Philosophical problems

Here’s a post I wrote several years ago. OK, it’s a filler as I am out of town but still relevant – especially with the current philosophical arguments raving on here.

You must watch the Monty Python video.

I seem to have upset someone with my comment “bugger the ‘philosophy’” in a recent discussion. Of course I wasn’t trying to deny the value and role of philosophy – just the way it is sometimes used. My comment was meant in the same way that a previous Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger, commented “bugger the polsters” on election night 1993. He did so to underline that the pre-election polls were wrong – and this was shown by the election itself.

I am amazed at how often people will use ‘philosophical’ arguments to support unscientific positions, such as creationism/intelligent design. ‘Philosophical’ arguments also seem to play a central role in theology.

Philosophical and logical arguments have their place. In many ways mathematics can be seen as arguments by logic. The danger lies in using them as a substitute for real experience. Such arguments easily become divorced from reality and can then be used to justify conclusions which conflict with reality. In particular they give free reign to subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitment to conclusions.

I guess that is why some people prefer ‘philosophical’ and ‘logical’ arguments to consideration of empirical evidence.

Being subjective

Of course, everyone is prone to subjectivism. But objective reality is what keeps science honest. Ideas, hypotheses, theories and speculations are expected to be tested and validated by mapping against reality.

Philosophy and logic are used dishonestly when the discussion is just a game and participants grab at arguments to justify their preconceived positions, or to ‘shoot down’ opponents arguments. ‘You can’t even prove that you exist’ or ‘you can’t prove that you are not a brain in a vat’ arguments are just ways of avoiding the real evidence.

And there is always the way that words are used. Philosophical categories are usually not defined and very often participants will understand them differently. Consider words like ‘matter’, ‘materialism’, ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘naturalism.’ I often find that the meaning I would give to these words is different to what some others do. Without common meanings discussion becomes a bit irrelevant so I prefer to avoid such terms.

For example, we used to consider ‘matter’ in a mechanical way. As something with physical substance. That may have been useful a few hundred years ago but is not adequate for our current scientific knowledge. Consequently ‘matter’ today has a deeper meaning and use of the term in philosophical debate needs to accommodate this. But it very often doesn’t.

How often do we hear science being criticised as ‘materialist’ where ‘matter’ is assumed to be only something with physical substance. It’s a silly criticism because it is using these words in a very archaic way – matter’ today has a deeper meaning. When this deeper meaning is understood the ‘materialist’ criticism is not relevant to modern science as any simple consideration of the history of science will show.

Substituting logic for reality

Logical arguments are also often used in ways which don’t take into account modern knowledge. Consequently such arguments which may be true in their abstraction are used to justify conclusions about reality which may be completely wrong. For example conservation laws today are applied in a very different way to 150 years ago when nuclear transformations and the equivalence of mass and energy were not known. Similarly we often hear the 2nd law of thermodynamics being used inappropriately to ‘disprove’ evolution.

Even where ‘logical’ arguments are used honestly mistakes can be made by applying abstract principles to real life situations. Without empirical checking it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion. The abstract logic cannot be used as a ‘proof.’

I think Monty Python conveyed the problem of a philosophy divorced from reality in their video of the International Philosophers football game. It’s an old clip but an excellent one.

Philosophers’ football (3 min 47 sec)

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35 responses to “Philosophical problems

  1. Hi Ken, Philosophy, at least as regards science, is dead. See page 5, in effect the first page, of Hawking and Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics, they say.

    You say that there is a place for philosophy. I wonder where that place is. Is there any way of verifying, or for that matter, of falsifying a philosophical statement. Logic doesn’t help, it just provides a way to ensure that conclusions are consistent with premises. It does not talk to the correctness of the substance of the conclusions, or the premises. Is it likely that for every statement made by one philosopher there is a counter-statement made by another and no way of knowing which is right?

    Regards, Vance


  2. If you are trying to use logic and rhetoric to dismiss the entire academic discipline of philosophy, with its rich history and intrinsic links to science, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.


  3. Where did you get that from ropata? You can’t have read my post


  4. I agree with the sentiment Vance and Hawking’s statement. However I like to interpret his comment along the lines “the king is dead, long live the king.”

    Medieval philosophy/theology was banrupy and is dead despite theological attempts the re-present it. Science had to break away from that philosophy for the scientific revolution to occur. But some of philosophy has taken the lessons on board and is present in a useful form. This recognizes the importance of empirical evidence, testing and verification as well as logical reasoning.

    It is a scientific philosophy.

    The theologically inclined like to pretend that there is only one kind if philosophy and it is theirs. And it ignores evidence which enables them to capture the logic for their own ends.


  5. If you are trying to…

    Stop listening to the voices in your head.
    Focus on what is actually written down in front of you.
    You comment is addressing something that you made up out of whole cloth all by yourself.
    It has nothing to do with anything.


  6. “you can’t prove that you are not a brain in a vat”

    It’s true! You can’t show by any independant means that your not a brain in a vat. Should that bother you? No. You move on still believing that there is an external world and that it is rational to believe this (amazing I know) despite having no evidence or independant check that doesn’t aready presuppose the claim in question.


  7. David, assume the premise that you are a brain in a vat and then set out to change the world. You will soon have problems. Assume you exist in an objective reality and you will achieve what you want.

    This is another argument which gives naive philosophy and theology such a bad reputation. It’s a waste of time.

    That’s why I think there is so much value in Marx’s Feurbach theses.

    “Up until now philosophers have only tried to describe the world. The point however us to change it!” or something similar.


  8. Ken,
    Re: change the world, etc. That’s probably David’s point? This practical point is known apart from science.


  9. Bloody hell, you guys always ignore my provocative use of Marx’s theses!

    Wonder why?


  10. Well, interestingly, describing the world is not (at least not only) what philosophy does, but what science does. Philosophy also deals with prescribing how to change the world.


  11. Religionists love to use this word “prescribing” don’t they. Reminds me of my experience as a kid being terrorised by a religious women who was laying down a whole lot of “prescribing.” The word just turns me off now. I am old enough and ugly enough to work things out for myself. I don’t need anyone doing mu “prescribing” for me.

    Still. You continue to ignore the bait.


  12. I don’t know what bait you’re talking about – that quote could rather easily be taken as a dig to science, which really only describes.


  13. i.e. – “scientists have only tried to describe the world. The point however us to change it!”


  14. No, it was a comment on philosophy, specifically idealist philosophy, made by one of the great German materialist philosophers.

    I think it is extremely relevant to the modern philosophy of science. Fundamental in fact.


  15. It’s called epistemology Ken. I am assuming I’m a brain in a vat hooked up to the matrix. I’m trying to change the world, the world is changing. The program resembles the real world quite well. But then again I’m assuming what the real world is really like!

    The point is a standard epistemological one. There are things we believe even though we have no evidence for. Whats more, these beliefs are central to all our other beliefs.


  16. OK David, you think you are a brain in a vat. While I pity you for the restrictions this places on your life the responsibility is yours.

    Mind you, I don’t for one minute believe you really think that. But if you don’t and still declare you are making that assumption, does that not worry you?

    Because even though it is a deception it will place restrictions in your ability to achieve things in the real world.

    A clear example you could look at is this comment thread. You have achieved, in my perception, exactly nothing.


  17. Richard Christie

    The way I recall it is that you ran away from addressing the reasons I provided for the failure of the argument you presented.


  18. Richard Christie

    Whoops, comment above put in the wrong thread )-:


  19. Hi Ken

    Thanks for this. Where to start? You cover a lot of ground. By way of disclosure, I (a) am a theist and (b) come from a liberal arts background.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the following points in your post:
    -retreating to philosophy when doing science is frequently inappropriate and unhelpful (a crude example being “how do we really even know the litmus paper turned red and not blue?”)
    – it is not good to allow one’s prejudices to affect one’s approach to questions.
    – when making philosophical arguments it is possible to get too abstracted from “reality” and be affected by our prejudices.
    – we need to be very careful with language and make sure words are consistently applied to prevent fuzzy thinking (which, by the way, is a major tenet of the logic which you seem to criticise).

    However, I feel you haven’t adequately explained why philosophical arguments are inferior to scientific.

    You have suggested philosophical arguments can be “divorced from reality”, “justify conclusions which conflict with reality”, and “give free reign to subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitment to conclusions”.

    I unreservedly accept that all of these are possible features of a philosophical argument, but the answer is not to dismiss any philosophical argument on the basis that it is not scientific and therefore is not grounded in reality. The correct response is to address the specific flaws in the philosophical argument in philosophical terms.
    We agree that it is problematic to respond to a scientific claim with philosophy; it is equally problematic to respond to a philosophical claim with science (or specifically, by saying “this is not science therefore it is not valid”). Philosophy must be met with philosophy, not science.

    To go further, philosophy is a “higher order” discipline than science (and perhaps, you could say, “trumps” science) because it addresses the fundamental questions of existence and knowledge. All empirical scientists must (at least tacitly) consider how it is they know things. Students of philosophy need not know anything about empirical science (or football for that matter) to have a theory of knowledge.

    From what I can tell, this post originally came up in response to discussions on a prior post regarding Dawkins’ discussion of how we know the things we know. I don’t think you can really have a hope of answering that kind of question if you stick to science and “bugger the philosophy”. It doesn’t wash.

    In order to have more credibility you need to be less dismissive of philosophy and engage with it. Questions you seem to be concerned with like the existence or otherwise of a deity cannot be addressed without recourse to philosophy. Strictly speaking, the best a pure scientist can say is “there is no empirical evidence that would lead me to believe that there is a god”.

    If you dismiss the philosophy you run the risk of being just another forum for back-slapping disciples of scientism jesting at the ‘benighted’ non-scientists who can’t think themselves out of a box and believe in fairies and flying spaghetti monsters.

    By the by, familiarity with logic would also prevent you from committing logical fallacies such as:
    – begging the question by concluding scientific arguments are better than philosophical because philosophy is not grounded in reality (without explaining why the reality of science is to be preferred to the reality of philosophy);
    – ad hominem approaches like “I guess [subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitments are] why some people prefer ‘philosophical’ and ‘logical’ arguments”; and
    – conflating the use of sloppy language with subjectivism with philosophy per se.


  20. The correct response is to address the specific flaws in the philosophical argument in philosophical terms.
    We agree that it is problematic to respond to a scientific claim with philosophy; it is equally problematic to respond to a philosophical claim with science (or specifically, by saying “this is not science therefore it is not valid”). Philosophy must be met with philosophy, not science.

    Dale pumps fist. Ken mutters, “Bugger the philosophy” and posts link to prior post with that title. ;P


  21. Ricardo, I don’t know where you specifically disagree with me. Actually on specific points you do seem to be agreeing.

    What can you possibly mean by “Philosophy must be met with philosophy, not science”? Surely it’s a matter of using the appropriate methodology for the specific problem. Medieval philosophers had a lot to say about the universe and why the earth was at the centre. But their philosophy and theology was inappropriate. Observation, evidence and logical reasoning was required to give us the correct answer.

    We do have people today telling us that science should be excluded from some questions like the origin of the universe, life and human morality. But if these are issues related to reality, that effect the way the universe is, surely scientific methods are the appropriate ones.

    I don’t actually separate science and philosophy – these work together. But that can only happen with modern scientific philosophy. Medieval philosophy and theology which often make unsubstantiated claims about reality today can’t give reliable answers to questions about reality. Because they aren’t evidence based and don’t check their inferences against reality.

    So I am all for philosophy when it is integrated with reality and science. I am against philosophical pretensions and the reliance on medieval philosophic propositions and methods. They won’t get us anywhere – unless we can afford to waste time.

    At my age I can’t and won’t.


  22. Science relies on philosophy just as much as it relies on mathematics. Your assertion of an empirical so-called “reality” is more a feature of “medieval” thinking than the philosophy you decry (but fail to give an example). Such thinking cannot conceive of complex numbers or even negative numbers, and if you were consistent you should reject most of modern science on that basis. Electromagnetism, cosmology, QED, special relativity all rely on serious mathematical abstractions.


  23. Ropata, all I can do in the face of your irrelevant comment is reply to you as I did before (comment 3):

    “Where did you get that from ropata? You can’t have read my post.”


  24. I don’t believe I am a brain in a vat. I believe there is an external world and that I causally interact with it. I just don’t have any evidence that already presupposes the existence of an external world.

    Since you agree with me that it would be irrational to believe you or I are brains in vats, you yourself believe that we can hold beliefs that are rational without evidence. Our ‘other ways of knowing’ underpin our scientific ways of knowing. Science is still a slave to philosophy.


  25. Well I am pleased that you are aren’t completely away with the birds, David. Your talk about “other ways of knowing” suggest that you may be in the wrong thread as that was not an issue for this post. That of course was talking about “purpose” and how others are suggesting “other ways of knowing” purpose – like emotion and tradition.

    This “brain in a vat” is really a pointless diversion which doesn’t interest me. Especially as all our experience tells us that an assumption like that is completely wrong. And you agree because you call it “irrational.” Perhaps you should consider why.

    I guess you are just wishing to provoke with your comment “Science is still a slave to philosophy.” Having just debated the Galileo affair with some local theologians that phrase has a nasty connotation. After all, the church tried to make science a slave to their theology then. They ruled it not permissible to have a belief which conflicted with their interpretation of “holy scripture.”

    The reality is that modern scientific philosophy is very much integrated with modern science. Scientists are doing philosophy every working day – although most of them don’t realise it. And the really useful and insightful philosophers recognise the importance of good contact with, and understanding of, science.

    But we are no longer a slave to medieval philosophy which proclaimed truth was obtained from interpreting biblical text – not by interacting with reality.


  26. “This “brain in a vat” is really a pointless diversion which doesn’t interest me. Especially as all our experience tells us that an assumption like that is completely wrong. And you agree because you call it “irrational.” Perhaps you should consider why.”

    Oh, it would be much better if you could tell me why. Why exactly is a solipsist irrational? Find a way that doesn’t presuppose the existence of an objective world.

    “The reality is that modern scientific philosophy is very much integrated with modern science. Scientists are doing philosophy every working day – although most of them don’t realise it. And the really useful and insightful philosophers recognise the importance of good contact with, and understanding of, science.”

    I almost completely agree with you. They are doing philosophy and often in ignorance of the metaphysical import they inject into their theories. Philosophers of science bring this import to light.


  27. Well David, I have already told you I think discussions of solipsism are a waste of time and effort. They achieve nothing and never will achieve anything.

    I was aware of that as a student listening to such debates amongst first year philosophy students. I hope it is the sort of thing they grow out of.

    But if I recognized the problem then you have no hope of seducing me into such rubbish considering I have far less time svailable now and wish to spend it in a worthwhile way.

    Your talk about metaphysical import and the need for us to be disciplined by “philosophers of science” is a little suspicious.

    Who do you see as respectable philosohers of science at the moment?


  28. Michael “dawkins-makes-me-embarrassed-to-be-an-atheist” Ruse anyone? 🙂 (I’ve no idea how good a phil of sc he is, but couldn’t resist dropping the name)

    Ken, the brain-in-a-vat point is a very basic one, and you seem to be avoiding it. It DOES achieve something – namely that we ALL (except solipsists, of course!) believe solipsism is irrational and unreasonable and that it is not ‘science’ which supports this belief.


  29. Continuous and consistent experience of a fake world doesn’t prove it to be fake. Fake scientific experiments with fake results in a fake world won’t show the fake world to be fake.


  30. I agree, to be a solipsist is irrational and a clear waste of time. However, this discussion does raise the important epistemological point; namely, there are beliefs we hold which are foundational to our whole noetic structure; beliefs that are basic, rational, and cannot be verified or proved by sense experience. I’m afraid to say that philosophy students do not grow out of it. They become philosophy professors and teach classes on such things.

    Off the top of my head (some not so recent): Ned Hall, Max Black, D.H Mellor, Michael Redhead, the faculty of the philosophy of physics at oxford… Just have a look at the names that appear in philosophy of science journals and that will give you an indication of reputable philosophers of science.


  31. Sad to hear your information on such philosophical naivity, David.bOrofwssirs indeed! I am shocked at my tax money contributing to such rubbish.

    As far as the vat idea is concerned I think you have it wrong. It’s not a failure of our senses it’s a failure of our logic. Do your professors demonstrate this problem on a lab or do they use logic?

    There is no logical way of proving you are not a brain in a vat. That us why it is a problem in philosophy, not science.

    Yet you are convinced you are not a brain in a vat. Most people are. The few who accept that version of reality probably die early or are heavily medicated.

    Why should that be? Why should most if us not believe we are not a brain in a vat? You would think that because we can’t logically prove we aren’t many more people would have that belief.

    I think the facts indicate that we don’t decide these things by logic. Logic obviously has limits and can’t resolve such problems for us.

    Obviously there are other ways of knowing and we must be using them in cases like this.

    (Mind you our species didn’t evolve to be logical. Very few people use logic and those that claim they do are often telling porkies. We evolved to use other quite different ways of knowing),

    I am not familiar with the names you mention – should I be? Have they published books rather than journal papers? If so give us some titles. I am intrigued to see how they talk about “metaphysical assumptions” in science and what their attitude is to scientific methods we use today.


  32. Micheal Ruse, Dale. Yes he has some standing. You might remember I reviewed his recent book. Thought it gave a good history of the development of science but got bogged down in a mechanical metaphor. He avoided using the dreaded “materialism” word – would have liked him to do so and provide a definition.

    He explained well the need for science to break away from theology and philosophy but got all wushy washy in attempting to cover up a real basis for a science- religion conflict. Effectively taking and presenting a theist justification. Rather weird considering he is an atheist.

    However, I wondered if he is angling for a Templeton. And who would blame him. It’s worth a fortune for very little effort.

    However, I take from your comment your dropping of his name was more a tease, admitting you were not aware of his philosophy.

    But surely you must have people you see as reputable philosophers of science? If you have developed ideas in this area that implies some reading or study. Or are you just relying on theological presentations of that philosophy (as I am sure Matt and Glenn do)?

    Perhaps I should throw in names of philosophers of science I respect. Massimo Pigluicci is always good but I find some of his arguments betray philosophical arrogance. (He has participated in the accomadationist atheism debate – I don’t agree with his position but respect his willingness to apologize for some arrogant comments). I have always found Dennett good – very deep and convoluted in some of his arguments but I feel his heart is in the right place and he is always stimulating. And Alan Chalmers is excellent. He has a thorough analysis of scientific method and the history of a philosophy of science. Really enables one to put Kuhn and Popper into proper perspective. So often these are just dogmatically quoted for opportunist reasons.


  33. So in Ken’s world philosophy of science is the only useful form of philosophy possible? Forget about politics, ethics, or spirituality. It’s got to be in a scientific journal, other journals are a waste of tax money!


  34. Where did you get that from ropata?


  35. It’s a shame my comments are apparently inconvenient and misunderstood. In fact I have been responding to the thread of conversation the whole time. Maybe I should quote more.


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