How does philosophy help science?

We go around and around on this topic, and right now I’m just looking for examples of how philosophy—not philosophy broadly construed as “people thinking”, but more or less the academic discipline of philosophy—has helped science.

Now I know that philosophers can correct some bad arguments of scientists, and, if educated in science, can make critiques every bit as good as professional scientists. I’m thinking, for example, of Philip Kitcher’s book on sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition, and Rob Pennock’s wonderful critique of Intelligent Design, Tower of Babel. Those are both science-friendly philosophers, and that kind of work, which infuses scientific thinking with rigor thinking, as well as sweeping away the dross, count as a definite contribution to science.

But I’m hard pressed to think of many such examples (Dennett’s Consciousness Explained is another), and almost none in which a positive advance in science was prompted, or only made possible, by philosophy. This is not a dissing of philosophy (after all, Massimo Pigluicci likes to repeatedly point out my lack of philosophical street cred), but may simply reflect my own ignorance. If you think there is no contribution of philosophy to science, you can explain why, but try to avoid simple statements of negativity. That adds nothing to the discussion.

Now I’m more certain that philosophy has helped secularism and atheism. There are many examples, beginning with the Euthyphro Argument, which dispels the notion that morality must come from God’s dictates, and going through the analyses of people like Hume, Walter Kaufmann, and Herman Philipse, not to mention the work of young whippersnappers like Yonatan Fishman and Maartin Boudry.   But we’re talking about science here. In what ways would science be less advanced without the infusion of ideas from professional philosophers?

As always, tangible examples and stories will be much more convincing than nebulous and generalized discussion.

290 Comments

  1. Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    As I’m sure you’re already aware, I’m firmly of the opinion that philosophy is useless — and I’d like to think that I can convince you that this is so.

    You have your own definition of science broadly construed, one that I consider compatible with mine: the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.

    The challenge, therefore, for philosophy is to differentiate itself from science — and it does so regularly and with great vigor. We still have respected philosophers propounding Aristotelian metaphysics as a serious modern academic concern, after all — and just look at all the philosophers who come down on the side of one form of dualism or another. And then there’re the postmodernists….

    One might be tempted to play the “No True Philosopher” card, but the only way to do so is to identify those philosophers actually doing science as the true philosophers — and why not just go ahead and correctly identify them as scientists, not philosophers?

    So, Jerry, I would turn the challenge around: how might one “do philosophy” in such a way that produces meaningful results which isn’t science, broadly construed?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I would say that philosophers of art/aesthetics who reflect on why we find certain types of music or literature beautiful are doing something a bit different from science (though it may be simply a highly specialized form of literary criticism), though I concede some of this could be a legitimate field of inquiry for neuroscience.
      There’s a whole series of books on various pop culture phenomenon ending with “…and philosophy” including “Harry Potter and Philosophy”, “The Hunger Games and Philosophy”. etc.
      While I think Aristotle’s physics has been shown to be utterly false, the ideas in his “Poetics” still have some validity IMO.

      Likewise, ethics is a classical domain of philosophy, though Sam Harris may be right that a lot of this can be much more informed by science than has been traditionally the case. But in reflecting on ethics, whether one is reading John Dewey or Ayn Rand, one is not exactly doing science.

      Cheers.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        How do we know that any philosophers’ “reflections” are true or meaningful?

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

          EXACTLY!

          The entire debate boils down to this one question — and the answer should be obvious and all of two words: “With science.”

          b&

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted August 26, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Right. And I would go one further, as long as philosophy tries to insert its untestable methods into science, it is confusing matters.

            E.g. claims of “ontology”, “metaphysics”, “naturalism” (probably a theological invention anyway, in the form of NOMA’s “methodological naturalism”, et cetera).

    • Michael Johnson
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      That’s really awful and stupid. Sorry for the harsh words, but… wow.

      Not too long ago, ‘natural philosophy’ was what Newton and Locke and Boyle and Hume all called their work.

      They could have made an awful and stupid argument that goes “philosophy, broadly construed, involves using logic and evidence to arrive at well-supported positions; if science is anything else, it had better distinguish itself from this great philosophy stuff that we’ve been doing.”

      The fact that we call it ‘science’ and not ‘philosophy’ is a historical accident and the labels are irrelevant. Jerry asked a real question about what current academic philosophers do. You defined out of existence any contribution they make that SATISFY Jerry’s/ your notion of ‘science, broadly construed’… those aren’t “philosophy” so philosophers don’t make them!! I see this all the time (and will comment below on the subject): people who are in name ‘philosophers’ make genuine contributions to science, and then it’s said that those are scientific contributions, not philosophical ones, so they don’t count.

      It’s like creationists saying “that’s not a transitional form; it’s clearly a whale; next!!!”

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        By your arguments, all astronomy is really just refined astrology; all chemistry (and especially nuclear power plants) a subset of alchemy; and philosophy itself is a subset of religion.

        History and historical context is important, yes, but it does not determine reality today. And the reality today is that philosophy has no way of discarding ideas that science long ago utterly thrashed. Science has advanced, while philosophy as a discipline still clings to the same shards of the ancient childhood blankets as all other pseudosciences.

        Yes, yes — there are individuals, including some significant ones, who do real and important science (generally theoretical) whilst wearing an hat on which they’ve embroidered the word, “Philosopher.” So? Do we concede that the Disco ‘Tute is full of scientists because they appear on camera wearing lab coats? Or do we classify people as scientists or not based on what they actually do?

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Michael Johnson
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          Um… no.

          I didn’t say that if field X grew out of field Y, then wait, what are you saying, exactly?

          I intended this, apologies if I was not clear: Jerry has this definition of ‘science’ that you cite as “the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation” (“A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”: David Hume, philosopher). It is LITERALLY STUPID to argue that philosophers don’t do this because their discipline is called ‘philosophy’ and not ‘science’. You might say you’re not doing this but…

          Jerry asked about what current academic philosophers do. That’s an empirical question. As a matter of fact, a lot of them apportion their beliefs in a rational way indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. Is it too much time to ask that you go read the latest issue of “The Journal of Philosophy” to see whether that’s true?

          I’ve indicated (in a comment below) how I think philosophy has contributed in the long run to many disciplines. But if you’re going to say it’s sterile, can you please give us ANY evidence that that’s so? I want to emphasize that Jerry’s question is about what academic philosophers at present do. Do you have ANY evidence about what they do, and can you provide it to show that NONE OF THEM apportion beliefs in a proportion to a rational analysis of objective observations… or are you just WITH NO EVIDENCE making things up?

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

            The question isn’t only whether there are philosophers who have contributed to science; of course there are. The question is also whether philosophy is antithetical to science.

            And the answer to that is every bit as clear as if you substitute “religion” for science. Just in the field of biology, Ken Miller and Francis Collins and many other devoutly religious scientists will sincerely credit their faith as an essential driving element in their quest for scientific knowledge, even if they partition off specific claims of their faiths when doing so.

            But that they’re excellent scientists who happen to be religious does not give any respectability to religion.

            The problem with philosophy is that it’s full of pseudoscience and bullshit with no way to distinguish the good from the bad without resort to science. How many philosophers are postmodernists? How many take Aristotelian metaphysics or Platonic idealism seriously? How many philosophers are also outright theologians?

            And, here’s the kicker: how do you philosophically separate the good philosophers from the bad without resort to science?

            Lacking an answer to that last question, philosophy is just another pseudoscience. But if the answer is that it’s indistinguishable from science…then it’s just a baroque name given to certain branches of science for aesthetic reasons. Except, of course, that that same name gets applied to all those pseudoscientific bullshitters as well….

            b&

            • Brian Vroman
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 8:56 am | Permalink

              The assumption that we can use scientific reasoning to separate good and bad philosophy — on that I agree with — is itself a philosophical position.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 4:17 am | Permalink

                So is the assumption that science is a tool for masculine oppression, the assumption that philosophy is just a load of views of equal (lack of) validity, the assumption that There Are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, the assumption that all assumptions are equal and random claims with no superiority over each other, and the assumption that we should not contradict ourselves if we want to come up with good ideas. If philosophy is just a word for assumptions or worldviews or any kind of abstract idea, then you’re roping in ten tonnes of bullshit for every ounce of truth, and so unintentionally proving Ben Goren’s point.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 5:50 am | Permalink

                I never said any of those things. Perfect example of a straw man.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 6:18 am | Permalink

                I never said any of those things. Perfect example of a straw man.

                Funny. You have just enough time to claim strawmanning, but not enough time to post a correction to clarify the issue. Perhaps it isn’t as “strawman-like” as you wish to assert.

                Given the challenging nature of your response, which was to assert to Ben Goren that his distinction of good and bad philosophy was not science but philosophy, I somehow doubt you were trying to support Ben Goren’s point, but I think you misunderstood his point. That alone warranted a response, but in case it needs spelling out, I will clarify why I said what I said:

                You were clearly trying to get around Ben Goren’s dichotomy: that either philosophy is too all-encompassing to be considered useful, or its contributions are basically science, broadly construed. You attempted to refute this – whether with earnest seriously or bystander curiosity – by claiming that this was a philosophical assumption, as if that somehow proved philosophy contributed to science (or that science is philosophy).

                The problem is that the list I gave was also a list of “philosophical assumptions”, and that your point falls into the dichotomy Ben Goren already outlined. Thus, either the claim you make is science, broadly construed, (as Ben Goren roughly outlined it, to judge such a claim according to rational enquiry and observation), or it is on par with other philosophical assumptions, in which case you have to concede that philosophy is useless because it lumps good in with bad indiscriminately and thereby contributes nothing to intellectual enquiry by itself. And before I hear any more straw man mudslinging, those assumptions appear in feminist, Continental, epistemological, and ontological philosophies that I have encountered, and are not invented.

                By philosophy alone, you cannot distinguish the validity of the list of assumptions I provided from the validity of the assumption you provided, unless you are doing science, broadly construed. Ben Goren’s comments elsewhere on this thread already responded to this point, too.

                Unless you’re deliberately trying to be contrarian for no honest purpose, I trust my characterisation of your allegedly innocent little counter-point was accurate enough in context.

                Lastly, don’t use such shameless ad hominem assertions. They will be noticed.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 6:34 am | Permalink

                Pointing out an error in logic is not necessarily an ad hominem.

                Goren’s assumption was philosophical because it involved a value judegment, i.e., good and bad. Perhaps you would assert that good and bad are arbitrary terms, which is why you can say that all philosophical assumptions are on an even footing. But this actually gets into some deep philosophical territory. We could say, for example, that what is good is what works — this is related to the philosophical position of pragmatism. But this cannot be demonstrated scientifically; the value judgement (and in this case it is really a no-brainer) comes first. But further, this seems to touch on the issue of foundationalism in philosophy. I do not believe it is the case that in philosophy “anything goes.” For example, in ethics and political philosophy, I consider myself a Rawlsian. John Rawls, relying on Immanuel Kant, has developed a means where through the use of pure unadulterated reason, a foundation for a fair social contract and for morality can be established (if you don’t have time to read Rawls, see the debate between Shelley Kagan and William Lane Craig).

                The point is that some philosophical propositions are better than others, and to say that because I identified Mr. Goren’s assertion as a philosophical one does not mean I need to defend the absurd positions you mentioned.

                Lastly, this is Jerry Coyne’s website — not yours or mine — why engage in idle threats, such as — “they will be noticed.” So what? Notice what you will — I am here for polite discussion, and refuse to get embroiled in any kind of personal back-and-forth. Best wishes.

                Brian

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

                Goren’s assumption was philosophical because it involved a value judgement, i.e., good and bad.

                Since he was talking about factual statements, i.e. true and false, antithetical and supportive, etc., I disagree. The issue of the relationship between science and philosophy is independent of any individual’s values. If philosophy includes both science and anti-science, for instance, then he is correct to point out that it is useless because it has no way of identifying the truth from untruths.

                Perhaps you would assert that good and bad are arbitrary terms, which is why you can say that all philosophical assumptions are on an even footing.

                You are aware I was A) talking hypothetically, B) talking about their logical and objective validity, not their correspondence to particular values, C) saying that philosophy has no way of distinguishing, not myself, since I agree with Ben Goren that science broadly construed does, and D) not saying that good and bad are arbitrary, or even trying to imply it.

                But this actually gets into some deep philosophical territory.

                I don’t doubt, but then we get right back to Ben Goren’s point: How do we know that any philosophers’ “reflections” are true or meaningful? If you’re going to say no, that’s a value judgement, then what if you’re just shielding a point from criticism? How to distinguish between correct and incorrect value judgements without invoking more value judgements and falling into circularity? And if value judgements cannot be correct or incorrect, then you’re saying good and bad are arbitrary, so doesn’t that undermine the point of the inquiry?

                I pose these questions not to dismiss the notion of valuation, but because I think that your invocation of value in your rebuttal doesn’t make sense. Ben Goren’s point is that we’re better off ditching philosophy for science because philosophy has nothing to contribute to intellectual inquiry. It at least needs clarifying what advantage philosophy has in the subject of value and related discussions that science broadly construed has not, because I doubt philosophers have made progress in the field.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 7:15 am | Permalink

                I do not believe it is the case that in philosophy “anything goes.” For example, in ethics and political philosophy, I consider myself a Rawlsian. John Rawls, relying on Immanuel Kant, has developed a means where through the use of pure unadulterated reason, a foundation for a fair social contract and for morality can be established…

                The point is that some philosophical propositions are better than others, and to say that because I identified Mr. Goren’s assertion as a philosophical one does not mean I need to defend the absurd positions you mentioned.

                And Ben Goren’s response would be: How do you know this? If you’re using reason, why is that philosophy and not science, broadly construed?

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

                If you want to think of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls as scientists, fine.

                Here is a question. What about border line disciplines? Are historians scientists? Certainly, they can attempt to be as “scientific” as possible, but what they do is different than what takes place in a chemistry lab (although in some cases, historians are able to rely on sciences for analysis of artificats and so forth). If we want to say that science is special and distinct from other fileds of inquiry, then what is the line of demarcation? Or are all complex fields of inquiry science, in which case it seems to me at least that the definition of science becomes nebulous, and this would open the door, perhaps, to some things being included as science that we would probably agree are definitely not.

                Best,
                Brian

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 9:26 am | Permalink

                So it occurs to me that we have been talking past each other. In Goren’s original post, he was equating (though it is still an epistemolical position — the fact that it is wel established does not make it less so; there is also the issue of whether we are attemtping to confirm or falsify)”good” with “factual,” and “bad” with “erroneous.” I have no issue with this. So we could imagine a philosopher speculating about a new cure for AIDS (I doubt there are any philosophers doing this), and his speculations could be tested scientifically and kept or discarded as appropropriate. But that is a very truncated view of what philosophy does. Let’s say a philosopher is thinking about the nature of a just society. This involves value judements. All science can do is to test to see if those value judgements actually are brought to fruition. But what the values should be in the first place is a matter of philosophy. If I do not already believe in human flourishing, is there an experiment you can run to convince me? And what is the best way to seek after human flourishing? Utilitarianism? Rawls rejected this on the grounds that none of us would roll the dice and choose utilitarianism behind the “veil of ignorance” (and while this is clearly systematic thought, it is definitely philosophy and not science), and because minorities are in a vulnerable position under utilitarianism.

                Here’s something else that comes to mind. I had another comment up in which I asked about the sort of “modeling” engaged in by certain physicists and cosmologists, which goes beyond what is currently empirically testable. Is this science? Proto-science? A mixture of science and philosophy?

                I had one responder who suggested it was neither science nor philosophy; another who claimed that because sophisticated mathematical models were involved it was indeed science. But one can imagine astrological models and other forms of woo that use sophisticated mathematics, but does this make them science?

                I guess I would, at this point, have to be fairly conservative in my definition of science and say that it has to be 1) testable and 2) replicable. Lacking these criteria, it might be pretty sophisticated and even internally coherent thought, but I would hesitate to call it science. So I think that overly broad definitions of science are missing something.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 29, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

                Just one more comment, and then I will abandon the field. I guess I have a problem equating “good” with “factual.” The reason is that a scientist might propose a testable hypothesis that seems intitially quite plausibe, but then is disconfirmed (falsified) by experimentation. I would not say that this is a “bad” scientist,” as long as he is honest about the negative results. Science, like other fields of human endeavor, often advances by the closing off of dead ends. Even though this hypothetical scientist did not propose a “factual” conclusion, he may well have advanced science by showing others where not to look. Might the same be true of philosophers? Imagine a philosopher who, using the tools of logic, concludes that X ought to be the case. The proposition is not initially testable, but later a test is devised, and, despite logical rigor, the empirical data disconfirms the earlier conclusion. Is it not the case that here, too a service has been rendered, because now researchers can channel their engergies in other directions?

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 31, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

                Here is a question. What about border line disciplines? Are historians scientists?

                There’s no reason why they can’t be. That isn’t changed by the fact that not all of them are good at it.

                If we want to say that science is special and distinct from other fileds of inquiry, then what is the line of demarcation? Or are all complex fields of inquiry science, in which case it seems to me at least that the definition of science becomes nebulous, and this would open the door, perhaps, to some things being included as science that we would probably agree are definitely not.

                I don’t see this being a particular problem. A field of inquiry that has little to no interest in genuine rational inquiry and observation and evidence is either a work in progress (say, ethics) or a has-been out of date (say, theology).

                In Goren’s original post, he was equating (though it is still an epistemolical position — the fact that it is wel established does not make it less so;

                There you go again. You can say that it is an epistemological position, but so can a postmodernist who insists that scientists are just as baseless as the native who divines the truth by reading the intestines of a goat. That falls right back into Ben Goren’s point: of what value is “philosophy” as a discipline if it contains both science and anti-science under its umbrella?

                So we could imagine a philosopher speculating about a new cure for AIDS (I doubt there are any philosophers doing this), and his speculations could be tested scientifically and kept or discarded as appropropriate. But that is a very truncated view of what philosophy does.

                That’s hypothesis-generating leading to testing. Totally science.

                Let’s say a philosopher is thinking about the nature of a just society. This involves value judements. All science can do is to test to see if those value judgements actually are brought to fruition. But what the values should be in the first place is a matter of philosophy. If I do not already believe in human flourishing, is there an experiment you can run to convince me? And what is the best way to seek after human flourishing?

                There are two counterpoints I want to make here:

                1. Who do you think is going to get at the mystery behind the nature of values in the first place? Where do they come from? What are they? Where are we going to get the information about them that informs our decision making? Come to that, where are we going to get information about our decision-making? Philosophers have had millennia to ponder such questions, and they’ve produced a myriad of answers.

                Unless you’re dualist enough to think values exist in a different universe to material matter, you must conclude this is a series of scientific questions. The fact that someone doesn’t “believe in human flourishing” wouldn’t change any facts that suggests he’s missing out on something as a result.

                2. This still doesn’t escape Ben Goren’s point. If philosophers are tasked with dealing with values, what are their criteria? If their criteria is that any statement here must be rationally defended and can be supported by evidence from the real world, then that lands us into science again. If otherwise, then we end up with about a dozen or so ideas from philosophy, rendering the enterprise either arbitrary or unhelpful.

                Here’s something else that comes to mind. I had another comment up in which I asked about the sort of “modeling” engaged in by certain physicists and cosmologists, which goes beyond what is currently empirically testable. Is this science? Proto-science? A mixture of science and philosophy?

                Science doesn’t rule out abstract speculation unless you conceive of science as a stereotypical producer of technology from lab work. The speculation is just as important to the process as the actual testing and verifying. The trick comes from working out how much confidence one can place in any particular bit of speculation. It doesn’t mean science is just replicable testing. It might be more parsimonious to call this “reason” rather than “science”, but either way it omits a lot of stuff that passes as “philosophy”.

                But one can imagine astrological models and other forms of woo that use sophisticated mathematics, but does this make them science?

                Considering they flout both the requirement for belief to be proportional to rational inquiry and the requirement for at least a way to suggest observational evidence, no.

                The reason is that a scientist might propose a testable hypothesis that seems intitially quite plausibe, but then is disconfirmed (falsified) by experimentation. I would not say that this is a “bad” scientist,”

                What made you think I would? Science can’t tell in advance which hypothesis is going to fall and which is going to succeed. That’s the whole point of getting observational evidence to begin with.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 31, 2014 at 9:09 am | Permalink

                The reason is that a scientist might propose a testable hypothesis that seems intitially quite plausibe, but then is disconfirmed (falsified) by experimentation. I would not say that this is a “bad” scientist,”

                The only reason I said this is to demonstrate the problem with equating “good” with “factual” and “bad” with other-than-factual.

                As for values, it is true that science can tell us what sorts of values humans tend to hold, but this is descriptive. The branch of philosophy known as ethics deals with normative values. And values do in fact change over time: see Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. So in short, science deals with the “is;” philosophy deals with the “ought.” And with respect to values, as Pinker shows, with respect to values, the “is” can change.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 31, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

                As for values, it is true that science can tell us what sorts of values humans tend to hold, but this is descriptive. The branch of philosophy known as ethics deals with normative values.

                So in short, science deals with the “is;” philosophy deals with the “ought.” And with respect to values, as Pinker shows, with respect to values, the “is” can change.

                But what is “normative” values, such that we can have a NOMA between philosophy and science, if not simply a form of applied science? Where, in the comprehensive picture of the world that we draw up with science, do oughts come from? This is precisely the dualism that is part of the problem, because it simply treats oughts as irreducibly complex things that coexist along with the matter-of-fact world we live in. And theories divorced from facts – in principle, no less, with the is-ought problem – can only progress either if there’s an objective standard underpinning them, consciously or not, or according to an arbitrary fad.

                So again, what criteria do philosophers use? What’s their sign of progress, compared with that of science? If oughts and is’s inhabit parallel worlds, what’s the common thread connecting them at all? If science can only tell us how the world is, but then we just decide on oughts by ourselves without consulting any is’s, what prevents arbitrariness, circularity, and infinite regresses from entering the picture? You can’t have progress if you don’t have a measure of some sort, and if your measure isn’t in some sense grounded in real-world facts, what’s to stop someone else with a rival measure?

                I think science is very much about oughts as well as is’s. Ethics and moral sciences – and for that matter, the sciences surrounding human beings – just haven’t yet advanced to the point where we can move past the all-directions and unanchored positions of philosophy.

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted August 31, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                So again, what criteria do philosophers use? What’s their sign of progress, compared with that of science? If oughts and is’s inhabit parallel worlds, what’s the common thread connecting them at all? If science can only tell us how the world is, but then we just decide on oughts by ourselves without consulting any is’s, what prevents arbitrariness, circularity, and infinite regresses from entering the picture? You can’t have progress if you don’t have a measure of some sort, and if your measure isn’t in some sense grounded in real-world facts, what’s to stop someone else with a rival measure?

                I certainly don’t presume to speak for all philosophers. But let’s say we want to use human flourishing as the goal and as the marker of progress. Science can help in terms of informing us what will tend to lead to human flourishing, but the fact that human flourishing is a goal is not a matter of science. Yes, this is problematic, but it is a problem that can’t simply be wished away, nor can we pretend that science solves it.

                If you wish to explore the ground or foundation of ethics (this is part of the field known as meta-ethics) I encourage you to do so. Some have suggested that mere empathy and the ability to commiserate is enough, and I have some sympathies with that view. But as I mentioned previously, I consider myself a “Rawlsian.” Rawls’s social contract theory was based on the thought of Immanuel Kant. Both Rawls and Kant would have argued that when we engage in moral reasoning, there are just certain rules that apply — as an analogy, if we are playing chess, there is a certain logic that applies. Likewise, there is a certain logic to doing ethics, and this prevents moral arbitrariness. Not all philosophers would agree with this, and this is one reason science and philosophy are different. Science can conduct experiments, but philosophy just cannot work that way. But I don’t think this leaves us in a morass of relativism or nihilism. Some arguments are just better than others.

              • reasonshark
                Posted September 1, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

                I certainly don’t presume to speak for all philosophers. But let’s say we want to use human flourishing as the goal and as the marker of progress. Science can help in terms of informing us what will tend to lead to human flourishing, but the fact that human flourishing is a goal is not a matter of science. Yes, this is problematic, but it is a problem that can’t simply be wished away, nor can we pretend that science solves it.

                This is a misrepresentation of my position. I did not say that we should wish away the issue of how oughts work, nor am I pretending that science has solved it. I’m highly interested in how oughts work – metaethics – and I’ll gladly say that no current science has captured the details of ethics in a science of morality, or some such. My issue is that the alternatives are atrocious, arbitrary, and anti-science, and therefore are doomed to fail in this area because they compartmentalize in a way that the interdisciplinary nature of science cannot support. And that means we’re still trapped in the dualist notion that the rules of inquiry are fundamentally changed when we discuss human ideas like ethics, as if minds worked by magic or supernatural logic.

                If you wish to explore the ground or foundation of ethics (this is part of the field known as meta-ethics) I encourage you to do so.

                Your recommendation is noted and appreciated, but do not proceed under the misapprehension that I have not already looked into it.

                Some have suggested that mere empathy and the ability to commiserate is enough, and I have some sympathies with that view. But as I mentioned previously, I consider myself a “Rawlsian.” Rawls’s social contract theory was based on the thought of Immanuel Kant. Both Rawls and Kant would have argued that when we engage in moral reasoning, there are just certain rules that apply — as an analogy, if we are playing chess, there is a certain logic that applies. Likewise, there is a certain logic to doing ethics, and this prevents moral arbitrariness. Not all philosophers would agree with this, and this is one reason science and philosophy are different. Science can conduct experiments, but philosophy just cannot work that way. But I don’t think this leaves us in a morass of relativism or nihilism. Some arguments are just better than others.

                Then where do these other tools, these standards against which we judge better or worse arguments in ethics, come from? A rational enquiry and observational evidence-seeking that enables us to assign belief and confidence to certain ideas and fields? In which case, that’s science, broadly construed.

                Your analogy with the chess game is not so encouraging in that regard, as the rules for that were made up. If ethics isn’t simply an arbitrary game, then what are the standards, where do they come from, and why is science off-limits here?

              • Brian Vroman
                Posted September 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

                You raise some good points, and I appreciate the discussion. And I certainly don’t presume to have all the answers. With respect to deontological reasoning (the sort favored by Kant and Rawls) the argument is that when you do ethics, there are just certain rules of the game. Maybe my chess analogy was not adequate. But think of logic — an example like the rule of non-contradiction. An entity cannot be both X and not X at the same time. This is simply the way logic works. Deontologists would argue that something like that is true with respect to moral reasoning. If you want to play the “game,” there are just certain things that follow. This gets into some highly complex areas of philosophy, and there are many who are far more competent than me to articulate these issues. But suffice to say that if deontologists are correct, there is a standard to judge by, and fears of relativism and nihilism are unfounded.

                For that matter, even if one chooses utilitarianism, there is still a guiding principle — the greatest good for the greatest number. So should we be deontologists or utilitarians? That is open for debate, and that is a large part of my point — philosophy — at least moral philosophy, is different from science, but this does not take away from its importance, because moral decisions are forced upon us all the time, and we have to do the best we can. At least philosophy offers us a way to approach such issues.

                In passing, it is also worth noting that some philosophers, such as Derek Parfitt, are arguing that various ethical systems are really not incompatible. But Parfitt’s magnum opus, On What Matters, is a massive tome, and I have not yet had the time to read it thoroughly.

                Great discoursing with you; you have challenged me and made me think, and that is all that can be asked of an interlocutor.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      I agree with Michael Johnson. As much as I enjoy your other comments, Ben, here you are just ignoring Jerry’s question and venting your dissatisfaction (to put it mildly) with what you think “philosophy” should denote.

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

        What I see as Jerry’s definition of “useful philosophy” is perfectly congruent with the already-extant definition of, “science.” So, if he wants examples of useful examples of philosophy, he’s only going to find it where people are doing science and he’s going to have to exclude huge swaths of people doing very legitimate philosophy.

        Considering that one can be a teleological Aristotelian and a Platonic idealist and even a sophisticated theologian and be considered an important and respected philosopher, it’s clear that philosophy is either pseudoscience or a completely useless label. Jerry’s looking for something very specific — people who have contributed to science — and I’m arguing that that means he’s looking for people who fit the label, “scientist,” not “philosopher.”

        Even if some respected scientists (especially theoreticians) like to dress up in philosopher’s robes.

        Otherwise, why limit it to philosophy? Why not suggest that theology helps science, and point to examples such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins? Jerry is rightfully amongst the first to sing their praises as scientists, but there’s no reason to credit their theology for helping their scientific accomplishments.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • GBJames
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          Not sure why you just ignore this constraint, Ben…

          “more or less the academic discipline of philosophy—has helped science.”

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

            I’m not ignoring it; I’m trying to directly address it.

            I’m suggesting that, with the “more or less” formulation, the “more” is pure science (mostly theoretical) and the “less” is pure pseudoscience bullshit. Either both are philosophy, in which case philosophy is a useless term as it includes diametric opposites under the same definition; or only the latter is philosophy, i which case “real” philosophy is just science and we already have a good term for science.

            Either way, “philosophy” is useless — either the discipline is useless or the term is useless.

            You could prove me worng with both of a pair examples: first, of good philosophy that doesn’t fit my or Jerry’s definition of science “broadly construed”; and also how philosophy does away with bad ideas such as Aristotelian metaphysics. And since we have hard empirical evidence that philosophy doesn’t actually do the latter, your task is just a wee bit impossible….

            b&

            • NewEnglandBob
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

              …your task is just a wee bit impossible…

              Is that a euphemism for… never mind. 😄

            • GBJames
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

              I’m not trying to prove you wrong, nor the opposite. Jerry specifically requested responses be of a different nature than the usual, asking for examples of “academic philosophy” contributing to science. I don’t have an example to offer, either, although I’m open to someone else offering one. My point is that I don’t think he was asking for yet another “throw it all out” cycle. And it isn’t like the great majority of us here don’t already know exactly where you stand on the subject.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

                If Jerry had asked for examples of “academic theology” contributing to science, would you try to help him come up with some? Or would you try to convince him why he’s engaged in an exercise in futility?

                Convince me that there’s a meaningful difference between philosophy and theology and I might see the point. Keep in mind that many philosophies are explicitly theistic or deistic, and that there are very respected theologies (such as Spinoza’s or Spong’s and maybe Armstrong’s) that are practically atheistic.

                Hell, why not offer up Spinoza as an example of philosophy instrumental in the origination of Relativistic Mechanics, what with the way that Einstein credited Spinoza for influencing him so? I’m pretty sure that that’s not what Jerry has in mind, but I’m even more certain that what he does have in mind can’t be meaningfully distinguished from that example — and that’s the point I’m trying to make.

                b&

              • GBJames
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

                I’d probably say “I got nothing” and wait for the possibility that someone else does. Or maybe “I’m the wrong guy to ask for that!”. But I don’t think I’d conclude that he needs the “it is all bogus” position explained. I believe he’s seen it before.

            • reasonshark
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

              You could prove me worng with both of a pair examples: first, of good philosophy that doesn’t fit my or Jerry’s definition of science “broadly construed”

              I’m intrigued. The first counterexample that came to my head was ethics, but I’m not sure. For more specific examples, there was Epicurus, Bentham, Kant, (arguably) Hume, Nietzsche, and Singer. What’s your take on that?

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

                Ethics, when it’s not philosophers playing Nazi Stormtrooper mindfuck games with trolley cars, is very much a scientific field — with a good deal of (social) engineering thrown in.

                Broadly construed, the goal is to identify modes of behavior that members of society should adopt and others that should be avoided in order for the society to flourish. And that’s properly done with lots of hard empirical analysis. In medicine, the primary tools are patient recovery statistics and patient surveys, with controlled trials carefully used on occasion. It’s how we’ve come up with informed consent, having patients themselves mark surgery sites, checklists for administering drugs, review boards, and all the rest — and that’s just medical ethics.

                As to the utility of the laundry list of the dead white men you list…I would ask for specific theories or assertions of theirs, and how you know them to be useful and / or true? You’ll either resort to evidence (science) or rhetoric (philosophy). And while we have empirical evidence that rhetoric is useful in persuading people to adopt a particular position, we also have empirical evidence that it is utterly useless when it comes to actually determining the validity of that position — for that, you need science.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • NewEnglandBob
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                Ethics, when it’s not philosophers playing Nazi Stormtrooper mindfuck games with trolley cars,…

                +1

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

                As to the utility of the laundry list of the dead white men you list…I would ask for specific theories or assertions of theirs, and how you know them to be useful and / or true?

                Fair enough.

                Epicurus: An early materialist, and also one of the earliest exponents of the philosophy of ataraxia and aponia, or of using pain and pleasure as criteria for the good life.

                Bentham: Founder of utilitarianism, early advocate of animal rights on the basis of “can they suffer”, and forerunner of “welfarism”, which states that actions moral and immoral are based on how they impact human (and animal) welfare.

                Kant: Considered the notion of fundamental aspects of human experience (space, time, cause and effect), dealt with the nature of perception, and was an early promoter of deontics with his concept of the Categorical (i.e. absolute) Imperative.

                Hume: Set out the “you can’t get an ought from an is” principle, challenged the argument from design, was of the empiricist side of the debate on human reason (not in the sense science is empiricist, though), and pointed out the problem of induction.

                Nietzsche: Promoted life-affirmation, which does away with the afterlife and focuses on the present, promoted moving away from Christian “slave” morality, and set up the Apollonian-Dionysian distinction between cultures, which was taken up by Ruth Benedict.

                Singer: Promoted animal rights from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective, has contributed to bioethics, and questioned unthinking moral dogmas in Practical Ethics.

                I don’t know how impressive a list this is, since some of these are most likely supported or refuted by science, but some of them seem to rely purely on logical argumentation.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:03 am | Permalink

                Ethics, when it’s not philosophers playing Nazi Stormtrooper mindfuck games with trolley cars, is very much a scientific field — with a good deal of (social) engineering thrown in.

                Broadly construed, the goal is to identify modes of behavior that members of society should adopt and others that should be avoided in order for the society to flourish. And that’s properly done with lots of hard empirical analysis.

                I’m very much of two minds on this. For me, it rests on two issues:

                The real-world correlates for the moral words “good” and “bad/evil”. For instance, are these abstractions like evolution, which describes a collection of processes that exist even if we don’t actually believe they do, or like currency, which depends on the willing cooperation of multiple agents and could be scrapped if society deemed it??

                The issue of valuation, i.e. how value works. This also ties in to the issue of “should”, as in the is-ought problem, since a major question is whether a moral imperative is an objective feature of sentient beings or a framework we apply that could be abandoned and therefore cease to exist.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          Jerry’s looking for something very specific — people who have contributed to science — and I’m arguing that that means he’s looking for people who fit the label, “scientist,” not “philosopher.

          So you’re not trying to answer the question but just express your unhappiness with the way the question is asked. Fine. That’s pretty much what I said in my previous comment.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      I just started reading this discussion and there is this statement: “As I’m sure you’re already aware, I’m firmly of the opinion that philosophy is useless”

      So do you have a scientific proof for this statement? Don’t you realize that your statement is in fact *philosophy*? You are shooting in your own foot.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Don’t even go there…

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        If all science is philosophy because science is an outgrowth of philosophy, then all astronomy is astrology for the same reasons — and so, too, all philosophy is religion. As roqoco suggests, you don’t want to go there. The arrogance and hubris of philosophers taking credit for smallpox vaccines and telecommunications satellites is…not seemly.

        Science, broadly construed, is the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. Philosophy apportions beliefs otherwise and so is not science. We have hard empirical evidence that other methods of apportioning beliefs are useless at best and generally most counterproductive. The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I’m not saying that all science is philosophy; saying that astrology is not astronomy is philosophy.

          You say:
          “Science, broadly construed, is the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.”
          This is a *philosophical* statement, and of course most scientists will agree with this.

          Perhaps philosophy has somehow a different connotation in the US than in Europe. When I was a student in the Netherlands, you could not take on the study of philosophy at state universities without a university degree in science.

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            “Science, broadly construed, is the apportioning of belief in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.”
            This is a *philosophical* statement, and of course most scientists will agree with this.

            Wether philosophers consider it philosophical or not I couldn’t care — just as I couldn’t care if theologians consider it valid religion.

            That statement is a scientific one, which a rational analysis of objective observation of science and scientists will confirm to a reasonable degree. If you can offer evidence to the contrary or find fault in the reasoning, then the scientific response would be to abandon (or alter) the definition.

            The academic philosophical embrace of PoMo, Aristotle, Plato, etc., etc., etc., is empirical evidence that philosophers use some other means to apportion belief and thus do not practice science.

            b&

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

              “The academic philosophical embrace of PoMo, Aristotle, Plato, etc., etc., etc., is empirical evidence that philosophers use some other means to apportion belief and thus do not practice science.”

              Of course not, philosophy is not science, as it is not engineering or medicine. Wittgenstein refused to be called a “professor of philosopy.” He argued that as a discipline you only have a “history of philosophy.”

              You mention PoMo, I assume you mean the postmodern attacks on science (relativism, science is a belief system). These people were not philosophers, but sociologist, and I agree they are mainly a useless breed.

              • reasonshark
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:07 am | Permalink

                These people were not philosophers, but sociologist, and I agree they are mainly a useless breed.

                Postmodernism is a philosophical position on the nature of truth and human perception. It’s a part of Continental philosophy, which very much is philosophy. Your comment is coming perilously close to the No True Scotsman fallacy here.

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          I agree that there is a problem with many people who are philosophers who support supernaturalist metaphysics, and that it is a sad fact there are philosophers who make conflicting claims.

          But I would argue that the relatively useless discipline is in fact “metaphysics” rather than philosophy per se.

          Is anyone seriously suggesting that all science today is really philosophy? Once you get in the realm of systematic experiments done in accordance with scientific method you really are not doing philosophy any more, and I don’t know of anyone who claims otherwise.

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            No, science is not philosophy. But accepting that experiment, observation, and induction are the way to understand nature is “philosophy,” and it is my philosophy–I don’t accept religion or superstition or new-age nonsense as a way to understand and explore reality. Your fundamental outlook on the world is based on a ‘philosophy,’ which is an intellectual choice.

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

              And here’s the $10,000 question:

              How do you know that you’ve made the right choice?

              If you’re a reasonable modern person, it’s because a rational analysis of available objective observations indicates that it’s much more likely than not that you get good results with the scientific method.

              http://xkcd.com/54/

              The other “philosophies” you mention do not have a comparable track record — quite the opposite, in fact.

              Nor — and this is the point — does philosophy itself have that track record.

              b&

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

                I agree with Wittgenstein that you have to deal with the history of ideas as “philosophy.” Philosophy is not a science, it is, for us mortals, more of an attitude. In fact, this is how science started in Miletus, about 2700 years ago. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes decided that they had to get rid of myths and rely on observation and reasoning to interpret nature. Their motivation was philosophical, since scientific thinking did not exist at that time. We still have the same problem with religious fundamentalists.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                Then why is it that science broadly construed produces useful results but philosophy can’t get rid of Aristotle and Plato and PoMo?

                If this attitude you describe actually prevailed in philosophy, all philosophers would have long since abandoned philosophy in favor of science. Yet that clearly isn’t the case….

                b&

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

              I think we need to recognize that there’s a common definition of philosophy which is used in everyday communication and means something like “one’s worldview,” and then there’s academic Philosophy (capitalized to make the distinction) that historically floats one idea or another and tries to use persuasion to gather support.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

                I’m starting to think that what you’ve identified here is, at its heart, the dividing line in practice between science and philosophy.

                Scientists rely upon the evidence as the final arbiter; philosophers, on rhetoric.

                Rhetoric unquestionably has its uses, but it is fundamentally incapable of distinguishing fact from fallacy.

                b&

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

                Rhetoric! Exactly.

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

            Is it your position that metaphysics is not (valid, perhaps even essential) philosophy? If so, then your definition of philosophy does not comport with either the dictionary or common usage.

            If you would concede that metaphysics belongs with philosophy, then the obvious conclusion is that philosophy is utterly incapable of cleaning its own house. Science did away with metaphysics about the same time it did away with alchemy and astrology; today, metaphysics is even less respectable than either. Even were we to make a suggestion along the lines of, “Philosophy is good except for that metaphysics bit,” that’s rather like claiming that “Astrology is good except for the thing with the horoscopes.” After all, modern astrologers (of necessity) use Relativistic Mechanics to plot Mercury’s positions over sufficient timescales….

            b&

            • JonLynnHarvey
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

              Per my reply above, philosophy also deals with issues of ethics and aesthetics in addition to discussions about what is true, so I think the analogy with astrology is not very exact.

              However, you are correct that philosophy has an inability to clean it’s own house (more precisely it has no internal compass for adjudicating between false and true claims of its own practitioners.)

              However, when a thinker like Jean-Paul Sartre writes an interesting book that covers both human psychology AND ethics in a unified and integrated way (I am thinking of “Being and Nothingness”) he is partly doing science insofar as psychology is involved but he is doing something a bit more than science.

              When a philosopher like Bryan Magee writes a book about the influence of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer on opera composer Richard Wagner and analyzes the implicit life-philosophy of Wagner’s operas, he is not doing science but he isn’t doing anything rebutted by science either.

              The problem is that “philosophy” is a very generic term. Sam Harris does not like the word “religion” (Harris argues there are only individual religions but no such thing as “religion” per se) and in some ways the word “philosophy” has the same problems.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

                When a philosopher like Bryan Magee writes a book about the influence of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer on opera composer Richard Wagner and analyzes the implicit life-philosophy of Wagner’s operas, he is not doing science but he isn’t doing anything rebutted by science either.

                I believe that you’ll find this example falls into one of two possibilities.

                The first is that Magee is making truth claims; if so, either he’s doing science broadly construed or he’s making up bullshit.

                The second is that he’s engaging in a creative aesthetic process of his own. Unless you want to accuse me (and Jerry and many others) of the canard of scientism, it should be clear why that’s not science but also potentially a very valuable endeavor.

                Philosophy, it should be noted, whatever its aesthetic appeal, prides itself on being a quest for truth. So either Magee’s facts are solid (and independently verifiable) and his conclusions necessarily follow from those facts…or any relationship his work has with reality is purely coincidental.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • JonLynnHarvey
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

                I never accuse anyone of “scientism” because it is (as Sean Carroll has pointed out) an overly flexible word that is used by right-wingers to mean too many different things.

                I guess if you consider history in general and specifically the history of Western thought as form of science then you are correct. (It would then be specifically forensic science which is defined as deducing things about the past.) It’s a broader definition of science than what many English-speaking people mean (though it certainly falls under the purview of the German word “Wissenshaft”) but it can be so construed.

                It remains the case that the classic branches of philosophy are generally regarded as epistemology, logic, metaphysics, ethics, political theory, aesthetics. Now if you are an “ethical Platonist” meaning you believe that moral truths are objectively “out there” just like the truths of mathematics than I guess an ethicist is trying to arrive at “truth”. But if you believe that a particular ethical framework (most humanists are “consequentialists”) is simply the pragmatic best choice than reflections on say, biomedical ethics re cloning, organ donation, stem cell research are not really looking for “truth” but are still something that philosophers do. Science heavily informs such discussions, but unlike Sam Harris, I am not convinced this is ALL science.

            • Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

              Ahem. Science did not get rid of metaphysics, merely shifted (slightly) where one ought to do it. (See below.)

              That said, there is of course lots of bad (science unfriendly/hostile) metaphysics which should be just regarded as intellectual junk. (Thomism should have been buried at the time of Galileo or Boyle at the latest, and a lot of phenomenology is at best superficial, for example.) I agree with the problem about policing, so to speak.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      I want to put a class IV laser in my lab. The laser will enable four new publishable results. What part of science is involved developing the engineering controls for the safety of persons who need access to the room but have nothing to do with the results? I content none. In fact, pragmatically speaking such controls are paid for by overhead, not by scientific grants. Even the ‘money’ knows such controls are not science.

      These kind of controls are developed from thinking about how humans want to live safely. Likewise, where I put the laser, as a matter of discussion among fellow scientists can ultimately be an aesthetic decision, not necessarily a scientific one. I call that philosophy, not science.

      Further, now a workmate wants to use the laser with a log book and I find this archaic and choose to use a spreadsheet which all users can update and access more readily. Is this decision process science or philosophy. Almost everyone I work with would call it philosophy, not science.

    • Kallan Greybe
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Look, I’m an academic philosopher and I’m pretty sure you’re being unfair here Ben.

      First off, there’s the old accusation Dan Dennett’s made: there’s no such thing as science without philosophy, only science with unexamined philosophical commitments. For instance you’re what’s known as a foot-stomping realist, which is actually what you’re committed to when you use your particular definition of “observation”. I happen to also be a realist, certainly about science, but for different reasons: things have to be real in order for us as human beings to have capacities like understanding, interpreting or observing. Whether this is useful or not however depends on what you’re worried about. If we’re worried that there is some sense in which we can doubt our relationship with the world then your answer doesn’t help, it’s just changing the subject (or worse trying to pretend that the question hasn’t been asked).

      And that leads to my second problem with your argument. In science, we’re very much used to the idea that it’s *questions* which determine method. Science doesn’t proceed by dogmatic methodological assertions, instead a good scientist uses the methods that suit her needs, whether that’s DNA analysis, theory, population studies or radio telescopes. Given the range of important methods science has, we’ve taken to creating specialisations, biology, theoretical physics, psychology… and philosophy. In this sense I’m in principle in agreement, that philosophy just is science, but I disagree on the whole because you have a ridiculously dogmatic notion of what counts as science: you’re like a physicist telling a biologist that they’re not doing science. Science isn’t defined by its methods, as you seem to keep on asserting, as much as it’s defined by its *questions* and, importantly, scientists attitudes to those questions (namely taking them seriously as questions.)

      Finally you might wonder whether or not philosophical questions are worth answering unless philosophy has important scientific impacts. Dennett is a good example to raise, but maybe not for the reasons you think. I get the impression that people like Dennett because he’s willing to use science to make his arguments, and maybe because he’s a materialist, but there’s a bigger reason why he’s an important example. Dennett is committed to a particular theory of cognition called computationalism. If you were to look at the history of computational theory what you’ll find is that the line goes from computational theory, to the so-called “cognitivist revolution” (driven by Chomsky’s *philosophical* arguments: he still calls himself a so-called Cartesian atomist), the foundation of linguistics as a discipline and finally to the obscure musings of a German mathematician (Gottlob Frege) on the foundations of mathematics (Frege was basically unheard of until Russell championed him.) Computers, linguistics, and modern science of the mind rests heavily on the back of some of the most obscure and pedantic discussions about the nature of maths, and frankly, this isn’t accidental. These questions are *real* questions, questions that demand answers and tell us interesting things about the world when we answer them.

      And all of that would be true even if I didn’t think that there are important questions about politics or ethics that we need to answer scientifically, but can’t answer without using the methods of philosophy.

  2. Trophy
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    What time frame are we talking about? Because if we go a few centuries back, it is not too difficult to come up with examples.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      That was my question, too. I assume Jerry is looking for examples from modern times, not back when science was the same as “natural philosophy”.

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Have popcorn and comfortable chair. Commence.

    • Lowen Gartner
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Traditional oil popping in pan – no microwave for me.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        I use an air popper.

        • bonetired
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

          Funnily enough I was going to mention Popper 😉

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

            Good one! 😀

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Heresy! Whirley Pop is the only method of popping suitable for home applications.

          b&

  4. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I think ethics can complement science in the areas of biomedical sciences and maybe even in how lab animals are treated. Sure, we all can think logically, but philosophy helps us in those areas and there are often ethicist positions on hospital boards.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      Ethics is also useful in considering what rules to enforce in a scientific workplace where hazardous conditions may exist. This allows the scientist to return home every night to his/her family in nearly the same condition as that person began the work day.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        But as Heraclitus would have observed, it’s never actually the same scientist that returns home.

  5. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I’m mostly familiar with philosophical contributions to mathematical foundations: logic, probability and statistics. The Vienna Circle is an obvious example (Godel, Carnap, etc). There is not a firm line separating philosophy and mathematics; the latter is often described as “the language of science.” It’s easy to identify philosophers’ contributions in retrospect, but it’s more difficult to identify recent contributions until they’ve had several decades to realize their impacts.

    The other obvious area of contribution is ethics. Most professions have specialized ethicists (e.g. medical ethicists), but ethics research usually seems to be firmly philosophical and tethered to the work of traditional philosophers.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      The downside being that logic can seem sound, but still be false compared to reality.

      I don’t know how prone to circular reasoning math is, but regardless of language you should in theory be able to check eachothers calculations without bias.

      Language complicates this because of multiple definitions of similar words and phrases.

      Numbers and language are odd bedfellows, imo.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

        Can you give an example of a formal logical inference that is falsified by some observation? Circular reasoning turns out to be admissible in certain mathematical and scientific contexts; basically a self-consistent prediction can be both circular and true if alternatives result in contradictions. I have no idea where you find bias in mathematical or logical results, other than in the preferred styles of proof or interpretations of paradoxes.

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          I guess the fine-tuning argument is one case.

          For outsiders the logic is circular, but if you believe in a god the logic is sound.

          The axiom simply exists because we exist.

          I can imagine the observer-problem from a philosophical viewpoint as somewhat similar and I wouldn’t be surprised if the answer is very simple.

          I just don’t think we will crack it through thinking about it.

          I don’t know how theoretical physicists brainstorm at their most private, but I do hope that math plays a fundamental role.

          As a musician my brainstorming is partly intuitive, but the physical constraints are constantly there.

          In other words, it is easy to imagine beautiful music, but it is another matter entirely to actually materialize( in lack of a better word ) it.

          This might sound dumb, but I think theoretical physicists share the same problem.

          It is easy for them to imagine beautiful math( I often see physicists describing equations as elegant ), but it is another thing entirely to actually do it and to do it according to reality.

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

            The fine tuning argument is metaphysics. Logic and mathematics are mainly about manipulations of symbols and statements subject to consistency rules. They do not make direct physical claims, but when they are attached to physical claims they reveal the full scope of theoretical consequences.

            • Jesper Both Pedersen
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

              “They do not make direct physical claims, but when they are attached to physical claims they reveal the full scope of theoretical consequences.”

              Wouldn’t that require philosophers to be able to predict the future in order to be correct?

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                No, logic and mathematics are just purely about permissible inferences. They start with basic things like, say, the definition of parallel lines, and then work from there to build up a system of theorems that follow from the original definitions.

              • Jesper Both Pedersen
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

                That’s cool, I can dig it as a method of reaching objective definitions and as a way of trying to communicate objectively.

                My problem is when obfuscating language complicates and creates false axioms.

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              The fine tuning argument is not metaphysics, it is a religious argument. Metaphysics would deal with the question whether the fine tuning argument is a religious or a scientific argument.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                I think you’re a little off on the definition of metaphysics: “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                @cjwinstead:
                I think you’re a little off on the definition of metaphysics: “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.”

                You must agree with me that this is nonsense, dating from the 19th century.

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

                “You must agree with me that this is nonsense, dating from the 19th century.”

                No, it is just the definition of metaphysics. Look it up. Neither the subject nor the definition date from the 19th century. As a subject, metaphysics is both ancient and contemporary. All of us make at least a few metaphysical suppositions that are not directly verifiable or falsifiable. It’s unavoidable, and it’s still a genuine branch of philosophical analysis.

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

              I suppose that you need to follow some unverified criteria in deciding which mathematics is important and should be expanded upon and which results are uninteresting.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                “Importance” seems to be very subjective in mathematical exploration, and also in many scientific investigations. There are few “verified” criteria for assessing importance, and there is no generalizable objective theory of the assessment of theories.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

                Agree. That is what I was getting at – you need to have some reason when following a particular line of enquiry, since the problem space is huge. That reason isn’t something that is empirically verifiable. We need to make a case for why stuff is interesting and that’s more of a philosophical issue than a scientific one.

  6. Sastra
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    In what ways would science be less advanced without the infusion of ideas from professional philosophers?

    Okay, I’m going to throw some Rebecca Goldstein at you (her Plato at the Googleplex is partly an answer to Krauss at al.) Science IS philosophy, and every time the scientific method has gotten sharper and better this was a philosophical advancement.

    Presumably physicists care about the “philosophical” question of whether they are actually talking about anything other than observations when they do their science…
    All of which is to say that one cannot make the claims for science that many philosophy-jeerers make without relying heavily on claims—such as the falsifiability criterion for scientific statements, or the assumption of scientific realism—which belong not only to philosophy, but to that “worst part of philosophy,” philosophy of science. So if philosophy has as little substance as Krauss claims, if there is no way to make progress in philosophical knowledge, then this is as serious a problem for a physicist like Krauss as it is for those who call themselves philosophers.

    • Trophy
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I think the rebuttal is that scientists do not really need “the assumption of scientific realism”. As long as science works and we get results we are happy.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        So does the “multiverse” concept “work?”

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

          Yes. Read, e.g., David Deutsch on quantum computing. (Re one of several potentially distinct multiverse concepts; read Sean Carroll on this topic.)

          /@

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

            It’s important in this context, I think, to point out the two main flavors of “multiverse” theories.

            First is the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which every possibility in quantum indeterminate events (such as each photon in the infamous two-slit experiment) results in the actualization of a new universe with each possible outcome. This is a very serious interpretation of the wavefunction equation, and the one most favored by working physicists (including Sean Carroll). (They have, as yet, to convince me — not that I’m even remotely qualified to have an opinion.) There is no good way yet to test M-W, but there has been some speculation that something along the lines of a “quantum eraser” might someday be thought up which could perhaps settle the matter. Or, one of the competing interpretations could settle the matter in its favor, or the whole question could get settled or become moot as part of a grand unification theory, and so on.

            Next is what’s more likely to get labeled by physicists as a “multiverse” theory, and it’s much larger in scale. It’s the idea that our Big Bang is not the only such event, and that there are other volumes of space not unlike ours completely disconnected from ours which started with their own Big Bang. The actual geometries in which these other Big Bangs exist are quite varied and the subject of much research…but it’s worth noting that pretty much all defensible cosmologies that include our Big Bang don’t have any built-in limit that says that it’s the only one. In many (most?) of them, there isn’t even the theoretical possibility of information passing from one to another so there might not be any way to confirm this, but multiverses do “shake out” as a logical consequence of our best understanding of our own Big Bang.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Kevin
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

              I do not think a quantum eraser is possible, in the way that quantum cloning is not permissible. M-W is with us for the foreseeable future.

            • Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

              Thank you for elaborating, Ben.

              This interview with Deutsch gives at least a flavour of his ideas about many-worlds and quantum computing.

              /@

            • Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

              And here is a pertinent article by Carroll.

              /@

        • Trophy
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:16 am | Permalink

          Regarding the multiverse, see the post by Ethan: https://medium.com/starts-with-a-bang/ask-ethan-45-how-deep-does-the-multiverse-go-70820b852ee8

          Most kinds of multiverse are considered just hypothetical so they don’t “work”. The most reasonable one comes from *assumptions* that we think are reasonable. But at any rate, none of the multiverse theories are completely part of science as they cannot be verified.

          So I really don’t get your comment. Maybe you want to elaborate beyond one sentence?

          • Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure what you mean by “not completely part of science”, but the “multiverse theories” are certainly honest and credible attempts by professional scientists to develop hypotheses that fit the facts, provide explanations, and are in principle falsifiable.

            At the most basis level: If string theory didn’t yield the Standard Model, it would be falsified. If the Many Worlds interpretation didn’t match observed quantum effects, it would be falsified.

            /@

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:00 am | Permalink

      Her examples seem suspect to me. Do philosophers agree on scientific realism? So far as I have seen philosophy merely raised the question but still can’t agree if this is the assumption that scientists should embrace. Does philosophy get full credit for merely asking questions? Isn’t this just, as the name implies, an assumption of many scientists, one not justified by proof or logic but one that lets them get on with their work? And falsifiability, is that really established as a helpful criteria? I spent a period of my life immersed in psychology literature spanning the time when logical positivism, the end point of falsifiability, hopped over from philosophy and infected psychology. If we were merely looking for influence we could stop there, because the influence was huge. But was it a helpful influence? The positivistic zeal of the behaviorists seems to me to have delayed progress in psychology by a couple of decades, not helped it. So I find her rebuttal rather flat.

      OTOH, I could agree that science is a branch of philosophy, as is math (including meta-mathematics and logic), but I don’t see how that’s very relevant to Jerry’s question. The claim of philosophy skeptics isn’t that science arrived here from Saturn, unconnected to the history of human thinking on Earth. The question is whether any of the non-science non-math branches of philosophy still bear fruit, or is fruitful philosophy identical to science + math. If someone wants me to agree that unbiased induction from data is impossible, and that this is a “philosophical result”, I won’t argue. I believe it’s true because of an argument, not an observation, and I guess that’s philosophy, broadly construed, and not clearly science or math. If someone wants me to agree that there are new insights, just as useful as this, published in any of the top ten philosophy journals in the past, say, 40 years, well, I’m pretty skeptical of that and would like citations.

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Well, it may be a matter of definition since long ago what we call science was called “natural philosophy”.

    To me, simply correcting bad arguments (often those from real evidence) and defining what is a good one is sufficient cause to praise philosophy as a contributor to science even if this doesn’t quite count as what JC/WEIT means by a “positive” contribution. Philosophy helps define what sound method is.

    The major fellows who formulated what actually constitutes scientific method, Bacon, Locke, and Newton (also Christian Huygens) all drew on philosophy to make their positions. Huygens was the first to overtly formulate the idea of coming up with a hypothesis and an experiment to test it. He was a philosopher.

    A related note on history & philosophy.

    My own undergrad major was history. Now while some works of pseudo-history often just directly falsify the data (David Barton & Glenn Beck for example), others have fairly solid data but simply have bad arguments so that the conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the (good) data given. In the latter category falls many (though not all) books purporting evidence of a pre-patriarchal civilization which worshipped a single “goddess”, a major premise of the modern Wicca movement. This was argued by the genuinely learned Robert Graves in his book “The White Goddess”. His evidence is largely genuine, but the conclusion simply does not follow from it. Showing this to be so is IMO largely an exercise in philosophy!!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Meant to italicize three individual words, not that whole phrase. No preview option here. Sorry.

  8. Alex
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    What about parts of theoretical physics which dabble along the boundary of empirical science, like interpretations of quantum mechanics, or less problematic things like the role and emergence of causality, just to give examples that come to mind. I don’t know whether philosphy has made important contributions here, I just find it imaginable that it could. Philosophers ought to be good at digging through the messy terminology and clarify these things, especially if they know their physics…

    • Alex
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      I might add that one can reasonably claim that for example interpretations of QM have no direct empirical relevance. HOWEVER, to borrow a thought from David Deutsch’s book, we want our scientific theories to be more than black boxes which predict experiments (after all, what do we learn from them in this case, what added knowledge do they provide to an experiment apart from saving costs). We want them to have explanatory power, and the question what an explanation is, and how far the reach of our theories is to say something about reality, is in my opinion not an unnecessary one. For example, it is often said that in a double slit experiment, the particle goes through both slits. Is this really true in which sense? This may be a very tangential question, until we come to the inclusion of ourselves as observers into the physical system. In what sense is the wave function which describes ourselves ontological (approaching the many worlds picture). Those are very important questions, and they are strictly speaking not in the purview of physics alone.

      • compuholio
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        one can reasonably claim that for example interpretations of QM have no direct empirical relevance.

        I am unsure whether interpretations of QM have any value. To me that is philosophy. Maybe interesting but ultimately useless. I prefer the “shut up an calculate” approach to science.

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

          Useless for what? Calculating what time you are going to knock of work, so you can get a beer? Having babies?…

          • chris
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

            Whatever you think of them, most of the best-known currently discussed interpretations of QM were devised by physicists, not by philosophers. E.g., Bohr (Copenhagen interpretation), Bohm, Girradi et al (Ghirardi–Rimini–Weber collapse theory) Evert (many worlds).

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

              And so? Do you reckon they’d have less street cred if some philosopher had dreamed them up?

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                I think the point is that philosophers aren’t even in the spectator seats in the stadium, let alone the starting lineup. Those ideas come from physicists rather than philosophers because philosophers are capable of coming up with them but philosophers aren’t.

                (And if that wasn’t Chris’s point, it’s mine, and one I’ve made many times.)

                b&

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

                I agree – you can’t theorize about physics unless you really get to grips with the physics and maths. OTOH, the fundamental basis of reality is pretty interesting (and who knows it may lead to the next lifestyle innovation too) outside of it’s applications in making people’s existence less miserable.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

                But that’s the point. Who’s in a better position to make guesses about “the fundamental basis of reality”: a theoretical physicist or a philosopher?

                Many philosophers would have trouble telling you the difference between a muon and a lepton (hint: trick question), yet at least some of them feel qualified to speculate on the fundamental nature of reality. William Lane Craig, anybody? Attempting to lecture Sean Freakin’ Carroll on the significance of Boltzmann Brains to Sean’s own cosmological models?

                b&

              • Alex
                Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                What little I’ve seen in attempts of philosophers to talk about physics so far was mostly very disconcerting for this reason. There were exceptions though, I saw an excellent talk by a guy about the question whether successive physical theories are converging to anything like a truth in terms of their description of nature. Alas, that was a physicist turned philosopher.

              • Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

                I think you have to start with the physics. But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t layer some additional understanding on top of it. In fact the scientist whose imagination can’t stretch beyond the pragmatics of his/her particular subject is a popular target of parody. And rightly so IMOP.

        • Alex
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

          They may be useless for constructing better lasers and quantum nonstick frying pans, but I don’t think they are useless for understanding what the consequences of QM are for our view of the world, our identity, the nature of our very existence – in other words, some of the main reasons why fundamental research is important for humankind in the first place.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            Why isn’t the view of the world that any intelligent, critically-thinking person comes up with any less meaningful than that of someone who calls him/her -self a philosopher?

            • Alex
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:09 am | Permalink

              Erm, what???

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

                Oops!

                Why isn’t the view of the world that any intelligent, critically-thinking person comes up with just as meaningful as that of someone who calls him/her -self a philosopher?

              • Alex
                Posted August 26, 2014 at 3:29 am | Permalink

                If you’d substitute philosophy for physics, I’d say that a physicist has some technical knowledge and skills which are absolutely necessary to make progress, and which well-educated laypeople nevertheless don’t possess. This includes a basic language (mostly math-based) which contains the necessary objects of which one needs to speak in order to talk about the subject (fields, forces, actions, operators, states…).

                I would then hope that, by analogy, professional philosophers also have training which enables them to think more systematically and consistently about complicated issues than laypersons, including knowledge of the necessary language, and background knowledge of past works by others.

        • Kevin
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

          Try solving a Hamiltonian for n-particles in 3 dimensions. Will you tell me where decoherence begins in a quantum system with any known calculation?

          Interpretations can have immense value with prescribing future solutions to the problem of decoherence.

          • Alex
            Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:56 am | Permalink

            I’m not an expert on decoherence, but aren’t there a bunch of model systems where one couples a measured state to a larger number of “environmental” states, which illustrate decoherence in the form of suppression of all interference effects. Of course that doesn’t solve the question of wavefunction collapse, which depends on the interpretation of qm in use.

            • Kevin
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:40 am | Permalink

              I am not specifically familiar with the model you describe, but I doubt it predicts the extent, both temporarally or spatially of coherent phenomena, like atom interferometry or entanglement. Maybe this is just a technicality, because some theorist I know claim there should be no limits on sustaining a coherent state, which in my mind implies stuff like macroscopic cat states or even teleportation. But there may be fundamental limits…and those have not been shown.

              • Alex
                Posted August 26, 2014 at 3:38 am | Permalink

                Maybe we are talking about different things here. I was referring to a simple model system of n simple quantum objects (e.g. spins) coupled by an interaction to one more simple quantum object such as a spin, which is supposed to be the observed object. One prepares this latter state in a pure state, say spin up. Then one can switch on the interaction, and one then finds that the system is in a complicated superposition. However, when one claims ignorance of the state, and takes n -> infinity, interference effects go away and the densitiy matrix for the “observed object” effectively has the structure of classical probabilities for the two states.

                Anyways – I don’t think there is any serious doubt that arbitrarily large systems can be in a coherent quantum state. Why should there be?

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

          They do – there’s a long thread in philosophy of science, starting in the 1950s, showing that bad philosophy is holding back understanding and improving QM. For example, nobody would take the “mind does it” QM interpretations after reading Popper or Bunge’s (1960s!) axiomatizations of QM. A theory of reference (later done by Bunge in 1974) can clear up any last ghosts, if you’ll pardon the expression.

          This is a valuable contribution; it weeds out pseudoscience. Sometimes the philosophers are wrong, or at least missing somehing. I wrote several student papers for Bunge, one of which was about AI, for example, but the approach is correct – the role of philosopher ought to be the same as Hilbert’s foundations researcher.

    • Sergio Graziosi
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Or you could take my stance and argue that theoretical physics is nothing but a branch of philosophy that uses mathematical models as its main tool…

      The distinction is practical: to be a theoretical physicist you need to know your physics and maths, so you come from one or the other field and end-up in a similarly named faculty. But you’re using pure thought to generate hypotheses that are not currently verifiable (and may never be). How is that not philosophical?

      • Michael Sommers
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        While theoretical or mathematical physicists may not personally conduct experiments, their work is based on experiments conducted by others, and their predictions will be tested by experiments conducted by others. Philosophers don’t make testable predictions, and don’t experimentally test anything.

      • Alex
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        As a theoretical physicist let me stress that only some specific (but popularly most widely known) branches of what is called TP operate with hypotheses which are not verifiable in the forseeable future – those are mainly dealing with quantum gravity and cosmology which are complicated by the fact that most phenomena are happening at the planck scale. Large portions of theoretical physics work close to experiments and generate ways to test hypotheses at currently running experiments such as LHC and other colliders, or direct or indirect dark matter searches, to give examples of high energy physics. Outside of high energy physics, there are solid state theorists which work directly with systems which are supposed to model actually existing materials.

        • Sergio Graziosi
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

          Alex and Michael,
          I wasn’t trying to insult TP! Just noting the abstract similarities (blurred lines, as I’ve noted elsewhere). I would hope that good philosophers would love to see their ideas tested.

          • Alex
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

            No offense taken, I just wanted to put that out there because especially in America, my impression is that theoretical physics is very much identified with pure superstring theory.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the conferences at which physicists discuss such things are often organized (at least in part) by philosophy departments. Philosophy provides much of the vocabulary and context in which the meaning of scientific theories can be debated.

      A concrete example of this is the “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference that Jerry attended a year or two ago.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

        I’d been under the impression Sean Carroll was the one who put this together. Not sure, but Jerry attended. The general point isn’t wrong, though.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Philosophers ought to be good at digging through the messy terminology and clarify these things, especially if they know their physics…

      It’s that final qualification that’s the kicker. To make meaningful theoretical contributions to physics today is going to require much more than just a few undergraduate general studies courses as part of a philosophy degree; it’s going to require postdoc work in physics at a minimum, just to have enough opportunities to encounter the relevant information in the field.

      …so why would we consider a physics postdoc a philosopher rather than a scientist…?

      b&

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        There isn’t an exclusion zone whereby someone who studies physics can’t also be well versed in literature and philosophy.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

          Of course not.

          But, first, theoretical physicists who make significant contributions are nearly exclusively well-educated, well-rounded individuals — as are most people at that level of academia.

          That then leaves the question of how much their mad fizziks skilz contributes to their discoveries and how much of it comes from their philosophizing. Considering that no amount of philosophy is going to get you to new insight without a comprehensive knowledge of the state of the art in physics, and that we get the occasional savant wunderkind who makes progress in STEM fields with virtually no knowledge outside of the field, I’d say that the conclusion of the irrelevancy of philosophy for physics is damned overwhelming.

          Stephen Hawking most reasonably could have come up with the idea of hairy black holes without even having heard of Schopenhauer. Can you even get a passing grade in an introductory philosophy class without being able to sorta spell Schopenhauer’s name?

          b&

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

            Isn’t Schopenhauer the kid who plays piano on Charlie Brown cartoons?

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

              No, that’s Schrödinger, I think….

              b&

          • Alex
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            Schopenhauer, wasn’t that the one compared to whom Nietzsche was an all around fun guy?

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

              😀

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

              I always knew Schopenhauer as the guy who, along with Hegel, was always out-consumed by David Hume….

              b&

              • Jonathan Wallace
                Posted August 26, 2014 at 4:20 am | Permalink

                And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart – “I drink therefore I am”!

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:10 am | Permalink

      “Philosophers ought to be good at digging through the messy terminology and clarify these things”

      I think a lot of skepticism of philosophy simply comes from the empirical observation that this doesn’t happen, or not noticeably often. When philosophers enter the mix there is usually a lot more noise, more posturing and rhetoric, but not more progress. Perhaps this is true only in average, and there are shining exceptions of philosophy adding clarity rather than obscuring it as you imagine. We don’t encounter enough of this type to offset the strong and sour impression the other type leaves with us. I think all the talking about philosophy back and fort really comes down to this, “What has been your experience with philosophers? Did they help?”, and there are few scientists who do not feel that when a philosopher starts talking about their field you know that, whatever follows, it won’t be a flood of clarity.

      • Alex
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:46 am | Permalink

        It would be very refreshing though…

        You know what would be nice? A philosopher of science who deals with physics, and has a good blog 🙂

        • gluonspring
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          That’s a pretty good sales pitch. I may check it out.

  9. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t think philosophy can help science in practical matters for the same reason biology can’t help physics or psychology can’t help chemistry. When a specific science or discipline occupies itself with more complex phenomena, it won’t impact our understanding of simpler phenomena. In the other hand sciences with a simpler subject can almost always help sciences studying the level of complexity immediately above them. So, physics is very much essential to chemistry, chemistry is useful to biology and biology should be useful to the Humanities in general (but not the other way around). I can’t check right now but I think I found this argument in What is Life by Addy Pross.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      @Marco:

      “I don’t think philosophy can help science in practical matters for the same reason biology can’t help physics.”

      Well, DNA research is helping nanotechnology, just google ‘Cees Dekker.’

    • Alex
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:49 am | Permalink

      I think it is a mistake, as you seem to imply, to group philosophy with the Humanities in order to categorize it as that subject which deals with the messy human psyche, things at the most complex level. That’s not what the type of philosophy we are talking about here is supposed to do.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:00 am | Permalink

        Philosophy is part of the Humanities, even if we are talking about Philosophy of Science. It deals with a human activitity called Science. Philosophy is useful to answer questions like “What is Science?”, etc., but it is not useful to help reach conclusions regarding specific scientific problems. So, philosophers won’t help scientists in their work, but could help everybody (including scientists) understand what Science is all about, what is science (vis-a-vis pseudo-science), etc. If it does this in practice is another questions.

  10. Sergio Graziosi
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    From a not really informed perspective, the two examples that sprung to my mind are of the “sound criticism” type: both Searle and Chomski have been very useful to point out the embarrassing flaws of behaviourism.

    The positive case is much harder to make, but I think that’s because philosophy usually shapes our thoughts in oblique ways: for example, I do think that philosophers have helped to understand (and therefore expand) the epistemological limits of science, but the obvious contribution is again negative: one can easily see how the most naïve positivism has been challenged and largely defeated.
    The contribution looks “negative” but in fact it allowed a much more credible epistemology that focuses on “provisional truths” and the weight of evidence, pretty much of the sort that Jerry espouses here.

    Taking the subject from the other perspective, it seems to me that philosophy can directly and convincingly expose “bad thinking”, but when it proposes “good thinking”, even if successful, it finds it difficult to take the credit (see Ben’s comment above). Once again, that’s because when the “good thinking” lacks empirical validation it is still officially philosophical and therefore it is part of a larger set that also contains “bad thinking”.

    Once the “good thinking” becomes uncontroversial, it is always(/usually?) because science validated it, and philosophy struggles to take the credit. Dennett is a good example here: if his views on consciousness(/free will/whatever) will be validated, who will take the credit? The scientist that found the way to show us how consciousness works (who may not even be aware that his inspiration was influenced by Dennett’s ideas) or Dennett himself? Also: because Dennett has to work without verifying each intermediate step, it is almost certain that he will reach some wrong conclusions; will we remember him mostly for what he got wrong? Like “yes, he was almost right, shame that he got this and that terribly messed up!” (and that’s how we remember Descartes, BTW)

    The other “positive” example that I can see is too young to make a final call: it’s about morality and evolution. I’m not a big fan of Jonathan Haidt but his work is fascinating; OTOH, I do have a passion for the work of Joshua Greene and Joshua Knobe, and let’s not forget Paul Bloom (will leave Sam Harris alone, for once!). The work of all of the above is a very good example of the transition from philosophy to science (with the expected false-starts and wrong turns included), and I don’t think you can argue that philosophy had nothing to do with founding the “new science of morality”.

    Blurred lines, and shifting as always!

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Doh! I cited the Chomsky/Behaviorism example below. I hadn’t yet read all the comments, but I did a search for Chomsky to see if someone had mentioned it… thwarted by spelling again! Normally it’s my own awful spelling that trips me up.

      • Sergio Graziosi
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:28 am | Permalink

        Double Doh! for the misplaced “i” that tricked you, apologies for that. And your contribution added value on its own right, so no harm was done.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      I think “sound criticism” is a positive; a goal of science is to falsify and thus discard bad models, so anything that can help with that is a positive.

      /@

      • Sergio Graziosi
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:30 am | Permalink

        Yes!
        Plus, philosophy is cheap: if you can show why a theory, conclusion or proposed development can’t possibly work just by thinking about it you are going to save a lot of money!

        • Alex
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:50 am | Permalink

          In my area of expertise, this work is usually done by the theoretical physicists.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            It occurs to me that philosophy would be more palatable if it were split up into a number of appropriate fields labeled “theoretical” this or that. Or even better, “hypothetical.” Hypothetical ethics, hypothetical psychology, hypothetical theology…

            • Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

              Theology is philosophy?? Perhaps this misconception is causing the low status of philosophy in the US. Theology is banned from French state universities, but not philosophy.

              BTW, Psychology is not philosophy either.

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                In fact, the philosophers of the Enlightenment in France made the rejection of religion an acceptable idea, Voltaire, La Mettrie, Diderot, etc. One rejects religion because of one’s philosophical views, and this philosophy bashing you have in the States is nothing else than a stratagem of religionists, and looking at the statistics of religiosity in the US, it is very efficient.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                Well, I thought we were broadly construing these days… 😉

                Theology is traditionally found in its own department, Divinity, but much of its methodology seems indistinguishable from that of philosophy. Psychology seems to me to me to be a more accurate description of some philosophers’ areas of interest, whether they like to call it that or not.

                I think I can speak for Ben when I say that we’d be surprised to be called religious strategists. 😀

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

          Old joke: philosophy is cheaper than mathematics because a mathematician only needs pencils, paper and a wastebasket. The philosopher does without the last item.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

            Ha, ha, that’s a goodie.

  11. Dean Booth
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Talking about science is (generally) doing history or philosophy. Does talking about science help science? Certainly, it can’t hurt.

  12. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    Hi,

    One of the difficulties in this area is that Philosophy and Science can and do overlap and inform one another. It may even be impossible, as professionals, to be one without seeping across into the other’s territory.

    I think it would be fair (if limiting the definition of philosophy not as ‘broadly construed ‘people thinking’ but a very specific academic discipline) to limit the definition of ‘science’ not as broadly as something like ‘the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.’ (which almost every ‘thinking person’ would consider themselves to do), but as a very specific set of disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, etc). This seems only fair because otherwise we run the risk of some kind of ‘philosopher of the gaps’ fallacy, where any helpful contribution that would usually be categorised as Philosophy is immediately rebranded ‘Science’ by definition of it being ‘observably’ helpful.

    In this regard, philosophy has much to contribute to the methods scientists use. Consider, for example, ethics committees who are required to approve scientific experiments and studies. Whilst scientists (if defined specifically as a physicists, chemists, biologists etc) can add their views into how this approval process should proceed, they could only be doing so from a scientifically informed, but philosophical position, strictly speaking.

    Furthermore, the inclusion of a layperson in ethics committees is a political one; part of the democratic process as developed through the field of ‘political science’. However, I think the use of the word ‘science’ in this field is a misleading one to many people, considering that most Political Science degree programmes are firmly in the Humanities departments of our educational institutions (and therefore usually BA/MAs rather than BSc/MScs. Not to mention that, unlike both hard and soft science courses, Political Science still includes much focus on the Ancient Greek Philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.*

    I’d be very surprised if the infusion of ethics committees came from within science itself, rather than from the contributions of academic philosophy.

    *History is also usually considered a Humanities/Arts subject as well, even though we would assume is is more scientific in the empirical sense. This is because, I assume, it is always open to reinterpretation, redefinition, and can be quite frustrating at not providing clear answers, like Philosophy.

  13. Myron
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Let’s take the philosophy of biology as an example: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/biology-philosophy/
    If you read this, it should become obvious to you how and where it helps theoretical biology.

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

      Hmmm… it’s a lot to read so maybe I’m missing the obvious help you’re referring to. Perhaps you could narrow it down a bit?

      Skimming it, though, it strikes me a bit like commentary at a sports game that the players can’t hear. Such commentary doesn’t effect the game at all but it does run along side it. So it was true that this and this philosopher agonized over what was going on in biology at various points, and updated each other and agonized about slightly different things as biology advanced. It is not obvious to me that their running commentary on biology counts as either participation in biology or influence on those who where participating.

      This does give me an insight about how I often feel about philosophy. It’s often commentary by bystanders. Possibly interesting, often entertaining, but galling if the bystander tries to take credit for that great touchdown pass because they were talking about throwing a touchdown pass at about the time one was thrown.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:46 am | Permalink

        Great analogy!

  14. Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Philosophers such a Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russel developed predicate logic, which is of fundamental importance to computational science. Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel are seminal figures in understanding the limitations of computation.

    You could argue that these men were mathematicians, but they were also philosophers, and recognized as such, addressing fundamental philosophical problems.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      I’ll add Georg Cantor, the inventor (discoverer?) of set theory and transfinite numbers, to the short list. The boundary between mathematics and philosophy can get pretty blurry, but when philosophically inspired mathematics profoundly affects scientific discovery, as it often does, I think you should give credit.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Can you identify things that those men did that cannot be properly classified as formal math or logic and which is significant? That is, after you’ve distilled out all the science (and, for the sake of this argument, include math and logic in the “science” set) such that only philosophy remains, of what use is that philosophy?

      I would argue that it is the science those men did that is valuable, and their philosophy is useless.

      Of course, you might be working with an all-encompassing definition of “philosophy” such that all science is a subset of philosophy…in which case alchemy and astrology must also be equally valid philosophies, once again rendering philosophy useless as a discipline. Or maybe your definition of philosophy distills down to one identical with that of science — but then your definition would exclude the Aristotelians and the Platonists from being true philosophers.

      Do some set theory for us: what are the members of the “science,” “philosophy,” and “pseudoscience” sets (including religion as an wholly-contained subset of the latter), and what are their intersections?

      b&

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        “Can you identify things that those men did that cannot be properly classified as formal math or logic and which is significant?”

        Mathematics was the tool they used. Their motivation was philosophical: What is the nature and what are the limitations of knowledge and computation?

        To give a more specific, if mundane example, Turing’s proposal of the Turing Test was clearly philosophical, involving no math at all. I think the test as stated is silly, but it’s been taken seriously for a long time. There are competitions.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          I think you’re making my case for me.

          How many scientists have religious motivations for the work they do? How many wish to know (better?) the Mind of God? And how many have economic or sociopolitical motivations — how much of atomic physics was advanced by the Manhattan Project and a desire to end the Second World War?

          If philosophical motivations are important, what sets philosophical motivations apart from all the others?

          And you’re right: the Turing Test is a perfect example of philosophy; it’s not science; and it’s useless. It might have been otherwise…but, then again, Michelson and Morely might have actually discovered the Luminiferous Aether after all. We hail Michelson and Morely as science pioneers not because of the greatness of the ideas they held dear, but because they had the courage to abandon the Aether theory after it was no longer sustainable.

          Good science would mean realizing that the Turing Test is a demonstration that the theory of mind it models isn’t a very good one…but is that the lesson that philosophy takes from it? Ha! Scientists working on the problems of the mind are making great strides with neurophysiology and computer modeling and the like, and they’ve made it painfully clear that consciousness and humanity isn’t some sort of Platonic essence but rather an amazingly complex amalgamation of all sorts of intricate parts working together. But philosophers still think that the Turing Test is how we’ll know if an artificial intelligence is “really” real — and this in spite of Eliza, Watson, Siri, Wolfram Alpha, and smartphone chess apps that would beat grandmasters of a century ago!

          It’s not the philosophers contributing to modern information and cognitive sciences. The closest you can find are theoreticians who spend all their time sucking in the hard data being produced in labs and turning it into new ideas for the labs to test — which is exactly what science is all about. The farther you get from that, the closer you get to philosophy…and the more worthless the results become.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • reasonshark
            Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

            I’m wondering something. You propose that philosophy, taken as a whole (the “science is a subset of philosophy” model), is useless because it ropes in poor and useless ideas along with the good ones. I’m not entirely sure the “good bits” should be called “science, broadly construed”, though, because I think a distinction should be made between the formal sciences as practised in actual empirical work, and the “backstage” ruminations that historically informed the abstract frameworks science uses. Would you suggest “reason” or some broader equivalent was a better catch-all term?

            • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              Science is a process as much as anything else. And the broad outline of that process is coming up with ideas and testing them to see how they hold up.

              The source of those ideas at one level is important, because we can make the process more efficient if we apply it recursively to itself and figure out good ways of creating more promising new ideas to be tested.

              At another level, the source is irrelevant. Even if the idea comes from a nightmare with snakes eating their own tails, if the idea (benzene rings) has merit, it’ll survive the testing process. And if the idea seems to have merit (Luminiferous Aether) but doesn’t pass the tests, it doesn’t matter how elegant it was.

              So that’s why I see it as a package deal. There have been a great many ideas that originated in all sorts of dubious settings, from Platonic caves to drug-induced frenzies to dorm room bull sessions. Indeed, coming up with ideas has only very rarely been the practical bottleneck in scientific advancement. Rather, the hard part is generally split between gathering and collating enough raw data to be able to think up of ideas in the first place and then putting those ideas through the grinder. The former is a very slow process that used to take centuries if not millennia; the latter is what most laypeople think scientists do in their day jobs (and they’re not that far off the mark).

              The historical transition from philosophy to science can be seen first as the realization that rhetorically compelling arguments aren’t enough, that you need to check your ideas against reality…and, more recently, the fact that you have to be profoundly immersed in the data to even have a bit of hope of being able to come up with worthwhile new ideas in the first place. No philosopher is going to philosophically reconcile Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics; if it happens, it’s going to be somebody who’s read every paper that’s come out of CERN and NASA both.

              That’s perhaps not a direct answer to your question, but I hope it helps….

              b&

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

                You say: “Science is a process as much as anything else.” Is that a scientific statement, or a philosophical statement? You seem to view philosophy as an archaic form of science, an idea religionists of course love.

  15. Somite
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    The problem with the term “philosophy” being too broad has been brought up. I wish we could make a distinction between philosophy that acknowledges there is only evidence for the natural world and any discussion needs to be grounded in reality and current science.

    But there is this other philosophy, that is a continuum with theology, that still questions that the natural world is the only reality. It is also related to post-modernism and chopraism. Should we just make a distinction between “natural philosophy” and “woo philosophy”?

    Another good example to add to Jerry’s list is Steven Pinker’s work – The Blank Slate. Excellent science-grounded work.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      The metaphilosophical position you’re expressing allegiance toward is called ‘naturalism’ or ‘metaphilosophical naturalism,’ and it may be the dominant strand of philosophy in the Anglophone academy. Most philosophers you talk to at universities will say that philosophy should be informed by science, and we should at least proceed as if the natural world is the only kind of world there is.

      You could call the other kind of philosophy ‘non-naturalistic philosophy,’ although very, very few philosophers in the Anglophone academy have any sympathy at all for chopraism or post-modernism. If they do, they tend not to be found in philosophy departments. Non-naturalists tend to believe in non-empirical sources of evidence, non-physical objects, and so on, but certainly not for chopraistic reasons.

  16. Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Wasn’t Kitcher’s critique of sociobiology called Vaulting Ambition? I think Abusing Science was his response to creationism.

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

    Only through ignorance can one deny that academic philosophy has made real, direct contributions to linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science, even in just the past 50 years. (See the list below.) On the other hand, I’m fine with people saying philosophy has made no tangible contribution to physics, chemistry, biology, geology, economics, etc. That just seems true, and I’m rather tired of “defenders” of philosophy claiming credit without being able to produce concrete evidence. To those people: you are No True Friend of Philosophy (and I say this as a current PhD student in philosophy).

    Here is an off-hand list (I’m sure very incomplete) of works produced by academic philosophy* that are influential in linguistics and psychology, in chronological order. Each with a brief note on its contribution and the number of citations** per Google Scholar:

    Richard Montague. 1974. Formal Philosophy. Pioneering work on formal semantics; cited by 2055.***

    Jerry Fodor. The Language of Thought. The birth of the language-of-thought hypothesis, still the working hypothesis of many cognitive scientists; cited by 6109.

    Paul Grice. 1975. “Logic and conversation”. Arguably the single most influential early paper in pragmatics (and Grice—he is arguably the single most influential person in pragmatics); cited by 23399.

    David Lewis. 1979. “Scorekeeping in a language game.” First paper on how the phenomenon of accommodation (something now studied in pragmatics); cited by 1900.

    Jerry Fodor. 1983. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. The title says it; cited by 10644.

    Dan Sperber & Deidre Wilson. 1986. Relevance: Communication and cognition. Again the title says it; cited by 13322.

    * I count a work as a work of academic philosophy if (i) it’s published in a philosophy journal, or (ii) first presented in a philosophy conference, or (iii) though published in a non-philosophy venue, was written by someone whose similar works are predominantly published in philosophy venues.

    ** The numbers are small compared to works in some sciences. But significant by the standard of linguistics, etc. And you know even without further digging that a significant number of citations come from outside philosophy, for pure philosophy just doesn’t get cited that much (if you have a paper reaching three digits, consider yourself a major player in the field; Kitcher’s Abusing Science gets 575, just for the perspective).

    *** This number doesn’t fully reflect the extent of Montague’s influence, since he died early and had his influence mostly (I’m told) through the work of his then colleague, Barbara Partee (another philosopher and linguist).

    • Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      Jerry, I think you have your answers. These are all very creditable examples of philosophers making meaningful contribution to science.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:56 am | Permalink

        Indeed they are, and I’m grateful to the readers. The thread is also a great resource for people to turn to when facing this argument.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      I applaud this very nice and detailed list. One of the few who really made a good stab at Jerry’s question.

      This list leaves me a bit cold, however.
      How much is a contribution to a failed science worth? Though a onetime fan, I judge cognitive science as a failure. Cognitive psychology, AI, and neuroscience continue to progress, but cognitive science seems to be sterile. I think the philosophy poisoned it.

      I don’t feel sufficiently versed to comment on the merits of linguistics as a science, less so on these supposed contributions to linguistics, but paint me faintly skeptical. I listed Chomsky’s devastating critique of behaviorism as my own example of a contribution of philosophy to science (though if linguistics is a science perhaps I was wrong there), so I suppose I can’t be too skeptical of linguistics with a straight face. My occasional encounters with linguistics have given me mixed impressions of the merits of the field.

      I suppose that I have the vague feeling that these might be better described as philosophers contributing to branches of philosophy, albeit branches that have at least aspired to become sciences. Of course, we could quibble forever about these boundaries, but I’m just saying that’s the impression I have and the reason why the list doesn’t infuse me with a great appreciation of philosophy’s contribution. Does Loftus, despite “cognitive science” in one of her titles, really owe much to Fodor or any of the rest for her contributions to psychology? Or Tversky and Kahneman? Or any of the other bits of clearly identifiable progress in psychology? Do the makers of Watson, or indeed myself as I build machine learning predictors in genomics, owe any of our progress to any of these people? I doubt it. I’m not saying this list is wrong, per se, only that it leaves me quite unimpressed.

      The Modularity of Mind does contain my favorite quote on relativism, however, and I share Fodor’s distaste for fiberglass powerboats.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Is linguistics a science? Since we are talking about science broadly construed, sure. But it does sometimes feel like some parts of it are not.

        I also agree with you that the contributions listed are meaningful but not particularly impressive. I think the more zealous cheerleaders of philosophy try too hard to paint a unrealistic picture. They want a grand narrative whereby philosophy serves as a super science (ie. meta science) that guides and monitors science as a whole. This type of arguments are never convincing because this is not how philosophy serves science. Whenever concrete examples are discussed, the philosophical contributions are always piecemeal, technical, usually unsuccessful, and often wrong. There is nothing wrong with it. Knowledge is hard. Most contributions to science are unsuccessful and wrong. The conversation will only improve if the lovers of philosophy tone down the rhetorics and take a much more humble and realistic approach. They should realize that grand standing is unnecessary. As Alex SL mentioned, many disciplines that are not themselves science (such as statistics) help science tremendously and they are generally respected and appreciated. There is no need to become a superscience.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

          The conversation will only improve if the lovers of philosophy tone down the rhetorics and take a much more humble and realistic approach. They should realize that grand standing is unnecessary.

          Seems to me that applies equally to some of the philosophy haters on this thread.

          • gluonspring
            Posted August 28, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

            What!!??! But we’re already so humble! 😉

        • gluonspring
          Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

          “They want a grand narrative whereby philosophy serves as a super science (ie. meta science) that guides and monitors science as a whole. ”

          This is an excellent summary, better than I have been able to put into words, of the aspect of of philosophy I reject. I reject this narrative. I don’t necessarily reject philosophers, as individuals who may or may not contribute something, nor philosophy as “carefully thinking about things”, nor the idea that philosophy pioneered tools of logic and valid argument, nor the value of knowing something about the history of people thinking about things nor even a philosophy department to curate that history. I reject the idea that science needs professional philosophers as some kind of guiding hand for science. In particular, I reject the idea that professional philosophy allows one to solve problems that are unreachable by science + math.

          • Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            I concur. “Unreachable” is an especially wrong word for defenders of philosophy to use. People in philosophy departments venture into areas where scientists, for whatever institutional or sociological reason, typically do not tread, and such ventures may sometimes be useful. That’s about it. Charting the area to the point that we really understand it requires science.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        I certainly can’t argue with your disappointment; heck, I even share some of it.

        But I don’t know that cognitive science really is a failure, or more of a failure than any young science should be. And I don’t know that philosophy is to blame. My default hypothesis is that cog sci is a bit stagnant because human brains are really complicated and researchers have had only a few decades studying it. But if you have a better explanation I’m open to be convinced.

        Your rhetorical question as to whether other advances in psychology have anything to do with Fodor (and I grant the answer is no)—that does strike me as off the mark. Fodor writes about a very specific problem, namely how the brain is organized at a higher level—the level where psychological vocabularies such as “belief” and “thought” are appropriate. Is it organized like a Turing Machine, or something else? That sort of question. (I’m sure you know all about this; I’m saying this just for the benefit of readers who may be less familiar with Fodor.) It’s obvious that that sort of question has no direct or even indirect connection to the work of Loftus, Tversky, Kahneman et al, or any AI project whose aim is to build something that just works regardless of whether the thing built replicates human thinking (I think Watson is in this category). To expect Fodor to have much impact in those areas is therefore like expecting hammers to drive screws. You may be right to think Fodor is not very impressive even as a hammer, but the fact that it doesn’t drive screws is not a right reason for that.

        • gluonspring
          Posted August 28, 2014 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          “But if you have a better explanation I’m open to be convinced. My default hypothesis is that cog sci is a bit stagnant because human brains are really complicated”

          That might be all there is to it but I think that is also partially the point. I think the problem is that the questions the field wants to ask are a bit beyond our experimental abilities to investigate. This leaves the field with nothing to do but engage in philosophy. As to the relevance of Loftus et. al., it’s just as contrast. I went to the cogsci conference at Indiana University sometime in the early 90’s. There were people there from many fields. I’ve watched many of those very same people (Loftus might have been there, I don’t recall) go on to make easily identifiable advancements in our knowledge of psychology or computer science or neuroscience. The core project of cogsci, however, doesn’t seem much further along than that time. I think this is because the core project can only engage in philosophy (currently, that could change with some better way to investigate the questions).

          Thinking about that conference does make me think I should make a concession, though. Douglass Hofstadter gave the keynote speech at that conference. At a party for graduate students held one night at Hofstadter’s lab (an old house) Daniel Dennett (!) held court with us lowly students until late into the night. At some point he was telling us about how much grumbling there had been among some people at the conference that Hofstadter gave the keynote when he had made so few actual scientific contributions. He had a Pulitzer Prize winning book, of course, but he hadn’t paid his dues as a serious cogsci researcher since he had essentially no journal publications to his name in the field. Weren’t there more deserving people who had actually done some science? Dennett argued that Hofstadter probably planted the questions and ideas that inspired many of the people who were there to go into the field, and so was fully deserving of the slot. And I think he was right, that seems like a genuine contribution to me. Moreover, Hofstadter’s GEB book is, I think I must admit, philosophy, and a pretty good example of philosophy. It contains rhetoric, logic, a bit of math, a smidgen of empirical data. It’s not quite up to being science. But it is thought provoking. It doesn’t resolve any questions, but it does make arguments that are worth considering. What has it accomplished? Has it destroyed dualist arguments? Apparently not, since they still roam among us. But I did find his case against the Chinese Room argument pretty persuasive, so I certainly wouldn’t consider the effort of making that argument to be a waste of time. So I may be forced to admit that here is another contribution of philosophy. OTOH, did it require an education in a philosophy department? Clearly not. So maybe I can still get away with criticizing professional philosophy as redundant (which is closer to my view than that it’s of no value).

          Thinking about that late night bull session with Dennett reminds me of something else I don’t like about philosophy, something it shares in common with some other humanities. When the neuroscience, psychology, or computer science grad students spoke everyone could pretty quickly come to understand what they were saying. They were able to strip out the jargon and summarize the ideas behind it. When the philosophy grad students spoke it was in a kind of code. They seemed almost incapable of saying plainly what they were getting at without referring to James, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and the rest. The plink plink plink of name dropping was deafening. It made a big impression on me at the time because I was trying to decide whether to enroll in a Ph.D. program in philosophy, psychology, cogsci, or computer science. No one thinks you must be uneducated in physics if you haven’t read Newton’s Principa, but it seems not uncommon to be sneered at by philosophers if you haven’t read Hume. If Hume had something important to say, summarize it for me. All those other people are able to summarize their fields. If you can’t summarize the essential points I am inclined to think they aren’t that good to begin with. This way of talking may be merely a cultural artifact, or an artifact of philosophy grad students, but it made a lasting impression on me.

          • Posted August 28, 2014 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

            Wow, what a story. Makes me envy you in so many ways. I mean, for one thing I might still meet Dennett in person and probably will some day, but he will be in his 80s, probably no longer into late night debates with students. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story and thoughts. (And I hope I didn’t come across like those philosophy students you met in the 90s.)

            I agree GEB is philosophy and is indeed good, exceptionally inspiring philosophy (unlike … I’m not going to name names). It makes me think of another example: Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype. Here’s paragraph 1 of Chapter 1, which pretty much says that the point he is going to make is a philosophical point (at least, “philosophical” by my definition, as well as by the definition of many philosophy-bashers here):

            This is a work of unabashed advocacy. I want to argue in favour of a particular way of looking at animals and plants, and a particular way of wondering why they do the things they do. What I am advocating is not a new theory, not a hypothesis which can be verified or falsified, not a model which can be judged by its predictions. … What I am advocating is a point of view, a way of looking at familiar facts and ideas, and a way of asking new questions about them. Any reader who expects a convincing new theory in the conventional sense is bound to be left, therefore, with a disappointed ‘so what?’ feeling. But I am not trying to convince anyone of the truth of any factual proposition. Rather, I am trying to show the reader a way of seeing biological facts.

            Dawkins is not an academic philosopher, so he isn’t an answer to Jerry’s question. But his book is the kind of something I hope (and with some degree of confidence, expect) will be produced by academic philosophy.

            • gluonspring
              Posted September 5, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for the discussion and the excuse to share my story. 😉 Not many people understand how thrilled I was to meet Hofstadter and Dennett so I don’t have any reason to share it often.

              And, no, you don’t seem like an annoying philosophy type. I appreciate the chance it gives me to clarify my own thoughts about philosophy. “Currently somewhat redundant” comes close to my feelings, after thinking about this thread. Who knows, in a few more discussions I might come to think it’s vital?

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

            “They seemed almost incapable of saying plainly what they were getting at without referring to James, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and the rest. The plink plink plink of name dropping was deafening.”

            Gawd, so true.

      • Posted August 26, 2014 at 3:00 am | Permalink

        Linguistics is an interesting branch of science isn’t it? It has received a healthy dose of help from philosophy and it has always been friendly with philosophy. But is hardly a shining example of great science…

  18. Bob Michaelson
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Sean Carroll (the Caltech physicist, not the Wisconsin biologist) has occasionally addressed this question, e.g. “… there are some physics questions where philosophical input actually is useful. Foundational questions, such as the quantum measurement problem, the arrow of time, the nature of probability, and so on. Again, a huge majority of working physicists don’t ever worry about these problems. But some of us do! And frankly, if more physicists who wrote in these areas would make the effort to talk to philosophers, they would save themselves from making a lot of simple mistakes.”
    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/06/23/physicists-should-stop-saying-silly-things-about-philosophy/

  19. Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    For this to be an interesting question, we have to say that such methods as logic are not particularly philosophical and not particularly scientific. Philosophers, I think, have a better case to make that logic itself is a branch of philosophy, but I’m okay with saying that natural sciences use logic as well without substantively stepping outside of science.

    That said, then: Philosophy generally doesn’t help natural scientists make particular, first-order discoveries. Philosophy’s contribution is more foundational or on the “meta” level.

    The reason, of course, is that one can’t justify science non-circularly unless one steps outside of science. So when someone asks questions such as

    – What separates science from pseudoscience?

    – Why should I trust the scientists who say I should vaccinate my children? After all, Jenny McCarthy says I shouldn’t.

    – Which should I believe: the Bible or radiometric dating?

    – How do I know I’m not just dreaming right now?

    – Are electrons “real,” or are they just useful ways of talking?

    we need philosophy to answer those questions.

    More controversially, scientists and philosophers of science sometimes discuss a list of theoretical virtues, such as parsimony, fecundity, elegance, explanatory power, coherence, and so on. They sometimes argue that these are marks of truth or of epistemic justification. Nevertheless, whether these are indeed marks of truth strikes me as a centrally philosophical question. When a scientist says that a certain theory is more parsimonious and therefore more likely to be true, it invites the question of whether science itself can justify taking parsimony to be a virtue. It’s in this area that I think philosophy may actually help scientists with the first-order questions.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      The question becomes is it science broadly construed or philosophy broadly construed.

      Is critical thinking philosophy? If I am trained to think critically, is that philosophy, science or neither or all?

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Both.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

        It’s critical thinking, and needs no umbrella term.

        • Kevin
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

          Agreed, critical thinking…covers it all.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        Scientists tend to be trained in specific areas of critical thinking: why double-blind studies are better than single-blind; why 5-sigma results are more reliable than 3-sigma; and perhaps others.

        But the study of critical thinking itself qua the study of what sorts of arguments successfully justify beliefs, and which ones don’t, seems to be to be mostly a philosophical topic. After all, justification itself doesn’t seem to me to be a scientifically measurable property such as mass or pH.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          but I bet a ton of critical thinking goes into designing experiments so that you can derive quantifiable and therefore measurable results.

  20. Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    One answer to the question clearly involves discussing how individual scientists are influenced by philosophy
    See Don A. Howard’s discussion of Einstein’s relationship to the philosophy of his day: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/.
    See also Keith Thomson’s discussion of Darwin’s relation to Malthus, http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/1798-darwin-and-malthus/1
    And one can also discuss scientists who themselves are philosophers;
    for an instance of such, who clearly thought his philosophy and science dependent on one another, see Heinzmann and Stump’s discussion of Henri Poincare, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/poincare/.

    But another answer is how philosophical speculation can popularize science and thus contribute to the social education that makes innovative scientific work possible. Kant is the great example here. His earliest work was in speculative astronomy. The Critique of Pure Reason is in no little measure an epistemological justification of the Newtonian universe. Kant’s philosophy had an enormous impact on scientists in Germany and to a lesser extent France. By the end of the 19th Century, his philosophy was required reading in the German equivalent of our high school. See, for instance, general discussions in http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanuel_Kant.
    (In a quick search I also found this tantalizing title,The Kantian Legacy in Nineteenth-Century Science, edited by Friedman and Nordmann, Dibner, 2006, but I have not read it.)
    It may be said that such social influence doesn’t aid scientists directly in the pursuit of their science, but that’s just a bit uncharitable; scientists, as personalities interested in a certain activity, and science, as the activity they’re interested in, are at least partly socially constructed; and scientists certainly depend on the favor of society in order to continue their work.

    We should also note that scientists engage in philosophic discourse, as informed of their science, this by no means a trivial engagement between science and philosophy; it is a necessary effect of acquiring new scientific knowledge that it should challenge and alter our philosophies. (The New Atheism is actually an important moment of this; see for instance Stegner or Dawkins.)

    Finally: There is a problem, which I think will become more generally clear over time, namely that we have scientists who think they are only discussing science, when in fact they are addressing philosophical issues. On a basic level we see this when scientists popularize their work through teaching and public books and lectures. Their principle claim in doing so is, ‘this is the nature of our reality.’ They are perfectly right to do this, but it is a metaphyical claim nonetheless; and the claim is correct, but it is no less metaphyiscal for that.
    But there are also moments when scientists engage in philosophy wholly unawares, and in a manner that raises serious questions about their project. The important instance right now is in physics, which has been straying into metaphysics for some time now. Lee Smolin’s developing argument over this possibility is precisely that physicists should engage directly and openly in such philosophical discussion as a means of avoiding traps their meta-discussions about such difficult to prove issues as strings, multiverses, and multi-dimensionality may have gotten them into (see Smolin, The Trouble with Physics, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, and his later texts on the problem of time).
    In short then, the demarcations between science and philosophy are not always so clear cut. Personally I don’t think it necessary that philosophy ought to contribute directly to science, philosophy has other domains it can address, some of which science (as it is today, anyway) just can’t. But I also think scientists ought to be aware of the contributions philosophy has already made, if only to gain awareness of the historical context in which they engage their pursuit.

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

      I’ve approved this comment, but in the future please keep them much shorter. This is more in the nature of a mini-essay than a comment. Thanks.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Point taken, and I apologize. I’ll keep an eye on it in future

  21. Jim Thomerson
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Where does the thinking of Sir Karl Popper fit into this discussion?

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      I think “falsification” is hugely influential. I like David Deutch’s development of it in his “The Fabric Of Reality”.

      • Lowen Gartner
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        Is Deutsch’s development on “Explanatory Power” philosophy, science or logic? I would that is an idea that will change the world when taught in grade school and grasped and practiced by the average adult population.

      • Lowen Gartner
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        He had an interesting and perhaps relevant post today. It seems like philosophy to me. Is it useful?

        http://www.daviddeutsch.org.uk/2014/08/simple-refutation-of-the-bayesian-philosophy-of-science/

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          “… if we expect, with Popper, that all our best theories of fundamental physics are going to be superseded eventually, and we therefore believe their negations, it is still those false theories, not their true negations, that constitute all our deepest knowledge of physics.” That’s a profound thought I reckon.

  22. bonetired
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Right – let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: my background is in biochem and not philosophy but it does seem to me that SOME philosophy has been extremely helpful to science and that is, indeed, the philosophy of science. Whether Karl Popper , for example, is right doesn’t really matter but what, and others, have done is to help define what exactly do we mean by science. One of the weapons we use against the religious is that their world view just isn’t science since it isn’t falsifiable, a concept that we take from Popper in his philosophy.

    However, I agree that the vast majority of philosophy is Bovine Scatology…..

  23. david
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I think the question is flawed. Asking “what has philosophy done for science” is like asking “what has science done for medicine?” Modern science is based on enlightment philosophy and could not have come into existence without it. Science is just epistemology put into concrete practice.

    It can be argued that philosophy’s work vis a vis science is complete. It created a framework for the practice of science, that framework has repeatedly been shown to work, and now only the practice remains. This is true in many areas perhaps, but not all. How can a scientist resolve the seeming contradictions presented by quantum mechanics. It certainly doesn’t make sense to our primate brains that a particle takes every possible path in the universe from point A to point B, but that seems to be confirmed by scientific experiments. Philosophy is needed in situations like this to resolve the seeming contradictions in a way that avoids violating the notion of a sensible metaphysics.

    Lastly, this is a tangential point, but still worth making: philosophy still has much to say about the fields of ethics and politics. If you don’t agree, then just witness the condemnation of every civilian casualty inflicted by our armed forces anywhere in the world, and compare this to the blatant disregard for civilian casualties during WWII (the “good” war.)

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I think that philosophy with respect to fundamental physics is a discipline in it’s own right and must start off with an understanding of physics. So it is more a specialization of physics than it is a specialization of philosophy. Maybe we need to integrate things more, rather than rely on traditional labeling schemes to separate disciplines.

  24. Michael Johnson
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I have a PhD in philosophy, hopefully my perspective may help.

    Here’s my view: there are a bunch of legitimate and also nonsensical questions one can ask about the world we live in. Confirmation of any hypothesis is theory-relative (Quine-Duhem thesis, and really Quine, so +1 philosophy) and thus it’s an empirical question whether any question is legitimate or nonsensical. Philosophers ask a lot of legitimate questions. They ask nonsensical ones too. But you certainly want to ask every question that hasn’t been foreclosed.

    In the past, every systematic inquiry that wasn’t theology was called ‘philosophy.’ There’s a complicated history of how our current set of academic disciplines came to be, but a lot of the work in various disciplines was done by “philosophers” before it “became its own thing.”

    Examples:

    1. Foundations of mathematics/ logic: Frege was motivated by philosophical concerns (Kant’s claim that logic was synthetic a priori) and he was only noticed by philosophers; Russell and Whitehead were both philosophers; Tarski, Goedel, Kripke, etc… philosophers contributing to math/ logic/ and also age old questions about truth, knowability, possibility and so on.

    2. Linguistics: the core mainstream of contemporary semantics comes from two directions, both involving philosophers: Wittgenstein > Carnap > Montague > [Kaplan and Kamp and Partee and others] plus Katz & Fodor’s early stuff. Lots of the most cutting edge stuff has philosophical forerunners– e.g. Lewis on adverbs of quantification.

    3. Psychology. There’s no question that Jerry Fodor’s “The Modularity of Mind” and “The Language of Thought” both deeply influenced and continue to structure the debate about mental architecture in cognitive psychology. There’s also no question that the current division between computationalists and connectionists goes back to Hobbes and Leibniz on the one hand and Hume on the other.

    4. Probability theory: you can say this is logic, but again that’s “categorizing” instead of recognizing contributions. People talk about Bayes as though he had some direct impact on probability theory; Bayes was forgotten, and not resurrected until the 50’s; current probability theory owes much to Carnap as little as it resembles his views.

    5. Physics: yes, there’s a legitimate question about whether the wave function does collapse and if so what that means and involves. Of course physicists have offered many interpretations (Bohmian, GRW, Everettian aka many worlds) but I’d like to point out also my dissertation co-adviser’s co-work on the “many minds” interpretation, which I still find compelling, but am not really competent to judge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Many-minds_interpretation).

    I hope I don’t need to keep going. If you think there are moral facts, contemporary academic philosophers work on ethics. They work on questions of what constitutes beauty; and of what evidence supports what to what degree (formal epistemology). Philosophers do lots of things. Maybe some philosophers don’t deserve to be employed and just spout nonsense. But before you call for firing my friends and mentors and colleagues, maybe you (and I don’t mean you = Jerry, but people like Ben &oren, above) should maybe have a peek at what they do do, and decide then.

    • compuholio
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Philosophers do lots of things.

      That is actually the problem. Philosophers try to wear to many hats at the same time.

      You meantioned some nice examples of philosophy spawning scientific fields of research. And yet it does not really settle the question whether philosophy is useful or not.

      It is basically runs into the same problem that Ben Goren already brought up: What exactly is philosophy?

      You can either define philosophy very narrow. If you do that it becomes harder to think of concrete examples where philosophy has produced tangible results. The problem being that the results you mentioned now have to be credited to the respective discipline.

      But you can also define philosophy so broadly that it simply means something along the lines of “critical thought”. But as you expand the meaning of “philosophy” you diminish the usefulness of the term since now pretty much anything is philosophy.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Is it so bad to think of philosophy broadly construed? We think of science that way and agree (many here anyway) that that is acceptable so why then is it not acceptable to do so for philosophy?

        Also – ethics. I see philosophy being most useful in ethics as I said way up thread.

        • compuholio
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

          I like the idea of defining science broadly. But science – broadly construed – can run into the same problem. It depends on your exact definition of “science”. As far as I can tell there the broad definition of science is something along those lines:

          – A process that refines hypothesis to be more congruent with observed reality.
          – Or even more broadly “a process that produces theories that work”.

          If you define science like that you have – by definition – pretty much excluded everything else as fiction.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      “But you certainly want to ask every question that hasn’t been foreclosed.”

      I don’t want to do that. That space is infinite. I no more want to ask every question that hasn’t been foreclosed than I want to prove every theorem that hasn’t been shown to be false.

  25. Shane Street
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Not long ago I had an exchange at IHE about the contributions of the philosophers of science on science itself. One reply pointed out this standard text: The Continuum Companion to Philosophy of Science (2011). The table of contents covers the standard issues.
    I thought that Bayesian confirmation theory, for example,is indeed a good counterexample against my argument that the philosophy of science hadn’t done much for science.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 28, 2014 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      What is IHE?

  26. Josephine
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Science without philosophy is just a collection of facts. It takes philosophy to work scientific facts into a testable hypothesis. Just look at the ‘discussion’ section of any scientific paper; if that’s not philosophy, I don’t know what is.

    • Alex
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:47 am | Permalink

      You have an oddly narrow definition of science. In your terminology, following the scientific method is not science. That sounds silly to me.

      In any case, if for the sake of arument we call this pbilosophy, then this philosophy is routinely performed by the scientists. This doesn’t answer the question whether philosophy as a separate discipline is useful.

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Of course, scientists adhere to the philosophical view that a scientific interpretation of the world represents reality.

        I start to understand, to my surprise, that “philosophy” is understood in the US as a form of science, or a source of knowledge competing with science. It is not, it is a reflection about how we view reality. We decide, for example, to reject religion and other myths, and accept a scientific outlook on the world, and this is a philosophical choice.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

          It seems academic departments are set up to fight each other. They remind me of those drawings of scenes of dinosaurs from the 70s that showed everything biting everything else.

  27. Shawn Beaulieu
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I second the above nomination for David Deutsch’s writings on the nature and compatibility of science and philosophy. He defends what is essentially a modern Popperian conception of science, and does so elegantly. There are perhaps other books that make similar, or more compelling, arguments about epistemology, but it was Deutsch who broke the spell of my myopic positivism.

    See:

    – “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch
    – “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch

    • Shawn Beaulieu
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Oh, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s latest book, “Plato at the Googleplex” is a highly enjoyable read, whose central thesis is that philosophy is not only perennially relevant, but also necessary for the development of science. She’s an immensely smart and engaging writer, and also happens to be the wife of Steven Pinker.

  28. jimgorton
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I trained and worked in an obscure craft: computer languages. A basic problem is looking at text from left to right to see if it “makes sense”. First step is to see if what is given to you is grammatically correct – does it scan and are the words the scan finds in the dictionary.

    After this, we use the structure of sentence we have found and the “meanings” in the dictionary to decide what to do.

    Nothing particularly insightful here: applies to computers, certainly to cats and crabs, maybe all the way down. It’s Chomsky, writ large. Take a complicated input, understand it and deliver an appropriately complicated response. Language response? Action response? Learning response. Same, same, same..

    Where’s the philosophy?

    In the technique. Doing the above with a machine, you either proceed top down – find a sentence which has this order and these parts which have order and … aaargh!

    Or you work bottom up: look at the first word and find it in the dictionary. Assume the first definition applies, then look at the second word, assume it’s first definition is right and then look in the dictionary for the possible pairings of these two words and then … aaargh!

    We, abstract symbol users, have found a better way: muddle in the middle™. Make an assumption. Make two: in fact one about what you see, another about the most likely meaning or action. Follow the “isa” and “is a part of”s up to philosophy and future plans or down to details and science.

    Do both at the same time and check progress and results.

    But don’t muddle too long. While you’re deciding, the sabre tooth is gaining time with his philosophy and science. If you muddle too long, you just won a Darwin award.

    Formalizing the top down chain is the work of philosophy and the arts. Formalizing the bottom up chain the work of science and applications thereof.

    We need both. They need each other. Better philosophy gives better assumptions and faster parses. Better science means more accuracy and a better fit to the real world.

    No silly magisteria or woo required. But remember when you’re making assumptions and wasting time: look out for the kitty🐱

  29. gluonspring
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Historically, philosophy has been very useful to science, could be said to have even given birth to it. I’d concede that right away.

    The problem with philosophy isn’t so much that it contributes nothing, it’s that it’s contributions are slight, much slighter than many philosophers fancy. The key issue with philosophy is that it is 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. I have little doubt that one could construct a logically consistent version of ghost-in-the-machine dualism. The world could work that way. But the plausibility of dualism has diminished steadily with our knowledge of the rest of the world. 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”, the dualistic idea strains to seem plausible. Yet, there are today respected philosophers who still embrace dualism. Many philosophers will say that philosophy now includes the best scientific information, such like this. Insofar as it does, though, it seems to me to start becoming something else: neuroscience, biology, psychology, cognitive science. Obviously the lines will blur at some point. 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, generally, 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 making any kind of progress with even less data seems 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. Many philosophers strain mightily to define terms well enough to make their language precise enough for formal logic to apply. This effort is what often makes what they do 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 3:02 pm | Permalink

      Or, to say it more succinctly, historically, philosophy has made a huge contribution to science. I think what has happened is that philosophy has been so successful that it’s inventions have all but put philosophers out of a job. Obviously I’m “using” philosophy, in some sense, in my discussion of it’s limits above. I give philosophy credit for teaching us many things. But I think the final lesson of two thousand years of philosophy is that, if we care about making progress, we have no choice but to become natural philosophers. That, or consign ourselves to telling stories to each other.

  30. Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    To me there are two main issues with the question whether philosophy is useful to science. The first is a matter of definitions. I know that you mean by “science” the endeavor to understand nature. You included in it elsewhere, as do I, a common sense method to form a hypothesis and then falsifying it (believing that the TV isn’t working because it isn’t plugged in, then checking whether this is the case is a lay scientific approach). The philopsopher Karl Popper famously helped to clarify the concept of falsifiability. Zing!

    The other definition is what is exactly meant by (academical) “philosophy”. Let’s take Gottlob Frege, Alan Turing, W. V. Quine. They are all listed as philosophers. Are their contributions on systems or logic “philosophy” or do they instantly become “logicians” or “mathematicians” the moment they write something of practical use? Is “philosophy” only about clarifying thinking and meaning? Is Steven Pinker a philosopher then?

    The second issue is what is meant by being “useful” or “helpful”. To get to that question we would have to explore if there are the proverbial shoulders of giants, and when and how much they are provided by philosophers, too (arguably even artist contributed).

    Could someone in ancient Greece, in principle, arrive at the understanding we have about the world today? Or do we need “paradigm shifts” and “linguistic turns”, do we need aesthetics and ways of thinking that aim to desconstruct what we believe is real? What is this good for? It might all seem like a diversion, yet I believe it did sharpen our collective minds and would we take it all away, scientists would have fewer tools to work with. Even post-modernism, which took some good ideas and ran too far into a dead end with them, did sharpen our minds.

    What is it when Richard Feynman talks about the difference between naming and knowing? Isn’t this philosophy? And back to square one. In the end, if we always take out the good ideas from philophy and make them into a new special area with a fancy new label, then it is inevietable that the remaining parts that are forever stuck with the philophy label are the useless rest.

    At the end of the day, Feynman’s philopsophical advice is very good. It is important how something works, how the parts move, what something means, and of secondary interest how we name it. In that sense, philosophy as “meta science” seems like a useful and fruitful endeavour even if the academical disciple may (as it seems) have its fair share of problems. I don’t know if logicians are really philosophers, but again that’s a problem of the label.

    Philosophy can be close to natural science and it can be on the farside and shade into art, poetry and alternative ways to look at the world. Even this farside may seem pointless, but who knows how much this contributed to a “cultural-intellectual” climate that made such discoveries such as quantum mechanics, or the theory of relativity possible.

    • gluonspring
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps it’d clarify it a bit to put it something like this:

      If the last 80 years of Philosophical Review (or some list of the top ten philosophy journals) were to suddenly vanish from space-time, so that the works those articles describe had never even been done, who would notice? What would be the effect on science?

      I say 80 because I readily grant that science grew out of philosophy so that, as you go back, there comes a point where there is no distinction. But in the last 80 years someone has been dutifully filling the pages of these journals. The question is, what has come of it?

      Consider, for contrast, saying the same thing about the journal Science. Right off the bat, if the work described in the last 80 years of Science had never been done we would not know the structure of DNA, there would be no genetic testing, etc. I’d dare to say that if none of the work described in Science in the last 80 years had ever been done that hardly a person on earth would not be affected.

      Now, it’s maybe not fair to pit philosophy’s best invention, science (an amalgam of logic, observation, attitudes like skepticism, etc.) with it’s also-ran inventions. But it does get at the question that people have about philosophy. What are all those words spilled in all of those philosophy journals in the last 80 years accomplishing? I’m absolutely sure it’s not “nothing”, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s “not much”.

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

        Until recently, it caused a lot of trees to be cut down.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          Now it’s coal to be burned.

          • Posted August 25, 2014 at 1:44 am | Permalink

            Or birds to be roasted in flight …

            /@

            • GBJames
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:09 am | Permalink

              Yes, I saw an article about that unhappy consequence of certain types of solar energy collection facilities. Ugg.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

              For anyone who hasn’t heard:

              http://usat.ly/1oNIv4x

              Wind farms take a much bigger toll on birds, of course, especially certain raptors.

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

                I think this becomes a challenging issue for renewable energy. How do you balance the very direct and very emotive deaths of birds (and other wildlife) against the secondary impact on wildlife of (a) the immediate effects of pollution from conventional power stations (and mining &c.) and (b) the longer term harm from climate change? Which is least damaging to wildlife per MW generated?

                And we need to think about this in perspective: In the US alone, between 365 million and 988 million birds are killed every year by crashing into windows. [https://www.sciencenews.org/article/windows-may-kill-988-million-birds-year-united-states] That’s at least one, maybe three, per person per year. The Ivanpah CPS plant generates electricity for 140,000 households, say 350,000 people (average population per household in the US is 2.55 [Google]). The worst case estimate for bird deaths at Ivanpah are 28,000 per year [http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/188328-californias-new-solar-power-plant-is-actually-a-death-ray-thats-incinerating-birds-mid-flight], or one per 12.5 people, at most only 8% the rate of “window deaths”.

                Which doesn’t mean that’s necessarily an acceptable impact, and we should seek ways to mitigate that. I’m kind of surprised that we haven’t already seen the use of effective bird scarers, for example.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

                You’ve certainly done your homework. I agree that it’s a very challenging issue.

                The birding community and many in the scientific community do try to raise awareness of these conundrums but they’re not sexy enough (the issues, not the scientists or birders–:D ) to command much attention.

                There are many bird scarers on the market for various situations, but of course they add to the cost of development and no company is going to voluntarily adopt them; which is what government regulation is needed for. I remember when we used to have that….

                There are other ways to mitigate damages; recently birders succeeded in getting a proposed wind farm that would have been right in the middle of a well-used flyway relocated.

              • Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

                Point taken on the bird scarers, but it could be seen as easing the resistance to new projects (add it to the marketing budget!). And agreed re relocation — but the problem remains for those plants already built.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 25, 2014 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

                You’re right, one would think being “bird-safe” would be a great PR point.

                And yes, one relocation doesn’t a triumph make. I still find it very strange to have reservations about what I used to think of as ‘eco-friendly’ technology, indeed, solutions to our fossil fuel dilemmas.

              • Posted August 26, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

                For what it’s worth, there’s this chart about animal losses:
                http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/08/25/3475348/bird-death-comparison-chart/#
                I’m not sure the comparison is fair; it seems that these are total losses rather than losses per installed megawatt. I should think the latter would be a better comparison, no?

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        That’s the question. Are we discussing a label, or are we interested in what happens down in the trenches? Granted you were right, and I don’t know if you are, it would only suggest to me that all areas of interest were outsourced and are now under some other label. The 80 year threshold shaves off Frege (he died 1925) but not the others (Quine, Turing, Popper) but then again I also am not sure how and if their work can be neatly categorized and which authority decides on these matters.

        I think it only suggests that we have to be careful to not confuse the label with what it meant to describe, or worse, do a kind of “Neckar Cube” thinking where you have some issue with what is commonly labeled “philosopy” (a label problem) with particular brands of philosophy (the content) that are a “rest” that never made it into their own specialized area, and you switch around between both ways of looking at it, and coming away with a negative impression, without being able to pin-point what the issue really is.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

          Can I get an award for spelling “philosophy” in different alternative ways? It’s my keyboard’s fault. I swear.

  31. gluonspring
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ll give one very prominent example, the poster above reminded me of. Noam Chomsky shot down Behaviorism in psychology. (See, even a philosophy critic like me can give credit where it’s due). He did so using logic and math (and observation!). He demonstrated, rather effectively, that the mechanisms that Behaviorists proposed to explain human behavior, like language, were simply inadequate to the task. Language *requires* internal machinery that is more complicated than the machinery that Behaviorists insisted was adequate. This very directly led to the collapse of Behaviorism as an approach to psychology.

    However! It might be noted that the Behaviorists got their ideas from philosophers too. They were often devoted Logical Positivists, and their narrow view of science, that anything not falsifiable is meaningless, led them to regard all talk of internal mental states as meaningless non-science. They had zeal for this idea! I think their zeal came from an inferiority complex. They wanted psychology to be as respectable as physics, and the hard edge of logical positivism seemed just the ticket.

    So here we have philosophy poisoning a science and then providing the cure! 😉

    Now a contrarian, such as myself, might say that Chomsky was being a linguist and a psychologist and a mathematician, and that his observations about actual human speech were as important as his pure thinking on the topic, so that the “philosophy” he did here is minimal. But I’ll be generous and give them this one.

  32. Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Whether a single fully trained philosopher has made a contribution that a clever scientist could not have ultimately made themselves is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Perhaps it is more relevant to note that something such as theoretical biology, even the discussion of species concepts, is to a great degree non-empirical and quasi-philosophical. In this context one could for example mention the contributions of John Wilkins.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      I think the important question is whether the skills needed for the discussion of subjects like theoretical biology are somehow the special domain of professional philosophers. Does one need to study philosophy to learn how to think clearly, make valid arguments, and dispose of bad ones?

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        You’re headed down the right path, but I think that question at the end also misses the point.

        Can one reasonably label as “science” something which lacks a rigorous rational analysis? Certainly not if you adopt my own definition!

        Whether critical thinking is unique to science or originated in philosophy or whatever is irrelevant; science is that particular assemblage of properties, and one of those essential properties is critical thinking. If it doesn’t involve critical thinking, it’s not science.

        So, again, we’re left with philosophy being nothing more nor less than critical thinking, in which case it’s a subset of modern science; or philosophy being perfectly congruent to science, which it empirically isn’t; or philosophy being something which uses critical thinking plus other things that science doesn’t use — which is exactly the case. And it’s where those “other things” don’t overlap that philosophy goes awry.

        Another way to look at it:

        Science = evidence + critical thinking Philosophy = critical thinking + rhetoric

        It’s the distinction between evidence and rhetoric that sets science and philosophy apart, not the critical thinking they (allegedly) share in common.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Shawn Beaulieu
          Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          Ben, it seems you’ve become embroiled in a fruitless debate about terminology, which, in addition to being ironically philosophical, will only help to obfuscate the discussion. Furthermore, the definitions you provided don’t offer adequate distinctions between philosophy and science, because in certain contexts they’re effectively interchangeable, and therefore useless. Respect for evidence, you claim, is a virtue exclusive to scientific endeavors, but clearly this isn’t true. If it were, philosophers would have no means of contemplating the implications of quantum mechanics, or the ostensibly boundless revelations spawning from neuroscience.

          So, merely by acknowledging the existence of philosophers of science, we’ve established that philosophy can also consist of the following:

          P = (evidence)+(critical thinking)+(rhetoric)

          There are also contexts in which scientists use rhetoric to express ideas or organize concepts that aren’t strictly reducible to mathematical formulae.

          Forgive me if I’m overstepping, but it appears to me that you simply don’t like the word “philosophy”. This is especially apparent when you use the methods of philosophy, and then hastily claim otherwise, or try to smuggle your argument under the banner of science–at which point you’re just battling over verbal real estate.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

          If you want to persuade people that they need to spend (tax) dollars in scientific research, you had better have strong rhetoric to do so. Claims that ‘science is right’ will not do.
          You might not like that, but there it is; this is empirically verifiable.
          Science doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it is part of a complex web of social relationships. Being “right” gets you nothing in that web but entrapment in the web, waiting for spiders.
          If science has only rhetoric to learn from philosophy, then that is justification enough for the existence of philosophy and its relationship to science.
          This is not about being ‘right,’ it is about social survival.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        No, you don’t. But then I don’t think philosophy distinguishes itself from science by the skills it employs. It’s rather the kind of questions that get asked and the level at which they are discussed: more general, more abstract, sometimes perforce speculative because we know so little about the subject matter. You can’t get an NSF grant for doing that kind of thing but it is allowed in philosophy. The right question, therefore, is has such general, sometimes speculative discussion helped science? I think so (I gave some examples above, especially Jerry Fodor). Its contribution does not take the form of mature scientific theories but is useful, perhaps in some cases necessary, at the early stage of inquiry.

        • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

          Its contribution does not take the form of mature scientific theories but is useful, perhaps in some cases necessary, at the early stage of inquiry.

          A century or two ago there were gaps large enough in our knowledge that that sort of thing sorta made sense…but, even then, philosophers propounded answers with far more confidence than could ever possibly have been warranted.

          Today? Well, again, there’s nothing about the ultimate nature of reality that a philosopher could even pretend to address that a theoretical physicist isn’t far more versed in; and philosophers aren’t even qualified to sit at the same table with cognitive neuroscientists and information theorists when it comes to questions of the nature of knowledge; and biology has answered every question any philosopher has ever asked about the nature of life and huge amounts more that philosophers never even dreamed of asking; and the Trolly Bullshit painfully demonstrates the utter incompetence of philosophers when it comes to questions of ethics and morality; and on and on and on and on and on.

          You want properly-qualified answers about the state of knowledge (including current novel ideas and their chances for playing out and what it’ll take to settle them), ask a scientist. You want overly-confident speculation unfettered by the bonds of reality, ask a philosopher. If you’re lucky, your philosopher will be a scientist who likes to dress up as a philosopher and you’ll get answers that don’t hurt and maybe even help…but no thanks to philosophy for that.

          b&

          • Posted August 24, 2014 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

            You post is a good (well, also bad) example of a series of simple statements of negativity that Jerry rightly warned against. It would be nice if you could address specific examples—what about Fodor’s work, which I gave as an example of philosophy contributing to science? If you think he is overly confident, or isn’t qualified to sit at the same table with neuroscientists, or that his speculation is unfettered by reality, then explain your accusations with reference to his work.

            And please don’t play the “he’s no true philosopher, he’s a scientist” game. What’s the point? There is only one reality and we’re all in the business of figuring out how it works; it isn’t like anyone is denying that (not me, anyway, or the philosophers I gave as examples). If you think we’re all doing science and not philosophy just on that account, fine. But that doesn’t make the things Fodor did and the things (e.g.) James McClelland did any less different, even though they worked on the same sort of problems (cognitive architecture). As I said, there are differences in the kinds of questions asked and (especially in this case) the level at which they are investigated. It’s a fact, however you label it.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        GBJames,

        The way I would answer this is by pointing out that we are very much specialists these days. For example, in my research I can, and do, and have to, use statistics, but a professional statistician could probably do a much better job at it than I do in some cases*.

        But that does NOT mean that statistics is an empirical science (contra Coel); it does NOT mean that the only research questions in statistics that have any value are the ones that can directly be used for my or other scientists’ research (contra Ben Goren); it does NOT mean that I have to call in a professional statistician every time I have to use statistics or that any part of my research using a statistic is really statistics and not botany (contra Massimo Pigliucci).

        In other words, statistics makes a useful contribution to botany without being an empirical science itself.

        Now replace statistics with philosophy in all those above sentences and you have the same situation. Of course I do not need to study philosophy for five years to understand, say, epistemology to the degree necessary to do my work. But epistemology is still a branch of philosophy, and a philosopher who has specialised in that area will have a more rigorous approach to it than I do, and so I could learn a lot from them to do my work even better*.

        *) In both cases they will likely not understand the biology as well as I do. Again, specialists.

        Ben Goren,

        As people have pointed out above, you are personally free to define useful philosophy out of existence by automatically claiming everything that is useful as part of science, but most people have a different definition of those fields. I, for example, think that the most useful definition of science needs to restrict it to empirical investigation of the instantiated, contingent world around us.

        While that investigation does cover, at least in my eyes, questions such as whether there are gods or souls in this world around us, it means that mathematics, statistics, epistemology and formal logic, for example, are not science under my definition because their findings are independent of the instantiated, contingent world that actually exists. In Euclidean geometry there is a certain relationship between the circumference and the radius of a circle even if no natural scientist will ever find a circle in nature. From the study of logic we know that a married bachelor doesn’t exist without having to consult a scientist who would go “out into the field” to see if any specimens of married bachelors can be found. Etc.

        • Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          I concur with the first part of your reply. Dennett’s Intuition Pumps seems to me to describe the kinds of tools that philosophers can develop that can be useful to scientists of all stripes. Pace Ben, the philosophers may be doing “science” to determine which tools are actually helpful and which not, but it’s not a kind that most scientists in recognised scientific disciplines focus on. Although there are some such scientists who do so; Deutsch springs readily to mind.

          /@

  33. Posted August 24, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Science developed from philosophy – evolved from it, one might say. I really don’t think science could exist if philosophy (or something like it) hadn’t laid the groundwork by developing rational methods of argumentation.
    However, since science took off, philosophy has struggled to be relevant because science is really all the best of philosophy without any of the silliness.
    And there is plenty of silliness.
    Absolutely stating that there are no absolutes.
    Using empirical evidence to support arguments against evidentialism.
    There’s lots of issues that have come up.
    What has philosophy given science? The best foundation *evar!* What’s it done for science lately? Precious little; I think previous commenters have done well providing instances, many of which I didn’t know about myself.

  34. Posted August 24, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Let Einstein answer

    Einstein: ” Also you have correctly seen that this line of thought was of great influence on my efforts and indeed E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with eagerness and admiration shortly before finding relativity theory” (Hume was by no means a physicist).

    Here I found a deeper discussion on that, for those who are interested:

    http://fieldlines.org/2012/05/01/krauss-about-philosophy-2-of-2/

    • Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Note however, that it was a negative reaction. Mach’s subjectivism was a motivation to be a realist, because Einstein saw the dangers thereof.

  35. Chukar
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    This may be slightly off your point, but in the history of western philosophy and western science, I would bet that EVERY branch of science was, at their origin, considered a topic of philosophical inquiry.

    Once one of these former branches of philosophy got sufficiently large, complex and important, they spun off into their own branch of science and got their own name.

    This leads us to the question of what lines of inquiry which today we consider to be philosophical in nature may, in the future, become their own branches of science.

    Thus philosophy will remain quite important to science for the foreseeable future, if not quite in the way you were thinking.

  36. Posted August 24, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    🐾

  37. Kevin
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Free will is an interesting topic that some physicists try to develop arguments for, but these articles are not considered part of science. This is what happens when science tries to do philosophy. Is it worth while? Yes. Is it science? Not yet. Maybe never. But science can pursue these questions.

    We keep asking whether philosophers have anything useful for science, but we should be focusing rather on how science will continue to make philosophy better. And if this means making ‘everything’ science and nothing philosophy, so be it.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      Good point. These disciplines should learn from each other.
      The ‘free will/ determinism’ discussion is to the point. The physics underlying determinism may be correct (and I am largely convinced); but the basic discussion remains philosophical (since engaging ontological and ethical issues, with social and political implications).

  38. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    My first post was unnecessarily long. But re-reading these threads suggests that it is helpful to post a brief abstraction of the main points.
    1. The question: “In what ways would science be less advanced without the infusion of ideas from professional philosophers?” There is much evidence that, at least until (and including) Einstein, scientists were in deep conversation with the philosophy of their day.
    2. Scientists of our day are now engaging with traditionally philosophical questions in a necessarily philosophical way (e.g., metaphysics). This suggests that contemporary scientists should be better informed in the history of philosophy.
    3. As corollary to 2, when scientists speak to issues beyond science (e.g., ethics, religion), they are speaking as philosophers – and ought to do so. Scientists should accept that responsibility (also requiring knowledge of the history of philosophy).
    4. Unstated but empirically true: Right now the only professionals trained to teach the history of philosophy are philosophers.
    5. Related to 4 but derived from 1: philosophy constructs the social environment in which science occurs.
    Implicit conclusion: scientists and philosophers should engage a dialogue beneficial to both.
    Finally, 6. Even if philosophy has nothing to contribute to science, it considers domains currently inaccessible to science. and remains a worthwhile discipline.

  39. Posted August 24, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I think the problem isn’t about philosophy but rather about philosophERS. My challenge is: What have philosophers done for us lately?

    The “lately” is because the laws of logic or even the scientific method could be said to have been given to us by philosophers–but that was centuries ago.

    And the “philosophers” is because it could be said that many scientific or mathematical breakthroughs, especially groundbreaking ones (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) were applications of philosophy. But, of course, they were made by scientists, not philosophers.

    Another way to look at the question: Where is the Top Ten List of Philosophical Breakthroughs of 2013? Science or Technology, yes. But never Philosophy.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      Good points, I concur.

    • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

      String theory has not produced a single empirically testable prediction. What advance has physics given us lately ? Higgs-boson? Evidence for a theory some 40 decades old. “Never philosophy”? Not yet physics!
      Something’s gone wrong with scientific knowledge; the problem may or may not have to do with the “post-modern condition” (Lyotard), but something has definitely gone not according to plan.

      • Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

        Oh, and what has ‘science’ (under quotes because I would not limit it as you do) given ME lately? Has it reduced my pain? Has it made it easier to manage misunderstanding with friends? Can it guide my vote in the next election?
        It is the individual you need to address and persuade. Your ‘sciemtiism’ might be ‘right;’ but it doesn’t persuade me.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 5:45 am | Permalink

        Retraction rates in science have gone up as well. Specifically in the biological science. There are many persuasive arguments and a great deal of evidence to suggest that reproducibility in science is harder in complex systems (ecology, biology, climate change). This is particularly true in areas where cancer treatment drugs are trying to establish themselves.

        Science is hard at the bottom, not just the top.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          Good points; to me they only emphasize the importance of a rigorous scientific approach.

          How have the retraction rates in philosophy been lately? 😉

          • Kevin
            Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

            That is an interesting question. I doubt philosophy journals have retraction rates. How it could a philosophical thesis be proven to be incorrect?

            You might think mathematics has a zero retraction rate, but it turns out it is about 0.1% over the last century, not to mention overturned proofs.

            This is the important read that started the recent awareness:

            Ioannidis (2005)
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_P._A._Ioannidis

            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

              Ah yes, it’s always good to be reminded of that paper!

  40. leonkrier
    Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m in Strasbourg, Fr and soon to go touring the Petite France, but what better place to comment on the negative impact of Descartes on science. Descartes’ res cogitans vs res extensa reinforced the Platonic dualism in western thought and led science down the path of treating matter as dead, lifeless stuff (Mechanism) and that the real action was in res cogitans. In his Managua Lectures of 1988, Noam Chomsky addresses how this distinction by Descartes is no longer viable (I’ve read the lecture but don’t have it available to reference). As a materialist, naturalist, and monist, matter needs to be understood as “matter’s energy.” Tony Equale has addressed this extensively in his books and blog. (I plan to go to Colmar).

  41. Posted August 24, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    And how has the storage ring at Cornell helped basketball? A little maybe (materials science for the ball, shoes etc), but particle physics and basketball are different endeavours. Both are acceptable on their own without having to “help” one another. Basketball was just as much fun before Cornell built a collider.

  42. barael
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Thought this would be fairly apropos:

    It’s a video featuring a philosopher giving a short introduction to his research into how and to which extent intuition is used by research scientists and whether it’s a good or a bad thing (he takes a decidedly neutral stance on that). This struck me as a very worthwhile philosophical incursion into science.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      Why is that not psychology?

      • barael
        Posted August 25, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

        Doesn’t seem like a question anyone doing psychology is interested in asking.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

          So philosophy is a discipline of the gaps?

          (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

        Of course it is psychology and not philosophy.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

          Ah, I should have read this before I responded to you below.

  43. Col
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    Very late to the party. Samir Okasha has done well with sorting out multi-level selection in a way that has helped evolutionary biologists directly. I also believe philosophy is very important in modelling and statistical tests.

    Also maybe interesting are his thoughts on why philosophers do philosophy of science. Having read some of his papers I decided to read his ‘brief introduction to the philosophy of science’. In it he says:

    “looking at science from a philosophical perspective allows us to probe deeper – to uncover assumptions that are implicit in scientific practice, but which scientists do not explicitly discuss. [The validity of inductive reasoning] may seem obvious, but as philosophers we want to question it. Why assume that future repetitions of the [same] experiment will yield the same result? How do we know this is true? The scientist is unlikely to spend too much time puzzling over these somewhat curious questions: he probably has better things to do.”

    Seems very similar to lots of ‘blue sky’ science. I bet they are also probably very happy when something they reason out is useful, but are mostly driven to fulfill curiosity. Thinking about this stuff as a scientist seems valuable if you are interested, but as he suggests, a scientist will probably mostly be fine carrying on without considering philosophy. I am very happy that people are exploring the implicit philosophies underlying science even if I wouldn’t want to make a career of it myself.

  44. Rhinanthus
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Well, Dennett’s book on natural selection (Darwin’s dangerous idea) was influential to me in emphasising the fact that the process of natural selection is not limited to evolution or even to biology. It is a domain-neutral logical engine.

  45. Brian Vroman
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    There are an awful lot of comments to read through here, so I apologize if someone has brought this up already, but I wonder when physicists/cosmologists do “modeling” of possibilites that are not yet empirically testable, is this a form of philosophy, as some (I think Richard Carrier and David Albert but I am sure many others) have suggested? I know this would not count as academic philosophy, but is it nontheless a sort of philosophy?

    • Kevin
      Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      There are 4000+ articles a year on quant-phys (ArXive) alone. A lot of these do not go to refereed journals, but they propose what I think you would define as ‘modeling’ on possibilities which are not quite viewed as science. Does that make them philosophy? Not really. But then what are they?

      • Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Well, they are the result of mathematical modelling, just like the people that calculated the orbits of comets during the 18th century. That is science.

        • Brian Vroman
          Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          Well, if we define mathematical modeling, absent experimentation, as science, does it not seem that we are radically redefining science? Perhaps I am naive, but I always thought that the experimental method was central to science, and in fact what separated it from other disciplines. With respect to cosmological modeling, it may be that at some point various aspects of these models do become empirically testable, but until then, can they be properly called science simply because they are mathematical in nature? I do not know the answer, and am asking, not attempting to stake out a position.

          • Posted August 25, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

            In the case of cometary orbits, you had the observations, and they could be matched with the computations. The same is true with the computer models of the evolution of the universe, they compare quite well with computer models.

  46. Posted August 25, 2014 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Where is the dividing line between science and science oriented philosophy? Take metaphysics. Traditionally metaphysics is the study of general features of reality. Very general theories like automata theory then qualify under that tradition, even if they were not created for that explicit motivation. Turing’s groundbreaking 1936 paper is a philosophy of mathematics paper as well, for similar reasons: it analyzes what a “mindless approach” to calculation is like, a very general and hence philosophical question by this criterion.

    Another forest of examples are people doing work in things like belief revision, some so-called philosophical logic, and other areas where the border between (say) AI or databases and philosophy is at work.

    There’s also work in the foundations of physics (e.g. David Malement’s stuff) which to me looks to be arbitrary which field it is in. Similarly for Teddy Seidenfeld and colleagues’ work in statistics and the whole “CMU school” of Bayesian networks.

    Yes, there’s philosophy not connected to, and worse, hostile to science and technology. So much the worse for it.

    • Posted August 25, 2014 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes, there are areas of philosophy that don’t connect to science, Heidegger and Husserl are examples. I agree, they aren’t of much use.

  47. Keith Cook
    Posted August 25, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    “Contrary to the rules of philosophers of science, who advise testing hypotheses by trying to refute them, people (and scientists, quite often) seek data that are likely to be compatible with the beliefs they currently hold”
    Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

    I don’t think by philosophers Kahneman meant the woolly types and from the above quote,it seems philosophy has been embedded in hard science for quite some time. And if I could be so bold as to say without it, in human history, the sciences would have been ham strung in a dark place for longer than it should have.

  48. Posted August 26, 2014 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    Hmmmm… I must say I once held the opinion that Ben Goren has so exhaustively expressed on this thread – that Philosophy is generally a sterile pastime, especially where scientific progress is at issue. But in the last few years I’ve radically altered my view, especially as I have taken an interest in certain emerging scientific disciplines – e.g. systems chemistry and cognitive science. As for philosophy itself, I will leave aside the tremendous contributions made (and are still being made) by philosophers in the area of defining and developing the scientific method itself and its underlying logical processes, subjects which underpins ALL our scientific endeavour. As Jerry requests, I will give more specific detail in a specific area.
    Let’s take System Chemistry and its key concerns on the nature and evolution of life. Here we have an emerging scientific field, which spans the gap between chemistry on one hand and biology on the other. An area where biologists such as Mayr and Haldane have in the past touched on the incorrect yet seeming teleogical nature of evolution. Well -here philosophers such as Ernest Nagel have helped to distinguish teleonomy from teleology (which in essence deals with the epistemology of the a priori vs. the a posteriori) This clarification, for example, helps justify Richard Dawkins employment of the term “selfish gene” – especially where it connects directly with “strategy” as defined in Evolutionary Game Theory. Which brings up the subject of why mathematics applies at all to describing scientific behaviours. Another philosophical question indeed…….

    • Posted August 26, 2014 at 3:35 am | Permalink

      ……or, why not have a look at the subject of Emergence. Emergence is a central and an all-encompassing aspect of the physical world and of science (and especially Evolution). The property of emergence allows us to deconstruct, to employ reductionism to formulate scientific explanation itself. But how exactly do new/complex properties arise out of more primitive entities at lower levels in this hierarchy of structures of the universe? Why does quantum effects create chemical effects that create biological effects that creates in the end cognition itself? Is emergence a necessary mathematical construct?
      I attach the link to a fairly recent paper on the subject of emergence. http://www.complexsystems.org/publications/pdf/emergence3.pdf
      A reader is certain to note the mix of scientific contributors and philosopher contributors to this important subject area. I rest my case.

      • Posted September 11, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        One more example. In his work on morality/justice the philosopher John Rawls explored how fairness might possibly be achieved when designing processes that distribute different rewards to various contending parties. He defined such an optimal system as needing a “veil of ignorance” in implementation. The philosopher Brian Skyrms noted that in the process of mitosis and meiosis, where different reproductive capabilities for somatic or for germ line cells are set, there is such a veil of ignorance strategy imposed. (Evolutionary Game theory would also underpin the need for such a distribution algorithm in this specific game). The work and contributions of these philosophers have been acknowledged by subsequent scientific researchers in genetics (e.g. Haig and Bergstrom) who have elaborated on this phenomenon in producing explanation for these processes. In this example we again see a philosophically derived concept/explanation helping to advance the explanation of a biological process.

  49. Posted August 26, 2014 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Among the many ways that philosophy can help science is by pointing out serious logical flaws in the reasoning that scientists sometimes use, such as the reasoning in the video that Jerry endorses here:

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/there-was-no-first-human

  50. Yiam Cross
    Posted September 5, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    The joy of philosophy. A few lines in and everyone is fighting over what words mean, who’s defined what and who hasn’t, how no one has properly understood the work of philosplopher x, y or z & how philosophers a, b & c are widely recognised as being right/wrong and the straw men are flinging ad hominems around left right and center while the other logical fallacies draw up in ranks ready to join the battle. Will anything useful come of it? Not so far.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 5, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      Classic.


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  1. […] philosophy to science. On Jerry Coyne’s blog “Why Evolution is True” there is an interesting article inviting discussion on the topic. Some scientists insist that philosophy is of no use to science, […]

  2. […] Now I know that philosophers can correct some bad arguments of scientists, and, if educated in science, can make critiques every bit as good as professional scientists. [Read more] […]

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