E. O. Wilson: Only science (and not philosophy or religion) can tell us the meaning of human existence

From The Big Think we have famed biologist E. O. Wilson talking about “the meaning of meaning,” and telling us that the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” must come from science alone, with no input from religion or, especially, philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci will be incensed! Wilson is talking about some material from his new book, The Meaning of Human Existence, a book that I really have no desire to read (I disliked his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth, and said so in a review in the Times Literary Supplement).

But I have to agree with what Massimo would surely say: the denigration of philosophy here is unwarranted. What Wilson is practicing is in fact scientism: the unwarranted intrusion of science into other spheres of inquiry. (I’ve only seen two people actually engage in this practice: Wilson and Alex Rosenberg.)

My problem is that Wilson conflates “meaning” with “fact”. While how we construe meaning surely rests on factual considerations, Wilson says that the origin and evolution of humans is the meaning of human existence, and depends only on the disciplines of evolution, paleontology and archaeology, brain science, artificial intelligence, and robotics):

And of course meaning has a number of meanings, but generally speaking after you’ve gone past the basic religious definition of meaning, which is of course: “The divine creator is responsible for the design and nature of humanity and what else do you want to know?” After you get past that particular response then the subject moves to meaning as history, that is essentially: What are we and why? Where do we come from?” And this is part of meaning too: “Where are we most likely to be headed?”

But meaning is, at least to me, not just history but a personal and subjective issue (I’m not going to get into what “meaning” means, a Clintonesque exercise at best that Wilson just finesses but defining “meaning” as “history,” something that nobody else does). Wilson would be better off saying simply, “How do we scientifically explain humans and their behavior”?

Wilson also denigrates philosophy, which of course is essential for an individual person to suss out the meaning of his or her life, or at least to express it in words.

I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works. So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong and what Schopenhauer might have thought and what Kant might of thought or did think. But they cannot go on from that position and historical examination of the nature of humanity to what it really is and how we might define it. So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, if I might speak for science.

Now that’s scientism!

There is no right answer to “what is the meaning of human existence?” There are right answers to the question of “How do our brains work?” and “How did we evolve?”, though we may never know all the answer to those questions. But there is no overarching “meaning” of human existence, for that existence is simply the produce of a blind and materialistic process. What meaning our own lives have, or even that of humanity itself, varies from person to person, and is imbued by people. Now perhaps science can, one day, tell us why Jane sees the meaning of her life as learning about astronomy, while Joe sees it as communing with friends and family, but that still doesn’t answer the question.  With everyone giving a different answer, science isn’t going to give us The One Correct Answer. That is, unless (like Wilson), you define “meaning” differently from someone else, like a theologian defining “God” as a “ground of being” or Steve Gould defining “morality” as something that falls only in the ambit of religion.

Clearly, as Wilson gets older he is becoming more afflicted with the Big Questions syndrome, something I’ve noted before. He is apparently unsatisified with his massive contributions to biology: both ant biology and evolutionary biology. Rather, he wants to leave us the legacy of The Answer About the Meaning of Life. But his expertise in biology gives him no special ability to answer that question. What his expertise gives him are some facts that may bear upon that question.

*******

By the way, trying to find a link to my TLS review of Wilson’s book, which is cited on my Wikipedia page but isn’t available online, I found a new addition to my page, under “Other”:

  • Coyne writes prolifically on his website at Why Evolution Is True, posting several times on most days. Topics range from Creationist/ Creationism bashing, general anti-religion writing, through commentary on interesting papers and bits of science which have come to attention, to fine food and outright unabashed ailurophilia. Over 30,000 readers (in late 2014) follow the website, which would make it one of the more popular science blogs, if it were a blog, not a website.

That’s fricking hilarious! Kudos to whoever added that.

 

 

183 Comments

  1. GM
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Well, it’s hard to argue against the claim the most of philosophy is BS. This is, of course, a very different claim from the one that philosophy itself is BS – it is not, I actually find it vital even for scientists to know quite a bit about it, but that does not change the fact that most of it is dealing with questions that have either been rendered meaningless by scientific advances or have already been answered by science.

    As far as meaning, I will somewhat disagree here too – we do know the answer to that and it is again given by science. There is no grand “meaning” of human existence, as you mentioned, but there is a very well defined purpose in a more material sense – we exist to generate more copies of our genetic material. We did not get that answer from philosophy. And it may not be satisfactory to anyone, but nobody owes us such a thing. The problem is that this is a very dangerous statement to make in public because in order to not to badly misinterpret it and conclude all sorts of horrible destructive things from it, one needs to know a lot about biology, and few do.

    • Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      “Purpose”? That’s a human concept and an anthropomorphism of natural selection. But even construed that way, purpose isn’t “meaning” in any conventional sense. That’s like saying that the purpose of the sun is to shine for a while and eventually burn out.

      • GM
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        I did not use the term in teleological sense. We can waste a lot of time arguing over the meaning of words.

      • Frank
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        I think you HAVE to parse the different usages of the word ‘meaning’ in order to prevent talking past one another. Clearly there is not nearly as much difference between the views of Professors Coyne and Wilson, as there is between either of them and someone who is convinced that our “meaning” derives from fulfilling some divine plan.
        I think Wilson is merely pushing back against the large number of people (in the U.S.) who think “meaning” MUST have an external referent – usually a deity. But Wilson seems to primarily address “meaning” in the sense of ‘how did we get here?’ and considers that the only worthy question because it is testable. Professor Coyne seems to be adding layers involving individual paths or fulfillment to describe “meaning”. Setting aside the dubious claim regarding the worthiness of philosophy (and many philosophy advocates are really focusing on logic), I’m not sure I see a lot of scientism here.

        • rickflick
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          I think I agree. I want to be sympathetic to Wilson. I think his statement about inner analysis alone, and Darwin’s skepticism, amount to a rejection of an armchair kind of philosophy devoid of empirical support. His tone seems to fairly benign. Philosophy, in the sense that Dan Dennett is a philosopher, is not offensive to materialism or an inner search for “meaning”. Descartes and Kant are historical figures whose life work seems more of an object lesson that a manual of meaning.
          In defining meaning as history, he is trying to deny superstitious notions of meaning that most people probably adopt by default. There is no meaning to human existence if the definition depends on a creator myth. But we can say that human history is a way of establishing a more reasonable notion of meaning.

        • Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          “I’m not sure I see a lot of scientism here.”

          I have to agree. If there were any ultimate meaning we won’t find it from religion, or philosophy.
          That being said philosophy often it works hand in hand with science. Testable hypothesis are often the product of philosophy.

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      I tend to disagree that “..there is a very well defined purpose in a more material sense – we exist to generate more copies of our genetic material.” Obviously, that’s what we (well, many amongst us and other creatures) do. But that’s not why we exist. We exist because we descend from organisms with talents and fondness for reproduction. And we procreate because we inherited those talents and likings. We didn’t inherit a goal to reproduce. But a liking & talent for it.

      Some may say this is splitting words, and a rather fine distinction. But having taught evolution to first-year students over many years, I think that distinction may have some significance. If we say that we (and other organisms) exist to procreate, we are easily read to imply that reproduction is a goal-oriented process (“we = animals have sex and take care of offspring in order to maximize fitness”). I’d rather say fitness maximizing is the inevitable (and, for most animals including many humans, unplanned) consequence of a liking for sex and a talent for seduction, competition and caring. It just happens. Maximizing fitness is not the meaning of reproduction. It is the consequence of our inherited tendency to do things that in the end cause us “to generate more copies of our genetic material”.

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      The issue of scientism and philosophy has me properly flummoxed.
      I very much agree that philosophy itself is not BS, but it is a concept (if that is in fact the proper term here) given to argumentum ad hominem.
      I think it IS actually important to parse out the differences between words like purpose and meaning vis a vis the exchange between yourself and Dr. Coyne. However, I agree with your conclusion that, “There is no grand ‘meaning’ of human existence”, and the concept of meaning that you laid out in your post works fine for me, but how do we determine which philosophy is correct? Can we determine that and, if not, then why is a discipline which can only produce opinion, never fact and is totally subjective, important?
      Wouldn’t we all be practically better off if that brain power were being dedicated to developing better batteries for EVs or more effective cancer drugs? I know that that is something of a gross over simplification, but ultimately I think the question bears asking. Beyond philosophy that has obvious practical applications, is it really anything more than the fruit of epic bouts of intellectual self-gratification?

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 2, 2014 at 12:37 am | Permalink

        Little, if any, philosophy (at least that which I have read), whether ancient or modern, has been concerned with finding or defining the ‘meaning of life’. I doubt that E.O.W. reads or has read much philosophy, which is fine, but then he shouldn’t indulge in these large generalisations.

  2. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I wanna sub.

  3. Jonathan Dore
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you retain copyright of your TLS review and you’re free to post the text elsewhere if you want (I also review for the TLS and have reproduced some of them on my own site and some on a third-party site).

  4. Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I’d split the difference between the two of you on this one.

    Philosophy is worthless. By what standard does one measure the answers in philosophy? Whatever it is, it’s not (exclusively) observed reality, and thus philosophy can’t even in principle have any way of aligning its answers with observed reality.

    But “meaning” in this context, as you, Jerry, so well illustrate, is a personal construct. It’s one of the great things about life: you get to decide upon and even create your own meaning.

    How to best live your life according to whatever meaning you settle upon is a matter for science, as is, from an anthropological perspective, how people choose meanings for their lives. But there’s nothing that requires that you decide upon a meaning based on how the universe actually is — and, indeed, many of us derive meaning from bending the universe to our wishes, not from contorting ourselves to how the universe already is.

    b&

    • Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Philosophy is not worthless. Do you think the Euthyphro argument is worthless? And don’t go saying that’s not philosophy. It shows with reason and logic that morality cannot come from God.

      • Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        And don’t go saying that’s not philosophy.

        But that is my argument!

        I’ve repeatedly defined science as the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observations.

        If somebody tells you that Santa Claus is a married bachelor, you don’t need to bother with evidence to dismiss the claim; it doesn’t even rise to the level of rationality.

        If somebody tells you that the geologic column is best explained by the Noahic Flood, that claim is internally consistent, but inevitable logical consequences of that claim contradict the actual observations of the column.

        The Euthyphro Dialogue shows that the claim of morality coming from the gods is a married bachelor and can be dismissed out of hand.

        The Epicurean Riddle shows that claims of powerful entities with the best interests of humanity at heart are contradicted by observation.

        Both “philosophical” arguments are, indeed, classic examples of science broadly construed.

        I’d close with another observation, one which I should think is insurmountable.

        As you yourself, Jerry, have repeatedly observed, there is but one science that converges on one set of answers; in contrast, religions are many and divergent. And that’s considered, at least in these circles, as evidence that science is useful and religion untrustworthy.

        Philosophy itself is notoriously every bit as divergent as religion.

        b&

        • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

          There is the saying that if you laid all the philosophers in the world end to end, the only thing they might reach is the moon.

        • Scote
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          “Philosophy itself is notoriously every bit as divergent as religion.”

          I generally find Jerry’s pragmatic defense of philosophy convincing, but this observation makes me wonder if philosophy really tells us anything reliably if it doesn’t give convergent answers. Would a philosopher claim that it does give convergent answers?

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            Would a philosopher claim that it does give convergent answers?

            Quite tellingly, philosophers generally aren’t interested in convergence, but rather philosophical purity / elegance / whatever.

            And those who are interested in convergence are the scientists doing science who, for whatever reason, like to call themselves philosophers. Much like Francis Collins is a religious scientist who does good science but in the name of his gods.

            b&

            • W.Benson
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

              If some mode of reasoning doesn’t give convergent answers, is it a “way of knowing”? My inclination is to give three cheers for scientism, and damn the torpedoes.

        • Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          Ben Goren: I’ve repeatedly defined science as the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observations.

          I see.

          Well, I define myself as the emperor of the country you live in. I define myself as the emperor of the country you live in. I define myself as the emperor of the country you live in.

          That was ‘repeatedly’. I assume you will now happily send your tax payments to my account…

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            I define myself as the emperor of the country you live in.

            That’s nice.

            Now, if you expect to receive payment from me, you’ll have to start with some objective evidence that supports it, and then provide a rational analysis of that evidence that indicates that the conclusion is very likely to be true. In this case, I might want more than a p-value of 0.05, but, if you can make it at least to that, we’ll discuss it further.

            b&

            • Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

              Well, where is your objective evidence for your definition of science? As nearly everybody has a different, narrower definition of science than you, both cases rest on the same evidence: Ipse dixit.

              But here is an even better analogy: I have repeatedly defined Free Will as non-supernatural, as being equivalent to voluntary as opposed to coerced actions. Consequently, I am right about Free Will, and you are wrong.

              Solving disagreements by mere assertion sure is super-effective.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

                You know, you’ve yet to indicate what specific objections you have to my definition of science; all you’ve offered is ad hom attacks at me for being the one to use this definition. Nor have you offered any examples of competing definitions, let alone even hinted at inconsistencies between mine and these others.

                And you’ve continued to do so even after I applied my definition in practice to dismiss your joke about you being my emperor. Should be pretty obvious that said application was exactly how science is done, yet your response is to continue to pound on the ad hom drum.

                Do you have an actual point to make, or are you just trolling for the lulz?

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

                Is it really that difficult? Nearly everybody, and from what I can see here that includes Jerry Coyne, defines science as our methods used to understand empirical reality or, to make it even clearer, the one instantiated universe that we actually live in. Or in yet other words, it is science if you actually have to look at the universe to check if one of your ideas is right or wrong.

                Conversely, there are facts that can be sorted out by never gathering any empirical data but by merely sitting in an armchair and thinking things through, perhaps with the assistance of pen and paper, generally because they would be true or false regardless of the nature of the one instantiated universe around us. For example, in Eculidean geometry there is a certain ratio between a circle and its radius even if the universe does not actually contain even one circle. This the vast majority of people would not consider to be science, instead we call those efforts mathematics, philosophy or their various subdisciplines.

                And because the vast majority of people apply this distinction, I assumed that I would not have to explain it. The point here is that you can’t just say that they are all wrong because you have arbitrarily decided to redefine the concepts under discussion.

                Of course in some sense you are perfectly free to use the word “foot” for a length of 1 cm, but most people will be a tad exasperated if it turns out that that was the only reason why you argued that humans were usually around 150 to 190 feet tall. Especially if you argued it using your usual tone of absolute conviction brooking no dissent.

                Also, I think you do not understand what an ad hominem is. It is not claiming that somebody has committed an error of logic.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                Nearly everybody, and from what I can see here that includes Jerry Coyne, defines science as our methods used to understand empirical reality or, to make it even clearer, the one instantiated universe that we actually live in. Or in yet other words, it is science if you actually have to look at the universe to check if one of your ideas is right or wrong.

                And that’s inconsistent with my phrasing of it…how, exactly?

                Again: science is the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.

                “Understand” = apportioning of beliefs, pretty obviously.

                “Empirical reality” = objective observation.

                Indeed, your version doesn’t explicitly address the need to use reason to analyze your observations, but clearly out of the informal nature of its expression rather than deliberate omission.

                Conversely, there are facts that can be sorted out by never gathering any empirical data but by merely sitting in an armchair and thinking things through, perhaps with the assistance of pen and paper, generally because they would be true or false regardless of the nature of the one instantiated universe around us. For example, in Eculidean geometry there is a certain ratio between a circle and its radius even if the universe does not actually contain even one circle. This the vast majority of people would not consider to be science, instead we call those efforts mathematics, philosophy or their various subdisciplines.

                I’ve repeatedly addressed this. Math is an empirical exercise, especially from its initial founding and through to this day.

                We originally discovered by empirical experimentation that, if you draw squares on the sides of a right triangle of arbitrary dimensions, the one side encompasses the same area as the combination of the other two.

                It is trivial to construct mathematical systems that seem intuitively absurd to the point of obvious logical contradiction…yet it is also the case that some of those systems perfectly describe objective observation. 1 + 1 = 2, right? Not if your units are billion kilometers per hour, in which case 1 + 1 = 1 (with minor rounding). As such, no mathematical system, no matter how elegant, has any meaning other than whatever aesthetic pleasure it might give somebody, until you’ve gone and done the objective observation to see if it actually measures up.

                And the fact that math is a very useful tool for describing physics…is itself an empirical observation with a serious anthropic twist. What fool would keep using a tool that doesn’t get the job done? Once Newton figured out a good language for describing his physics, people kept speaking that same language — and he also demonstrated a good way to invent new languages as necessary.

                But if it were the case, for example, that you could put ten apples in your bag one day and find several or a dozen the next, who can know for sure? In that case, you’d be an idiot for thinking that 1 + 1 = 2 hard-and-fast no-exceptions once again…and, oh, by the way…that’s also a not-bad description of reality at the other end of the scale, in realms dominated by Quantum Mechanics.

                We trust logic and math because they work, because they make valuable predictions — some of the most valuable predictions we know how to make. Non-contradiction, for example…but, again, Quantum uncertainty (such as Schrödinger’s poor cat) empirically make quite a mess of even such a bedrock principle of logic.

                b&

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 12:32 am | Permalink

                Sorry but now I am really confused. You appear to (1) admit that science is only about empirical observations but also claim that (2) everything but science is nonsense. And you strategy for reconciling those two, for dealing with the objection that that leaves all non-empirical statements, is the additional claim that (3) all statements that are ever correct or useful are really about empirics after all, even if the people studying that stuff would vehemently disagree.

                Did I get that about right?

                I will admit that math is a bit of a difficult one. I think you are quite definitely wrong about mathematics being empirical, but I can see how you might be able to convince yourself it is.

                So let’s try two others: Euthyphro and female stallions. Considering that there is no evidence for gods to start with, where does the empirical data come into Euthyphro? It is still a valid and useful statement that is as true if there are gods as it is if there are none.

                And how would you demonstrate the non-existence of female stallions? You could do it the scientific way and go looking for them, yes, but that seems unnecessarily complicated. A much easier way is to point out that a stallion is defined as an uncastrated male, so the concept of a female stallion is a contradiction in itself. To do that is legitimate and useful but it is not science.

                Sorry, your position does not convince.

                Also, I see that you repeatedly make the claim that scientists agree about everything. Are you actually a practicing scientist? Because that is, as sad as it is, a rather naive view. We may achieve higher degrees of consensus than philosophers or economists, especially on easily demonstrable facts, but many areas have minority schools of thought that, while considered cranks by the majority, are still significant in membership and long-persisting.

                Ever heard of Croizat’s Panbiogeography, for example? It seems to be particularly strong in New Zealand and South America but also has supporters elsewhere. Those guys don’t believe in long distance dispersal full stop. One would think that pointing at the native flora and fauna of Hawaii would solve the issue but it hasn’t, for decades. They just keep going. And don’t get me started on those scientists – ecologists and palynologists included – who are unable to admit that humans other than Westerners have also deforested areas and driven species to extinction. Nooo, it was all climate change, even if it happened to happen exactly at the time from which the first traces of human occupation date. Because noble savage I guess.

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

                You appear to (1) admit that science is only about empirical observations but also claim that (2) everything but science is nonsense.

                <sigh />

                No.

                Once more, unto the breech….

                Everything in science traces back to empirical observations, but one of the most important and ancient of empirical observations is the utility of logic and math and the like, as least in the forms of them we’ve developed. At its roots, yes, it’s all empirical observations, but, as you’ve phrased it, it comes across more as somebody suggesting that matter is all about subatomic particles and has nothing whatsoever to do with chemistry. No physicist would dismiss chemistry other than as part of a joke about interdisciplinary rivalry, and no physicist would suggest that the wave function equations are the proper way to understand, say, the chemistry of photosynthesis. But the chemist would also be one of the first to point out that all her work does, ultimately, rest upon the fundamental physics of Quantum Mechanics and that even she sometimes has to dip back into that world for her work.

                Similarly, Quantum Mechanics has forcefully reminded us that logic, so often considered to reign supreme by philosophers, really does have empirical roots. What could be more fundamental in logic than the principle of non-contradiction, and what is Schrödinger’s poor cat but the very essence of contradiction? But Schrödinger’s cat is demonstrably real, and so we have to be as careful about application of logic to relevant domains as we do with physics — use Newton to plot your rocket mission to Mars but not to Mercury.

                And that “everything but science is nonsense” is itself nonsense. My degree is in orchestral trumpet performance, and you wrote your response to me when I was in a rehearsal last night. Science, both explicitly and “broadly construed,” is vital to music, but, even if music and science are ever going to converge, that day is a long ways away. Science can tell us a great deal about aesthetics in general and a scientific approach is the best way to hone your own attempts at aesthetic success, but there’s still too much uncharted territory there to call such enterprises science…but that in no way diminishes their worth.

                So let’s try two others: Euthyphro and female stallions. Considering that there is no evidence for gods to start with, where does the empirical data come into Euthyphro?

                Though we know that Aristotelian logic is not at all universal, it is superbly applicable and useful at human scales. Both your examples are of human-scale phenomenon. And, just as one needn’t take seriously claims about violations of Newtonian Mechanics at human scales lacking overwhelmingly compelling evidence, one needn’t take seriously claims about violations of Aristotelian logic at human scales, either.

                Of course, if somebody did actually pony up such evidence, all bets are off — just as we saw with Schrödinger and non-contradiction. But, even there, we still observe that the applicable domain is an essential part of the description. Schrödinger didn’t demonstrate that an horse can be both female and a gelding; his discovery doesn’t apply to that domain.

                Also, I see that you repeatedly make the claim that scientists agree about everything.

                I am most certain that I did no such thing.

                I have repeatedly claimed that scientists achieve a high degree of consensus, and given examples that have even included some of the border areas where consensus has not yet been achieved — the role of horizontal gene transfer and epigenetics, the unification of Quantum and Relativistic gravity, and so on.

                But those are at the frontiers of science; everybody agrees about the heartland.

                In science. But most emphatically not in philosophy. Hell, you’d have a most difficult time even getting two philosophers to agree on what philosophy itself is supposed to be….

                b&

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

                I have no idea how most of what you wrote in the previous comment lends support or even has any relation to the idea that philosophy is bunk. The exception is the observation that philosophers achieve less consensus than scientists.

                First, you overestimate the degree of consensus achieved by scientists.

                Second, I would argue that even if we are talking about simple matters of fact the ease with which consensus is achieved is a function of what is at stake and whether personal interests and biases are involved.

                The practitioner will take more care to get it right if a mistake means an airplane crash than if it just means a ‘wrong opinion’ on Free Will; they will have it easier to overcome biases if they are describing the composition of a new chemical than if they are asked whether it is harmless while their income depends on its public acceptance.

                And many philosophers happen to deal with questions that people have very strong feelings about. That makes them more prone to irrational bias but not more so than scientists working in very ideologically embattled areas.

                Third, and closely related, even if you are right you have at best demonstrated that a higher percentage of philosophers are irrational cranks than scientists, but not that philosophy itself isn’t useful in the hands of its most rational practitioners.

                Also, I think you misunderstand Schroedinger’s Cat. It doesn’t exist, quite the opposite. He meant it as a thought experiment (which is a philosophical method, by the way) to demonstrate that the Copenhagen Interpretation is absurd.

              • Posted December 3, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                First, you overestimate the degree of consensus achieved by scientists.

                I’m not trying to claim that scientists are in lock step, and I’ve repeatedly pointed out the increasing lack of consensus the closer you get to the cutting edge.

                But physicists really are in lock step when it comes to Newton as well as Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics save for quantum gravity. And biologists really are in lock step when it comes to the Modern Synthesis for all but obscure species. And chemists really are in lock step about the Periodic Table, even if they’re not sure if the Island of Stability is real or not.

                But when it comes to philosophers, there’re more positions than there are humans working in the field.

                Second, I would argue that even if we are talking about simple matters of fact the ease with which consensus is achieved is a function of what is at stake and whether personal interests and biases are involved.

                Perhaps. But scientists have managed to figure out the whole epistemology thing such that they’ve achieved this consensus, while the Epistles of Epistemology themselves can’t even agree on how you tell good epistemology from bad. If I’m to take your thesis seriously, then I must assume that philosophers are so proudly pigheaded and their biases so intransigent that, once again, the field is worthless.

                Third, and closely related, even if you are right you have at best demonstrated that a higher percentage of philosophers are irrational cranks than scientists, but not that philosophy itself isn’t useful in the hands of its most rational practitioners.

                Then the minority of good philosophers have failed in their necessary job of patrolling the discipline and the cranks have won. It’s dead, Jim.

                Also, I think you misunderstand Schroedinger’s Cat. It doesn’t exist, quite the opposite. He meant it as a thought experiment (which is a philosophical method, by the way) to demonstrate that the Copenhagen Interpretation is absurd.

                Erm…my point is exactly that Schrödinger’s cat really is a real thing (though not necessarily with something as large and hot as a cat), and, because it’s real, we must accept that the principle of non-contradiction is not universal — even if it does remain superbly useful at human scales.

                b&

            • Tim Harris
              Posted December 3, 2014 at 1:41 am | Permalink

              I don’t know where the devil this is going to fit in, the thread has grown so complicated, but it is in response to Alex SL’s latest (I think) response to Ben Goren, in which he writes:

              ‘And many philosophers happen to deal with questions that people have very strong feelings about. That makes them more prone to irrational bias but not more so than scientists working in very ideologically embattled areas.

              ‘Third, and closely related, even if you are right you have at best demonstrated that a higher percentage of philosophers are irrational cranks than scientists, but not that philosophy itself isn’t useful in the hands of its most rational practitioners.’

              I recommend, as two very able and rational philosophers, whose work has relevance to questions of ethics and politics in particular, Bernard Williams and Martha Nussbaum. I recall, also, the respect in which Karl Popper was held by Peter Medawar and other scientists, as well as his splendid and influential assaults on what he called ‘closed’ societies – that is to say on societies under totalitarian government such as those under Fascism, Naziiism and Communism. It is odd to hear that all this philosophical effort towards making a better world was useless.

              Finally, BG likes trumpeting, and has talked elsewhere in this thread of the scientific nature of music theory, and, as I recall (I’m not going to look through everything again) and the relationship of such theory to aesthetic judgment where musical works are concerned.
              I wonder whether he feels like explaining in greater detail what he means by that aside.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted December 3, 2014 at 1:59 am | Permalink

                But I should add, Alex SL, that I don’t think you can assert that thought experiments belong solely to philosophy: they surely belong to anybody who thinks, whatever the badge he or she like to wear. And, as for Schrodinger, he may have intended his thought experiment to show up the absurdity of quantum mechanics, but it seems that most physicists now accept that absurdity…

              • Posted December 4, 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

                Not the absurdity of quantum mechanics as such, but the absurdity of the Copenhagen interpretation.

                /@ / LAS

        • Posted December 1, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

          I’ve repeatedly defined science as the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observations.

          I guess if you redefine “science” to mean “philosophy”, then “philosophy” is meaningless.

          But then… your statements don’t align with reality. So where does that leave them?

          • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

            I guess if you redefine “science” to mean “philosophy”, then “philosophy” is meaningless.

            If you can find even one renowned philosopher who insists that objective observation is a defining feature of philosophy, I’ll buy an hat just to eat it.

            Not a complaint that philosophy needs more objective observation or really ought to pay more attention to empirically-established facts or the like, but one who insists that, if it ain’t based on objective observation, it ain’t philosophy.

            In contrast, I can’t imagine a single scientist who would consider something science if it’s not essentially founded on objective observation.

            As such, I have no clue what point you think you’re trying to make by claiming that my definition above is a better match for the word, “philosophy,” than for, “science.” Or maybe this is a philosophical thing, where you master words by making them mean what you want them to?

            b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      What about ethics, especially biomedical ethics where boards on hospitals employ ethicists to help think through ethical dilemmas?

      • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        Philosophy collides with morality and ethics and the like in two main ways.

        The important one is the one you bring up…but that’s pure science by people wearing hats that have the word, “philosopher,” embroidered on them. They do things like conduct randomized trials and survey patients and measure outcomes with a goal of determining the best way to do to patients what the patients say they want done to them.

        The other is with bullshit like the Trolley Car nonsense, which is just a bad rehash of the Milgram experiments. That stuff is pure philosophy, and utterly worthless.

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Sure, the ethicists use research and reason and you could call it “science broadly construed” though I think it is “critical thinking” however, what about thinking through dilemmas like is abortion immoral and if not why and when can a woman have an abortion? There is a certain way of thinking that needs to be adhered to regardless of inputs which would come from science and statistics.

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

            Medical ethics has long since converged on the idea of “informed consent,” whereby the patient is educated as much as possible about treatment options for whatever condition (from life-saving surgeries to routine examinations to cosmetic alterations) and then given the final choice in the matter. The abortion debate generally centers around removing the option for the patient to have a role in her own medical treatment, which would be instantly rejected in pretty much any other medical context.

            The only reasons abortion remains an issue is because of the double whammy of religious tradition and the desire to control women’s bodies and reproduction.

            A classic case of religion and philosophy joining forces to combat science, in other words….

            b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              What if you’re in an accident and don’t have informed consent? What inputs do you take? These are ethical questions.

              Also, the abortion issue would take into consideration scientific inputs: can the fetus feel pain, can the woman feel pain, whose pain is more valid? Is it ethical to end a life and under what circumstances? These are ethical considerations.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                What if you’re in an accident and don’t have informed consent? What inputs do you take? These are ethical questions.

                In the sense that ethics is a branch of science, yes.

                The example you give is a perfect one for this discussion: how to determine what the patient wants.

                The preferred method, of course, is to ask the patient. But that’s often problematic, such as when the patient is unresponsive or in a significantly altered mental state.

                Next is to rely upon an advance directive or the like.

                If that’s lacking, you query the patient’s chosen representative, if available.

                If the patient hasn’t chosen a representative, you ask people who are in the least-worst position to be able to represent the patient — spouse, parents, children, siblings, close friends, and the like.

                Lacking that, you fall back on “best practices” as have been previously established through surveys and other scientific means.

                You also use similar means to determine all the lesser questions that no patient can possibly be involved in deciding. Should the surgeon wash her hands for five seconds or five minutes? Is saline or lactated ringer’s called for in the operating room? And so on.

                And how is it that we’ve come to this particular hierarchy? Through scientific observation of outcomes when comparing cases with this and other means of determining the proper course of action. Roll the dice this way and your odds of satisfying the patient greatly improve in comparison to the other methods we’ve observed. Which is, of course, exactly how we know that such-and-such a drug is more effective than this-or-that drug.

                Indeed, when it comes right down to it, medical ethics is just another branch of the science of medicine as is anatomy or immunology or oncology or the rest. All have the goal of optimizing patient outcomes, and ethics is simply the part where the patient’s own thoughts on the matter intersect with the rest of the system.

                b&

              • Sojourner
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                A couple of years ago B& was on one of his philosophy is crap rants and I got my wife who was a Philosophy professor to answer him. He never replied to her so as best we could discern from that he had no answer against why philosophy is relevant. I would get her to answer him again but she passed away from cancer this past June.
                My wife was on 3 different ethics boards and unless the religious representatives sided with her she never sided with them. She generally felt they had no valid opinion at the meetings and would ignore them. And many meetings were about how to treat patients where informed consent was not possible.

                My wife taught biomedical ethics and other ethics courses and has a best selling Canadian textbook. She taught intro to philosophy courses where a large part of what she taught was critical thinking spending less time doing the intro stuff other professors spend time doing. She taught evidence based philosophy. That is, how to rationally think about the evidence you have. As has been explained to B& before without philosophy you’d have a pile of facts sitting on the table with no idea what they mean, how to put them together and come up with interpretations and hypothesis to move forward.

                I generally agree with B& on most of his posts but he is completely off the mark when it comes to philosophy.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                Sorry to hear that your wife passed away, Sojourner. I took a biomedical ethics course as an elective when I was in school and I really liked it.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry for your loss. I can only imagine how painful it must be to lose a spouse, and then, I’m certain only poorly.

                I would note that there are only so many hours in the day, and I spend far too many of them already as it is on Jerry’s site. It’s just simply not possible for me to reply to everybody, my own severe case of SIWOTI notwithstanding.

                She taught evidence based philosophy. That is, how to rationally think about the evidence you have.

                She may well have used the label, “philosophy,” to describe what she did, but that’s a textbook case of, as Jerry puts it, “science broadly construed.” It’s also a perfect fit for my oft-repeated definition of science: the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation.

                Sounds like she did great work, and the only difference I would have had with her is her choice of the term, “philosophy,” to describe what she did.

                And, really: did her work and teaching have more in common with Descartes, Aquinas, and Marx; or with Darwin, Pasteur, and Curie? From your description, the latter is a far better fit.

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

                Sounds like she did great work, and the only difference I would have had with her is her choice of the term, “philosophy,” to describe what she did.

                And, really: did her work and teaching have more in common with Descartes, Aquinas, and Marx; or with Darwin, Pasteur, and Curie? From your description, the latter is a far better fit.

                So, to clarify: regardless of how the experts in the field define the field, even if they’re doing good work, ethically and correctly, their definition of the field is incorrect?

                Even if those self same experts *do* see themselves has following on in the same vein as Descartes, Aquinas and/or Marx?

                Might I ask what your credentials are here? Or is this one of those cases where someone (you) has merely decided that everyone is wrong, and will only play ball if their (your) definition is accepted?

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

                Might I ask what your credentials are here? Or is this one of those cases where someone (you) has merely decided that everyone is wrong, and will only play ball if their (your) definition is accepted?

                Ah, yes — the philosopher’s favorite: argument from scriptural authority.

                It should be obvious but clearly isn’t that I’m taking a — wait for it! — scientific approach to the question.

                I’ve observed what it is that scientists and philosophers do, and I’ve rationally analyzed that and formed a set of beliefs from the analysis of the observations.

                Specifically, I’ve observed that scientists make objective observations, rationally analyze those observations, and then derive beliefs validated by the analyzed observations and are careful to express their degree of confidence in their conclusions and indicate likely sources of error or what would cause them to change their minds.

                And I’ve observed that no two philosophers can, for all intents and purposes, even agree on what philosophy is or how to separate good philosophy from bad. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d even feel all that comfortable agreeing to any definition of philosophy, since even philosophers themselves can’t agree on how they would come to agreement.

                But that’s the philosopher’s problem. They can go and do anything they want and slap the “philosophy” label on it if it pleases them, and it’s nobody’s business but their own if it’s good or bad philosophy. As a certain sage wrote of music, if it sounds good, it is good — at least, to the listener. (But, make no mistrake: music theory is a very rigorous and well-defined field with as much consensus as in any of the sciences; I’m referring here to personal music appreciation.)

                If you want to call it science and it doesn’t involve aligning your beliefs with reality by means of rationally analyzing objective observations, that’s your right, but you’re not doing what any actual scientist is going to recognize as science — and you’re certainly not going to pass the peer review hurdle.

                But if you want to do science and slap some other label on it, that’s fine, too. But, unless you’ve got some irrational disdain for science, why you’d be upset at somebody identifying your work as science if it actually is science is utterly beyond me.

                I sense you’re likely to continue to bog this conversation down with yet more philosophy. If you’d like to raise your chances of a reply from me, if you still have objections, you’d do well to start coming forth with actual objective observations at the least, and ideally some rational analysis of those observations. But simply playing philosophical games like asking for my credentials and the like isn’t going to keep my interest going much longer.

                b&

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

                I’ve observed what it is that scientists and philosophers do, and I’ve rationally analyzed that and formed a set of beliefs from the analysis of the observations.

                Given the general bullshit you’ve espoused on this topic, that’s clearly false.

                Given also that you’re not actually interested in “observing reality” (which would demonstrate the falsity of your claims), but pontificating on a subject which you clearly know little, I’ll move on.

                I mean, you’ve made it clear that you have zero interest in a sincere discussion, what with your multiple poisoning of the wells, so best of luck.

                The frequent usage of ‘objective’ and ‘rational’ are the marks of the blowhard.

                To anyone else observing this thread, Ben is actually describing Empiricism, which would be the philosophical commitment to determining all truth from our senses (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/#1.2).

                What a large sub-section of modern philosophers would agree on, contra Goren, is that both philosophy and science operate on a continuum of Empiricism: the more one involves empiricism the more one is doing science, the less one involves empiricism, the more one is doing philosophy.

                Philosophy is more concerned with the concepts that define and clarify the scope of work: whether or not, for example, the current classification system of biology (genus, species, etc) is a question of philosophy, not of empirical study, as those classifications are entirely conceptual, tools which we have used to categorize the natural world.

                Should Goren seem convincing to any of ye, I would suggest that ye do something that he has clearly not: GO TALK TO PHILOSOPHERS.

                It’s odd how someone who claims to have such a commitment to “scientific observation” hasn’t employed any….

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

                What a large sub-section of modern philosophers would agree on, contra Goren, is that both philosophy and science operate on a continuum of Empiricism: the more one involves empiricism the more one is doing science, the less one involves empiricism, the more one is doing philosophy.

                That is a verifiable claim, and I do not see how it can be supported by the evidence already presented in this discussion.

                Please either support your claim with the evidence here:

                http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=fine

                or demonstrate the invalidity of that evidence or why it’s inapplicable to this discussion.

                b&

        • Scote
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          “The other is with bullshit like the Trolley Car nonsense, which is just a bad rehash of the Milgram experiments. That stuff is pure philosophy, and utterly worthless.”

          Woah there, dissing the trolly car dilemma denigrates the plot of a whole lot of Star Trek episodes. And studying the trolly car dillema has been useful in the psychology of morality.

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

            And studying the trolly car dillema has been useful in the psychology of morality.

            No, it hasn’t. At least, not meaningfully.

            Stanley Milgram showed us that, if you have an authority figure order somebody to do something horrible, people generally comply.

            The trolley car experiments have an authority figure — the philosopher, often wearing a lab coat — order people to pretend that they’re killing somebody in a scenario that comes right out of a Nazi death camp family. Kill the fat man or the bus full of children? Kill the guy you just met or your wife and children? Same difference. It’s even presented as somebody else / some unknown force doing the killing at times, and the “experimental subject” directly doing the killing at other times.

            We know the answer to that: people will sheepishly go along with it.

            And they’ll rarely, if ever, do the obvious right thing: call 9-1-1 (or scream and shout or whatever) to report an industrial accident in progress. Worse, they encourage the “subjects” to, without even the pretense of training, manipulate critical industrial safety infrastructure in the midst of a perceived crisis. Believe me, the last thing you, as an untrained and unknowledgeable civilian, should be doing is throwing switching levers in the case of a runaway train. How do you know that somebody at the control center who does have the training and knowledge you lack hasn’t already made the right decision based on information you don’t have?

            And, again, the real answer to this is prevention and training: development of equipment and protocols that keep the crisis from happening in the first place — with, of course, a critical element of that being careful investigation when something goes awry despite your best-laid plans.

            That’s the scientific approach to the Trolly Car bullshit. Rather different from the philosophical approach, eh?

            Indeed, the philosophical approach is indistinguishable from the naïve religious one: Santa’s deciding who gets the bicycle and who gets the lumps of coal, and is that one time you dipped your sister’s ponytail in the inkwell enough to earn you the coal?

            b&

            • Emma
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

              I do think that the trolley dilemma show one interesting thing : that to evaluate something, here the morality of an action, we usually need to compare to something, to a reference point, the most natural reference point being usually “I do nothing”. For me, it explains the difference between the trolley and fat man dilemma.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, but that’s a point that had already been established millennia ago. We don’t need to fantasize about crushing people with trains to establish it today.

                b&

            • winewithcats
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

              How does the Trolley Car dilemma differ from the triage dilemma? They’re both forced choices between not-good options. That the situation and choice are contrived, and involve technical details that you aren’t qualified to evaluate, is immaterial to the ethical question.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                How does the Trolley Car dilemma differ from the triage dilemma?

                We have more than enough empirical evidence to investigate triage without having to play an evil Nazi commandant in a third-rate recreation of Milgram’s work.

                If you really want to study triage, why not…study triage?

                I’m sure the WHO and MSF would be more than happy to supply you with all the raw data you could ever hope to digest. If you can put together a solid study that’ll pass an ethics review board, they’ll similarly be quite happy to work with you to implement trials.

                I fail to see how any philosophical approach could even begin to hope to come close to the standard scientific method in this field.

                Hell, even if it’s the opinions of the untrained general public you’re after, comb through the raw data for representative triage cases you think are worth comparing. Summarize them for your test subjects and tally up how their proposed courses of action compare with what the doctors in the field did. After the subjects make their initial response, tell them what the doctor actually did along with his explanation, and see how many of them change their positions in response.

                Wouldn’t that tell you mountains more about triage than trying to figure out how much the subject’s decision to throw the fat man in front of the train represented his eagerness to show his imagined strength to the cute coed administering the experiment?

                And isn’t what I described standard procedure for how scientific ethicists (as opposed to philosophical trolley-car moralists) approach these problems?

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

                I would say the Trolley Car Dilemma differs from triage in that the TCD is not meant to help us come to a conclusion about what to do in that circumstance. At least not directly. Indeed, the TCD circumstances are ridiculous from a real-world perspective – we’d never find ourselves in such a position. One fat man won’t stop a train car, and that’s only one of the issues the different forms of the TCD has vis-a-vis reality. Of course, most thought experiments have this issue.

                Rather, its point is to shed light on our ethical instincts/feelings; our ethical natures. Is it very successful at doing this? I don’t know. The TCD is often presented with claims that most people have moderate to strong convictions about what course of action (or non-action) is “right”. I’ve known about the various formulations of the TCD for years, but I still have no feelings at all about what course of action is “right”. I do not know what I’d do in those circumstances. The TCD doesn’t seem to have illuminated much for me.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

                I do not know what I’d do in those circumstances.

                I would hope you’d go for help, and assist the accident investigators as best as possible in the post-mortem.

                The TCD doesn’t seem to have illuminated much for me.

                If the Trolley Bullshit were merely ineffectual, I wouldn’t be nearly so upset about it. But have a gander through that peer-reviewd fMRI study linked elsewhere in the thread. If I wanted to decrease sympathy and increase hostility towards the homeless, I don’t think I could do so in a manner more effective than that which the “researchers” used for their “experiment.” It’s all there — reenactment of Milgram, making the subjects think the idea to kill the homeless was theirs originally, cognitive dissonance strongly powered by the discomfort and claustrophobia of the procedure, the seriousness of all that expensive equipment, the official confirmation of the publication itself….

                I’d like to give the “researchers” the benefit of the doubt on this, but it’s so painfully obvious that that’s what they actually did that my only choices are to assume gross ignorance, gross incompetence, or unmitigated malice.

                And, remember: this study was selected by a proponent of the important role philosophy in general and the Trolley Bullshit in particular plays in science to support that position!

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

                @Ben

                Going for assistance isn’t one of the options. Of course that’s what we all would do in the real-world. The TCD is a thought experiment. The forced choice is the point. Which one of those two options – and only those two options – “feels” more ethical?

                As I already wrote, however, I’m not sure this dilemma gives us much useful insight into our ethical instincts. I would guess there’s too much variation in the way people respond.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                Going for assistance isn’t one of the options.

                …which, of course, was the whole point of Milgram’s experiment. And which is why the Trolley Bullshit isn’t merely useless, it’s damaging to society.

                At best, it’s as unsophisticated as a couple kids arguing whether you’d rather jump off a cliff or step in front of a bus, and not being a stupid idiot isn’t one of the options.

                In practice, as evidenced by that study, it’s implemented as a bad re-creation of Milgram’s work, with all the expected resulting societal harm and not even a slight benefit in return.

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

                I agree. The TCD is a “grown-up” version of “what (or “who”) would you rather?”

            • Joseph Yau
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

              Dude, Ben, many cognitive neuroscience papers use the trolley problem as a tool to understand how our brains operate. You might be right that science is rendering obsolete large swathes of philosophy. But you’re not helping your argument if your facts are plainly wrong.

              For just one example, look at this article.
              http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/5/4/404.full.pdf+html

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, but that abstract reads like something I’d expect Mengele to have written as part of a study about how to select the best candidates to operate a gas chamber, or how to train candidates once selected.

                No, really. Just one example of many:

                Saving ingroup members, who seem warm and competent (e.g. Americans), was most morally acceptable in the context of a dilemma where one person was killed to save five people. Extreme outgroup members, who seem neither warm nor competent (e.g. homeless), were the worst off; it was most morally acceptable to sacrifice them and least acceptable to save them.

                I mean, seriously? Who the fuck thinks up this kind of shit?

                In what civilized country do you train people to kill the homeless? And to do so by dehumanizing them in contrast with “warm and competent Americans”?

                Damn.

                And their conclusion?

                Moral decisions are not made in a vacuum; intergroup biases and stereotypes weigh heavily on neural systems implicated in moral decision making.

                No shit, Sherlocks. A simple sampling of the perpetrators and the victims of the Holocaust would have made that conclusion obvious to even the thickest of idiots.

                I’ll have to bookmark that as an example of just how fucked up, perverted, inhumane, and unconscionable this trolley bullshit has gotten.

                b&

              • winewithcats
                Posted December 1, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                Ben isn’t helping his arguments by Godwinning them, either.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                Nor are the Trolly Bullshit apologists doing theirs any favor by citing papers that state in their abstracts that subjects were more than willing to kill homeless people in order to save warm and competent Americans.

                b&

      • GM
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Most of those are non-issues, that are only debated because of all the religious baggage we carry as a culture, and the overinflated value we assign to human life as a result.

        P.S. This is only partially trolling

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

          Whether to “pull the plug” on a patient is a non-issue? I hope not.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

            Or what about deciding who gets a new liver if the resources are constrained? Or should we allow people to have heart surgery if they smoke?

            • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

              That’s triage, a most heartbreaking dilemma for physicians since time immemorial.

              Whenever you find yourself in a triage situation, you’re guaranteed (by definition) of not having any ideal or even good outcomes. All you can do is make the least worst of a tragic situation.

              Again, doing so requires science.

              And, it’s also science that’s going to pave the way, if any, to avoiding triage situations in the future. If you can inexpensively 3-D print organs from the patient’s own cells, transplant triage becomes a thing of the past.

              b&

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

                I still say science is the input but the inputs that we choose to select as valid is accomplished through ethics.

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

            The only way to come to a reasonable answer on that question is to come up with the best ways to determine whether or not the person whose plug you’re contemplating pulling wants the plug pulled or not. And that’s most emphatically a question for science.

            It’s also not a question that’s going to lend itself to precise answers, but we can still use science to continually work towards clarification.

            b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

              I’d say that science is one big input – is the person a vegetable or still conscious? That can be ascertained through certain tests. However, how we come to those conclusions and what inputs we take into consideration is ethics.

              • Sojourner
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                Diana is completely correct. How we come to decisions based on the information science gives us is philosophy/ ethics!

    • Canoe
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you. Philosophy is like religion in that there are equally many varieties; some might actually make contributions today, perhaps e.g. the philosophy of science, while most are off somewhere in the utilitarian weeds – they start with false premises, attack nonexistent problems or simply quibble over concocted quillets using indecipherable terms.

      I agree in particular that the crux of the problem here is defining “meaning,” which is itself meaningless. Hence any attempt to link it to science, without arbitrarily defining it in a particular way, is meaningless. That is Jerry’s point, in part I think, but to criticize Wilson for the small sin of linking the term to science without explicitly acknowledging the arbitrariness of that linkage is not useful. Better to have simply called out Wilson’s minor error, without the rest of the diatribe.

    • Emma
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      I totally agree.

      I feel that philosophy is worthless, partly for the reasons described by EO Wilson : it largely consists of usually obsolete models of the mind or the universe, frequently obviously false, with no interest in confronting the models with reality.

      For me, frequently, “philosophical questions” just amount to problems of definition. For example the question “does free will exist” has quite clear answers once you give a precise definition of free will and self.

      I also agree that meaning is personal. Only tools have “meanings” that are not personals!

      • Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        What are the widely-discussed or accepted (by philosophers) models of the mind or universe that are obsolete? (I find that my experience about what philosophers do and discuss seems to disagree very strongly with your experience. For example, in my experience, only a tiny minority of what we spend our time doing is arguing about definitional matters.)

        And do you believe any of the following philosophical claims?

        ‘Philosophy is worthless.’
        ‘The only justification for believing something comes from observation.’
        ‘We shouldn’t behead atheists.’
        ‘We should only teach established science in science courses.’
        ‘We know that humans are causing climate-change.’

    • Tim Harris
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

      Ad hominem, alas, but here goes: it must be very nice to be BG and to equipped with such shining confidence and a little pot of pat answers to everything.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

        ‘to be equipped’

  5. Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Indeed, I agree that there’s some conflation here of facts and values. Many people say that the question of what is valuable or good in life or what is worth pursuing or what is a good human life or a life of wellbeing or flourishing is a question of the “meaning” of life. Obviously, science by itself can only peripherally inform that topic.

    This passage–

    [Most] of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species […] consists of failed models of how the brain works […]

    –is kind of astonishing. Here are some branches of philosophy that make no claims at all about how the brain works: nearly all normative ethics, applied ethics, nearly all metaethics, metaphysics, the vast majority of epistemology, logic, the vast majority of history of philosophy.

    The claim about philosophy being in decline or highly endangered is also inexplicable. There’s no evidence that philosophy as a discipline is experiencing precipitous drops in interest, beyond the general, gradual, apparently asymptotic drop in humanities-enrollment that has been happening for 40 years. Indeed, philosophy has been discussed or debated in the public sphere a lot in the past 10-20 years or so. Witness the public debate over the connections between and purviews of science and philosophy, for example, and the popularity of philosophical works such as Sam Harris’s publications. (Notably, of course, Harris has been vigorously criticized by professional philosophers, but he’s still attempting to do philosophy.)

  6. Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    This from Wilson is also an insult on the way philosophy is taught at universities:

    “So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong…”

    No. Students need to learn how Descartes thought, understand how his world view developed, where his ideas came from, what the consequences of thinking like that are, and eventually develop some evaluation of his influence and his value as a thinker. Through this means they are to develop their own thinking skills.

    My philosophy prof used to complain that science students who took his courses would listen carefully and at the end of the lecture say, “Well you’ve presented all these views. Which one is right?”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      The “after a long while” slur implies that the students slog away on old philosophies only to discover that they were wasting their time. Not exactly accurate from my experience of how philosophy works.

    • Emma
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      My point exactly regarding philosophy!

      You seem to imply that philosophy is mostly about learning and thinking about the history of ideas among western philosophers. I agree, and think that it makes philosophy largely irrelevant today.

      As a scientist, while I of course understand that this focus can be fascinating for historically minded people, what I am interested in is “which one is right?”.

      • Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        Actually I was making a point about the way philosophy is taught, as compared to the way Wilson implies it is taught, and Wilson is – as far as I know – largely wrong about it. (At least it should not be taught like he implies.)

        I wasn’t commenting directly about the nature of philosophy itself.

        But it does appear to me that his inaccurate portrayal implies a limited understanding of the nature and purpose of philosophy.

        As I see it, your (and Wilson’s) question “Which one is right?” is, in this context, a poorly formulated philosophical question in itself. You mean “Which one is factually right?”

        It’s too narrow, and assumes that the subject of philosophy is how to assemble facts; is something for which there is a right and a wrong way; and that this can be determined by the same methods used to discover the facts.

        But that precludes all considerations about the nature of knowledge; the implications of that knowledge for human beings (identity, etc); other fields like ethics; as well as the general development of analytical skills, among other things.

        • Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          It’s too narrow, and assumes that the subject of philosophy is how to assemble facts; is something for which there is a right and a wrong way; and that this can be determined by the same methods used to discover the facts.

          But that precludes all considerations about the nature of knowledge; the implications of that knowledge for human beings (identity, etc); other fields like ethics; as well as the general development of analytical skills, among other things.

          Curious. I could have written something very much like those two paragraphs, myself, as part of a condemnation of philosophy. Yet you see them as supporting the enterprise….

          Ask yourself: by what standard do you measure answers in philosophy? How do you know which answers are good and which are not?

          Whatever that standard is is what your answers will converge towards.

          Science uses objective observation as the gold standard, and nothing else comes close to matching those observations.

          You yourself have just dismissed objective observation as a worthy standard. Why should it be surprising that, whatever it is you think philosophy is good for, it’s not anything objectively consistent with the observable universe?

          b&

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

            I didn’t dismiss objective observation as a standard, just said that the way the question was framed precludes other things that philosophy deals with.

            Can a fetus of a certain age sense pain is of course a scientific question, but how should we behave if it can is a philosophical one. I don’t see why scientists should find such considerations frivolous or simply a matter of waiting till all the facts are in and assuming the facts will resolve when and in what circumstances a pregnant woman can ethically abort, for example.

            I don’t think such questions are simply matters of “objective observation”.

            • Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

              Can a fetus of a certain age sense pain is of course a scientific question, but how should we behave if it can is a philosophical one.

              No, it’s not. It’s a matter for medical ethics, as hard a science as any in medicine.

              And, specifically, the fetus is irrelevant to the question. It could be fully conscious and have its own blog and everything, and that still wouldn’t matter.

              Under no circumstances would, for example, a parent be obligated to provide an organ transplant for one of their children, regardless of the child’s age. The parent isn’t even obligated to donate blood — or, for that matter, not even submit to a cheek swab for DNA. Even if such is the child’s only chance for survival.

              That being the case, no argument can be made that a comparable obligation applies to the parent for children not yet born.

              You can praise people who choose to make such a sacrifice, and even scorn those who don’t if you like. But you can’t strap them down against their will and perform the procedure over their objections.

              This is all very long established bog-standard medical ethics, the basics of which can be traced back millennia. The only reason it becomes contentious with respect to pregnancy is because of theological meddling by philosophers — or vice-versa…the two can be damned difficult to tell apart….

              b&

            • Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

              “waiting till all the facts are in”

              I think it might have been Massimo who identified philosophy as the tool to use precisely when not all the facts are in — that is, when science (however broadly construed) alone cannot give us an answer.

              /@ / 29 Palms

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

                I would argue that philosophy is still useless in such a situation.

                Rather, you still do science, but, as always, keep your error bars appropriately wide. And if you can’t justify narrowing those error bars sufficiently to have confidence in a particular conclusion? Then you admit you don’t know. And if action is still required, for whatever reason, you roll the dice and hope for the best — but you certainly shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking that the answer you picked must therefore be the right answer because it’s the one you picked.

                Of what use is it to use philosophy to come to an unwarranted conclusion, simply to have some conclusion, any conclusion, just give me a conclusion? Might as well get drunk on communion wine and inspect the leftover bones from a bowl of chicken soup.

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:14 am | Permalink

                @ant,
                Yeh, that suns it up well.

                @Ben,
                “…keep your error bars appropriately wide…”

                For me, you’re standing on philosophical territory right there. Scientific methofology is territory that has been cleared, it seems to me, largely by philosophy.

                “…. but you certainly shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking that the answer you picked must therefore be the right answer because it’s the one you picked….”

                I find that to be a misrepresentation of philosophy. There’s nothing in philosophy that says you should believe that it’s right simply because you made it.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:03 am | Permalink

                @Ben, “…keep your error bars appropriately wide…”

                For me, you’re standing on philosophical territory right there. Scientific methofology is territory that has been cleared, it seems to me, largely by philosophy.

                No, not by philosophy.

                By running the experiment and observing the consequences of failure to properly place the error bars. How many results have been retracted or otherwise invalidated because of such a faulty analysis?

                That’s science, not philosophy.

                b&

      • Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Here, too, I should note that the vast majority of philosophy is devoted to figuring out the right answer to something. Only very little (maybe none) is history for history’s sake.

        But part of what we do is to consider many parties in a debate, because some of the proven benefits of a philosophical education are the reasoning skills you get from considering (sometimes historical) debates. Philosophy is exercise for the mind. If you can bench 200 pounds, you don’t just keep doing that; you add weight. Similarly, if you find the right answer to some question in philosophy, you don’t just go home; you start thinking about other debates, wherein the right answer isn’t so clear.

        And of course the claim that what’s correct is more important than what happened in history is a philosophical claim.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear, E.O. Wilson is engaging in scientism and that really makes me cringe.

    Sometimes I think universities set us all up for failure when they created divisions but nonetheless, what E.O. Wilson is talking about is what the Humanities already explores: the human experience and human culture.

    I fear there is going to be a big fight over this and people are going to be divided into those ridiculous camps of science vs. the humanities.

    • GM
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      I should point out that the humanities includes a lot more than philosophy, and much of the non-BS philosophy is often so closely related to math that it is a stretch to use that term “humanities” for it.

      Meanwhile it remains true that many in the humanities have such egregiously disconnected from the way the world works worldviews that the opposition science vs. the humanities is not only completely warranted, but there is a real and very important war to be fought and won.

      Remember that the people who are in key decision-making positions in modern society are overwhelmingly drawn from the humanities, and from economics (which, in its mainstream form has all the characteristics of a pseudoscience), and not from the sciences. So this matters, a lot.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        So you are saying that people in the humanities don’t use reason? Perhaps you are thinking of the postmodernist plague but aside from that there is a reason that many people who become lawyers, politicians, etc. are drawn from the Humanities: they are good at critical thinking. It is absolutely essential that people understand what constitutes evidence, what the scientific method is and how to argue the merits of those claims with evidence to back up said arguments.

        I don’t think there is a problem, nor has there ever been that Humanities grads hold key positions in the world. It seemed to work out well for Darwin that he struggled with his Greek and for Freud. Remember that it is only recently that people were divided in their studies and within my own life time, people still studied either Classics or Maths in Britain.

        • GM
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

          It’s not about using reason, it’s about foundational assumptions on which reasoning is based. If those are false, how sophisticated and rigorous the reasoning is is irrelevant.

          P.S. When I said above that it is vital that scientists know some philosophy, I had precisely the epistemological issue in mind.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            What does this mean: “foundational assumptions on which reasoning is based”?

            • GM
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

              We have to talk about specific issues to explain that.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

                Then you can’t exactly proclaim that we are in big trouble as a society because Humanities graduates hold key positions in that society. I think you may have illustrated the bad reasoning you are claiming all Humanities graduates use.

              • GM
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

                1) Where did I say that? Misrepresenting other’s words does boost one’s credibility

                2) As I said, this is best understood within the context of specific issues. If it is not already obvious which ones I am talking about, then there is no point typing thousands of words explaining. You are likely at an age at which you are not very receptive to such information anymore.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

                You said that you were worried that Humanities grads held positions of authority.

                Remember that the people who are in key decision-making positions in modern society are overwhelmingly drawn from the humanities, and from economics (which, in its mainstream form has all the characteristics of a pseudoscience), and not from the sciences. So this matters, a lot.

                And that statement followed this one:

                many in the humanities have such egregiously disconnected from the way the world works worldviews that the opposition science vs. the humanities is not only completely warranted, but there is a real and very important war to be fought and won

                So if “many in the Humanities”, in your view, threaten the world with poor reasoning, reasoning that is “egregiously disconnected from the way the world works”, how am I misrepresenting you?

                You then tell me that one can be a good reasoner but not if you err in the “foundational assumptions on which reasoning is based”. You again cannot provide evidence that this is the case with the Humanities.

                I have not misrepresented what you have said in the least and I’m not trying to misrepresent your words to boost my credibility. I don’t need to do that.

                If it is not already obvious which ones I am talking about

                Again, saying “it’s obvious” is not evidence. You don’t get to make unfounded assertions and be taken seriously.

                You are likely at an age at which you are not very receptive to such information anymore.

                Also not evidence of anything you’ve asserted; argumentum ad hominem is fallacious resononing.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

                Whoever you are, GM, you are uncivil. Ms. McPherson’s age (or anyone else’s)is wholly irrelevant to understanding the points you advance and her analysis of same. Very poor form, Sir or Madam.

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

            Epistemology in the sense philosophers tend to use it has long been settled by science.

            What is the standard with which you measure your results? That is what your conclusions will converge to.

            In science, that standard is objective observation. And, surprise! Science provides answers that converge upon observations.

            Religion uses all sorts of standards, ranging from authority to hallucination to tradition. And that’s what its answers converge upon.

            The small minority (less than a third, as I recall) of philosophers who embrace empiricism tend to have answers that converge upon observation…but they’re just scientists by a different name. The remainder use all manner of fanciful nonsense (“elegance”) for their standard, and that’s what their answers converge upon.

            Unsurprisingly, it’s largely the ones in the latter camp most obsessed with questions like the justifiability of various epistemologies.

            Meanwhile, people who actually care about reality are busy observing and analyzing it. Doing science, in other words.

            b&

            • Jonathan Livengood
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

              A small quibble and two further things.

              At best, it’s unclear what position philosophers as a group take with respect to empiricism. The PhilPapers survey (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=fine), which I’m guessing is what you had in mind, has the following result at the Fine-Grained level for target respondents (incidentally, can we use html tags in the comments?):

              Lean toward: empiricism 199 / 931 (21.4%)
              Lean toward: rationalism 160 / 931 (17.2%)
              Accept: empiricism 127 / 931 (13.6%)
              Accept an intermediate view 106 / 931 (11.4%)
              Accept: rationalism 99 / 931 (10.6%)
              The question is too unclear to answer 91 / 931 (9.8%)
              Accept both 59 / 931 (6.3%)
              Reject both 33 / 931 (3.5%)
              Accept another alternative 25 / 931 (2.7%)
              Agnostic/undecided 18 / 931 (1.9%)
              Insufficiently familiar with the issue 5 / 931 (0.5%)
              Skip 5 / 931 (0.5%)
              Other 2 / 931 (0.2%)
              There is no fact of the matter 2 / 931 (0.2%)

              My own answer (along with nearly 10% of the target respondents) is that the question is too unclear to answer. I think it is too unclear in part because we are not told which versions of empiricism or which versions of rationalism are being discussed and in part because it isn’t clear what the question is targeting. Are we being asked about the origin of our concepts (or “ideas”), the origin of our beliefs, the ultimate source of justification for our theories, or something else entirely?

              Since I don’t know what the question is asking, I also don’t know what the reported answers indicate. Just to put some edge on it, suppose a respondent takes “empiricism” to mean “Quine’s philosophy of mind and language” and “rationalism” to mean “Chomsky’s philosophy of mind and language.” Is it clear which of the two positions is more nearly correct? Is it clear that one or the other is more scientifically respectable? I tend to think that the answer to both questions is no.

              Two further things:

              1. If you think (as I do) that some philosophers are just scientists under a different label, do you think it is fair (as I also do) to say that scientists are just philosophers under a different label? If philosophy and science shade imperceptibly into one another in many different places, then what is the point of saying that philosophy is worthless?

              2. I don’t think the epistemological questions have been settled in anything like the definitive way you suggest. Just take a look at the foundations of statistics and the question of how we should update our beliefs on the basis of new evidence (assuming we should do so at all). Do stopping rules matter? Should we endorse the likelihood principle? Should we all be Bayesians? Which kind? Under what conditions are causal inferences reliable? These are philosophical questions as much as they are mathematical ones.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

                If philosophy and science shade imperceptibly into one another

                They don’t, as your survey results provide more than ample evidence. No scientist is going to dismiss the necessity of empirical observation — nor of the imperative to rationally analyze said observations. But only 6.3% of philosophers take that position.

                Just take a look at the foundations of statistics and the question of how we should update our beliefs on the basis of new evidence (assuming we should do so at all).

                Those are active subjects of scientific research today…but quibbling over the fact that scientists keep refining their position is no different from Creationists pointing to debates about the significance of horizontal gene transfer and breathlessly proclaiming that Darwinism is bunk.

                b&

              • Jonathan Livengood
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

                I’m not sure why you think that because only 6.3% of philosophers answered “both” on the empiricism/rationalism question in that survey that only 6.3% of philosophers think that we need both observations and rational analysis. I would be interested to see how a sample of working scientists answered the empiricism/rationalism question. My guess is that they would overwhelmingly endorse empiricism, not “both.” (Take a look back at your earlier comment in which you write, “The small minority (less than a third, as I recall) of philosophers who embrace empiricism tend to have answers that converge upon observation…but they’re just scientists by a different name.” I suspect that *you* would have answered “Accept empiricism,” in the survey, not “Accept both.”)

                And that’s fine. Being an empiricist doesn’t mean you think there is nothing for the brain to do or that there is no scope for rational analysis. Hume was an empiricist if anyone was, but he explicitly endorses both empirical observation and rational analysis. Point being that you’re jumping to conclusions here on the basis of a very hard to interpret survey result. Given that I provided reasons to think the survey is not informative, I find your gung-ho reliance on it … odd. Perhaps you are only seeing what you *want* to see here?

                Your claim that the survey results provide ample evidence that philosophy and science do not shade imperceptibly into one another is (aside from being a stunning inferential leap) also odd given your own statements. You’ve made and defended the claim several times in this comment thread that various parts of philosophy are not, after all, philosophy, but rather parts of science. I’m happy to grant it! On your account, when I teach biomedical ethics, I’m teaching science, which is surely a feather in my cap. But my point, again, is this. I am a philosopher. I am employed in a philosophy department. I consider my work to be philosophical in character. And with only a few exceptions, other professional philosophers understand my research and my teaching as research and teaching in philosophy. Now, you say that they are science, not philosophy. To which I say, “Yes, the boundary is fuzzy.” I’m not sure why you want to disagree. And again, I am just baffled as to what you think the point is of deriding philosophy as a whole discipline.

                With respect to the foundations of statistics, you have missed my point entirely. I’m not saying that science or statistics is bunk. I pointed out that there are unsettled epistemological issues in contemporary science in reply to your comment suggesting that we benighted philosophers are treating as problems things that are *not* problems and that if we would just learn some science, we would give up on our silly epistemological disputes, since science has settled them all!

                My point is not that science is in trouble because it hasn’t gotten its foundations in order. I’m not skeptical about evolution or climate change or relativity or any of a hundred other well-confirmed scientific theories. My point is just that your dismissal of philosophical disputes in epistemology is too quick. Contrary to your claim, science has not clearly settled all (or even most) of the issues that philosophers care about in epistemology — many of which are the same issues that statisticians care about! (In some cases, the language is different, but in many cases, even the language is the same.)

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

                I’m not sure why you think that because only 6.3% of philosophers answered “both” on the empiricism/rationalism question in that survey that only 6.3% of philosophers think that we need both observations and rational analysis.

                Then I don’t think I’m capable of persuading you. You’re obviously using either English or logic in a manner so utterly foreign to me that what I see as your own statement of the identity principle is somehow utterly unconvincing to you.

                I must note: it is only philosophers, in my experience — including, of course, theologians — who can come up with something so disconnected from reality as the sentence you wrote.

                If I am to be maximally charitable, you’re suggesting that few, if any, of the philosophers who participated in the survey have the basic reasoning and / or comprehension skills to answer that question in a suitable manner. And that’s an even worse indictment of the field than the one I’ve been offering.

                b&

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

                To me, if I had been forced to answer, would have said it is a false dicotomy – science is as much rationalistic as it is empiricist – which is to say about half of each of the traditional views (or cariactures, since there have not been any consistent sole-rationalists or empiricists ever, except perhaps in an asylum).

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

                “Both” was an option…than only some half-dozen percent of philosophers went with.

                b&

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

            GM, your comments below are uncivil. Please apologize if you wish to continue commenting here.

            • GM
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

              I apologize but I am not sure about what. I have no posts “below”

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

                Then you really aren’t apologizing. See my comment above concerning your incivility.

              • GM
                Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

                I am completely mystified how anyone can take that to be uncivil behavior. It was stating a fact, a very sad one, that once people grow up, it becomes very hard to convince them to change their minds on anything that has to do with the way they see the world. Thus there is little point spending a lot of time arguing with them about such things over the internet (one may have more success in person, but it’s still difficult). Thus what I said about “if you know what I am talking about, you already know it, if you don’t there is even less of a point discussing it”

                What I said has absolutely nothing to do with the person in question – I don’t care at all about that, nor was it meant to be offensive or even an attack.

              • Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

                Sorry, but it sure looks as if you were insulting people, including the readers. You clearly have no idea about how your comments even LOOK on the thread. The least you should say is that you didn’t mean it AND you’re sorry if you offended anyone. You didn’t say that, because at least two of us took it as an insult.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:56 am | Permalink

                To three people as I took it as an ad hom and the response to apologize was a notpology with a snide remark that the comments were “not below” as if a loophole had been found in the request to apologize.

              • GM
                Posted December 1, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                OK, I apologize to anyone who I might have offended. Yes, I have no idea how the comment might look to others. There are 7 billion people on this planet, there is very little that can be written that won’t be offensive to any of them.

                But once again, there was absolutely no malicious intent behind my comments.

  8. Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I imagine you are confusing Wilsons statement “the meaning of human existence” with a personal definition of “the meaning of MY life” these are not the same things.Wilson, is correct that only science can appropriately be used to determine the meaning of human existence since this is a question of the point of the species. I would think this has already been answered, however. Procreation and evolution are the meaning of existence. No where does this imply a full answer to my personal meaning of life questions, if I had any.

  9. Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Geez, I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of the contemporary sitcom and Wilson’s got the inside scoop on the meaning of meaning. Come to think of it, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to the popular image of God. I think I’ve just discovered a hybrid type of sitcom. It’s hilarious! Huge fan here!

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Well, obviously.

    But I’m perplexed that E.O. Wilson would throw religion before the bus.

    scientism: the unwarranted intrusion of science into other spheres of inquiry.

    That definition is not useful, since science can be warranted by itself. There are no other “spheres of inquiry” besides inquiry, the same as there is no other knowledge than knowledge. This looks to be a construct to try to save philosophy from further erosion towards oblivion, obviously a doomed project as several commenters allude to. (There is no inherent way to tell the truth of philosophical claims, and now we know why.)

    [There are areas of inquiry obviously, but they overlap – physics into chemistry into biology, et cetera.]

    Our experience of thoughts, including emotions and motivations (such as “meaning”), are poor areas for inquiry. It is like trying to inquire the pathways of lightning or rivulets of water. It is more sensible to inquire what lightning and streaming water do than trying to make sense of the history of contingency. [As I read the rest of the article afterwards I note that I agree with Jerry here.]

    But there is no overarching “meaning” of human existence, for that existence is simply the produce of a blind and materialistic process. What meaning our own lives have, or even that of humanity itself, varies from person to person, and is imbued by people.

    That makes it sound like part of the Copernican revolution. Meaning does not have a privileged reference but is potentially the same throughout the universe, because it is what organisms that can construe it will do.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Poorly worded last part. I meant that organisms that can construe of “meaning” will do so for themselves. (That they do so was supposed to make sense of “the same throughout”.)

    • Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      This looks to be a construct to try to save philosophy from further erosion towards oblivion, obviously a doomed project as several commenters allude to.

      I agree, additionally on YouTube I see the term scientism used far more often by theistic philosophers than secular ones. In fact secular philosophers generally recognize that, and avoid using the term, or are very cautious when using it because they realize they are giving ammunition to the William Lane Craig types.

  11. Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, …

    Hmm, as a self-confessed scientismist, I’m quite sympathetic to what Wilson says here. As I see it, the *explanation* of meaning does indeed fall to science.

    The phrase, the “meaning of human existence”, is not in itself a sensible one, so the alternative interpretations that Wilson puts on it are sensible enough.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      If there are enough of us, we will undoubtedly be called the “New Scientismists” and be strawmanned at every opportunity.

  12. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with the essential conclusion that Jerry states and that is – no answer to the question (meaning of life) will be found. The question has no answer in any of the sciences most likely because there is no single or magic answer. If all humans thought exactly the same maybe there would be.

    If Wilson or anyone else really wants to know then maybe religion is for them. Or that bearded old man sitting on top of the mountain that someone is climbing to ask the question.

  13. Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    We can discount anything EO Wilson says about philosophy since, with regard to that field of study, he’s just a journalist.

    • bric
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Bazinga!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        😀

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    The new material on Coyne’s Wikipedia article was added two days ago by a user named A Karley who identifies as “Aidan Karley, FGS, BSc Geologist specialising in steering oil wells better than cars .” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:A_Karley
    for his self-description, and
    see
    https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jerry_Coyne&diff=635721050&oldid=634894334
    for confirmation that it was he added the material.
    The history page of any article is always useful to trace these things.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      LOL! We know who that is!

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        Damn. I hope no one tags it with an “original research” tag! 🙂

  15. GBJames
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Whenever I start pondering “meaning” I want to reach for my Monty Python DVDS collection.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it
      Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true
      You’ll see its all a show, keep ’em laughin as you go
      Just remember that the last laugh is on you

  16. Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    There is no ‘meaning of human existence’ if we are materialists. We can create meaning for ourselves that we might share with others. If dualists then the whole shebang is open. I don’t understand the denigration of philosophy. Some is obtuse, some is stupid and silly, and some is sublime. But all philosophy does is ask us to question and look for consistency. Nothin’ wrong with that. I keep feeling more and more deflated about Wilson. Ugh.

    • Scientifik
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      “There is no ‘meaning of human existence’ if we are materialists. We can create meaning for ourselves that we might share with others. If dualists then the whole shebang is open.”

      Can you tell me what the belief in the non-physicality of the mind has to do with the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence? Do you want to say that if death is final, then it all doesn’t make sense?

      • Posted November 30, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        I want to say that since since it appears that everything that exists is just a chemical mish-mash there is no objective and transcendent meaning.

        • Scientifik
          Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

          Nature is not just a chemical mishmash. Don’t know where you got that from…

          • Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

            Okay. We are all just atoms. Molecules. Chemicals. That’s the stuff of the universe.

            • Scientifik
              Posted November 30, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

              We are made of atoms, but does it somehow follow from this that there’s no meaning to our existence? We are material creatures living in a material universe, therefore there’s no meaning to our existence. As far as I can see the conclusion is unfounded.

              And BTW, as we are on the subject of non-materialism, how can something be composed of nothing?

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

                There is meaning to our existence – at least to mine and it sounds like to yours as well. I don’t see any transcendent meaning. Objective meaning. Religious meaning. The kind of stuff that says that if you live a *good* life you are *rewarded* in the *afterlife* with a whole bunch of virgins. (Why do believing women only get one man?) IOW words I don’t get to take the meaning with me when I die. Dust back to dust.

                Sorry but I don’t follow your last question – rephrase?

              • Scientifik
                Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

                I don’t see any objective meaning or ultimate purpose to our existence either, and frankly I don’t see it as a negative thing. It would be pretty boring if we all followed the same path in our lives, wouldn’t it? Do this, this, and this to achieve this. That’s the purpose of your life.

                As for “why do believing women only get one man”, I suspect that if we lived in matriarchal societies (as some other animal species) and the holy books were authored by women, the religious narrative would be modified accordingly…

                Regarding the existence of “non-material” stuff I simply can’t understand how anyone can assume that something can consist of nothing. There’s no escaping the material world.

              • Posted November 30, 2014 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

                We are material creatures living in a material universe, therefore there’s no meaning to our existence.

                I know somebody who would agree with the premise, but disagree with the conclusion.

                b&

              • Scientifik
                Posted December 1, 2014 at 5:20 am | Permalink

                LOL – Good one!

  17. kelskye
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “(I’ve only seen two people actually engage in this practice: Wilson and Alex Rosenberg.)”
    I find that slightly amusing that one those two is a philosopher. Also, I’d add Sam Harris to the list for The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

    Indeed, I remember reading some article a couple of years back of a chemist who had a beef with scientisim. Almost every person the article attacked were philosophers.

  18. Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Philosophy is really just a grab bag of different subjects. This has to do with the history of the academy.

    Before, many more subjects were called “philosophy” than are today. Over time, some of these were no longer regarded as under the overarching heading of “philosophy”: for example, astronomy, physics, biology.

    However some remain under the heading: for example, ontology, aesthetics, ethics.

    It is a frequent mistake to think that somehow these remaining subjects are supposed to be approached in some “philosophical” way, whereas the subjects that are no longer under the heading are supposed to be approached in some “non-philosophical way”. It’s just an historical accident that the subjects are not under the same heading, it’s says nothing about the proper way to come to conclusions.

    Researchers in ethics for example try to determine what we ought to do and what we ought not to do. There are ethicists who use poor methods to try to come to conclusions, to be sure, but the goal is of course to use the best methods, whatever those are. Similarly for the other topics.

  19. Tim Reichert
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    It kills me when people don’t realize that the statement “philosophy is pointless” is a philosophical argument.

  20. Posted November 30, 2014 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    To quote a famous philosophical dialog:

    Flaky Foont: What does it all mean, Mr. Natural?

    Mr. Natural: Don’t mean shit.

  21. Scientifik
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    “I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works.” E.O. Wilson

    The questions such as: how the brain works, or what is consciousness, or is there anything to the dualism hypothesis, aren’t for philosophers to answer. They can only be answered via a process of scientific inquiry, hypothesis formulation, experiment and evidence collection and analysis.

    I hope that one day scientists will be able to build a synthetic brain (maybe even atom by atom, neuron by neuron, synapse by synapse), and hook it up to synthetically created eyes and hearing apparatus, and ask this brain a simple question: Hello, is anybody there? ………

  22. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Wait. There is a meaning to life?
    Why do people feel the need to create this entity “meaning of life”? (He says, trying to phrase it like William of Occam.)

  23. Kevin
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Wilson is a great human and he has obviously thought about many things, but the meaning of human existence: evolutionary biology, paleontology, brain theory, AI, robotics?? Evolution, I can understand, but the rest are redundant. Like parts of the same part.

    Meaning for human existence comes from the physical universe, and in many hundreds of generations from now, we will find that the meaning has little to do with us at all but the physical universe.

  24. Axolotl
    Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    “What meaning our own lives have, or even that of humanity itself, varies from person to person, and is imbued by people.”

    But, if it varies from person from person, what is the purpose, or the chance of success, of academic philosophy trying to investigate and, ultimately, reach conclusions on the meaning of X? According to the above, those conclusions will hold only for the philosopher reaching the conclusion. Others can read and discuss, agree or disagree, but how is this different from discussing a work of literature?

    • Axolotl
      Posted November 30, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

      (and yes, academic philosophers often DO claim that they are trying to investigate and, ultimately, reach conclusions on the meaning of X that will be more general than a personal statement.)

  25. Posted November 30, 2014 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I know that Rosenberg embraces (the term) scientism and runs with it, but what instances of “unwarranted intrusion” do you have in mind? My recollection is that Rosenberg’s scientism is “just” that other spheres must be consistent with science: “physics fixes the facts” &c., which seems incontrovertible. Where, in your opinion, does he go too far?

    /@ / 23 Palms

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 1, 2014 at 12:46 am | Permalink

      I would suggest one respect: his dismissal of the discipline of history as worthless on the grounds, as I recall (I have got rid of the book), that it cannot be reduced to laws that allow predictions because of ‘arms races’, both of the actual and metaphorical kind. Rosenberg might consider, say, Richard Evans’s role as an expert witness in the case of David Irving versus Deborah Lipstadt, and his assaults on various German apologists for what happened under Naziism… There is a world outside the narrow intellectual spaces in which such as Rosenberg seem to move.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 1, 2014 at 1:15 am | Permalink

        Rosenberg is of course a philosopher himself, and not a scientist, so the situation is rather amusing. Whether I respected philosophy or not, I would still I find it difficult to understand or sympathise with the lack of respect he shows both for his discipline and by extension himself when he happily prints on the cover of his book a commendatory remark by Lawrence Krauss in which Krauss derogates philosophy and philosophers and is pleased to note that Rosenberg does the same.

        • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

          Rosenberg is a philosopher of science, specializing for the past couple of decades in the philosophy of biology. While I can’t speak certainly here, I seem to recall that he took a postgraduate degree in some field of biology well after his PhD (which was in the philosophy of social science). If this is correct, Alex Rosenberg is nicely qualified to write across the two disciplines (if indeed they really are twofold).

          Since you ‘got rid of’ your copy of ‘Atheist’s Guide,’ I can only hope it’s now in the hands of another reader. I hold a much higher opinion of this book than you do.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted December 2, 2014 at 2:20 am | Permalink

            I hope it is in the hands of another reader, too. Certainly, there are things that are good in the book, but there is a lot of silliness, too; and I was not fond of the jokey style whereby Rosenberg sought to endear himself and his arguments to the reader.

  26. Jarle Georg Tveitan
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    There is no intrinsic meaning to existence.

    Which is awesome, cause then we get to decide for ourselves what our purpose should be 🙂

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      Yes, but I think if I have to say that there is meaning to be found then on this Wilson & Rosenberg have it right. I see nothing wrong with scientism…!

  27. Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    I think the meaning of life is so hard to answer because it is a meaningless question. The interesting question is perhaps why the “meaning of life question” arose in the first place? Why do we feel this need of a “purpose”? Is that a purely cultural thing? Have we evolved to give “purpose to life”? Both, I’d guess.

    If there is a meaning of life (for humans?), would this also imply some sort of meaning for all other forms of life? That would sound like religion to me.

    Some commentators distinguish between the meaning of life in general, and the meaning of individual lives (“my life”). I partly disagree. Life in general has no meaning. It just is. My life is part of that, so it has no (predetermined) meaning. I just am. But I may put “meaning” to my life by doing things I find fun or otherwise exciting or valuable. In that trivial sense there is a difference. Now, that obviously raises the question where my sense of joy, excitement and values come from. Genes & environment & their interaction, I’d say, even if that’s a rather empty answer while at the same time necessarily true.

    But it doesn’t give life an external or overarching meaning. Not for all life. Not for my life.

    If meaning of individual lives equates what gives value to those lives, maybe we should rather use that term?

  28. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    I am just about finished reading Science and Religion: 5 Questions, edited by Gregg Caruso. (Automatic Press / VIP 2014, ISBN-13: 978-8792130518)

    It has reasonably brief responses to a set of questions on the compatibility between science and religion by a wide variety of philosophers, scientists, and others. It makes for a pretty good survey of a broad range of opinions.

    William Lane Craig shows off the skills he has honed in cosmology (accumulating distorted ‘facts’ to support his raging confirmation bias) in the field of biology. Michael Ruse reinforces the diagnosis that he suffers from Dunning-Kruger, and directly calls out Jerry Coyne in the process. Massimo Pigliucci seems to have completely reversed himself since I saw him speak in 2006. James Randi is refreshingly direct and clear, but seems not to have put in the background work to understand what the free will issue is about. One of the Muslim scholars (Seyyed Hossein Nasr? I should double check but don’t have the book with me) brags up his background in science for a page and a half before laying down a carpet of fallacies about evolution that indicates a lack of familiarity with even the most basic Talk.Origins level material.

    All in all, its pretty fascinating.

  29. Nicholas
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Ben Goren is one of my favourite commenters on the web. Loved his responses on this thread so far.

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Tanks! But I’m sure it’ll go straight to my head….

      b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      Whenever we have these philosophy discussions, I imagine Ben in the middle of a basketball court, arguing with a crowd of people surrounding him. 🙂 It always impresses me that he never tires of it and addresses each comment.

      • Posted December 1, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

        You write that as if SIWOTI were a good thing!

        b&

  30. Tim Reichert
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I also like Ben’s comments but I am still waiting for him to demonstrate how the assertion that “philosophy is pointless” is a scientific statement. And if it is not a scientific statement, wouldn’t that make it a philosophical statement? And if not that, then what kind of statement is it?

    • Posted December 1, 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      I’ve done that, in my reply to Jerry way up at the top.

      Science converges on a single set of answers.

      Religion diverges non-stop. So does philosophy.

      The theory to explain those facts is simple: science uses as its ultimate standard objective observation. Religion and philosophy use all sorts of subjective and diverse standards. Each quite demonstrably does a good job at aligning itself to the chosen standard.

      b&

      • Tim Reichert
        Posted December 1, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Where is the convergence on the statement “philosophy is pointless?” Many scientists disagree with that assertion. There is no convergence. It’s a personal subjective opinion.

        • Posted December 1, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

          Er…you misunderstand me.

          I’ve never intended to suggest that there is a consensus amongst scientists that philosophy is useless. Clearly, no such consensus exists, and I apologize for whatever it is I wrote left you with that impression.

          Rather, it is my own claim that philosophy is useless, as evidenced by the fact that philosophers consistently fail to achieve consensus — in stark contrast to the consensus regularly achieved by scientists.

          Biologists agree that Darwin got it right, with the caveats of the Modern Synthesis and some others like horizontal gene transfer (and consensus largely exists about those exceptions).

          Physicists agree that Newton got it right at familiar scales, and that Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics covers the rest save for some truly extreme environments.

          Chemists agree that the Periodic Table is a complete catalogue of all the elements up to whatever hundred-and-dozen they’ve managed to synthesize, and that nothing is less reactive than helium.

          But, as evidenced by that poll above, philosophers, the self-proclaimed experts on knowledge, can’t even achieve a simple plurality on the basic methodology of knowledge!

          And it’s not just this one question; it extends equally embarrassingly across the board, including all of the fields philosophers are supposed to specialize in. As I recall — and, I should note, I don’t have the study in front of me — the absolute best the philosophers were able to manage was a small majority (in the 60-something percent range) on the non-existence of “God.”

          There’s just no way to spin that abysmal state of affairs into something intellectually respectable, even if there are some noteworthy people who call themselves philosophers who do good academic work. After all, the fact that Lemaitre did revolutionarily groundbreaking work in cosmology doesn’t mean his Catholic theology has any bearing on reality.

          Which goes to my other point: the only other field that resembles philosophy is theology, where you get similar contention. How many gods? Salvation by faith or works? When does life begin? It’s no better and no worse there than in the philosophy department.

          Hope that clears things up.

          b&

          >

          • Tim Reichert
            Posted December 1, 2014 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

            That is all of the stuff I agree with you on. Philosophy has no convergence. This can be scientifically demonstrated. What can not be scientifically demonstrated is that philosophy is therefore useless. I am suggesting that the question “does philosophy’s lack of convergence make it useless?” is not scientifically provable and has no convergence so when you are making that statement, you are engaging in philosophy not science.

            I’m not trying to be adversarial here, I am honestly trying to understand this subject, and to form the correct opinion about it.

            • Posted December 2, 2014 at 9:15 am | Permalink

              Philosophy claims to be a way of understanding the world we live in.

              But the world we live in displays a remarkable degree of consistency. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this thread, α, the fine-structure constant, itself a composite of several other famous constants, is measurably identical to within the limits of all techniques used to date over spans of billions of years and out to distances of billions of light years.

              Physicists refer to these sorts of constancies as “symmetries,” and we find symmetry everywhere. Indeed, a not-bad definition of science would be the identification and understanding of patterns in nature.

              And these symmetries are everywhere. The Sun rises in the East. Apples fall from trees. Plants and animals reproduce after their own kind.

              If your understanding of the world is going to be accurate, it must display the same sorts of symmetries. In academia, that is recognized as the consensus of experts. There is a symmetry in astronomy that the Earth spins on its axis, and there is a consensus amongst astronomers to the fact of that symmetry. There is a symmetry in physics that gravitational acceleration near the Earth’s surface is about 10 m/s/s, and there is a consensus amongst physicists to the fact of that symmetry. There is a symmetry in biology that offspring share the overwhelming majority of their genetic material and thus morphology with their parents, and there is a consensus amongst biologists to the fact of that symmetry.

              It is therefore reasonable to conclude that, when no such consensus exists, it is either because there is no such symmetry or, if there is, nobody yet understands it.

              An because philosophers can’t achieve consensus on even the most basic aspects of their field, we can know, with overwhelming confidence, that either philosophers haven’t a clue what they’re talking about or they’re barking up the worng tree.

              I should again hasten to add: there most certainly are examples of people calling themselves, “philosophers,” who employ the scientific method in their work and convince enough of their scientist peers to achieve consensus, all whilst still calling themselves “philosophers” and their work “philosophy.” And there’s Francis Collins and Georges Lemaître and Ken Miller and a great many other religious scientists who also do (or did) fantastic science, in many cases for the greater glory of their gods and to better understand the creative work of those gods. Their work no more confirms the validity of their theologies than, say, Dan Dennet’s great work on Darwinism (etc.) confirms the validity of his philosophy (such as, in his particular case, his ideas of that greatest of incoherences, “free will”).

              What matters is not the banner under which the work is done, but the manner in which the work is done.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Tim Reichert
                Posted December 2, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                Are you suggesting that there is scientific convergence on the point that the lack of convergence in philosophy = uselessness?

                I am pointing out that there is obviously no such convergence on that point, not even close, so when you make that point you are engaging in philosophy not science. By your own standards you need to show convergence or it is not a scientific statement.

              • Posted December 2, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

                Are you suggesting that there is scientific convergence on the point that the lack of convergence in philosophy = uselessness?

                I’m quite certain I’ve indicated multiple times that I’m not claiming that there’s a consensus amongst scientists about philosophy.

                But permit me to turn it around.

                Why are you asking this question in the first place?

                You seem to expect that a physicist and a chemist and a biologist should be consulted about the academic quality of philosophy. If so…that’s simply not how science works. Indeed, aside from anthropologists or the like, I can’t think of any branch of science that would be interested in the question in the first place.

                Similarly, which scientists would you ask about the relevance and worth of theology, or the humanities, or the arts? And what would make you think those scientists were qualified to answer those questions?

                One very obvious way to approach the question would be to see how many science journals cite peer-reviewed philosophy. That’s a study that would be straightforward to perform, but I’m in no position to do so…but I think we all know the answer to that. Save for offhand remarks in introductions or colorful anecdotes or the like, I can’t for the life of me think of instances where you’re going to find a physicist citing Karl Marx, or a chemist citing Rene Descartes, or a biologist citing Thomas Aquinas. But you couldn’t begin to count the number of times that physicists have cited Albert Einstein, that chemists have cited Marie Curie, or biologists have cited Charles Darwin.

                The most you could hope for would be a work on math or logic or the like developed by somebody wearing a philosopher’s hat — but I’ve already repeatedly addressed the question of philosophers and theologians who do good science.

                You could, of course, do a similar examination to discover how many science journals cite theologians, or musicians, or even sanitation engineers. You’ll get similar results, I’m pretty sure, as you with philosophy: perhaps odd positive hits here and there, but nothing significant.

                The difference, of course, is that science, philosophy, and theology all purport to be useful ways of understanding the natural world. Not many musicians nor sanitation engineers make such claims, so nobody’s surprised that their disciplines don’t do much in that endeavor.

                But for philosophy to produce nothing useable of its own (because even the experts can’t agree on what is and isn’t useful) and for nobody else to find anything useful in it (because they don’t even bother looking there when then need answers)…well, that once again tells you that philosophy really is useless, despite its grandiose claims to be the ultimate source of all knowledge.

                b&

  31. Keith Cook or more
    Posted December 1, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Trying to find a meaning that encapsulates the whole is a cognitive process like status and we are insulted that we have no meaning.
    But add a god, presto, meaning! as for declaring science can is another pitfall of self delusion even when we know it is.
    We are not on a winning ticket to a all in one meaning, the only place were going is around the sun.

    • Keith Cook or more
      Posted December 3, 2014 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      somewhat belatedly, I have to add to conclude my comment,
      the quest to find a meaning to life is like saying natural selection has a goal in mind.
      Nether meaning or goal exist and a powerful illusion (looks and feels like design) underpins both.

  32. Dave
    Posted December 2, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    I agree that the suggestion that, “Wilson would be better off saying simply, ‘How do we scientifically explain humans and their behavior’?” I also agree that Wilson’s concept of “meaning” as history seems to be a unique one, but I think it is still possible to come to terms with him and it is a mistake not to try.

    If Wilson’s concept of “meaning” as “history” is one that equates the meaning of human existence equates with the impact of human existence so far, I would take the suggested revision a little further to, “How do we scientifically explain humans, their behavior, and their significance”?

    I understand this interpretation of meaning much in the same way I understood Carl Sagan when he said, “We are a way of the cosmos to know itself”. Defining an objective meaning in this context is probably as close to defining “the” meaning we may existentially get to.

    I also do not quite accept the charges of scientism from the excerpts provided. I have difficulty finding fault with any one of the statements given in the excerpt. Philosophy’s important contributions are its byproducts of insight, perspective, and better questions. However, it is a still a “conversation” resulting in many more inspiring questions than answers.

    Why does this criticism of Wilson seem to declare a state of NOMA between Science and Philosophy valid when it is now generally accepted that a state of NOMA between Science and religion is invalid. Sam Harris’, “The Moral Landscape”, is a very strong challenge against a state of NOMA between Science and Philosophy, specifically morality. Why is one labeled scientism and the other is not?

  33. tim reichert
    Posted December 2, 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Ben Goren for confirming that the statement “philosophy is useless” falls into the category of philosophy or theology, but certainly not science. This was my original point.

    • Posted December 2, 2014 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      No clue where you got that from me. I’ve provided hard evidence backing the fact of the uselessness of philosophy. The gods know philosophers certainly haven’t been able to establish the utility of their own field….

      b&

  34. Pablo
    Posted December 2, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    You say that the intrusion of science into philosophy is “unwarranted”. Is that reason enough to be against it? Why is this obsession to define boundaries between disciplines? The most likely reason is: to preserve niches. Wilson is right in pointing out that philosophy isn’t progressing and science do. That is hard empirical evidence. So do you agree or not?
    Also, arguing that “meaning” is “subjective” has no scientific meaning in itself. Science must search for objective knowledge (the most objetive it can).
    Can you or Pigliucci state one single argument of philosophy that can explain something better than science do? Not even in consciousness!

    Let’s make a prediction. Trends in every kind of knowledge will favor science over philosophy, and Pigliucci and friends will became more and more isolated. Fancy games with words will be overcome by new science discoveries. The bet is made: and argentine “alfajor”.

    Pablo Mira, Argentina.

  35. peepuk
    Posted December 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    quote from Alex Rosenberg defending usefullness of philosophy of science:

    Science is the most reliable route to knowledge of the nature of reality. But in our culture and in others, this claim is persistently challenged by those who embrace one or another religious or other nonscientific source that claims to provide real understanding. Evaluating these competing claims is crucial to individual well being—whose guidance should each of us accept? And it’s essential to the guidance of social policy—the design and improvement of institutions that make human life possible and rewarding. The philosophy of science addresses these questions about science’s claim to objectivity and its implicit denial that there are alternative routes to knowledge. I think that makes the subject indispensible to every thinking person.

    http://www.routledge.com/philosophy/articles/what_exactly_is_philosophy_of_science_and_why_does_it_matter/

    • Tim Harris
      Posted December 3, 2014 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

      Well found, peepuk! It reads rather better than the Atheist’s Guide. And there is this:

      ‘Feynman was a wag, and a great philosopher of science himself (check out The Nature of Physical Law, a work of pure philosophy; Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory has a lot of good philosophy of science in it too)…

      ‘Einstein famously made it clear that it was by reading philosophers of science like Leibniz and Berkeley that he was led to the special theory of relativity. More examples of the relevance of the philosophy of science to science are provided by the very fruitful interaction of evolutionary biologists and philosophers of biology working at the intersection of their two disciplines on the nature of Darwinian natural selection, the levels at which it operates, and its applicability outside its original domain—especially in the human sciences.’

      Perhaps our trumpeting Ben might like to address the issues that Rosenberg raises (he and everyone should read the whole thing) instead of playing games with definitions.

      Incidentally, Rosenberg mentions the Sokal case again, and, alas, Sokal’s splendid hoax seems to be the only criticism of ‘theory’ in the humanities that people in the sciences have heard of. Out of the top of my head, the historians E.P. Thompson & Richard Evans, the literary critic Peter Washington and the philosopher, novelist and neuro-scientist (to mention only three of his caps) Raymond Tallis have (among numbers of others in the humanities)all written telling criticisms of such ‘theory’.

      • peepuk
        Posted December 4, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        three points:

        A) philosophy can have real utility, but it cannot give us any reliable and objective knowledge.

        B) Does Jerry really think that other ‘spheres of inquiry’ give us the same reliable and objective knowledge as science does? If no, how can there ever be such thing as an ‘unwarranted intrusion of science into other spheres of inquiry’?
        Perhaps Jerry means unwelcome and not unwarranted. I do think Wilson makes some unwarranted claims, but not (the stable part of) science.

        C} I like this blog/website.


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] O. Wilson has a new book out, The Meaning of Human Existence, which I’ve mentioned briefly (I haven’t read it). Last year he published another book, The Social Conquest of Earth, which […]

%d bloggers like this: