The problem with philosophy

First some light philosophical relief – Monty Python’s Football – before the serious issues

There has been a bit of a donnybrook recently over the science-philosophy conflict. (Dare we talk about a “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship?).

There is evidence of some accumulated antagonism on both sides. But this time the spark was some ungentlemanly comments made by Lawrence Krauss. Or perhaps the spark was the “scathing” New York Times review of his recent book (A Universe from Nothing) by David Albert (wearing his philosopher hat) – Albert’s comments were more sophisticated but nevertheless were hardly gentlemanly.

In an interview with Ross Anderson published in The Atlantic (Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?) Krauss referred to “moronic philosophers  that have written about my book” and made some general criticisms of philosophy, and especially the philosophy of science as it is practised. Have a look at the interview for the details.

Then other philosophers joined the battle. Massimo Pigluicci, never one to stay away from such a stoush, retaliated with Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex hinting that this conflict was a lot wider than individuals, a book and its review. I am not surprised – in general I enjoy Pigluicci’s writing but feel that he throws around criticisms of scientists, and words like “scientism”, far too liberally. He sank to Krauss’s level by describing him as a “brilliant (as a physicist) moron.” But he did deal with some of the mores substantive criticisms made by Krauss. Again, refer to his article for the details.

Justin Vacula made what I thought were more unemotional criticisms of Krauss’s comment in A response to Lawrence Krauss’ comments denigrating philosophy at American Atheists’ 2012 convention. And physicist Sean Carroll recently contributed some useful comments in his post at Cosmic Variance (see A Universe from Nothing?). Actually, I recommend Carroll’s book From Eternity to Here  which deals with similar issues to those in Krauss’s book.

Diversity in philosophy

So what are we to think, especially as both sides appeared to be generalising about the other? Is the “conflict model” of the science-philosophy relationship factual, or just a myth? Have they been fated to be in continual argument since they divided centuries ago?

I think yes and no. In the sense that some schools of philosophy seem inevitably bound to conflict with science, while other schools don’t. In a real sense philosophy as a discipline is far more diverse, or divided, than is science. When one is dealing with the real world, interacting with it, testing and validating one’s ideas and theories against reality, there is less room for long-lasting divisions. On the other hand philosophy can be practised by people from an armchair, never bothering to keep up with current scientific knowledge.

Let me quickly add I am not talking about all philosophers by any means. there are many who interact and cooperate with practising scientists. Who learn from science and develop their philosophy accordingly. There can be a very fruitful and practical relationship between scientists and philosophers.

I have had an interest in the philosophy of science since my student days and early on became aware of the existence of diverse philosophical schools.  This was brought home to me when a professor gave us a lecture on “THE philosophy of science” in a chemistry lecture. What he understood by the words was quite different to what I understood by them. Since then I have thought scientists have an inbuilt suspicion of philosophy. If only because they abhor the idea of imposition of ideological dogma on their research justified as “the philosophy of science.” We have seen it before, haven’t we?

So, being very much aware of this “problem of philosophy”* – 0f the existence of different trends, often with ideological tinges, I was relieved to see that Krauss actually apologised for his blanket criticisms of philosophy in his Scientific American columnThe Consolation of Philosophy.” This was subheaded “An update by the author of “A Universe from Nothing” on his thoughts, as a theoretical physicist, about the value of the discipline of philosophy.”

I like the way he finished the column:

“So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize.  I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.   To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

I agree with him.


* Before some of the philosophically-inclined take umbrage at my title “The problem of philosophy” please note I use it in the spirit of physicist Lee Smolin’s book title “The Trouble With Physics.” That was not dissing physics – far from it. He was discussing some issues within current physics and the  problems they create.

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5 responses to “The problem with philosophy

  1. That’s an apology? Does “learning about nature” include multiworlds, string theory, inflation, multiverses, blocktime, etc? Physicists take their presumptions for granted and when theory and observation don’t match, it just provides some theorist a career opportunity to patch the old theory, not question it.
    Yes, philosophy has become quite hidebound and nitpicky, but there is a quite a bit of wisdom of the ages, that physics, in all its youthful glory, has yet to learn. There are quite a few voices from the sidelines, not all of whom are cranks, who think current physics is having a bit of an epicycles moment.
    For example: http://freespace.virgin.net/ch.thompson1/People/CarverMead.htm

  2. Brodie, scientific speculation is an important part of learning about nature. And we don’t have to told about its limitations.

    But perhaps you could elaborate with specific examples: what is this “wisdom of the ages” which we have yet to learn in science?

    That’s an honest and serious question.

  3. Challenging Lazy Thinking

    Like bad science there is probably bad philosophy. Unfortunately for the latter it can easily disintegrate into circular arguments and wordplay, whereas science can set itself goals to test a postulation. It really grinds with me that the religious in particular use philosophy by association to prop up their claims, that the more words they use somehow equates to evidence.

    Fantastic Monty sketch by the way!

  4. One thing is certain, it has become progressively harder for all of us, including philosophers, to keep up with the stream of new empirical data about the real world.

  5. I enjoyed the Python sketch. I hadnt seen that one before

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