Accommodationism from a physicist

On his Scientific American website Cross-Check, John Horgan interviews Carlo Rovelli, a physicist well known for his work on quantum gravity. They cover a number of topics, including whether there will soon be a “theory of everything” (Rovelli says no), the role of philosophy in physics, and the compatibility of science and religion.  You can read the whole thing for yourself, but I want to highlight Rovelli’s answers in three areas.

On philosophy and physics:

Horgan: What’s your opinion of the recent philosophy-bashing by Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Rovelli: Seriously: I think they are stupid in this.   I have admiration for them in other things, but here they have gone really wrong.  Look: Einstein, Heisenberg, Newton, Bohr…. and many many others of the greatest scientists of all times, much greater than the names you mention, of course, read philosophy, learned from philosophy, and could have never done the great science they did without the input they got from philosophy, as they claimed repeatedly.  You see: the scientists that talk philosophy down are simply superficial: they have a philosophy (usually some ill-digested mixture of Popper and Kuhn) and think that this is the “true” philosophy, and do not realize that this has limitations.

Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories.  This is the physics of the “why not?”  Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe?    Science has never advanced in this manner in the past.  Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories.  Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this.  But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort.  Why?  Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.

Like Rovelli, Sean Carroll, and (I’m forced to admit) Massimo Pigliucci, I agree that dissing philosophy in general is dumb, and that philosophy has a lot to offer science, most importantly in enforcing the rigor of our thinking. Philosophers are experts in picking out bad arguments and logical flaws, and we’d be silly not to benefit from that. They’re also good at clarifying problems. On the other hand, many things can be construed as philosophy, including lucubrations like the back-and-forth Gedankenexperiments that Einstein and Bohr had about quantum mechanics.  At its boundaries, the disciplines are continuous, though philosophy by itself cannot tell us what’s true about the universe.

What I’m not sure about is whether, as Rovelli seems to hold, formal academic philosophy is crucial to physics. He certainly doesn’t give an example of that. Give me a little time, and I could construe almost any form of science, including evolutionary biology, as depending critically on philosophy, but you have to stretch the definition of “philosophy” to maintain that.

This is not, of course, to denigrate the real contributions that philosophy has made in non-scientific areas, particularly in thinking about morality. But it’s not clear to me how Hawkin’s black-hole radiation is deeply dependent on philosophy. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me. All I know is that most scientists, including those in biology, never read formal philosophy.

On teleology.

Horgan: Do you agree with philosopher Thomas Nagel that science needs a new paradigm to account for the emergence of life and consciousness in the cosmos?

Rovelli: No.  When we do not understand something, people are tempted to think that “some new paradigm” is needed, or a “great mystery” is there.   Then we understand it, and all fog dissolves.

That’s a great answer. Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False—a book that provided great succor to creationists and woo-lovers—was simply dreadful: a claim that something was clearly missing from evolutionary biology, and that “something” was an unspecified teleological element (see my post on three devastating reviews of that book).  There’s a lot that we don’t understand about evolution (i.e., what form of sexual selection explains sexual dimorphism in birds?), but, contra Rovelli, there’s nothing to suggest that major elements are missing evolutionary biology that have us all flummoxed.

On the existence of God:

Horgan: Do you believe in God?

Rovelli: No.  But perhaps I should qualify the answer, because like this it is bit too rude and simplistic. I do not understand what “to believe in God” means. The people that “believe in God” seem like Martians to me.  I do not understand them.  I suppose this means that I “do not believe in God”. If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.

If the question is whether I believe that “God” is a powerful something in the people, which causes a lot of disasters but also a lot of good, then of course I believe it.   In fact, I am extremely curious about religion. I think that we should study what is religion much more than what is done. There is a sort of taboo in this, a sort of respect towards people who “believe in God”, which makes it difficult to understand better.

I think that viewing the “belief in God” just as a bunch of silly superstitions is wrong. The “belief in God” is one form of human religious attitude, and human religious attitude is something very general and universal about our functioning. Something which is important for man, and we have not yet understood.

This seems a bit disingenuous. It’s pretty clear what Horgan’s question meant: did Rovelli believe that some supernatural being existed, one who probably interacted with the universe? Rovelli says that he doesn’t understand what “to believe in God means,” but then he answer the question with a definitive “no.” He then moves the goalposts and says that it’s still an interesting question why people are religious.  Here he conflates “belief in God” with “understanding why people are religious.” The former is indeed a bunch of silly superstitions; the latter is a perfectly valid historical and psychological endeavor.  To imply that nonbelievers see the phenomenon and practice of religion as unimportant, or not worth studying as a psychological and historical curiosity, is simply misguided.

On the compatibility of science and faith:

Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?

Rovelli: Of course yes: you can be great in solving Maxwell’s equations and pray to God in the evening.  But there is an unavoidable clash between science and certain religions, especially some forms of Christianity and Islam, those that pretend to be repositories of “absolute Truths.”  The problem is not that scientists think they know everything. It is the opposite: scientists know that there are things we simply do not know, and naturally question those who pretend to know.   Many religious people are disturbed by this, and have difficulty in coping with it.  The religious person says, “I know that God has created light saying, ‘Fiat Lux.’”  The scientist does not believe the story. The religious people feel threatened.  And here the clash develops.  But not all religions are like that. Many forms of Buddhism, for instance, have no difficulty with the continual critical attitude of science. Monotheistic religions, and in particular Islam and Christianity, are sometimes less intelligent.

I have an idea about the source of the conflict: there is beautiful research by anthropologists in Australia which shows that religious beliefs are often considered a-temporal but in reality change continuously and adapt to new conditions, new knowledge and so on.  This was discovered by comparing religious beliefs held by native Australians studied by anthropologists in the thirties and, much later, in the seventies.  So, in a natural situation, religious beliefs adapt to the change in man’s culture and knowledge.  The problem with Islam and Christianity is that many centuries ago somebody had the idea of writing down beliefs. So now some religious people are stuck with the culture and knowledge of centuries ago. They are fish trapped in a pond of old water.

Well, if you see compatibility as the ability of human minds to do science and believe in fairy tales, then Rovelli’s right. But in those lights, science and creationism are compatible, because you can find some scientists (engineers, chemists, and so on) who are creationists. Further, the incompatibilites extend deeper than just “provisional vs. absolute” truth. Religion has no way to find truth: no way to check whether its claims, as opposed to those of other faiths, are right or wrong.

Most of the rest of the first paragraph is good; it’s useful to realize that religious people dislike science because it forces us to live with doubt, and many believers aren’t comfortable with that.  (Richard Feynman particularly emphasized that difference, as in the video below) HOWEVER, although some forms of Buddhism don’t believe in a god, even some liberal sects accept the supernatural. The Dalai Lama, for instance, is always cited as being down with science, and he says in one of his books that if science disproved a tenet of Buddhism, Buddhism would have to give up that tenet. Yet Gyatso himself accepts not only reincarnation but also the “law of karma,” both of which are instances of pure, supernatural woo. And surely some polytheistic religions, like Hinduism, are just as ridden with superstition and false certainty as the monotheistic ones.

As for the continual change of some religions, that’s fine, and I didn’t know about that work in Australia. But one must realize that if religions change in such a way as to accept the findings of science, eventually they will no longer be religions, but will morph into secular humanism.  Rovelli’s point about scripture forcing people to adhere to changing dogma is, however, a good one.

If you haven’t watched this wonderful clip of Feynman, one of my favorites, do so immediately:

 

126 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    With Islam and Christianity, the religions can change causing splits into other sects but the change is always much further behind societal change, at least in more open, democratic societies. Further, these changes typically happen because of pressures from these more open societies – in other words from without and not within.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      The ‘splitting’ thing has also resulted in the myriad forms of creationism/intelligent design. When confronted with facts that disprove their beliefs, the various proponents of C/ID beliefs seem to split. Some will say ‘ok, we should stop saying that’, but others will go right on believing the wrong thing. So now we have everything from young earth creationists –> those who accept ~ everything about the age of the universe and evolution, but still insist that God fiddles with the knobs somewhere.

  3. Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  4. Andrew B.
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    “Horgan: Are science and religion compatible?”

    I think this issue highlights the need for distinguishing between compatibility and coexistence. Science and religion can coexist in the same way an unhappy couple can live under the same roof. It doesn’t mean they’re “compatible.”

    • N3Cr0Ph0b1A
      Posted August 26, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      I agree entirely, and to take it one step further: “Compatible” implies not only that they fit together but that there is actually some point to them fitting together.

      Science doesn’t benefit at all from the existence of religion. Believing fantastical stories may make some people feel better about themselves but didn’t facilitate any real discoveries. At least not directly. In fact, if people spent, correction; ‘wasted’, less time performing pointless rituals and chasing false beliefs we may indeed be thousands of years more advanced. Think of all that sheer willpower going towards space travel?

      On the other side of a coin, I can think of a few religious cults which would be far less effective without electricity, weapons, medicine and …

  5. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    As far as the continual change of some religions, this is quite obvious to anyone who thinks about it. For example, neither right wing evangelicalism nor enlightened liberal Christianity existed 100 years ago. Mormonism started ‘accepting’ non white people in that time frame also.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      It appears (from Wikipedia) that the LDS church wavered back and forth on the issue of blacks. Smith came to agree with abolitionists, but after his death, Young went back to basics. “any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood”. In 1978, … Spencer W. Kimball, declared they had received a revelation instructing them to reverse the racial restriction policy. So, I guess they made stuff up (revelation) because the civil rights movement had sent them a message they couldn’t ignore.

      • Jim Sweeney
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        Surely Ham, not Cain, since all of Cain’s descendants were wiped out in the flood.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          You of little faith. God, who can move mountains and who can divide the Red Sea, can just as easily wipe out Cain’s descendants, AND see dark skin as a mark upon Cain’s descendants. It’s simple unless you think about it too much.

  6. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I think Rovelli’s point about Hawking radiation is that Hawking got there by thinking deeply about the meaning and implications of existing theory in boundary cases (such as the event horizon of a black hole). He did not get there by pulling some math out of his ass and then testing it to see if it fit the data. The latter is what Roselle is criticizing as aphilosophical guesswork.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      “Roselle” should obviously be “Rovelli”. Should have proofread more carefully.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      This is what makes it difficult to criticize “philosophy”: the term is hopelessly vague. Possibly even more vague than “God”. What is the supposed “philosophy” used here, and how does it refute a general dissing of philosophy as an progressive academic discpline?

      The “philosophy” used here is not a careful study of Hume, Heidegger, Kant, etc., nor is it the application of some specialized philosophical technique found in a textbook summarizing the best philosophical techniques (I jest… this is now how they work, is it?), nor is it even the application of the accepted rules of formal logic. It’s merely thinking about a problem “philosophically”, which is to say, to pause and try to think about the meanings of things. There is no evidence in this anecdote that there was any input from the academic field of philosophy. Perhaps the history of philosophy as a whole can get some faint credit because the thinking of generations of philosophers has seeped out into the wider world (despite what seems their best efforts to keep it cloaked in historical canon and impenetrable jargon). Is *that* the credit “philosophy” is supposedly getting here? That’s not far from the credit Christianity might try to claim for teaching us to believe in the existence of an Absolute that scientists seek. You could have as well said that Hawking arrived at his idea by “thinking carefully”, couldn’t you?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        The philosophy is embodied in the idea that physical theories are not just mathematical tools for getting right answers. They have actual ontological content about how the world must be in order for those answers to be right. Taking that content seriously and thinking through its implications leads to insights that you can’t get just by crunching the numbers.

        “Thinking carefully” is one way to describe it, and I don’t have a problem with describing it that way. But as Jerry says, the techniques of careful thought are the core subject matter of philosophy. I don’t see what’s gained by denying this.

      • Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        For this reason, the rejection of philosophy as a framework for scientific inquiry is puzzling.
        Philosophy is not defined by what has historically been associated with it. It is defined within the original site of philosophical representation through what is available to carry out the task. Thus it only addresses what a text can address and it does not cite a source of authority beyond its margins. The standard of investigation is derived from first philosophy, and that science took as its standard “self,” the universe was transformed into an allegorical unfolding towards a nihilistic eschatology I explain this in depth elsewhere.

        • gluonspring
          Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          This makes me smile. Thanks.

          • Posted August 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

            What defines science as a distinct mode of investigation? It is the claim that the observed world is independent from the observer. What calls for such a claim? If I ignore whatever that claim entails, is the observed world now “dependent” on the observer? This is absurd. It is an example of the metaphysical strawmen that every critique of science faces. Empirical observation, experimentation, and measurement are not virtues. They are simply what one does when going about the task of accounting for a world.

            But what is implicit in that original claim? The rock I am observing is “still there” when I am no longer observing it. This is because science does not seek to account for what it observes, but for everything absent from observation by which an inductive approach to empirical investigation can accommodate what is obviously problematic about it. The origins of science are not in this mythic awakening of “Enlightened” reason. Science is the legacy of the universal church: it is the overcoming of the weaknesses given in the cultic order dressed in religious livery. Remember, unlike prior religions, the Universal Church begins with a terrritorial claim in the dividion of metaphysical categories that secure its jurisdiction over religious identity. It was always a matter of knowledge.

            Any task must be shaped by what is called for int the task. I cannot dream a cosmological order into being. A telescope wouold be better. But the territorial claim established by science makes almost any inquiry subject to its domain which is a method of justifying the method of science. This is why “nothingness” becomes a positive existential territory in the Scientific worldview. There is no greater lie than that. And science is not in the business of telling the truth. This has always been the domain of philosophy. And those who study our world under the pretense of science are the very ones who need to be freed from its cultic origins. I’m a little drunk. But I started my blog so that I can perhaps fund through kickstarter a philosophical investifation that has occupied the greater part of my life. I refuse to let a publisher touch it. It belongs to the world and is the antidote to stupidity, which is cultivated through the violence inflicted on logic.

            • Alex
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

              I’d have some remarks about your eschatology, but they involve too much scatology.

              I am unable to detect a coherent thought in your poetry so far, can you make your point a little more concise?

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

              Physics doesn’t claim that “the observed world is independent from the observer”, especially not in quantum mechanics.

              It claims that the observer is part of the observed world, and that they are sufficiently uncorrelated during good experiments to make observations. In sillysophic terms, it is ‘assuming reductionism’.

              Both of those hypotheses have been observed to be fact (with no assumptions involved, I note).

              • Alex
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

                Very good

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

                The relative independence between the observer and what is observed defines scientific inquiry. Quantum mechanics has to accommodate the observer’s role, since the act of observation factors into quantum phenomenon (which i know little about). But on a broader cosmological level, descriptions of physical phenomenon take a past-present causative framework. This necessitates two factors. 1) space is neutral, both independent from light,and in non-relation to bodies of mass that have spatial measure. 2) time is taken to be a universal measure of past-present causative difference. But everything that is past is conserved in the present, meaning that the difference between the observer and the events following the Big Bang, is difference as such. In measuring difference in respect to time, the only thing measured is the standard that gives time a measure of difference.

                Likewise, since space is independent from light (as implied in the expansion of space) means that there can be space beyond light, which is like saying there is space beyond space. And for that matter, what does it mean for light, which is constant, to have a speed. If you and I synchronize our watches and stand apart from one another at a 2 second difference between a source of light and its destination, we have only used light to give measure to the difference between our watches, which is an arbitrary difference in any case. 2 seconds is the limit that I cannot exceed in returning to the source. It’s purely a spatial difference.

                Distance and time are measures of significance and nothing more. They are included in measurement precisely because the observer must be accounted for one way or another, and it puts us in the center of the universe in a way far more intense than that of the pre-Copernican world.

                The problem with science has nothing to do with what scientists are doing- they are doing what needs to be done. But I will argue that their domain of inquiry frames the method of investigation more than the methodology of scientific dogma. And I think it would be far more productive if such investigations took place in accordance to what is given in the domain of study. That’s all. Science for the sake of science is absurd. The purpose of the investigation is to complete the account, and this is done by first establishing the standard of completion which can be easily derived from a little effort in thought.

      • Marella
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        It’s not Philosophy that should be castigated, but philosophers, many of whom blather endlessly about things they know nothing about. The good ones, like Dan Dennett, are BRILLIANT!

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        …(despite what seems their best efforts to keep it cloaked in historical canon and impenetrable jargon).

        You got that right.

        I agree with the rest of your comment as well.

    • Latverian Diplomat
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      I wasn’t sure what he was getting at there. I thought he was criticizing theorists who produce theories that have no feasible means of being put to the test any time soon.

      But Hawking radiation is also unobserved and so far unobservable, and, as I understand it, with the firewall theory, contention over what exactly happens at the event horizon is “heating up” (pun shamelessly intended).

      So he seems to have in mind that some theorists are doing it wrong, and some aren’t, but his examples and comments didn’t make the distinction clear to me.

      In any case, it seems to me more a question of strategy, rather than philosophy.

      • N3Cr0Ph0b1A
        Posted August 26, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

        I agree! If your scientific method is to whip out a random bottled theory and then start shooting it with only the facts that our experimental capabilities allow us to dig up until it falls over, then you may end up with an illogical theory that hangs around being incorrect for waaaay too long. Polluting subsequent rational thought on or around the subject.

        I mean I could come up with a crazy theory involving a magical transdimensional anomaly that impregnates himself for some reason, has a human baby somehow and then effortlessly teleports / IVFs him down to some Jewish couple who have definitely never done the nasty in the desert while daddy wasn’t home. The baby would then grow up, speak some pretty convincing stuff about his dad or himself or whatever and how we’re all important and cool and then disappear into thin air. The intention obviously being to have us fight it out for thousands of years until the winners receive the honour of having their disembodied brain-souls being trans-dimentia-lised into the special space-kingdom where we will all be super happy for ever without any desire for naughty things and/or free will.

        Given your current lack of spontaneous transdimensional amorphism knowledge and no verifiable credentials in space-being behavioral psychology i don’t really think you are in a position to question my unsolicited deity-rape theory.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      I suspect the confusion here has to do with the level of sophistication achieved by mathematical modeling in physics. Long ago it was bench science leading the way. Now, taking the input from accelerators like CERN and data from spacecraft, etc., theoretical cosmologists have an extraordinarily rich mathematical matrix to come up with new theories. I wonder why this seems miraculous to Rovelli.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      Quantization is pretty much “pulling some math out of [ones] ass and then testing it to see if it fit the data”, same as string theory, as I understand it. You can’t axiomatize the procedure, and you can’t weed out the erroneous quantizations without later testing for those who are still relativistic theories (as field are).

      If it is aphilosophical, that proves the point: philosophy and mathematics aren’t strong enough (in the mathematical sense) to supplant or even grok physics.

  7. Posted August 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I fail to see to see how Rovelli is being an Accommodationist in the quotes given and I think his ideas about why physics is somewhat stagnant are somewhat similar to those of Lee Smolin. Maybe the next major advances will come in a tangential area, such as say quantum computing.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Is physics “stagnant”?

      When inflationary cosmology has been developed and may (or may not) lead us to understand physics a factor 100 from the highest possible energy? When the Standard Model of particles have been completed, and may lead us to understand physics a factor 1000 from the highest energy it naturally should have (another conundrum to solve)?

      All that happened in the last 2 decades. I would normally ask for references, but I must hence assume you have none.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        “theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades”… Did you even read the op? That’s Rovelli’s opinion, not mine. Smolin has some similar views. So stop being a such a stuck up dick!

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

          Ok, roqoco, apologize no for that insult or you’ll never post here again.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

          OK sorry that was over the top – was somewhat irritated by the last para of the previous post.

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

            That doesn’t sound like an unqualified apology to me. Why can’t people just say they’re sorry and won’t repeat the incivility? There’s ALWAYS a qualifier or an “explanation.”

            Sorry, that won’t do.

            • Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:23 am | Permalink

              It was a silly thing to say and I shouldn’t have posted it – usually if I am going to say something even vaguely controversial I edit it offline, then I can’t hit the post button, before thinking it over.

  8. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Here [Rovelli] conflates “belief in God” with “understanding why people are religious.”

    I don’t think that’s his intention. Rather, his point is that believers conflate God-the-supernatural-creator with their own subjective spiritual experience, which they also call “God”. Rovelli doesn’t believe in the former, but he does accept the latter as a genuine but natural psychological phenomenon worthy of study.

    And I don’t think he’s saying that unbelievers dismiss the importance of such study. Rather, he’s saying that such study is difficult to do because of the privileged position religion occupies in society.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      This is exactly how I took it as well. If this is accommodations, it’s of a very weak sort.

      • gluonspring
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

        damn autocorrect… accomodationism.

      • Posted August 23, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

        I agree as well.

      • Posted August 23, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

        Me too.

        /@

      • Nikos Apostolakis
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:02 am | Permalink

        Yeah, that’s how I understood it too.

    • N3Cr0Ph0b1A
      Posted August 26, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      How could the study of billions of people believing in a concept for which there is zero evidence hold any interest for the discerning psychologist? 😀

      • GBJames
        Posted August 26, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        The question of why billions of people believe such things is of considerable interest because billions of people do. Psychology is entirely relevant to such questions.

        • N3Cr0Ph0b1A
          Posted August 26, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

          🙂 I fear my sarcasm may have been missed

          • GBJames
            Posted August 27, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

            I fear you are correct! I’ve been there! I, too, have found myself misunderstood when I forgot to employ my sarcasm tags.

            Such is The Internet.

            • Posted August 27, 2014 at 6:48 am | Permalink

              Sarcasm tags never really caught on. Maybe there should be a sarcasm font. That’ll convert more theists. Positive identification of sarcastic mockery as opposed to serious discussion.

              • Posted August 27, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

                That would’ve looked so much better if Word Press supported underlined orange Lucida Calligraphy. Oh well, back to being misunderstood.

  9. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    1. I tend to think that any scientist who reads deeply in the social history of science is indirectly exposing themselves to philosophy.

    2. At least the Dalai Lama doesn’t rationalize his superstitions with pseudo-science. He just holds them (at least publicly- but his suggestion that there may be no further reincarnations of himself is a bit suggestive.)

    I vividly remember a joint interview Larry King had with both the DL and Deepak Chopra on the same show. (The DL had one of his biggest lapses in judgement and written a foreword to Chopra’s book on Buddha.) Consistently for the whole hour Gyatso gave far more common sense experience-grounded answers to every question than Mr. Deepity, notably on the subject of aging well and longevity. Larry King asked both to what they attributed their longevity. First Deepity went on about quantum widget-gidget-fidgets. The Lama’s answer was simply “I eat well and I sleep well”!!!

  10. Keith Cook
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Intelligent design is a good example of religion morphing as it were to suit the changing climate or an opposing force.
    There is nothing else to say, the evolutionary psychological benefits of fairy tales has had it’s day. It lost out and thankfully we understand why it has, it’s propensity for violence, reason, NO evidence.
    Rovelli should know better.
    My nagging question is why do these astute people accommodate religion, is it because they don’t want to offend their mothers? If so, say so, I can at the very least have sympathy for that.

  11. Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy is not monolithic. There are different kinds of philosophy and different traditions. So to say it is or is not useful without specifying is kind of meaningless. I think the history of science (why was X an important question in this place and time, what led to x question being asked)coupled with epistemology is very important for scientists of all kinds because it can reveal to them common assumptions they make that can hinder investigation.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      “There are different kinds of philosophy and different traditions. So to say it is or is not useful without specifying is kind of meaningless.”

      This is incorrect. It is perfectly legitimate to discard as useless an entire class of things despite there being variation within the class.

      Whether it is true that it is useless in the case of philosophy is a different question.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        “Whether it is true” should be “Whether it is reasonable” in my last sentence. (Oh, for an editor!)

      • gluonspring
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

        I think he makes a good point, though. “Philosophy”, as a word, is so vague as to approach meaninglessness. It’s hard to argue against every sense of the word “philosophy”, because in the limit it tends to mean little more than “thought”, or “careful thought”. Who can argue against that?

        I think it would be useful to have (or use) a better taxonomy of words for the various kinds of philosophy and the various possible meanings of the word. Anyone who has debated the existence of “God” more than once knows the vital importance of clarifying what the “God” in question actually is. The word “God” is too vague to argue against. Some versions of “God” are indistinguishable from “the universe”. So it pays to be clear up front if we are arguing about some kind of God who answers your prayers, some kind bodyless super-mind, or what.

        The same is true, I think, when we discuss “philosophy”. Often one expresses the sentiment that modern academic philosophy is, perhaps useful as a thought provoking engine, but otherwise sterile, and will find the defender of philosophy shifting the definition away from what is found in Philosophical Review to make it sound as though you don’t think there is anything to logic, or careful thinking, or knowledge of the history of ideas (which I agree is very useful).

        In any case, I often find myself that when someone says “you can’t do science without philosophy” or “yes you can”, that I don’t really know what they mean by the word “philosophy” and so I can’t really say who I agree with.

        • Marguerite
          Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          Yes, indeed. It is like the old tale of the old fish encountering several young fish and enquiring ‘How’s the water?’ And the young fish blankly responding; What’s water?’
          We mostly swim in our water of preconceptions/ current points of view-which lead us and hopefully result in larger points of view rather than progressive narrowing and the various varieties of fundamentalism.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      This has been similar to my views lately, so I guess I will disagree with GBJames about tossing it all out. ‘Philosophy’ is an extremely broad class of human thinking, and it ranges from bad philosophy (sophisticated theology) to better and often useful philosophy (those who closely follow science, and attempt to point out paradigm shifts and flaws).
      Maybe I have a broader view than others about what philosophy is, but I consider the methodologies of science itself to be a kind of philosophy.

      • rickflick
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

        I would tend to agree with this broad idea of philosophy. Think of Dan Dennett, a philosopher who works in close to the boundary between philosophy and science.
        The criticisms of philosophy seem to me to be based on its history and a kind of superficial appreciation of the many winding paths that it has traced. So many dead ends. Conclusions based on sparse knowledge. But there are many thought gems along the way as well. It seems to me modern thought, the enlightenment, all that good stuff is, in a way the accumulation of these good ideas. Perhaps science, as we know it, could not take place without all that groundwork.

        • gluonspring
          Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          “So many dead ends”

          Do they die? Are there not still dualists and platonists among respected philosophers? Perhaps I am wrong, and philosophy is converging, but from the cheap seats it appears to just bifurcate.

          • rickflick
            Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

            Of course there are duelists, but mostly in America I suspect. The New World.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 23, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

              Nah, we haven’t dueled in the new world for quite some time now.

              • rickflick
                Posted August 23, 2014 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

                Ha! “a”.

          • Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know where you get the sense that philosophy is bifurcating. I think there is a slow but steady trend converging toward naturalism—it’s another vague word, but one thing it certainly means is materialism, and another thing it means is doing philosophy on the basis of the best science available. There are still dualists and platonists (if by this you mean people who think there is an independent realm of mathematical entities, as Kurt Gödel did) among well-known philosophers, but I don’t think they are on the rising.

            • gluonspring
              Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

              Creationists are on the decline also, but it’s a slim virtue to claim for religion. 😉

              • Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                Well, the comparison of philosophy to religion (if that’s what you intend) is a bit unfair to my mind. But that’s fine, there’s plenty of philosophy I’m not eager to defend, although I’m a student of philosophy myself. I was commenting your observation.

          • Sergio Graziosi
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

            Are there not still dualists and platonists among respected philosophers? Perhaps I am wrong, and philosophy is converging, but from the cheap seats it appears to just bifurcate.

            You make a good point, philosophical discourse does not seem to converge as well as science, but why?
            To his credit, Chalmers (a dualist of his own ‘naturalist’ kind, so very relevant to your point) has addressed this topic with dispassionate clarity and a very healthy empirical approach, see his Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy? paper for the hard data.
            I was lucky enough to attend his lecture at the Royal Institute of Philosophy on the subject (full video is here), wrote a blog post about it, and even briefly discussed it with him via email.
            My point was, in short: you need empirical verification to generate consensus, but whenever a claim is empirically verifiable the subject is considered scientific, hence philosophy appears to foster endless and fruitless debate. Almost a year passed by and I’ve found nothing to change my mind: when a subject converges, we call it science.
            Then of course there is the ability of philosophy to generate new doubts and questions, and I would expect scientists to welcome them with enthusiasm, but for some reason, they mostly don’t. I suspect the reason is sociological, but I’ll keep this can of worms closed. 😉

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

              This aligns with Richard Carrier’s view that “science is philosophy with better data”.

            • gluonspring
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              I feel an issue with philosophy is that it’s insufficiently constrained. Philosophy has, of course, worked out rules of logic and catalogued various kinds of fallacies and this is very useful both within and outside of philosophy. Who can doubt the utility of all of that? The world is flooded with so many bad arguments, so many gross fallacies, that it feels like great progress simply to cut through that. And to some extent it is. But it’s not enough. The best fiction is logically consistent, but it is still fiction.

              The space of logically consistent ideas that are at odds with reality is infinite. Dualism is a good example (at least the common form, I will have to read up on Chalmer’s version). There is nothing I know logically inconsistent with some version of ghost-in-the-machine dualism. It could be that way. But the plausibility of dualism diminishes steadily in the light of evolution, of our knowledge of brains, of the complete subsumption of the category “things-with-minds” into the category “things-with-brains”. Many philosophers will say that philosophy now includes the best scientific information like this. Insofar as it does, though, it seems to me to start becoming something else: neuroscience, biology, psychology, cognitive science. Perhaps there is something useful to be gained by spending some time mulling over data rather than gathering new observations, to being a step removed from those sciences. I think it’s a trap, though, because the space of logically consistent possibilities remains infinite and without a continual infusion of observation to constrain you you almost immediately find yourself lost in the infinite void. Even with the best infusion of data that we can manage, many fields of science are still barely constrained enough to make progress. So the idea of doing with even less data is really to court futility.

              The other way that philosophy isn’t sufficiently constrained is language. In many cases I have seen philosophers attempt to perform formal logic on language. Language, however, simply isn’t precise enough to support this. The meanings of terms can too easily be unhinged from reality. Philosophers strain mightily to define terms well enough to make their language precise enough for strict formal logic to apply. This effort is what makes what they do so often seem so inpenetrable. By the time they are done almost every word becomes a term of art. I contend that even at the end of such herculean definitional projects the terms usually still remain insufficiently constrained. Once again, language works in practice because it is constantly mapped onto the external world, and it is that constant anchoring that allows us to understand what people are saying, or the description of an experiment, say. Only the (apparently) unwavering external world is capable of constraining language or logic enough to keep it from turning into fiction.

              • gluonspring
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

                Or, more succinctly, historically philosophy has been so successful that it’s inventions have all but put philosophers out of a job. Obviously I’m “using” philosophy to express the conjectures I make above. I’ll give philosophy credit for teaching us many things. But I think the final lesson of two thousand years of philosophy is that we have no choice if we care about making progress: we have to become natural philosophers. That, or consign ourselves to telling stories to each other.

              • rickflick
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

                By lack of constraints, I assume you mean that by stating propositions in natural language you lose precision. The attempt to resolve this problem is entailed by analytic philosophy. Russell: “Modern analytical empiricism […] differs from that of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume by its incorporation of mathematics and its development of a powerful logical technique. It is thus able, in regard to certain problems, to achieve definite answers, which have the quality of science rather than of philosophy.”
                The 20th century brought us positivism which hoped to encode philosophy in logic and math. Not totally successfully, I guess.

              • gluonspring
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

                “By lack of constraints, I assume you mean that by stating propositions in natural language you lose precision.”

                I think I mean it the other way around, that by trying to translate propositions from natural language into something that can be operated on by formal logic you often (inevitably?) lose too much of the meat of the proposition. Each word of a natural language proposition has a wide range of possible meanings and interpretations, most fuzzy at best. Few of them, in their natural form, can stand up to the absolutes of logic. The range of possible meanings of terms in a natural language proposition do not have enough internal constraints to allow them to be translated easily into formal logic. When you try, you end up proving something, but whether that something is what you intended, or has any solid connection to the real world ends up being suspect. You can try to make them more precise, but consider if each term in a 10 term proposition only had two shades of meaning, you’d already be talking about 2^10 = 1024 propositions embedded in your one natural language proposition. It is no wonder that philosophy can seem so tedious. I think somewhere in there we run up against cognitive limits, we are simply not able to keep clear in our mind this wide range of possible interpretations embedded in each proposition, and so you end up with lots of people proving things, but no one really agreeing on what has been proven.

                That said, I do think mathematics can and has yielded philosophical insights. It is conceptually very illuminating to realize that you can’t have a complete and consistent proof system. I think Godel’s results, and similar things, have showed us something real and interesting about the world. I think complexity theory (the CS discipline) tells us something rather deep about the limits of knowledge too. I might be a bit of a fan of computational epistemology… heck, before this discussion is over I’ll be calling myself a philosopher.

                I regard those insights as different than an attempt to put some proposition about dualism, or the existence of god, or the necessity of this or that thing, into a formal language and try to prove the result. This activity seems pretty useless to me. And, as I said above, I conjecture that where it fails is in the translation from ordinary language, which is a kind of code for brain states and states in the world, to symbols. The symbols we are able to marshall to the task are just to spare to do the work analytic philosophers want them to do.

              • rickflick
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

                It sounds pretty pessimistic – that clear communication is hopeless (don’t tell the bloggers). You may be correct. This may explain the strange appeal math has with some folks. It avoids the difficulty of dealing with human communication – at least the equivocations of meaning. A proof is a proof.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                “strange” appeal of math?? What’s not to love?

              • rickflick
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:17 am | Permalink

                I meant strange in the nicest possible way, of course. As for me, too much math sometimes smokes my synapses.

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

                I took it in the nicest possible way and even though I love Math, I, too, have experienced smoking synapses (i’ll have to remember that exp’n)

              • gluonspring
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

                “It sounds pretty pessimistic – that clear communication is hopeless”

                I don’t feel pessimistic. I think pretty clear communication is possible, and happens all the time. The kind of clarity needed for, say, existential qualifiers, just exceeds what language can normally provide. Said another way, formal logic puts unreasonably strong constraints on discourse. I think people fail to appreciate the magnitude of the gap between being pretty sure of something and being able to say “For all X some Y”. Science manages to communicate very subtle concepts but, except in the case of the math component, it’s not usually trying to do logic with those concepts.

                Crick and Watson clearly expressed what they had in mind with the double helix and how it worked in their 1951 paper. They talked about all sorts of essentially invisible things, but people understood them nonetheless. They haven’t had to come back and clarify it over and over again to get us to understand what they *really* meant. Everyone reading got it. If, however, they had had as their project proving, in the logical/mathematical sense, some proposition about their double helix claim, they would be in a pickle, because it would be nearly impossible be precise enough for that task. And if they had tried, the terminology they would have to coin for the process would be so complicated and obscure that it’d be doubtful if two people reading their “proof” would come away with the same idea what they were saying. I think part of the reason is that so much of what is understood when someone reads their 1951 paper is in the brains of the readers, not in the pure text on the page. So ordinary discourse is about getting another brain to be in a state like yours. Proof, on the other hand, is about something else, something like dumping the contents of our brains out onto paper or into a machine and turning the crank. It might be possible in principle, but in practice it’s a mess.

                So my claim is not that communication is impossibly hard, but that our normal mode of communication, which works pretty well, can’t usually be reified into formal logic without getting lost in the forest.

            • gluonspring
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

              Oh, and thanks for that paper! I haven’t read it yet but it looks to be filled with interesting numbers.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        I made myself misunderstood. I’m not in the “toss it all out” crowd. I was trying to make the pedantic point that logic does not preclude tossing classes of things out despite there being variation within the class. Variation itself isn’t a reason to not toss things out.

  12. Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    People have peaks and valleys in their cognitive array and Rovelli is an excellent example. On Philosophy to science, Tyson and Krauss both express what Jerry said; “All I know is that most scientists, including those in biology, never read formal philosophy.” Add Francis Crick to that list. However the Pigliucci’s, Horgans and other characterize what science is or what metaphysics they hold, it has no bearing on how scientists pursue what Feynman blatantly states: “we go to see how the world works” What philosophers are up to is usually utterly peripheral to that endeavor and Krauss and Tsyon say it plainly. On teleology: Nagel is as out to lunch as David Chalmers in using a “philosophy of the gaps” argument. Neuroscience is making great strides in demystifying consciousness, read the researchers: Ramachandran, Koch, Gazzaniga, Damasio, Greenfield and others, not the philosophers, except Paul and Patricia Churchland or Dan Dennett. On belief in god, Jerry said it “a bit disingenuous”. On accommodationism: Rovelli’s comment on Buddhism is more than bit naive. The DL for example makes claims of being fully accepting of science, but he really does live in a state of woo worthy of Chopra. Dough ball divination, astrology, sacred lakes, and his certainty he can influence that he could come back as the 15th DL as a woman among other pretty farout contentions. I’ve blogged on Gyatso’s beliefs, largely drawn from his own website in some detail at http://wearedone.org/?p=1809 and http://wearedone.org/?p=1904. Saying you defer to science is easy. Most of what the DL holds is completely incompatible with science as are most religious claims and all religious thinking.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      I should say “I agree” if not Jerry has said that such short comment is non-kitten behavior [not acceptable for this site].

      But I agree. =D

  13. rickflick
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    When I was a young whipper-snapper, I was a skeptic and materialist. I read widely in philosophy, basically to try to figure out if what I had already figured out was confirmed by others. I read Socrates, DesCartes, Hume, all the history. When I got to Bertrand Russell, I found a kindred soul. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his History of Philosophy. He also wrote technically in math and logic (Principia, with A.N. Whitehead). I did not feel compelled to read that aspect of his work. As you may recall, the saying went – the only people who had read it was Russell and Whitehead. But, they say…that it demonstrated that logic and math were, what?, compatible? The same?
    So, I assume that it could represents a philosophical result which probably influenced – not so much working lab scientists directly – but modern reasoning generally.

  14. Kevin
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Feynman. If we [physicists] could not all be like The Great.

    Rovelli makes some reasonable answers, but his response compatibility is flawed. What answers or meaning does religion provide? And how are these scientific?

    Imagine: Go to the lab. Pray the electrons move the way you want. Is that going to ever happen? Religion is not compatible with science.

  15. Chris
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Where you say ‘contra Rovelli,’ I think you mean contra Nagel.

  16. Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    “but, contra Rovelli, there’s nothing to suggest that major elements are missing evolutionary biology that have us all flummoxed.”

    I think you meant contra Nagel.

    and sub

    • Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

      No, Rovelli insinuates that there’s something big missing in evolutionary biology, too, although it won’t be rectified by a “paradigm shift”. But we don’t see any gaping holes like that which are deeply puzzling to us.

      • Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        OK, Jerry, though I have to say I didn’t get that from the interview. He did not even mention biology or evolution.

  17. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the “why not?” Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe? Science has never advanced in this manner in the past. Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories.

    I think he’s factually incorrect on this one. Was the heliocentric theory welcomed more because of new data, or because it explained things better and in a simpler fashion than the epicyclical geocentric theories? I would argue the latter, which was a significant enough advance to get people looking for new data.

    • Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      Due to Kepler and Galileo being realists (sort of by example), it got people looking to mechanisms again, and hence Newton with forces and what not. Newton was only partially successful, but this realistic attitude was important I think. And that’s a philosophical position, as it happens.

      I might add that Ptolemy’s attitude to realism is ambiguous – he’s not quite an instrumentalist, more a “don’t careist”. Likely because he thought Aristotle (a realist) was correct.

  18. Woof
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    OBVIOUSLY, he’s No True Physicist.

  19. J Smith
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I still find it stunning that the likes of Thomas Nagel or Jerry Fodor would have such reactionary views about evolution. I can see it in Behe, but these two are harder to understand.

    • Posted August 23, 2014 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Well, with Nagel I’m not so surprised. He’s championed the “there are more things in heaven and earth than science can fathom” view for most (if not all) of his career. Read his “What it is like to be a bat” from the 70s if you want to get depressed.

      Fodor … is harder to figure out. I suspect some ideas from philosophy of science of an earlier generation (science is about discovering laws, and laws must meet such and such criteria) have something to do with his bizarre attack on natural selection. Possibly a case where bad philosophy of science makes one resistant to established science.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        Fodor remember is the guy who used to (?) think that all concepts were innate because he couldn’t see how they could otherwise be learned. This is something of an argument from personal incredulity, and his methodological remarks are often strange (how does one know without doing the cogntive neuroscience or even just cogntive psychology that mental modules are encapsulated?) For all the merit of his work in other areas, some of it has always been very odd.

  20. Marella
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    “If the question is whether I think that there is a person who has created Heavens and Earth, and responds to our prayers, then definitely my answer is no, with much certainty.”

    Interesting that a philosopher is prepared to say that he is very certain there is no personal god. I have got a bit tired of hearing people say they are prepared to admit a small possibility for god. There is no possibility at all of any god that does anything worth doing and I think we need to be more adamant about that.

    “The religious person says, “I know that God has created light saying, ‘Fiat Lux.’” ”
    Now why would you take something originally written in Hebrew, then translated into Ancient Greek, then Latin and finally English, and render it in French? A small nit-pick, but one of the reasons philosophers get a bad press. Pretentiousness.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 23, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      LOL, so true. 😀

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:21 am | Permalink

      I think he’s a physicist.

      • Marella
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        I’m getting everything wrong today, my excuse is that I’m ill. Sorry.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      I used to drive a Fiat Lux – it was crap.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Isn’t “Fiat Lux” Latin? (not the car, the phrase 🙂 )

      • Marella
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        Oh of course it is, silly me, (I used to drive a Fiat). And I’ve sung those very words in masses so I should have known.

  21. Filippo
    Posted August 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    sub

  22. Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:22 am | Permalink

    Sub

  23. reasonshark
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Like Rovelli, Sean Carroll, and (I’m forced to admit) Massimo Pigliucci, I agree that dissing philosophy in general is dumb, and that philosophy has a lot to offer science, most importantly in enforcing the rigor of our thinking.

    Half agree, half disagree. On the one hand, epistemology and logic are of obvious importance to science because they clarify what we can and cannot achieve through scientific methods. Ethics is also of practical concern, if only because science by itself doesn’t tell you when experimenting with humans is a bit of a no-no.

    On the other hand, most of philosophy has given way to science, and the rest is of questionable value at best. Metaphysics is just overambitious physics, language and law and politics and mind are now under science’s umbrella – with more impressive results – and even ethics and logic and epistemology are starting to merge with computer sciences and general mathematics. Also, it seems to me that philosophy ropes in a lot of speculative and insubstantial ideas that get taken far too seriously, like Continental philosophy.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      I like your comment, but I can’t agree with epistemology being obviously of importance.

      Measurement theory is a much epistemology as we can empirically support, and it is entirely empirically derived. (And yes, what computer science has found out on computational resources and complexity classes embeds that in a larger corpus, I guess.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Make that “epistemology” by the way, since it is the other way around – science telling philosophy what can be known.

  24. ljbo
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    “[M]any things can be construed as philosophy, including lucubrations like the back-and-forth Gedankenexperiments that Einstein and Bohr had about quantum mechanics”

    Their discussion were definitively in the realm of physics. Those Gedankenexperiments were essential in the understanding of the foundations of Quantum Mechanics, from a physicist point of view I mean.

    In the first round of those discussions, Einstein tried to prove the uncertainty principle lead to contradictions. Bohr refuted them by showing how Einstein was assuming classical notions in his reasonings. The end result was of great pedagogical importance and greatly strengthened the acceptance of quantum mechanics by showing that however weird its principles sounded, they made for a mathematically consistent theory.

    In the second round of discussions, Einstein introduced the concept of hidden variables. On the one hand, this lead to the seminal EPR paper, which was the source of Bell’s inspiration when he discovered his famous inequalities. As you surely know, those inequalities were eventually tested experimentally: no philosophy here, just plain physics. On the other hand, the discussion around the EPR paradox made it plainly clear that quantum mechanics was inherently non-local, a point which would not have been understood if not for that second round of discussion between Bohr and Einstein.

    • jimgorton
      Posted August 27, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. Einstein Bohr had a new phenomena that defied articulation. And still does. Trying to make a story out of that that which may always remain out of the range of ordinary language is one of the most noble human endeavors.

      “Lucubrations” is totally unworthy – dissing two Nobel winners and their work. By comparison, all of biology is, as Rutherford said, stamp collecting.

  25. Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Rovelli is clearly a very good physicist but reads as his own appeal to his own authority outside of his field. Proof again to us all to be most wary of ourselves.

  26. Doug
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    It’s interesting that he mentioned “religious beliefs held by native Australians.” A while ago, I saw a TV show in which a scientist (I don’t remember his name) was discussing human origins with an Aborigine. The scientist said that humans had evolved in Africa and then later migrated to Australia. The Aborigine firmly said, “Well, we know that’s wrong. We were created here. We know that because our elders have told us.” Rather than following up on this by asking “How do you know that your elders are correct?” the scientist immediately began back-pedaling, apologetically saying things like, “What we scientists have done is created a ‘story’ about origins,” etc. etc. I remember thinking, “The aborigine didn’t back down. Why did the scientist?” I imagine that he would have been called “racist” if he challenged the Aborigine’s beliefs (although I don’t know if that was his reason).

    • rickflick
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:18 am | Permalink

      I remember the scene as well. I had the same thoughts about it. I think the scientists reaction might have to do with the trend toward cultural relativism.

  27. krzysztof1
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I like to think of science as a branch of philosophy (it used to be called natural philosophy, after all!)

    That aside, science and philosophy are compatible to the extent that the latter is about how to think about the cosmos (i.e., “reality”).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      If science is a branch of philosophy you are in effect claiming “philosophism”, that philosophy is all there is. And we can’t test that.

      But the reverse, scientism, seems the simplest idea and a testable theory to boot, based in nature as it is. See my response to “epistemology” to reasonshark above.

      • krzysztof1
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        I’ll look at it if I can find it (and the time)–but maybe both philosophy and science are subsets of thinking, then? Everyone thinks. Is thinking testable?

    • rickflick
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I would agree. Science is a subset of philosophy in the sense that philosophy considers all concepts and metaphysical frameworks. Science takes as its premise the category called “realism”, while the superset includes idealism, etc. Since many philosophers deal with subjects outside the confines of realism, they are seen by scientists as unlikely to be successful at adding to knowledge of the world.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I totally agree on Buddhism and Gyatso!

    And I totally disagree on philosophy and its attendant philosophism. One can equally well say that a certain philosophy has no way to find truth, no way to check whether its claims, as opposed to other philosophic claims, are right and wrong. Consistency checks yes, same as any logical or mathematical structure. Empirical testing, no.

    My take is that not dissing philosophy in general is dumb, and that when it is in its philosophism mode to systematize science it is doing what scientists themselves should do to move forward. Maybe it is helpful, but I have the feeling that if I did the same, pointed out that rightly any philosophy can be put against an equally valid counter-philosophy (and in fact there has been american and european “schools” of philosophy), I would be accused of scientism.

    The usual question is what science progress philosophy has resulted in, and the usual answer is silence. Because it doesn’t do testing, how can it make results?

    Using theoretical physicist Rovelli, a part time philosopher [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Rovelli ], to shore up philosophism is fraught with difficulty. Like Smolin, Rovelli has AFAIK made genuine theoretical physics progress (on “ghosts” I believe) in the beginning of his carrier. And like Smolin, which he has worked with, Rovelli is enamored with the idea that mathematics is science, which it is not. That is why he says this:

    “Here is an example: theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories. This is the physics of the “why not?””

    He is dissing string theory, which is based on physics, and lauding loop theory, which is based in math. The role model Einstein, who with both the special and general relativity found out that the state of the art was sufficiently advanced that he could completely constrain the theory.

    But what Rovelli and Smolin misses is that Einstein was an accomplished experimenter, technician and inventor. (At least in the beginning when he did his progress on relativity among other things.) He knew that he did. Loop theory is Not Even Wrong as basic physics, since it has no dynamics, one can’t do oscillators in it. String theory on the other hand has succeeded from physics methods (“guessing the new theory” and then checking) to put up at least a worthy idea. I have no idea if loop theory is pseudoscience, but its insistence on pareidolia (it looks like a form of quantization of general relativistic theory) makes me uncomfortable.

    Mathematicians in general are platonist dualists, believing that the math that the love has a special existence as unobservable (untestable) ‘objects’. Platon was a mysticist, if I understood Sagan’s criticism in “Cosmos” correctly. From such a viewpoint the step into the magic Asylum of unsubstantiated belief is already made.

  29. Sergio Graziosi
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    This seems a bit disingenuous. It’s pretty clear what Horgan’s question meant: did Rovelli believe that some supernatural being existed, one who probably interacted with the universe? Rovelli says that he doesn’t understand what “to believe in God means,” but then he answer the question with a definitive “no.” He then moves the goalposts and says that it’s still an interesting question why people are religious. Here he conflates “belief in God” with “understanding why people are religious.” The former is indeed a bunch of silly superstitions; the latter is a perfectly valid historical and psychological endeavor. To imply that nonbelievers see the phenomenon and practice of religion as unimportant, or not worth studying as a psychological and historical curiosity, is simply misguided.

    Jerry, your whole article is very solid and well argued. The only part that puzzles me is the one I’m citing here. I did not read Rovelli’s answer as you do.

    1) As Rovelli, I do find religious people hard to understand, making me read Rovelli’s point as a justified warning (and one I usually make as well), something like: “beware, my views are so distant from the religious that I detect my own risk of bias on this subject”. This does weaken your point, but a) it’s a correct and honest remark; and b) does not automatically put the counterpart on the defensive; Therefore I see it as an intellectually legitimate and rhetorically useful premise.
    2) I see no signs of moving goalposts. He does provide an unambiguous answer “no, I don’t believe in God”, and then moves on to make a related point: we (the scientific community) find it hard to study the psychology of religion, and we should study it more.
    When he says “There is a sort of taboo in this, a sort of respect towards people who “believe in God”, which makes it difficult to understand better”, he is making a point that I expected you to fully agree with: in my reading he is saying we should stop allowing a free pass on religion (out of undeserved respect) and study the phenomenon dispassionately, exactly as we study any other distinctively human psychological trait. In a sense, he’s echoing Dawkins in asking for a space for debate that is free from emotional knee-jerk reactions.
    At least, that is how I read it, and also why I was interested in reading your reactions (and wasn’t disappointed: a bit of disagreement makes the subject more interesting).

    PS Where is Ben? Talking about interesting disagreements, I was hoping to read his take on “philosophy has a lot to offer science”.

    • rickflick
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      The second point – I agree. Dennett wrote “Breaking the Spell” about this topic. Why are people (scientists) reluctant to investigate religion as sociology or psychology?

      • GBJames
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        I’m skeptical about your assertion. I think there are probably many social scientists who investigate religion in sociological and psychological terms. Your (and my) ignorance of this may simply result from unfamiliarity. Scott Atran, for example, would be an example (whether or not you agree with his position) of a social scientist doing this kind of work.

        • Sergio Graziosi
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          Agreed: ignorance may be our problem.
          I do know of sociological and anthropological studies of religion, there will be many more, I’m sure. I know of few and preliminary-looking psychological ones, and I do think that’s because there is a taboo. I agree that I may be wrong, but simply the fact that it’s reasonable to suggest that there is a taboo should be enough to make the point.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

          I had the same thought, that there must be social scientists studying religion. I think Dennett is referencing the fear that society holds in general of treating religion as a subject of scientific study rather than as an sacrosanct. I’m sure there is little public support for the research that is going on.

          • GBJames
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            There’s a sad lack of support across the board for science. Weapons, no problem.

            • rickflick
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

              From 9/11 we know that the religious can behave as weapons. You would think that knowledge would lead to funding of the study of religion. What we have is funding of security measures at airports.

        • Sergio Graziosi
          Posted August 26, 2014 at 4:53 am | Permalink

          Talking about ignorance being the reason why some of us (including me) may think that there is a taboo against scientifically studying religiosity, I’ve just stumbled upon a new paper (via @fierycushman on Twi**er):
          Morality and the religious mind: why theists and nontheists differ (Open Access)
          Shariff, Piazza and Kramer. 2014, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 18, Issue 9, 439-441.

          A few first (meta)impressions:
          1) Yes, simply not being inside the field might justify the impression that scientists tend to shy away from the subject, and/or lead to underestimating the number of people that do study religiosity in a systematic way.
          2) The article itself is also able to highlight how blunt the instruments we currently have to investigate such concepts are. We have a few relatively well established theoretical approaches (most notably, Haidt’s work – and to me it looks very interesting but miles away from being solid enough to be considered ‘provisionally true’) and very big obstacles in data collection and analysis. The authors rely on three meta-analyses (one unpublished) as they should, but in the end the number of “might be” that they can produce dwarfs any definitive conclusion they propose.
          3) Causal claims are few and tentative. This isn’t a criticism: given the topic I’m not even sure that you can legitimately talk about causation (in the sense of “A therefore B”, one-to-one causation).
          4) Religion isn’t monolithic and as usual it seems to me that they are (implicitly) talking about USA religiosity, as opposed to ‘human religiosity’ – I may be wrong though, as I haven’t checked the references to find out where the data are coming from.

          Overall, it looks shallow, somehow reinforcing my initial impression that the subject isn’t studied much. Nevertheless, I don’t want to put any blame on the authors: on the contrary, I applaud their effort, after all we have to start somewhere.

  30. fmoldoveanu
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    RE: “Perhaps a reader can enlighten me”

    I think I can shed a bit of light on Rovelli’s take on philosophy. As of now quantum mechanics lacks an universally accepted interpretation and this is where philosophy comes in. Make no mistake, this is not a fuzzy handwaving philosophy, but it is based on serious math. The other take on this is that philosophy can inspire research directions. Not that this method is infallible, but it is yet another tool in theoretical physicist toolbox.

  31. Posted August 25, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I think I can shed a bit of light on Rovelli’s take on philosophy. As of now quantum mechanics lacks an universally accepted interpretation and this is where philosophy comes in. Make no mistake, this is not a fuzzy handwaving philosophy, but it is based on serious math. The other take on this is that philosophy can inspire research directions. Not that this method is infallible, but it is yet another tool in theoretical physicist toolbox.

  32. Carlo Rovelli
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Actually, I do agree with what you write. Including the criticisms to my interview, which was indeed a bit ambiguous in some points… Carlo

  33. brodix
    Posted August 26, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I dunno?
    Is it analytic or continental philosophy physics needs to consider?
    Analytic seems more mechanistic, while continental is definitely organic, you know, ideas sprouting up like little blades of grass wherever..
    So while physics definitely seems to instinctively prefer a more analytic philosophy, it still gets all tied up in knots over all those little gaps in the gears, where the grass pops up probabilistically.
    Go figure…


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