hospitals with scientists or statisticians?

                The exercise of even figuring out what the values to consider are is in itself a philosophical one: if the person’s worth is more important, age, gender, health or if we find all those types of considerations repugnant and decide lottery is the best based on fairness, etc.

                I don’t deny that empiricism is important but there is disciplined thinking that allows us to get to the right questions and right outcomes based on ethics. This isn’t science; there is no control group for each variable to test and it seems questionable to discard ethics boards.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                First, control groups are the gold standard used to determine efficacy of treatment. I wasn’t aware of any significant remaining questions over the efficacy of transplants. But, if there are, then they should absolutely be settled with trial groups. Person a is randomly selected to get the liver transplant; person b is randomly selected to get this promising new treatment that has made it through enough hoops for us to think that it might be as effective as a transplant.

                And my understanding is that ethics boards are already overwhelmingly steeped in the science and the statistics, either being composed largely of scientists and statisticians or drawing very heavily on the work of scientists and statisticians. Are you suggesting that science and statistics isn’t the single more critical part of what an ethics board does?



              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

                I’m not commenting on the make up of ethics boards but I am pretty sure they have philosophers specializing in ethics on them and everyone on that board need to learn ethical analysis techniques – why? Because they are an ethics board using ethics.

                We aren’t talking about efficacy of treatment we’re talking about who should we treat – that is a difference and conducting experiments to determine this would most likely be unethical and would be determined unethical using philosophy.

              • Posted May 6, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

                Then what we’re discussing is triage, which, by its very definition, is doing the least worst you can in an awful situation.

                The first step is to acknowledge that there are no good answers in sight and that bad things are about to happen — people are going to die, and about all you can do is choose to help some live while helping the ones you can’t save die with as much dignity as possible. And, yes, that also means making sometimes arbitrary decisions about who gets the care (and therefore might live) and who doesn’t (and therefore definitely dies), because it’s better to save somebody even if you can’t save everybody, even if there’s no good reason why the survivors and victims are the people who they wind up being.

                The next step is to use whatever means you have to do the best you can in the moment. You’ve decided who you’re going to save and who you’re going to die, so do everything you can to save your chosen survivors and try to not beat yourself up too much over the ones who you can’t help.

                And then the most important step is to empirically analyze the results you get from your best attempts to deal with the impossible situation to look for clues as to how best to deal with the next case.

                Triage is never going to produce good results. It can’t. The opportunity for good results is looooooooong since past by the time triage is necessary.

                The real solution to the ethical problems of triage is prevention or more effective treatments, and I think you’ll agree with me that that’s solely the purvey of science.

                No philosopher is ever going to create an artificial heart or develop an alternative dialysis method that negates the necessity for a kidney transplant or an effective regimen for quitting smoking. No philosopher is even going to vaguely help in such matters, and no philosopher is needed to tell us that those are worthwhile ares for medical researchers to focus their attention.



  23. Jimbo
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    I agree that philosophy is important as a discipline whereby we render mathematical notions of logic and consistency into words and arguments. That’s what a scientific hypothesis is, after all. But science (broadly defined) quickly takes over because all hypotheses are constrained by reality.

    My annoyance with much philosophy is that it spends the majority of its time lost in “thought space” to create hypothetical descriptions about the world which are bogus because observations of reality disprove them. Even mathematics would be an entirely useless and worthless human endeavor unless it actually mapped onto the world. Which it does.

    Then why does long-discredited philosophy persist? Why isn’t there better consensus in philosophy on bedrock principles beyond its methodology (sound argument, logical consistency, parsimony, etc)?

  24. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    It is an interesting posting. I have no problem with science and I have no problem with philosophers who embrace scientific knowledge. I do have a problem with those who have problems with the other, mainly because, IMHO, most knowledge we hold comes second or third hand or beyond and is valid to us based on trust. Philosophical views, OTOH, are formed based on the what what knowledge does not address. While knowledge is universal, withstanding efforts at falsification, philosophy enjoys no such quality.

    Therefore, while knowledge may be universal, mine is limited, little of it the result of direct experience, meaning I trust, but do not really know it. My philosophy, then, even if perfectly formed, is an independent view born of those thoughts and ideas I discover beyond my knowledge.

  25. Randy
    Posted May 6, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Well, I did mention the “rational analysis” part of the scientific method, didn’t I?

    Uh, the *rational* analysis is philosophy.

    “The discussion of deciding who does and doesn’t get a transplant can only make sense in three contexts.”

    Right, and engaging in such a discussion is philosophy.

    Yes, there is a lot of bad thinking out there that is claimed to be philosophy but there is also a lot of good thinking.
    As has been pointed out philosophy teaches us how to analyze situations, make rational decisions *based on the empirical evidence we aquire*, to think critically, skeptically and logically.It helps us formulate good (& bad arguements)and identify bad arguements.
    Anyone who thinks philosophy is useless needs to take a good introduction to philosophy course.


    • Posted May 6, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      make rational decisions *based on the empirical evidence we aquire*,

      Except, of course, that that’s not only the defining characteristic of science, but huge swaths of philosophy blithely ignore it.

      Come back when nothing in philosophy is considered significant until after the empirical evidence has been objectively acquired and rationally analyzed, and then we’ll talk. Until then, I’ll just refer you again to that shocking poll of philosophical positions Jerry linked to last week.



      • Dr Ethics
        Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        RF thought that perhaps having a REAL philosopher answer might put an end to this nonsense.

        Philosophers existed before the first scientists–they were called Natural Philosophers because they tried to understand the world and everything in it, including the human experience. Philosophers originated the so-called “scientific method” of observation, critical thinking and evaluation, as in Aristotelian Logic and Socratic Dialectic. Philosophy as an academic endeavor is very different from a “philosophy of life” or Pepsi’s selling philosophy.

        Sure there are bad philosophers out there, people who claim to be philosophers or even have a degree in philosophy and still can’t think clearly and make bizarre, illogical statements. That’s true of scientists, too, as well as lawyers, doctors, judges, etc. Throwing out the entire field of study because of a few flakes would be as foolish as dismantling all laws because a few people exploit legal loopholes.

        It’s easy to dismiss things when one doesn’t know what they’re talking about and is looking in from the outside. Get on the inside–like RF said, actually take an introductory philosophy course–before you can MEANINGFULLY and ACCURATELY speak about the field.

        • Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink


          Alchemists existed before the first chemists, and astrologers before the first astronomers.

          And philosophy, regardless of its ancient nobility, is still largely unencumbered by empiricism and, as a result, no more useful than astrology or alchemy.

          The fact that you might get some helpful life coaching from some astrologers or that some neo-alchemists might be able to mix up some nifty potions doesn’t bring any validation to either field,

          Similarly, those who work with scientists to rationally analyze empirical observations are doing science, not philosophy, regardless of the job title, and those philosophers who eschew empiricism — as so many do — are mere gadflies.



          • Dr Ethics
            Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

            Why do you keep asserting–not proving or establishing, mind you, merely stating–that philosophy is still “largely unencumbered by empiricism”? I suspect it is because you *want* this statement to be true, but wanting doesn’t make it so. Nor does bringing up pseudo-science like astrology. If you’d taken any Philosophy classes you’d understand that we call this a “straw man argument” and as such it holds absolutely no argumentative weight, it’s an empty claim.

            The claim that Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Biology, Ethics (Biomedical, Engineering, Business, Criminal Justice, Journalistic, etc), Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy of History, etc., don’t function on the basis of empirical evidence is just plain FALSE. How can we possibly make an ethical judgement about torturing suspected terrorists or journalists publishing fear-raising stories if we don’t look at the empirical details? Your claim is so blatantly wrong (ridiculous, even) that it makes me wonder if you really understand what the word “empirical” means.

            If you’re suggesting that we Philosophers make up information out of the blue and work with that then you’re deluding yourself. When I tell a patient that he has the right to refuse blood transfusions even if it will cause his death or a doctor that her obligations are to respect autonomous choice even if she doesn’t personally agree with it, then these statements MUST be based 100% off the empirical details of the situation. When we figure out the best political arrangement for society (American Libertarianism, Canadian Liberalism, or Swedish Socialism)it can only be done by looking at concrete empirical details of what has worked in the past and what hasn’t along with what our current interests and desires are as citizens, not flights of fantasy.

            Go read Massimo Pigliucci’s _Answers for Aristotle_ (2013 Basic Books) and then come back and provide some concrete, empirically-based evidence for why we should consider your claims as more than just delusional ranting. Personal belief isn’t worth the time it takes to say or type it, as Philosophers already know.

          • Aron
            Posted May 7, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink


            Please try and reply to Dr Ethics, I want to see how you can argue with his excellent refutation of your claims.

            But Ben, I think you’re mistaking a simple premise, that is you believe empiricism = science which is fallacious. Empiricism is not science, although science is wholly empirical. And I would argue that when a scientist, after collecting his data from observation and experimentation, reflects on the broad significance of his data, he is in fact philosophizing. No one can deny the greatness of the scientific methodology, however, your scientism is a philosophical position in itself, in all your posts, you are actually arguing for philosophical claims.

            Scientism, for which the German Philosopher Jürgen Habermas says ‘Scientism is science’s belief in itself: that is, the conviction that we can no longer understand science as one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science’ (Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests. Tr. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971, 4)

            Science is a methodology, science does not equal ‘knowledge’ but is a way (and an excellent one) of collecting data from the natural world. The position of scientism is self refuting. On a final note, historians, literary critics, philosophers etc all use empiricism; empiricism isn’t science’s to claim for itself. And I suggest as has done been before to do an introductory course on philosophy, also debate with some actual academic philosophers, I would suggest dropping an email to Massimo Pigliucci.


  26. Posted May 6, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a comment that a reader is having problems posting, so I’m doing it for him.

    Al Denelsbeck

    Unfortunately, I still see a certain number of people who seem to consider that abstract thought counts as “philosophy” – which would be fine, if philosophers all agreed on this (they don’t,) and if those who want to use this recognized that it existed long before philosophers came along. Not to mention how ridiculous it would be to hold a degree in Abstract Thought.

    Then, there’s the practice of holding up examples intended to demonstrate the value of philosophy, while ignoring every example that fails. That this is a technique of every popular psychic in existence is not only rather damning, it demonstrates that philosophy has not taught those using this method that it’s seriously flawed.

    It’s not the results that count when discussing the value of philosophy, but the practice. That the correcting mechanism, at best, revolves around who can make the strongest argument denotes a pretty significant problem. This is compounded by the lack of any criteria for not just proof, as Ben Goren has mentioned in passing [snort], but also of value. While philosophers argue about a priori knowledge and piss about with what ‘knowledge’ means, biologists study the evidence that birds have instincts to build nests and how this manifests in different situations, or what areas of the brain it appears to stem from.

    I still believe there are some ways in which philosophy has contributed to knowledge – I suspect it is less than how much LSD has contributed to music (and this is from somebody who hates Led Zeppelin.) But until philosophy as a whole is able to dismiss vapid, pointless pursuits and nonsense concepts, I’m still going to consider it deeply flawed.

  27. Posted May 6, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Ben, above you are confusing ethics with medicine. There is no doubt that failing to administer blood transfusions to patients who are bleeding out leads to poor patient outcomes. It is, however, unethical to forcibly administer a blood transfusion to a mentally competent patient who does not consent. You may argue that a Jehova’s Witness is by definition not mentally competent, but that I think is also a philosophical question.

  28. Kevin Henderson
    Posted May 7, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Ben, you are one of the most philosophical persons I have ever read.

    I was a trained as a philosopher and knew many persons who, like yourself, were interested in thinking about and parsing through reality. You have obviously given a great deal of thought to many problems which interest both philosophers and scientists. I do not share the view that philosophy is currently defined as it has traditionally been defined. Philosophy can be an important part of how people think about their existence. The role of philosophy is to step outside of a field and think about problems which are not idenpotently empirical, but may lead to consequences which are.

    People make important decisions about problems by thinking about those problems. Choosing not to think about problems is an option. Thinking about problems is doing philosophy. The process of informing ourselves about solutions is philosophical (certainly not necessarily defined as scientific) and yet the outcome can be pervasively empirical.

    Consider engineering controls which save lives. The process by which we design such systems are lead by philosophical claims which are debatable but ultimately lead to systems and products which we use and choose to live with some amount of uncertainty and risk that we are usually willing to accept, on philosophical or aesthetic grounds. You can choose not to use a seat belt or ride a bike without a helmet or not wear safety glasses with Class IV lasers. Why? There might be good reasons for some occasions.

    Consider sharing code for solving molecular dynamics which predicts fracture dynamics in crystalline structure. If your code exceeds all others is it worth while for humanity to struggle while the one code exceeds the predictive value of all others. Thinking about such problems is a philosophical endeavor and the decision to share or not can have major consequences.

    Consider sharing technologies with primitive people who have limited knowledge of science. These are complicated questions that do not readily fall into the category of science.

    Consider eating red meat twelve times a week or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. The decision to do these things is usually not based on anything empirical.

    Consider listening to country music for pleasure. The decision has nothing to do with science or empiricism.

    Consider listed electrical equipment. There are many reasons to use unlisted equipment (with independent approval) but those reasons are almost exclusively philosophically decided upon, not empirical.

    As an experimental physicists, I see no constraints on science from philosophy. There can be none. Science is about controlling and predicting nature: science is wholly empirical. And yet almost nothing I do in science in the real world is not constrained by deontological constraints that are imposed by philosophical ideas.

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