Does philosophy have value for science? A befuddled Bill Nye is unable to answer.

My dislike of the present incarnation of Bill Nye has been obvious on this site. Although I never watched him as “The Science Guy,” and thus am perfectly prepared to believe he was great at interesting kids in science, he’s never recovered from the loss of that show—and the attention it brought him.  Since shedding his carapace as The Science Guy, he’s been thrusting his mug everywhere, and his behavior has been embarrassing or unproductive, from his debate with Ken Ham, his views on evolution and GMOs (he was once against them, and then did a 180° turn)—even on how European Jews should act to reduce anti-Semitism. (See more posts here).  Perhaps the worst was his grandiosely named and (unfortunately) recently renewed Netflix show, “Bill Nye saves the world,” which often degenerated into incoherent babble about Ctrl-Leftism (see the segment in this post). Let’s face it: the man may once have been good for selling science to kids, but he’s now out of his depth, and remains underwater because of a burgeoning narcissism.

But perhaps even worse than his new show is this garbled three-minute video, posted on The Big Think, in which Nye considers whether scientists who dismiss philosophy as a “meaningless topic” are on the mark. I don’t even want to reprise how bad this video is: it’s a dog’s-breakast mishmash of different topics, and doesn’t really answer the question. It’s another embarrassment: he just throws together a bunch of assertions (one of which I agree with: science does tell us, I believe, about the nature of an objective reality); and Nye winds up looking like a befuddled old uncle.

Have a gander:

One of the main problems is that Nye concentrates solely on consciousness (without saying anything meaningful about it) and on how we know that our senses perceive reality (he does a better job here, but could have done far better than he did). He neglects a lot of interesting questions as well as the very real contributions philosophy has made to scientific thinking.

My own view is that philosophy is valuable in adjudicating questions about morality and politics, and has also contributed, though to a lesser degree, to the progress of science.  Since philosophy specializes in clear thinking and logic, and examining arguments through “thought experiments,” it’s helped clarify our thinking about moral issues (i.e., the trolley problem, abortion, our duty to those less fortunate), political issues (viz., Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women), and religious issues (I’ve long maintained that Plato’s Euthyphro argument is one of the best contributions of philosophy to thinking about God).

What about science? Well, some philosophers like Dan Dennett and Phil Kitcher have applied their professional skills to discussions of evolution and sociobiology, and have made very real contributions to scientists’ thinking about those issues. Indeed, both of those men have a strong scientific mindset, a mindset sufficient to criticize scientific ideas in a useful way. Their contributions aren’t all that different from the Gedankenexperiments made by Einstein and Niels Bohr, for instance, in their epic battle about the meaning of quantum mechanics. Philosophy plays a substantial role in interpreting quantum mechanics and other issues in modern physics, whether or not physicists like Lawrence Krauss admit it (he’s a big detractor of philosophy). Nye doesn’t touch on any of this; it’s above his pay grade.

I will claim that philosophy by itself cannot tell us anything new about nature. It can help us do that using its powers of logic and analysis, but ultimately it is science—reasoned and testable observations of nature that produce provisional “truth”—that must tell us about the nature of the cosmos. But that’s not philosophy’s bailiwick, for the field involves ways of thinking about problems, not telling us what’s real. And it’s none the worse for that.

Nye’s befuddlement about philosophy was just taken apart by Olivia Goldhill in piece in Quartz called “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” In the main Goldhill is right, and she’s also right that several scientists have dissed philosophy in a way that I consider unfair:

. . . Nye—arguably America’s favorite “edutainer”—is not the only popular scientist saying “meh” to the entire centuries-old discipline. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has claimed philosophy is not “a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world”; while theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “philosophy is dead.”

It’s shocking that such brilliant scientists could be quite so ignorant, but unfortunately their views on philosophy are not uncommon. Unlike many other academic subjects (mathematics and history, for example), where non-experts have some vague sense of the field’s practices, there seems to be widespread confusion about what philosophy entails.

First, though, you can’t throw Richard Dawkins in there with Krauss, Hawking, and Tyson, as he has outlined the contributions that philosophy has made to evolution. (He and Dennett are good friends.) In fact, I asked Richard that question in our recent confab in Washington, D.C. and he replied that philosophers like Dennett were valuable allies in understanding and promoting evolution.

I won’t get into Goldhill’s criticisms of Nye, as you can read them on Quartz. What I want to do here is simply show how, while properly criticizing Nye, Goldhill can’t stay away from dissing science at the same time, apparently feeling that philosophers must defend their turf. A few quotes from her piece:

The physicist behind the theory of relativity was also a philosopher of science and, as Hall points out, Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking.

I wouldn’t call that a “philosophical undertaking”. It was a scientific undertaking, tied closely to the laws of physics, and, unlike philosophy, Einstein’s concepts had to survive the test of empirical observation before they were accepted.  And there’s this:

Several philosophers have long argued that our senses are not a reliable means of evaluating reality, and such scientific discoveries support the idea that we should treat sensory information with a little skepticism.

Well, yes: a table consists mostly of empty space, and our intuitive notions about how matter behaves are violated by quantum mechanics.  But we know all that through our senses—just not our crude, unaided senses. How do we know that there’s no local realism? The possibility was worked out mathematically, but became “true” when it was finally tested empirically.  To speak plainly, there is nothing other than our senses, often extended with instruments, that can tell us what’s true about nature. Certainly revelation doesn’t do it!

And there’s this, too:

. . . in the video Nye mockingly expresses his confidence that the sun will come up tomorrow. Philosophers are confident of this too, but few feel certain that they can explain exactly what causes this daily phenomenon—or any event. The 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument that we don’t have a reasonable understanding of causation at all, but only presume cause and effect when two things have been observed as conjoined in the past, is notoriously difficult to refute. The problem underlies much of physics and is hardly insignificant.

Ummm. . . the sun “rises” every day because the Earth turns on its axis once a day, so that we’re turned away from the Sun at night and then exposed to it again the next morning. We have no evidence that the Earth’s rotation will stop or that the Sun will soon burn out, so yes, we can bet money on another sunrise. That is the explanation, Ms. Goldhill.  To say that we don’t know the answer because the sunrise and Earth’s rotation are coupled, a mere correlation, is ridiculous. Many notions of “causation” have a clear explanation—I’ve just given you one—but in some areas of science, and quantum mechanics is one, the notion of “causation” is meaningless. Is there a “cause” for a single atom in a lump of uranium suddenly decaying? Not that we know of.

In the end, both Nye and Goldhill miss the mark, though Nye misses it more widely. Goldhill seems wedded to a view of philosophy that includes an overweening importance for the practice of science, and that seems like turf defense. Her ending is this:

Philosophy is not for everyone, and many are perfectly happy to live their lives without trying to figure out what, exactly, Heidegger is saying. But for Nye to talk so condescendingly about the “cool questions” in philosophy suggests that he doesn’t know enough to dismiss it. Because philosophy is in fact incredibly useful for anyone interested in language, knowledge, morality—and science. And yeah, it is pretty cool.

I think philosophy has helped advance science, and I might recommend that a science grad student take a course in the philosophy of science, but not necessarily courses on philosophy in general. That time would be better spent, I think, in the lab. It’s debatable whether the progress of science would be significantly retarded had the academic discipline of philosophy never existed.

148 Comments

  1. colnago80
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    In addition to Tyson and Hawking, there is the infamous quotation attributed to Feynman: “philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds”.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately for Feynman, ornithology IS useful to birds!

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Feynman probably meant something like ornithology being not useful FOR birds, as in, birds don’t use ornithology, though they benefit from it, as you state, Jerry.

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          I’m not so sure. . . look at the video where he makes fun of people who insist on using the right names for birds.

          • Paul Dymnicki
            Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

            How is ornithology useful to birds?.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

              California condors were on the brink of extinction 30 years ago; now their numbers are increasing and populations are being reintroduced in the wild. I daresay ornithology had something to do with that.

      • Craw
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        No. Birds do not use ornithology, so it is not useful to them. That people know ornithology might well be beneficial to birds.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

          Some birds are pretty smart, and are alleged to have a rudimentary theory of mind. How can we be sure they don’t have a sort of folk ornithology that tracks the different behavior patterns of various predator and prey species?

          • Posted July 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

            Wasn’t there an experiment where a raven learned how to use cladistics by watching another raven use cladistics?

        • alexander
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

          In fact birds are quite good at distinguishing different species of birds and adapt their behaviour to them. My wife feeds birds on our balcony, and you see how birds interact with each other according to species. For example, doves tolerate sparrows and nightingales, but not crows, scaring them away by making themselves look big. And it is not only size that counts, sparrows join happily doves, but stay out of the way of crows. So birds have some rudimetary knowledge of ornithology (tongue in cheek).

          • alexander
            Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

            rudimentary of course

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

          Most people don’t use surgery either, but it’s useful to them when other people who know how to use it help them.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Makes me think of: Is theology useful to religion?

      I would say yes, even though most theology is perjured by hidebound introspection and circularity. There is a correlation between secularization of religion and it’s acceptance of theological inquiry.

      Islam, for example, has almost no formal theological studies. The Koran is absolute. Reform comes to those who think too much upon contradictions and hypocrisies.

      • alexander
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Well, philosophy is not useful to theology, on the contrary.

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Centuries ago Islam used to have religious and legal scholars who questioned/evaluated the Koran. See: Ijtihad.

        The Koran is not now in the form supposedly dictated by Allah to Mo. It has been modified and interpreted ever since, just as the Old and New Testaments have. And, virtually any, maybe all, other religious books.

        In re sensory perception of “reality”: A group of individuals witnessing any particular sequence of events will not see the “whole”, will each see different aspects and will perceive and posit different “realities”. It takes science, and communication of our separate “realities”, thought and testing, to develop some consensus of what’s “real”. As we know, even so, we still don’t all agree and any concept of “reality” can change over time.

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

          It has been modified and interpreted ever since, just as the Old and New Testaments have. And, virtually any, maybe all, other religious books.

          I think Dianetics is modern enough to remain original, including interpretations. The text of The Book of Mormon is original, but the LDS Church has certainly been tweaking doctrine — witness the recent admission of blacks to the priesthood, for example, as well as all the schisms over polygamy.

          Go back much further than that, and the evolution of religion becomes much more apparent.

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

  2. Alric
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    We need to make distinctions when discussing philosophy and philosophers. There are philosophers like Dennett and others that accept empirical facts, and that science is an effective tool to extract facts from nature.

    Other philosophers are embedded in postmodernism and do not accept that empirical facts exist. They have beliefs like consciousness continuously create the universe, and let’s not forget the theologian philosophers like Plantinga.

    My view is that the latter are for the most part irrelevant, if not regressive by creating confusion, and should be rightfully criticized.

    To be fair it appears most philosophers belong to the former category and we only hear a lot about the latter due to their popularity.

    • Kevin
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      The issue is more systemic that you suggest. Particular philosophy departments can and do vary wildly. Some are pragmatic. Some boast postmodernism, some only endorse symbolic systems and applications to artificial intelligence. Some focus exclusively on existentialism and still others on bioethics, etc.

      I was philosophy major and was lucky to break into science. I’ve seen quite a few philosophy majors trapped in idiocy and that is perplexing, because a good philosophy program should just teach people to be critical thinkers for life.

      • Alric
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

        My impression is that this is a problem that the field of philosophy in general has been unwilling to address.

      • alexander
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        When I was a science student in the Netherlands, at the state universities you couldn’t get a degree in philosophy without first getting a degree is a scientific field.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. There is a lot of good stuff in philosophy, but also a lot of bad stuff and simply misconceived stuff (even many academic philosophers will admit that).

      The reason is that philosophy lacks the “grounding” in empirical reality that science has, and lacking that it has no metric for sorting out the good stuff from the bad and misconceived.

      Thus philosophy is worthwhile, but really needs to be done in close conjunction with other disciplines that do have an empirical grounding.

      • darrelle
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        And to riff off of you, it seems that since philosophy “has no metric for sorting out the good stuff from the bad” you end up with generations of philosophers masticating bad ideas that might otherwise have long ago been discarded. You end up with lots of smart people talking very impressively about silly stuff. Basing careers on it, defining entire departments and schools of thought on it. It gets difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. I suppose that happens in the sciences as well, but to a much lesser (or should that be lower?) extent.

        Unlike others I don’t take this problem as evidence that philosophy is dead or of no use. And I don’t think the “if you are using any of the tools of science to any degree then you are doing science therefore philosophy is of no use, just do science,” argument is accurate. I do, though, think that philosophy is in the midst of a crisis caused by the demonstration by modern science of tools that are very successful in vetting ideas for usefulness. Some philosophers acknowledge that and incorporate it in their work and some don’t.

  3. Kevin
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Nye is aesthetically trapped in his engineering guise that he misses many opportunities to be creative. In the many interviews or shows I’ve seen, he is perilously close to revealing that he has his mind made up about reality and nothing will change that.

    I am glad that not just one myopic engineer, but armies of engineers and scientists are developing the first automated vehicles taking to the road.

    I’d be curious what Nye would think of the application of utilitarian and Rawlsian ethics applied to the Trolley problem when a Google van has to decide whether to run over him or take out a family of four.

  4. Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Since philosophy specializes in clear thinking and logic, and examining arguments through “thought experiments,” it’s helped clarify our thinking …

    One thing to add (which doesn’t conflict with anything you’ve said) is that it doesn’t make sense to draw a rigid distinction between “philosophy” and “science”. Yes, philosophy uses clear thinking, logic and thought experiments, but so does science.

    There are some who claim that philosophy does the “conceptual analysis” and suggest that science is then just about empirical data, but that’s not so since science is just as much about concepts as about empirical data, and does just as much conceptual analysis as philosophy.

    Thus areas of philosophy overlap with areas of science.

    To me it makes more sense to regard philosophy as a *style* of enquiry that adds to the overall ensemble of knowledge, in the same way that “making observations”, “theorising”, and “computational modelling” are all different *styles* of doing science.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Science is a branch of philosophy. It used to be called “natural philosophy”.

      My simplified mental model of the history of philosophy goes: lots of people talked about how they thought the world might work. Then some of them started testing their ideas against the actual world and this turned out to be such an amazingly successful thing to do that it really caught on.

    • ploubere
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking along the same lines. Forming a hypothesis is both science and philosophy, based on observation of how the world behaves. Where philosophy departs is when it attempts to assign value or impart meaning to events, or tries to connect unrelated events, mostly through semantics. Where science departs is by testing the hypothesis to see if it holds up.

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      This is what I’ve always said (well, since my first philosophy of science class with Mario Bunge, anyway).

      The only way philosophy and science are disjoint is if the philosophy is not science-friendly, and is in tension if parts of the philosophy are appropriate and parts not. Some contemporary metaphysics suffers from this: how many papers do I read (even now as an outside layman with the background) which are vitiated this way.

      “Twin earth” and all its industry would be clamped down if people thought carefully about condensation reactions!

  5. eric
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I’d say yes, parts of it are. Other parts are irrelevant. I doubt science will get much out of the philosophical study of Duns Scotus’ works, but I’d say things like Ethics and Logic contribute. And I’d say Philosophy of Science is similar to History, in that both fields track and monitor past mistakes/errors, past instances of bias, etc.

    Sure it’s true that the hard sciences don’t technically *need* any other field to do that, if we’re willing to do a good job of it ourselves. But at the same time we are often resource constrained (including time constrained). When an independent academic discipline cover those things, science benefits in two ways. First, that independence probably helps prevent our own historical biases from coming into play. And second, as long as Philosophy and History are doing those things, our classes can focus on teaching methodology, practice, theory, and core quantitative information.

    • eric
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Just a small addition, but my last point is somewhat analogous to the math and science relationship (though I’m not suggesting it’s as important as that). Does a good hard science education require calculus? Most do, yes. Could we teach the students the math they need to know in science classes? In theory, yes. Are we glad someone else does it instead? Does the fact that other departments cover this subject help science? Yes, and yes.

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        The interesting thing to me is how various fields teach “their math”.

        Philosophers study logic (even sometimes set theory) usually from their own and mathematicians sometimes wander in to do it with them. As an undergraduate I took one logic course from a philosopher of language and epistemology; another from a philosopher of biology. There were also times when the same courses were taught by philosophers of mathematics or the history of the philosophy of mathematics, as well as by “philosophical logicians” and (rarely) by someone who nominally had a chair in it (w/ metaphysics) but was a philosopher of science originally trained as a physicist and whose *wife* was a category theorist in the mathematics department.

        Physicists take calculus and algebra from the mathematicians, as do chemists and engineers. Psychologists seem to do some statistics from their own and sometimes also from mathematicians.

        The interesting corner case I found is that when I did a required “Waves and Modern Physics” course, the instructor deliberately taught some statistics as a way of making the radioactivity unit and others more “teachable” and portable. (I also encountered vector calculus for the first time in a course in electricity and magnetism, but that was unusual for that level.)

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      When an independent academic discipline cover those things [bias checking, etc], science benefits in two ways.

      I’m not so sure. If these are left to another field then science will take much less notice than if it undertakes such duties itself.

      Is it really sense to reply on another field for them? And, are there many actual examples of other fields supplying a corrective (as opposed to the corrective coming from within science)?

  6. Posted July 5, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Bill Nye is to science as Larry the Cable guy is to fiberoptic cable installation.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, his background is in engineering, stand-up comedy and entertainment. There’s no reason to look to him for an authoritative commentary on the nature of science.

  7. Barry Lyons
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    “Befuddled” is a good word for Nye. I want to like the guy (well, I don’t ACTIVELY dislike him) because he is on “our side”, but the man is not only befuddled (at times) but seems to desire the spotlight. He wants to “perform” and “entertain”. I find that annoying.

  8. William Stewart
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Two quotes:
    Philosopy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.
    Richard Feynman

    The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion-by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.
    Steven Weinberg

  9. Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    My opinion is that studying analytical philosophy, with its extreme emphasis on precise language, can prepare students to be better engineers or programmers. Specifically, it helps develop more organized and logical ways of speaking and thinking, more precise ways of communicating and documenting. Engineers are famous for their attention to detail, but infamous for their inattention to documenting and explaining their work. The most stellar overlaps between engineering and philosophy were Wittgenstein (trained as an engineer, massive impact on philosophy) and Shannon (studied some philosophy, applied it to invent the modern digital world). It would be hard to look at Shannon’s story and still argue that philosophy has nothing to contribute.

  10. Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I think the phrase “philosophy of science” encompasses more than one thing.

    On the one hand, there’s folks like Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper reflecting on how science is done in books like “THe Structure of Scientific Revolutions” and “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”.

    On the other hand, there’s folks trying to find the deeper meaning of modern scientific discoveries. Heisenberg wrote a book entitled “Philosophical problems of quantum physics” and this year there was an anthology of essays called “The Quantum World: Philosophical Debates on Quantum Physics”. Various books of quantum woo from the reasonable but (IMO) mistaken “Tao of Physics” to the execrable work of Deepak Chopra are less salutary examples in this field.

    More broadly, it seems that philosophy can both promote and impede scientific progress. In spite of woo-ish attempts to correlate the two, Heisenberg himself saw a lot of commonalities between quantum physics and Vedanta philosophy, and even claimed it helped him work out certain points in QM. However, for decades many died-in-the-wool neo-Kantian philosophers kept insisting that quantum physics MUST be wrong because it violated the Kantian analysis of causality which Mr. Kant regarded as a necessary presupposition of all thinking. There’s a famous philosopher (whose name escapes me now) with an undergrad major in physics who wrote an essay considered definitive that put this argument to rest.

  12. Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was an undergraduate biology major required to take certain electives, among them a course on the Philosophy of Science. I found it most useful and interesting but have to say it did not help me understand much else in discipline. Some of it seems to be little more than navel-gazing. That’s not to say I think it hasn’t value or that it’s unimportant. I wish I’d spent more time with it as this issue crops up from time to time and I can’t wrap my mind around it. That is to say, I am deeply suspect of my own opinion on philosophy.

  13. Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    So I am of the opinion that philosophy is twice over a victim. Once of its own success, in the same way vaccines are becoming a victim of their own success. It is the philosophy of science that *produced* the field of science in the first place. Why does science writ large rest on foundations of logic, reason, empiricism, and so on? Because of the philosophical inquiry that led to the arguments to value those aspects of inquiry above others (such as revelation or feeling or desire; it isn’t just self evidence that revelation is not a good way of finding out about the world but empiricism is: that is a philosophical argument). The problem is that much of these fundamental precepts have become (quite reasonably!) so deeply entrenched into the process of “science” that we forget the philosophy that went into developing that. Much how we now forget how horrible the diseases that vaccines prevent actually were.

    But that’s not to say that philosophy doesn’t still add to science – how do we define pseudoscience vs science? How do we set thresholds for significance in, say my field of the medical sciences? These are philosophical discussions, not so much scientific ones. Of course, like anything worthwhile philosophy should be informed and constrained by the empirical findings of science… which brings me to the second victimhood of philosophy…

    Any field is subject to the predations of shysters and soft-headed thinkers. The further away from the most basic, hard, empirical science the more room there is for such thinkers to make their mark. This is why there is “alternative” medicine in abundance but not so much “alternative” mechanical engineering. Philosophy, by its very nature is a field that can go very far astray and produce this post-modern nonsense* we all know and love to hate.

    But at it’s core philosophy is still incredibly useful, rigorous, and necessary. It just falls victims to the easy allure of softheaded thinking in ways that are not unique to the field but merely more extensive for the same reasons it is more possible in medical science than basic biology than chemistry than physics.

    But the most important point of all is that the video of Nye in reference here is old and he has since publicly made it known he has learned more and changed his mind. So I generally agree overall with the assessment of Nye here, but feel much less harshly about it for two reasons. The first is that I think he is still probably a net good in the current society we live in and he has shown repeatedly what I consider the most important trait someone could ask: the ability to change one’s mind with new evidence and publicly admit your error to boot. The former is an uncommon trait and the latter even less common.

    *A good friend of mine who is a lawyer and philosopher insists that actual post-modernism is not this “there is no objective truth” pabulum but a serious inquiry into how social structures and institutions of governance should be remodeled, remade, or even done away with in a world society that is “post-modern” as a moniker describing a stage of human civilization in the same way that “pre-industrial” does. I’ve been giving him examples of what we science types get told is “post-modern” and he sees that as little more than when someone shows me examples of so-called “alternative medicine” and claiming it is actual medicine.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      It is the philosophy of science that *produced* the field of science in the first place.

      I would rather say that “philosophy” and “science” were part of the same thing, back when it was called “natural philosophy”. I don’t think that science is the product of philosophy, so much as that the two enterprises split.

      Why does science writ large rest on foundations of logic, reason, empiricism, and so on? Because of the philosophical inquiry that led to the arguments to value those aspects of inquiry above others …

      Here I disagree. They didn’t first work out the philosophy of science, and then apply it. Rather, science came to dominate because it demonstrably worked, it produced technology that worked, and gave demonstrably better explanations than any alternative.

      Only after science had come to dominate did philosophers of science start to analyse science and think about why it worked.

      how do we define pseudoscience vs science? How do we set thresholds for significance in, say my field of the medical sciences? These are philosophical discussions, not so much scientific ones.

      Again I would disagree. Has anyone ever really taken notice of what philosophers say about what is science vs pseudoscience? Isn’t it rather scientists who get to pronounce on that?

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      How do we set thresholds for significance in, say my field of the medical sciences?

      Better yet, how do we understand causality in medicine? Judea Pearl’s analysis has had tremendous (positive) influence on medical and social sciences – and Pearl’s analysis grew out of David Lewis’s philosophizing on causality.

      This kinda goes back to Coel’s point, in reply 4, that it doesn’t make sense to draw a rigid distinction between “philosophy” and “science”.

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Better yet, how do we understand causality in medicine?

        By rationally analyzing the fruits of empirical observation, perhaps?

        As in, create a model of causality, see how well it works. Compare with another model of causality. Run with the least-worst you have, and be damned sure that your confidence in the model is no greater than is supportable by the analysis.

        Science, in other words.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      My despair has often been that someone writes as if they are going to analyze (say) how the social side of experimentation was invented in the 17th century and then they blather on about how this shows that “truth is constituted by the social” or something.

      In other words, there is sometimes (but be careful – sometimes the history and sociology is also wrong) “pomo stuff you can ignore”. I seem to remember that Bunge told me he first started encountering it this same way – and then the crazy stuff grew, and they used the history etc. to justify the radical conclusions (begging the question, usually, by not scrutinizing content of ideas), etc. but …

      Kitcher writes the same way – I was first exposed to his work via Brad Wray, then a lecturer at UBC, who was also sympathetic to the idea of (for example) the sociology of science as a *thing*, but found the content a bit crazy sometimes.

  14. ploubere
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I tried watching Nye’s new show but couldn’t take more than a few minutes of it. He just doesn’t have the ability to explain things clearly as does Tyson. He is unfortunately not the best spokesperson for science, although I appreciate his enthusiasm.

    • Harrison
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      IIRC Nye has no writing credits on his new show and is merely a talking head reciting a script written by others.

      I would be charitable and say he has some expertise and can explain things clearly if he wanted to, but his current aims are fame and branding, not genuine science communication.

  15. Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “. . .science does tell us about the nature of an objective reality”

    But doesn’t this presuppose that one has already answered a philosophical question—namely, whether there is such a thing as objective reality? Surely the distinction between objective and subjective reality, and how this plays out in fields such as aesthetics, is a philosophical one that science per se doesn’t address. Of course, if one believes a priori that there are no questions that science doesn’t or can’t address, then one will consider philosophy a pointless endeavor, but I’m not inclined to subscribe to this position.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      The concept of a fundamental reality is incoherent. There are an infinite number of possible fundamental realities, any of which can underlie any other. As Nye starts incoherently ranting in the video, you could be a brain in a vat, but that vat could be a subroutine in the Matrix, and so on.

      Nevertheless, there is a superbly consistent picture of a shared experience amongst all humans. Again as Nye rambles, if you drop a rock on your foot, you’ll feel pain. Build up enough of those observations in a consistent manner and you’ve got science.

      So, there’s no way to distinguish any of the conspiracy theories…plus, none of them are useful to act on, and most of them disadvantageous to act on. In stark contrast, science is consistent and independently verifiable and extremely useful.

      In other words, science bootstraps itself perfectly and self-consistently…but philosophy can’t even get out of the starting gate.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Depends on whether or not you mean historically or now. We now know lots of things that exist independent of humans and can study them, so realism is vindicated.

      As for Ben’s remarks, I am a pragmatist to one tiny degree in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind globally. It doesn’t *matter* until and unless there’s positive evidence. Until then, one can just run the inference to the best explanation on the theory of reference that shows (easily enough) that quantum chromodynamics is about quarks, and the day-to-day chemistry my father did is about compounds of carbon, and so on. All of which are transphenomenal.

    • peepuk
      Posted July 7, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      I think there is no deeper knowledge than what the knowledge science produces.

      In other words, on the nature of reality, we have no alternative methods to come up with better answers than the ones science gives us.

      Philosophy only creates fiction and has no way to find out whether their claims are true; you need science for that. In social life fiction is very important and useful, but it has its limitations.

      With science we can try go to a lower or higher level of explanation, but we will probably never know if we have all the answers.

      • alexander
        Posted July 7, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        “Philosophy only creates fiction and has no way to find out whether their claims are true; you need science for that. In social life fiction is very important and useful, but it has its limitations.”

        So Bertrand Russell wrote fiction??

        • peepuk
          Posted July 8, 2017 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          For a large part yes.

        • peepuk
          Posted July 8, 2017 at 8:47 am | Permalink

          Bertrand Russel would probably agree with me because he was also a proponent of the so called “Correspondence theory of truth”:

          “Bertrand Russell theorized that a statement, to be true, must have a structural isomorphism with the state of affairs in the world that makes it true. ”

          From “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_theory_of_truth”

          • alexander
            Posted July 8, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            “Bertrand Russell theorized that a statement, to be true, must have a structural isomorphism with the state of affairs in the world that makes it true. ”

            This state of affairs is simply the scientific method, as practiced by scientists. No fiction here.

            For example, the statement “there are black holes in the universe” is likely to be true because black holes have been observed indirectly, and the universe exists. But saying that “multiverses exist in or outside our universe” is much more questionable because there no observation of them (the observation of some phenomena that could indicate a phenomenon caused by the collission of two multiverses is still questionable. And scientists have no idea what could be outside our universe, so no mat where the cat can sit on.

            • peepuk
              Posted July 10, 2017 at 6:31 am | Permalink

              Mostly agree; the scientific research program tries to discover true patterns/regularities in this universe and has succeeded in discovering some of them.

              The correspondence theory of truth tells us that all our claims are fiction and only become true when they have a structural isomorphism with the state of affairs in the world.

              In this view truth is just a small subset of all the fiction in the world.

              • alexander
                Posted July 10, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

                Russell’s theory is about the “truth of statements,” that is, the question whether the correctnes of a statement can be verified or proven (within the limits of science). “The truth” is a religious concept, and the statement that “truth is just a small subset of all the fiction in the world” makes no sense. But we can say that any religious dogma (all of them are called by their supporters “the truth”) is a subset of fiction. The Bible is largely fiction, but Newton’s Principia is not. By definition fiction is an invention, or artistic creation, and although it can reflect or comment on real situations, it is not a form of reporting.

      • Posted July 7, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        “Philosophy only creates fiction and has no way to find out whether their claims are true; you need science for that. In social life fiction is very important and useful, but it has its limitations.”

        I tend to agree. Like literature, philosophy is more concerned with internal consistency than with external verification, which it can never arrive at to the degree that science does. Despite this acknowledge limitation, there are truths we can learn from both literature and philosophy that can be learned in no other way. Which of us, for example, could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? And in what other way could they have made us see the truths which they themselves saw, those differing and contradictory truths which seem nevertheless in some sense a single truth? I would never dis science as a way of knowing, but I balk at the proposition that it is our only way of arriving at truths about “the nature of reality.”

        • Posted July 7, 2017 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

          How do you know that what Shakespeare wrote is true, in whatever sense of the term you wish to use?

          …by making your own independent observations, of course, and comparing them with those of the Bard….

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

  16. Phil Rounds
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I like Bill Nye. As a science popularizer i think he does a decent job. His debating skills are perhaps a bit weak.I didn’t find his about-face on GMO’s at all troubling. He simply learned more facts and adjusted his convictions accordingly. Isn’t that what a scientist is supposed to do?

    Bill is a engineer with a good background in general science. I don’t think we should place too much responsibility on him when it comes to the fine details of any specific scientific discipline. Perhaps he’s recently been taking advantage of his celebrity status but i’d rather it be him than no one…..or Ken Ham! At least science is being presented to the masses, and right now that seems crucial.

    As far as philosophy and science are concerned, i’m with the scientists. Philosophy without science is just mindfraking.

  17. Jeff Rankin
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t Nye basically just an actor, playing a role? Why is he still such a goto-guy for science education?

  18. Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    First, Nye is an idiot, and this idiotic and incoherent video is a perfect example.

    As to the basic question…philosophically, science is a subset of philosophy; but a scientific analysis of philosophy will show the discipline as an whole to be utterly lacking in self-regulation.

    That is, philosophers just love to claim science as their own invention and to take all the credit for it, and the point to a time centuries ago when “natural philosophy” was the name of the game. Theologians, of course, go one step further, claiming philosophy itself (along with its subset of science) to be a subset of theology, all being towards the study of the greater glory of the creations of the gods.

    The problem with those grandiose claims is that, for every Daniel Dennett who’s done brilliant scientific analysis, there’s a William Lane Craig whose bullshit knows no bounds…and yet is unquestionably just as much as philosopher doing philosophy.

    Cheers,

    b&

  19. Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    First, Nye is an idiot, and this idiotic and incoherent video is a perfect example.

    As to the question…philosophically, science is a subset of philosophy; but a scientific analysis of philosophy will show the discipline as an whole to be utterly lacking in self-regulation.

    That is, philosophers just love to claim science as their own invention and to take all the credit for it, and the point to a time centuries ago when “natural philosophy” was the name of the game. Theologians, of course, go one step further, claiming philosophy itself (along with its subset of science) to be a subset of theology, all being towards the study of the greater glory of the creations of the gods.

    The problem with those grandiose claims is that, for every Daniel Dennett who’s done brilliant scientific analysis, there’s a William Lane Craig whose bullshit knows no bounds…and yet is unquestionably just as much as philosopher doing philosophy.

    Cheers,

    b&

  20. Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Since philosophy specializes in clear thinking and logic, etc etc..

    Its seems to me that philosophy specializes in clear thinking and logic without reference to any particular topic but once one learns a particular topic philosophy isn’t useful. This is because to be productive the clear thinking and logic are taken for granted. Most of the scientists I’ve come across can do good science without knowning the philosophical terms underpinning their work.

    The best analogy I can think of is this: To understand how a baseball moves you need to study Newtonian physics. But to be a great pitcher you dont need to study physics at all.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      But a pitcher who wants to improve his performance while decreasing his chance of injury would do well to take advice from an expert in biomechanics or physical therapy.

      Similarly, a scientist who wants to avoid the embarrassments of over-interpretation and faulty reasoning could profitably take advice from experts in clear thinking.

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Yes — but the problem is that, by any objective analysis, the discipline of philosophy is not a good source of experts in clear thinking.

        As I noted earlier, for every Daniel Dennett there’s a William Lane Craig. In stark contrast, Pons and Fleischman ruined their careers for breaches of academic integrity that make WLC seem like the LHC team in comparison.

        When bullshit such as WLC’s is as intolerable to the discipline of philosophy as Pons and Fleishman’s is to physics, I’ll reconsider the merits of the discipline.

        But I’m not holding my breath.

        Consider the Trolley Car bullshit…and compare with the scientific approach to such matters, as evidenced by industrial safety engineers, incident investigation boards, ethics oversight agencies, patient outcome surveys, and so on. The philosophy version is a sick joke that just rehashes the Milgram experiments that would be rejected with prejudice by psychology departments, but philosophers are somehow thrilled with….

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Harrison
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          I’ve seen your take on trolley cars, and I’m impressed by the extent to which you’ll go to deliberately fail to understand the whole thing.

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            Enlighten us.

            First summarize the Millgram experiments, and then identify the substantive difference between them and the standard presentation of the Trolley Car.

            Pro tip: ethics review boards don’t care about your intentions, what you have in mind as to what it’s supposed to mean; they care about the actual implementation and protocol.

            Cheers,

            b&

            >

          • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

            For what it is worth, I think Allen Wood (I’d have to check the reference) agrees that “trolley problems” don’t tell us much because they are *so* constrained.

            I remember as an undergraduate after reading Williams’ bit about the “shoot one Indian to appease a racist or he’ll shoot several Indians if you don’t” thought experiment thinking: Has Williams ever *ran* a RPG? If you want to figure out the moral intuitions of people, don’t railroad them into two categories which they didn’t invent themselves.

            Years later – and I still wonder sometimes – I realized there’s an interesting question about how “realistic” thought experiments in general are, especially considering we teach generations of students about ex falso quodlibet sequitur! (This came out of my misgivings with “Twin Earth”.)

            • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              Yes…the real answer to the Trolley “Problem” is to not fuck with critical industrial safety infrastructure in a crisis unless you’re qualified to do so (including being instructed by somebody authorized)…and to work closely with the incident investigators after the fact to help them figure out what went worng so as to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. And trust the mental health professional when she tells you that it wasn’t your fault, that you can’t blame yourself for finding yourself in an impossible situation not of your making.

              …but, no. Just like Milgram, the subjects are ordered by an authority (the philosopher) to make an unethical and quite possibly highly illegal (were it real) choice…and we learn anything from that other than that people have a depressing tendency to trust authority figures even when said figures aren’t deserving of trust?

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

        • Craw
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

          The Trolley Car Bullsit really is bullshit in its purified form. All “survey science” is bullshit. But the trolley car stuff has the added fact that Hauser was caught faking results. Sculpting his bullshit, as it were.

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        But learning the pitfalls of over-interpretation and faulty reasoning is part of the training to be a scientist. This is just clear thinking. Its not approached as some insight that come from philosophy.
        I can imagine a group of hunter-gatherers 60,000 years ago, and the older members teaching younger members not to ‘over-interpret’ tracking marks when following prey. This is just part of our cognitive toolkit. I think how and why we think and how we make mistakes is an interesting and useful study but this thread (or part of it) deals with concrete exmaples of how philosophy has aided science

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

          I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case that over-interpretation and faulty reasoning have been effectively banished from the scientific literature. So to the extent that guarding against them is part of the training, it’s clearly a lesson that some scientists have not fully taken on board. In that context it seems hubristic to tell philosophers “Thanks for the offer, but we got this covered.”

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            Well true, but in practice there are very few recent examples of philosophers having contributed to science by spotting faulty reasoning and over-interpretation.

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

            …and philosophers do have the ball on over-interpretation and faulty reasoning? And claims by philosophers to have the ball on over-interpretation and faulty thinking aren’t hubristic?

            Remind us. Which philosophers got the same treatment as Pons and Fleischman?

            Science is perfect, but it is self-correcting to a remarkable extent…and its remarkable claims are typically very carefully defined and backed by equally-remarkable evidence.

            b&

            >

            • darrelle
              Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

              Being familiar with your views on this, I think you forgot an important “n’t” near the beginning of that last sentence.

              • Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

                Ah…yes — sorry, and thanks! A perfect example of imperfection….

                b&

                >

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            I think you’d be hard pressed to make a case that over-interpretation and faulty reasoning have been effectively banished from the scientific literature.

            I wouldnt try to make that case. The question is whether it would be remedied by more training in pure philosophy.
            I’m open to the possibility that the philosophy of science has contributed to science. But in the many years that this discussion has been ongoing, not a single scientist (that I know of ) who is sympathetic to philosophy has come forward with a concrete example of how academic philosophy has contributed to their work.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

              If we measure contributions by literature citations, I bet we could find a few.

              Of course there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here. If scientists believe that they needn’t bother keeping up with reviews of their work by philosophers, then those reviews won’t have much impact on future work by those scientists. But that’s hardly a vindication of the scientists’ prejudice.

              • Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

                Physicists need a dozen years of post-high-school intensive training to get to the point that they know physics well enough to understand the subject to do research.

                What magic voodoo does philosophy have that philosophers can understand the subject well enough to spot the errors that physicists make?

                I’ll do you one better.

                I think we can agree that Daniel Dennett is an exemplary philosopher, somebody who’s made real contributions to human understanding.

                Do you think he could sketch out the Standard Model of Particle Physics from memory? If you gave him a 400-level physics exam with simple Feynman diagrams on it, would he be able to tell you which Feynman diagrams were valid and which had grievous errors?

                Sure, he could bone up on the subject, probably shockingly quickly. But he’s basically completely unqualified to grade an undergraduate physics exam — let alone do peer review on modern research.

                …and yet philosophy somehow gives philosophers magic tools to spot the problems that scientists are too blind to see themselves…?

                Please.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

                To fix an electrical problem on a houseboat, you hire an electrician, not a sailor. To fix a toilet in a restaurant, you hire a plumber, not a chef.

                To diagnose logical flaws in (say) a neuroscience paper, you should rationally prefer a logician over a neuroscientist. (And indeed Dennett has done quite a bit of this kind of work.)

                There may well be some neuroscientists who are decent logicians, but we have no reason to think their neuroscience training, however protracted, makes them better logicians than people who specialize in logic.

              • alexander
                Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

                “…and yet philosophy somehow gives philosophers magic tools to spot the problems that scientists are too blind to see themselves…?”

                No, of course not. But there are questions such like: do we accept that if the mathematics is “beatiful or elegant” we should accept this as justifying the idea of mulitverses, although we cannot falsify (Popper) this idea.

                “What to do about it? Physicists, philosophers and other scientists should hammer out a new narrative for the scientific method that can deal with the scope of modern physics.” is what two eminent physicists (George Ellis and Joe Silk) said in a letter published in Nature
                http://www.nature.com/news/scientific-method-defend-the-integrity-of-physics-1.16535

              • Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

                But there are questions such like: do we accept that if the mathematics is “beatiful or elegant” we should accept this as justifying the idea of mulitverses, although we cannot falsify (Popper) this idea.

                The beauty of an equation isn’t even remotely good enough reason to have confidence in a scientific proposition. Which is more beautiful or elegant: e = m * c^2 or e = m^2 * c or e * m = c?

                But there are proposals for ways of testing at least some multiverse theories — such as by looking for various patterns (or lack thereof) in the cosmic microwave background.

                Beyond that there’s the question of what to do when you reach the limits of your knowledge. The scientist will admit that we’ve reached that point, whereas the philosopher will insist that we must believe something, anything…

                …and that’s a point in the philosopher’s favor?

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • alexander
                Posted July 5, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

                “Beyond that there’s the question of what to do when you reach the limits of your knowledge. ”

                The problem is not the limits of knowledge (data), but the limits of (mathematical) theories.

                “The scientist will admit that we’ve reached that point, whereas the philosopher will insist that we must believe something, anything…”

                Most serious philosophers of science don’t say this (perhaps some postmodern ones and theologians). The problem is more in terms of should we go for string theory or for quantum gravity, two theoretical frameworks or constructions that don’t seem to get us anywhere (up to now). Should we look at new approaches, for example that of Gerard ‘t Hooft, who tries to find a classical (newtonian) basis for quantum theory?

              • Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

                The problem is not the limits of knowledge (data), but the limits of (mathematical) theories.

                …and how do you know that your mathematical theory is limited?

                By comparing it to experimental results and finding that your theory failed to correctly predict the outcome.

                The problem is more in terms of should we go for string theory or for quantum gravity, two theoretical frameworks or constructions that don’t seem to get us anywhere (up to now).

                If you ask the people working on the problem, the ones actually making headway…you’ll find that philosophy couldn’t be farther from their minds.

                Should we look at new approaches, for example that of Gerard ‘t Hooft, who tries to find a classical (newtonian) basis for quantum theory?

                We know that reality is fundamentally Quantum, not Classical. The goal isn’t to derive QM from Newton, but to derive Newton from QM. That Newton makes sense to us and QM doesn’t is purely an evolutionary artifact owing to us evolving in a meter-scale environment, as opposed to a nanometer-scale environment.

                …and, for what it’s worth, physicists like Sean Carrol are making great strides on quantum gravity by taking exactly that perspective. There’s good reason to suspect that time and space are the macroscopically-perceptible result of quantum-scale entanglement, with gravity naturally “falling out” of such an approach.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        a scientist who wants to avoid the embarrassments of over-interpretation and faulty reasoning could profitably take advice from experts in clear thinking.

        In general scientists are just as expert in clear thinking (which is not to say that they’re infallible, merely that philosophers tend to be as bad).

  21. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    To speak plainly, there is nothing other than our senses, often extended with instruments, that can tell us what’s true about nature.

    There is something other than our senses that tells us what’s true: reason and logical inference. Reason can’t do the job alone, of course; you need observations to reason from. But neither can observation do it alone; a chimp studying data from the Large Hadron Collider would come away none the wiser about the true nature of matter. Observations don’t become truths about nature until they’ve been understood — and that process of understanding involves applying the principles of philosophy.

    Speaking of the true nature of matter, permit me to indulge a pet peeve regarding “a table consists mostly of empty space”. This is, to put it charitably, a serious misrepresentation of what science tells us about matter, which is emphatically not tiny nuggets of unspecified “stuff” separated by empty space. Matter is made of fields, which permeate the space within an object. To say that solid matter is “mostly empty space” is to ignore the very “stuff” that gives it solidity.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Matter is made of fields, …

      Do we actually know that? How do we know that fields are ontological and not just instrumental?

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        We know that modern physics is far from complete. To pick obvious examples, we don’t know what dark matter nor dark energy is, and we lack a good theory of cosmogenesis. There’s also good reason to anticipate new discoveries from the LHC that will settle many controversies at the same time as it raises all sorts of mind-blowing new questions.

        All that writ…the physics of the everyday world is completely understood, and the Standard Model of Particle Physics is that understanding.

        Backing up a level, nobody here would question atomic theory, right? We’re all comfortable stating that water is a pair of hydrogen atoms electromagnetically coupled to an oxygen atom, right? You might not be entirely sure what’s going on inside of those atoms, but, at the atomic level (and on up) it’s all pretty clear and unquestionable, no?

        The Standard Model is the level below the atomic level. The electrons are fundamental; the nuclei are composite, made of up and down quarks bound with the particles associated with the nuclear forces. Our catalog of particles at that level is as complete as the Periodic Table.

        Part of the Standard Model is Quantum Mechanics — including all the funky stuff like the double-slit experiment. It’s as well understood as Newtonian Mechanics; nothing new to be learned at that level, either.

        And, in Quantum Mechanics…you don’t have particles, period. All you have is waves in various fields. You know how common it is to visualize gravity as a rubber sheet with bowling balls and golf balls rolling around on it? Same deal with everything else…only there aren’t any balls, just ball-less waves. (No balls in the gravity field, either.)

        Now…what are the fields made of?

        Nobody knows — not for sure, though every physicist has at least one favorite idea.

        But, just as you should be comfortable stating that water is H20, you should be comfortable stating that quarks are waves in the quark field.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

          Sorry Ben, but nothing there is an actual argument that fields are ontological. They could just be instrumental.

          What actually is a field? Well, it’s just maths, it’s just a set of numbers, a number for each location in space. So if you go for fields as ontological then you’re more or less saying that matter is made up of maths.

          Which is ok if you’re Max Tegmark, but a more mainstream opinion is that, at this level, we don’t really know what is ontological and what instrumental.

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            Your objection applies to any and all levels of abstraction and understanding. I doubt you’d complain similarly about an observation that objects in ballistic motion follow a parabolic path.

            Again, the notion that anything is “fundamental” in some absolute sense is incoherent. Let’s wave a magic wand and make your maths fundamental. How would you know that it’s not because it’s the result of a computer simulation?

            What we do observe are various patterns, and we can describe those patterns in various ways. Discovering the patterns can be challenging; look at how long humanity lived before we had identified the pattern of planetary orbits, for example. Description is another challenge; we first had to go through epicycles and Newton before Einsteinian Relativity.

            We also observe patterns within patterns. The patterns of the Standard Model “emerge” at an higher level as Atomic Theory, which, in turn “emerges” as chemistry, and biology, and sociology, and so on. Such emergence is another way of phrasing the observation that entropy is relatively low, as there are a number of radically different microscopic states with indistinguishable macroscopic states. We know entropy was remarkably low at the Big Bang, and that basically everything since can be understood as a consequence of that…but we don’t know why entropy was so low then.

            So…again: what’s fundamental? The water in the glass? The water molecules of which it’s made? The hydrogen and oxygen atoms? The quarks and electrons? The quark field and the electron field? The strings or supersymmetry or whatever that’s beyond the Standard Model?

            Only a fool or a philosopher — but I repeat myself — would consider the question of “ultimately fundamental” meaningful. Let alone suggest that we’ve actually found the Philosopher’s Stone from which all reality is formed!

            Cheers,

            b&

            >

          • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:58 am | Permalink

            There are *two* meanings of “field”, which are merrily conflated because one often uses a field in the sense of mathematics to represent the physics use.

            There’s actually a paper published in 1990 or so in _Philosophy of Science_ which goes through this.

            Are there field in the sense physics uses? It seems so – though they may not be continuous but “pebble like”, as Vic Stenger used to say informally.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps we don’t know, but it’s a more coherent ontology than the “nuggets plus empty space” ontology.

  22. Posted July 5, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Two names: Bertrand Russell and Mario Bunge. Food for thought…

  23. Posted July 5, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Not entirely off-topic: I can’t let this thread get by without citing a passage from one of my favorite writers, Randall Jarrell. In his novel Pictures from An Institution,” he’s describing Flo Whittaker, a church-going do-gooder who is perhaps the most repulsive character in the book: “After you had been with Flo you didn’t know what to do — honesty and sincerity began to seem to you a dreadful thing, and you even said to yourself, like a Greek philosopher having a nervous breakdown: ‘Is it right to be good?'”

  24. Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    First, though, you can’t throw Richard Dawkins in there with Krauss, Hawking, and Tyson, as he has outlined the contributions that philosophy has made to evolution.

    This is an error made by Nye and producers of the video. He was asked about Stephen Hawking and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It’s Nye who rephrases the question with Richard Dawkins.

    I find it dubious to approach the question with such name dropping anyway, for it doesn’t add anything and they might misrepresent what the people really said. They probably do, because Stephen Hawking was engaged in philosophical questions himself, and for example with Leonard Mlodinow coined a view “Model Dependent Realism”. I subscribe to this view, too, which has apparently many names and perhaps comes in different flavours.

    What Nye then says is ridiculous. Questions about reality aren’t about the “authentic”, or whether you touch, smell, hear “real” things. The question is about what it is, that we call “real”, in which ways it differs from our perceptions, and how we can know.

    He then makes a sidestep and runs off with the problem of induction, to make a case against philosophy, but that is ironically a classical philosophical problem!

  25. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I think philosophy is important for thinking through things and in this way, ethics. I think philosophy is needed to consider and solve big problems (like what to do about North Korea or how to stop the move toward totalitarianism). Ideas are important and thinking clearly about those ideas is essential.

    I don’t know why people think philosophy is there to tell us about the natural world. That’s like saying, “I don’t believe in exercise because it can’t help me choose a good pair of pants.

    • Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know why people think philosophy is there to tell us about the natural world.

      Well…what else is there beside the natural world?

      Another way of looking at it: what’s the difference between science (as broadly as Jerry construes it) and philosophy?

      I’ll bet you a cup of coffee / mug of beer / other suitable beverage that science already has everything good to be found in philosophy. The stuff science has that philosophy doesn’t is essential to good thinking, and the stuff philosophy has that science doesn’t is useless at best and too-often a serious problem. The philosophers doing good work (such as Daniel Dennett) are doing good science, but the philosophers not doing anything useful (like William Lane Craig) are still doing philosophy.

      Yet another perspective: science progresses, but philosophy is still stuck in antiquity. Philosophers, for example, love debating the ultimate nature and origins of reality…but they’re doing so in terms that Plato and Socrates would find familiar. Physicists, on the other hand, built the LHC and thus confirmed the Standard Model — whilst their astronomer counterparts built radio telescopes and confirmed the Big Bang.

      What philosopher is going to even have the remotest hope of shedding light on the SUSY question or suggesting an observatory model for detecting interaction with brane-style multiverses? And what can science-less philosophy offer that’s even vaguely as relevant to questions of the foundations and origins of reality?

      Cheers,

      b&

      >

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        There is the natural world and there is the human world developed on it. I see the legal system as using the thinking of philosophy. Science may inform decisions like “what is the best way to live” but philosophy provides the mechanism to think it through. Because scientist think clearly, it doesn’t mean they aren’t using philosophy to do so. Indeed, I think we are using philosophy on this site a lot, especially in this conversation.

        I don’t think philosophy is stuck in antiquity; trained ethicists sit on hospital panels making hard decisions all the time. Ethicists work in governments. No one would say their important contributions are ancient or scientific.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

          Oh and to answer your question:

          What philosopher is going to even have the remotest hope of shedding light on the SUSY question or suggesting an observatory model for detecting interaction with brane-style multiverses? And what can science-less philosophy offer that’s even vaguely as relevant to questions of the foundations and origins of reality?

          None of them. It’s not their area of focus. But they will tell you if it makes ethical sense to let a woman have an abortion, if a liver transplant should go to a cancer patient, if you should deny smokers operations, if laws are fair, if s politician should have the state pay for his vacation (that one’s for you Justin). These are things we need to know to exist in a human world of our own making and while we may use science to inform us (will the woman die without the abortion?) the mechanism of thinking rough these things come from the discipline of philosophy.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            Damn you autocorrect.

          • Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

            But don’t you want medical ethicists to be making objective observations (say, of patient outcome surveys) and rationally analyzing them (such as using statistical models to maximize the most effective use of limited resources).

            Transplants are a textbook example. We could make philosophical judgments about the relative value of a poor black baby’s life as opposed to a politician’s elderly mother…or we could develop (and constantly evaluate) an algorithm that did the best job it could at matching donor organs with recipients who’ll get the most use out of them.

            Of course, that comes with an implicit acknowledgement that there aren’t enough organs to go around, and somebody is going to die while waiting…but, there again, we want scientists doing research on alternatives to transplantation, not philosophers telling us how evil or good we are for the choices we’re forced to make.

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

              Yes I do want people to use the tools of science and math. I use them every day yet I’m not a scientist. Neither are ethicists.

              • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Ah — I think that’s where no small part of the disconnect is coming from.

                Jerry and I would agree that what you and the ethicists are doing is a perfect match for our definitions of science.

                I don’t have Jerry’s at hand, but mine is the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. That is, see what’s out there in as unbiased a way as you can manage, model the observations as faithfully as you know how, and hedge your bets within the error bars on the plot. For hard-and-narrow plots, like “The Sun rises in the East,” be equally firm in your belief; for others, like, “Dark matter is a fundamental particle yet to be detected,” be correspondingly wishy-washy. And, of course, collaboration and peer review are essential tools that feed into the quality of the error bars…your one study may have found a strong correlation, but that means little to the big picture until others can confirm it.

                I hope that’s an accurate description of how the ethicists work, and I’m reasonably confident it’s how you work…

                …and, if so, congratulations! You’re a scientist.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think it’s wise to see humans as separate from the natural world. Treat us as a distinct phenomenon, yes, of course — just as you’d analyze orbital mechanics differently from bacterial evolution. But the basic toolset to analyze humans and associated phenomenon should be no different from understanding anything else in the Cosmos.

          Ethicists would be a perfect example. Are they not doing science according to Jerry’s definition? What sort philosophy are they doing that doesn’t fit Jerry’s definition?

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

            I dont think it’s wise to see humans as separate from the natural world either and that’s why I never stated that. But the discipline of philosophy isn’t about the natural world. Just like philosophizing we are doing isn’t dealing with the natural world either even though we are part of it.

            • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:55 am | Permalink

              But that’s just it. If humans aren’t separate from the natural world but philosophy isn’t about the natural world…then philosophy isn’t about humans!?

              b&

              >

      • Posted July 5, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        “And what can science-less philosophy offer that’s even vaguely as relevant to questions of the foundations and origins of reality?”

        Philosophy asks important “why” questions, which, even though they can’t be answered with the tools of science, are nevertheless important. Science asks factual questions that are important even though they can’t be answered by the tools of philosophy. To borrow an example from the name of this blog, “Whether evolution is true” is a scientific question; “Why evolution is true” is a philosophical one.

        • Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

          Philosophy asks important “why” questions, which, even though they can’t be answered with the tools of science, are nevertheless important.

          Sorry, but we get the same bullshit from theologians and rightly dismiss it immediately with prejudice.

          Most “why” questions are really “how” or “what” or similar questions. “Why is the sky blue?” can lead one on a seemingly endless scientific quest that will include chemistry, stellar dynamics, blackbody radiation, atomic / quantum theory, physiology, color science, psychology, and even linguistics and ancient history (e.g. “wine-dark sea”).

          But, taken literally, they’re an open invitation to teleology. “The sky is blue because it’s Jesus’s favorite color.” And such questions have no reasonable answers.

          Take your own example, “Why is evolution true?” You could use Jerry’s book as a superlative example, which summarizes the evidence and reasoning — the science — that tells us how it is that we are confident that life on Earth evolved and (the modern synthesis of) Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is the best explanation for the mechanics that give rise to the origin of species.

          Or you could say that Evolution is true because it’s the tool the Jesus used to turn apes into humans.

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • Posted July 6, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            “science. . .tells us how it is that we are confident that life on Earth evolved.”

            Yes, but, as you’re smart enough to know, the question of why “we are confident” that evolution is true is a very different question from why it is true. You’re absolutely right, however, that the question is an “open invitation to teleology.” But this is a problem only if you’ve consigned teleology to the scrap heap of questions that have “no reasonable answers.” On the other hand, the fact that you’ll accept only reasonable answers suggests that you think reality is rational and coherent, a philosophical position that had its origins in teleologists such as Socrates and Aristotle rather than the materialists such as the Stoics and Epicureans.

            Further, not all scientists are as willing as you are to dismiss teleology “immediately with prejudice,” and philosophers would be pretty much out of business if they were to do so. The most basic philosophic questions—e.g., why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of life?—are unabashedly teleological. Nor, despite your eagerness to drag Jesus into the equation, are all philosophers who espouse teleology Christians or even theists. Thomas Nagel, for example, is an atheist who argues for what he calls “natural teleology” and is a far cry from charlatan ID defenders such as William Lane Craig. So if you’re going to ridicule teleology, you might try to keep straw-man Jesus out of it.

            Cheers,

            Gary

            • Posted July 7, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

              But this is a problem only if you’ve consigned teleology to the scrap heap of questions that have “no reasonable answers.”

              Teleology only makes sense in the context of the single most overwhelmingly debunked superstition, theology. Of course teleology is bunk.

              (This, obviously, excludes local phenomenon which we know are, within certain domains, reasonably described as purposeful. “The water is boiling because I want a cup of tea” is teleological and often the best answer. But there’s clearly no teleological explanation for, for example, rain — unless you’re trapped in a superstition that thinks rain gods are responsible for rain.)

              On the other hand, the fact that you’ll accept only reasonable answers suggests that you think reality is rational and coherent, a philosophical position

              Honestly, I don’t give a tinker’s damn what philosophical superstitions do and don’t align with various scientific positions.

              The fact of the matter is that reality is overwhelmingly demonstrated to be rational and coherent, as evidenced by the body of science itself. At least within the domains we’ve explored, it’s unquestionably rational and coherent, whether or not some other domains (including proposed underlying “more fundamental” ones) themselves are.

              I’m as confident of rational coherency of nature as I am that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow. It’s not exactly 100%, but there’re more nines in that confidence expression than I can count.

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

            • Diane G.
              Posted July 7, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

              “Philosophy asks important “why” questions, which, even though they can’t be answered with the tools of science, are nevertheless important. Science asks factual questions that are important even though they can’t be answered by the tools of philosophy.”

              I was going to point out how that matches the claims of theology word for word (just substitute “theology” for “philosophy”) but Ben got there first.

              Philosophy is the classic deepity; the parts that are true are exceedingly trivial, and when they’re extrapolated the way philosophers do, little more than groundless hypothesizing. Until capital P Philosophy (the stuff promulgated in academia) purges its own discipline of nonsense, the way science eventually does, I see no reason so take it seriously.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 7, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

                I’m not convinced bio-medical ethics are worthless since, like science, it works. But, also don’t feel like arguing about it anymore.

              • Posted July 7, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

                Diana, we’re not claiming that ethics is worthless — quite the contrary!

                We’re claiming that it’s science, not philosophy.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted July 7, 2017 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

                “We’re not claiming that ethics is worthless . . .We’re claiming that it’s science, not philosophy.”

                Anything that works is science.
                Bio-medical ethics works.
                Therefore bio-medical ethics is science.

                Oops! That’s logic, a branch of philosophy. Never mind!

              • Posted July 7, 2017 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

                No.

                Anything that comports with the definitions we use of science is science.

                You can find my definition more than once in this thread; I don’t have the patience to re-re-re-re-type it.

                If you disagree that ethics comports with my definition, that could be an interesting discussion. But your strawman is flaming stinky smoke, and that’s not especially interesting.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted July 8, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                “You can find my definition more than once in this thread. . . .”

                Trouble is, your definition hinges on what you call “objective observation.” Seems to me observation always entails a subject observing an object and is therefore by definition “subjective.” If by objective you mean without bias—well, good luck with that. What, exactly, makes observation “objective” in your schema?

              • Posted July 10, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                The idea behind objectivity is to recognize that you yourself are not the entirety and centre and subject and focus of reality, but instead are a tiny and insignificant and irrelevant part of it. And, so, you strive to rely as little as possible on your own perspective.

                If you can make many independent measurements and they all converge on the same picture, you can be much more confident that you’re basically okay. Such is the case with the basic outline of the story of the Earth and life on it…you get everything from microbiology to cosmology painting a consistent picture. But you don’t get a consistent picture from folk histories.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

                So, what we’re doing is always science. I think that stretches the meaning of science so far that it becomes meaningless. Science is an outgrowth of philosophy. So, BTW is atheism. I took exactly two philosophy courses in my life: Biomedical ethics and a course called Skepticism, Atheism, and Religious Faith. Those courses were not science courses, they were philosophy courses. Philosophy is not about the natural world – it’s about how humans interact with it.

              • Posted July 10, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                No, not everything we do is science. Art isn’t science, though you need science to do art well. Much of philosophy (such as the Trolley Problem) either isn’t science or is science as bad as Pons & Fleischman.

                What shouldn’t be surprising is that there’s a very strong correlation between good science and other good stuff in general. This isn’t science taking credit for the good things, but science working as it should: adapting to reality and refining itself to be ever more effective.

                And your last sentence…can only make sense if humans are separate from the natural world….

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 10, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                So you’re saying my course on Skepticism, Atheism and Religious Faith is a science course and should have been a science credit.

              • Posted July 10, 2017 at 10:47 am | Permalink

                I’m not the right one to tell academicians how to structure their courses of study — and I certainly don’t know what topics you covered and how in that class.

                But, an example. Jerry and I would agree that a (properly-done) high school automobile shop class is science (broadly construed), but that it wouldn’t be right to give you biology credit for it.

                Note that Jerry frequently uses plumbing as an example of a profession that is (perhaps counterintuitively) heavy on science. Plumbers have models of the systems they’re working with and have to evaluate and test and so on.

                b&

                >

  26. Posted July 5, 2017 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Goldhill says:

    Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking.

    Yes. Jerry says it was a *scientific* undertaking. Also yes. Science and philosophy overlap. (*Good* philosophy completely lies within science, in the broad sense of science that Jerry generally uses. Good philosophers know this. E.g., Quine.)

    • Steve Barnes
      Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Quite a contrast with Bertrand Russell’s opinion that philosophy is essentially the dealing of ideas about which scientific knowledge isn’t yet available. (Though he concedes the topic is open enough that others’ definitions vary.)

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        The mere fact that philosophers have divergent concepts of what philosophy is supposed to be should be awfully damning.

        I mean, scientists have their disagreements, sure, but there’s no question amongst, for example, biologists, geologists, physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists over any substantive details about the nature and history of the Earth or about what tools and techniques are best suited to verifying said knowledge.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

  27. Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    There is bad philosophy (Heidegger and the like) and good philosophy (analytic philosophy above all). This philosophy is not antiscience, nor antiscientific. When some scientists belittle it what we see is just ignorance. Some physicists belittling biologists, some biologists belittling social scientists whithout knowing what is social science and how is “forced” to work, etcetera: ignorance, arrogant ignorance.

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Thing is, for every philosopher who’ll tell you Heidegger is a bad philosopher, another will cite him as an authority.

      And that’s the fundamental problem.

      Philosophy has no standards by which to judge the quality of the work.

      In stark contrast, science uses the only ruler that makes sense: reality itself.

      Cheers,

      b&

      >

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        “Thing is, for every philosopher who’ll tell you Heidegger is a bad philosopher, another will cite him as an authority”. So what? Anything goes?

        “Philosophy has no standards by which to judge the quality of the work”. It does: Logic. And Logic can be put in relation to facts in many ways.

        You should read Mario Bunge.

        Cheers.

        • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

          Sorry, but logic would tell you that, for an example, a single electron cannot possibly be in two places at once. It’ll also tell you that you can’t get something from nothing, and that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

          But we know that none of that is actually true.

          How?

          Because we went and looked and found that reality doesn’t give a damn about logic, especially considering that “logic” is nothing but an human reification of evolutionarily instinctual heuristics that typically work well at meter scales.

          Here’s a great test. Pick your favorite inviolate logical principle. If you had a reliable observation that flatly contradicted your logic, would you hew to logic or observation?

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

          • Posted July 6, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

            You are replying to someone else…

            Your words: “Philosophy has no standards by which to judge the quality of the work”. I talked about Logic in response to those words. With Logic you can judge the philosophical (and analytic) quality of a work of philosophy.

            Your new comment seems to confuse “philosophy” and “science”. There can be tensions between some uses of Logic and some facts, but you can also apply Logic to facts, do logical analysis of data/facts, etc.

            Would you say the same about math?

            • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

              With Logic you can judge the philosophical (and analytic) quality of a work of philosophy.

              So? As I just pointed out, logic isn’t worthy of reification and is itself unreliable — in the extreme, as it turns out, as it fails as greatly as possible when it comes to nature at the most fundamental levels as we currently understand it. When push came to shove, empiricism beat logic and left it senseless on the floor.

              If your point is that philosophy has standards, but that the standards are worthless, color me unimpressed.

              Would you say the same about math?

              Math (like logic!) is a wonderful tool, incredibly powerful. It’s one of the best ways to build models we’ve managed to build. But you can make math be every bit as absurd as logic. That can be entertaining, and, as a semi-professional musician, I’m the last to discount the value of entertainment. But if your goal is to understand reality…well, again, when reality and anything else collides, the wise person goes with reality.

              Trivial example — before Einstein, the math said that Mercury’s orbit was faster than it was observed to be. Had we trusted math, we’d still blame Mercury’s orbit for being imperfect. But we trusted the observations and discovered that the math was worng. Fortunately enough, we were able to invent some new math that’s far superior to the old math…but what would you do if you couldn’t invent the right math? Claim that the observations weren’t real? Pick some math you did manage to invent and declare it real despite it not being accurate?

              Cheers,

              b&

              >

              • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

                I agree with you about math. I just wanted to see if you are consistent -some say what you say about Logic but are in love with math…

                The other point (the first one): you created and inconsistency, and an error, because of the use of “worthless”. Those standards are imperfect, not worthless. Science lacks perfection too…

                I´m pro-science, but refuse to accept the supposed truth of some attacks on all philosophy. It´s pretentious bullshit.

                And finally, you seem to think that science does not need thinking, which is…

              • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

                Since you misunderstand my position so profoundly as to think that I don’t think that science needs thinking, let’s start from the beginning.

                Jerry has a similar / equivalent definition of science broadly construed that I can sign on to but never quite remember. Mine is the apportioning of beliefs in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation. Look at the world as accurately as you can and try to make a model of whatever you’re looking at. How closely your model fits your observations is how much confidence you should have in your model. The more people agree that your model fits, the more confidence you should have that you haven’t missed something.

                Philosophy ultimately fails because it never closes the loop. It makes grandiose models about reality but does nothing to check to see how well the models fit reality. Those philosophers who do good work do so because they do close the loop…and, in so doing, wind up doing science.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Posted July 6, 2017 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                I´m not misunderstanding anything, you´re contradicting yourself in some points. Go and try to understand your own implications. And go read Bunge -or just more.

                Cheers.

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Philosophy *does* have a standard one can apply, if one is willing to use it. Heidegger *doesn’t*, so he’s a bad philosopher to that degree. (He’s also a charlatan and a Nazi apologist, but that’s another few steps in.)

        The standard is whether or not it generalizes and systematizes findings and principles from all other relevant fields.

        This is Bunge’s point, though generalized beyond science and technology to the arts, for example.

        • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          The great thing about standards is there’s so many to pick from.

          It’s a perennial problem in IT, and what damns philosophy.

          Science’s standard, again, is reality itself….

          Cheers,

          b&

          >

        • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          Yes, that´s another standard.
          I see you´re a fellow “bungean”…
          Best regards.

        • Posted July 6, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          There is an important point: philosophy can include or take into account scientific knowledge. Scientific philosophy -which is not the same as science itself.

  28. Posted July 5, 2017 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Anyone else notice that he immediately confused Stephen Hawking with Richard Dawkins?

  29. Posted July 6, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    It seems weird for the author to have brought up Hume’s thoughts on causality —
    interesting though they may be. A more apt observation with respect to Bill’s comments about the sun rising might be the so-called original problem of induction, which Hume popularized (though, I don’t think it originates with him). The basic conundrum is that one’s confidence in a proposition (e.g., that the sun will rise tomorrow), based on past experiences — even multitudinous past experiences — can never be 100%. And trying to get out of it by justifying using induction as a reliable way of knowing about the world is itself an instance of induction. So, in a sense, you’re trapped.

    Of course, what naively seems like a fatal flaw in the scientific method isn’t really of concern to the average scientist. Nor should it be, given that science isn’t merely inductive, but Bayesian. But, it’s still an interesting philosophical point to ponder, I think! As long as it doesn’t turn you into some kind of solipsist. :-O

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      And trying to get out of it by justifying using induction as a reliable way of knowing about the world is itself an instance of induction.

      That which you evaluate your model against is that which your model will tend towards best approximating. Science, which attempts to model reality, does better at modeling reality than anything else attempted to date. Philosophy is still trapped attempting to model personal preferences of idealized conceptions of how reality should behave — better understood as how reality would behave if the philosopher had anything to say about it.

      If you have a philosophical argument against such circularity, that’s your problem. Reality doesn’t give a damn about your philosophical objections, and it’ll be exactly what it is whether you like it or not or whether or not it makes sense to you.

      Cheers,

      b&

      >

      • Posted July 7, 2017 at 1:55 am | Permalink

        I agree. What I find useful about Philosophy Done Well (without intending to wade into the arguments happening elsewhere about how much of it is or isn’t) is that it can help to highlight important distinctions that many who lack good critical thinking skills fail to make — distinctions which subsequently factor into their reasoning about the world, in important ways.

        For instance, that last sentence of yours is, in part, a philosophical position. Of course, I’m sure you would say it’s derived from empirical observation, based on how well science has served us (and will undoubtedly continue to). And I’m totally on board with that. But I’ve watched people engage in similar reasoning, proclaiming their conclusions to be fundamentally deductive rather than inductive, and then going on to draw absurd conclusions thereafter. If they had a better hold on the difference, they would be better thinkers, and wouldn’t be so prone to absurdity. Understanding that there’s a categorical difference between having 100% certainty in a proposition, and having a high degree of certainty that’s nonetheless below 100%, I think only leads to a greater degree of intellectual humility, which I see as a good thing.

        ^_^

  30. H.R.G.
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    One of the better descriptions of the proper role of philosophy can be found in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
    “The task of philosophy is not to establish statements, but to clarify their meaning”.

  31. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    I see PCC(E)’s beef now. I get it. Warming : run-on sentence ahead :

    It’s worth noting that Nye, though – as PCC(E) either assumes or acknowledges – might have been a strong force for marketing science/reason to kids IN THE PAST – and on PBS – he NEVER shows up on PBS nowadays. I agree he appears to be thrusting his mug (very good imagery) into the scene elsewhere now, for some reason,… but never on PBS or to his original base.

    It might be worth looking at PBS Kids to get a flavor for what they do nowadays – it’s hard for hidebound adults to stomach the fun-drenched sugar coating of the shows, but the programming has value and it works. And despite what anyone says, the “fun” component is essential for the youngest age groups. I in fact learn things from the shows… I recommend Wild Kratts for WEIT readers, maybe Odd Squad.

    Going offr topic! AHHHH!

  32. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    As long as the subject is “science writ large”, philosophy is useful. It is, I take it – and even Krauss admits this – a juridical tool to make consistent, human interpreted rule sets. But if we want to look at practiced science I claim that there is a simple “science of philosophy”: test if it has been used in peer reviewed work. It is analogous to ask the religious “show me proof [that the emperor is not naked].”

    By that measure, the measure that science uses, both historical philosophy and – I agree, the turf defense of Goldhill – fails. As I understand it philosophy was like religion the sponsoring environment, influential but eventually left behind. In that sense one should understand Hawking I think: philosophy is as good as dead, for science.

    And seeing the many confusions that philosophy inject into science, I deem it may be more harmful than useful if used, so here I cannot at the moment agree with Jerry.

    Just some examples from here. Goldhill refers to a “provocative survey” [Amazon description] as “relevance”. She also claims there is philosophical causation instead of science causality, the latter an important relativistic process that quantum mechanics obey between states (causality of wavefunction). Relativity is a century old; really, Goldhill!? Goldhill goes on to claim that “quantum physics shows that an object can be in two places at the same time”, which it does not (but arguably it shows that entanglement is non-local).

    Combine that with the unwarranted “philosophism” of attempting to incorporate science by the solipsistic claim of having a useful “philosophy of science” – when the reverse is useful, see above – and I cannot see any evidence that philosophy is benevolent for science.

  33. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 6, 2017 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    By the way, the next article in my feed was a Big Think article reacting to Nye’s video: http://bigthink.com/ana-sandoiu/why-we-still-need-metaphysics

    Nothing to see there, it goes religious and argues that philosophy is another, non-scientific way to get “knowledge”. And argues, it looks to me, that philosophy is relevant because philosophy is relevant (proposes gaps such as “free will”).

    • Posted July 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      We need metaphysics (to help understand causation, for example) but not for religious reasons.

      I do wish more secular oriented thinkers would stop yielding metaphysics to the religious …

      • Posted July 6, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Physicists have a damned good handle on causation at almost but not all scales. It’s nothing like what philosophers tend to propose nor worry about.

        Short version…given any complete state of a system and the rules by which it operates, all other states of the system may, in principle, be derived. Obvious problems present, especially when attempting to model a system at lower resolution than the system itself — such as is, of necessity, the case when recursively modeling a system from within (as we ourselves do when we model the Cosmos).

        Beyond that, you’re looking at pattern matching; systems in a state matching this particular pattern are most likely to evolve into a state matching this other pattern. That evolution, of course, is, itself, another pattern…and the statement that such patterns exist is just another way of phrasing that there’s a condition of relatively low entropy.

        Cheers,

        b&

        >

        • Posted July 7, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

          That still leads to various open questions: like what the relata of the causal relation *are*. I’ve defended “events” since 2001 in my MA thesis, but there are those who think that states, properties, etc. are the correct answers to one or both of the places.


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