Tag Archives: Monty Python

Hypocrisy, irrationality and wise words from Monty Python

I wonder how many others feel like me.

All the old sureties seem to have disappeared. Political words like “liberal” and “conservative” no longer mean what I thought they used to mean.

“Liberals” are attacking “freedom of speech” demonstrations. And those fighting for “freedom of speech” seem to be Nazis – if you can believe the media.

What next, are we going to see nighttime demonstrations of book burning by “anti-fascist liberals!”

How is one to think anymore. Or at least, to think independently and objectively and not simply adopting the slogans and group thought pushed down our throats by the media.

Even if all the wild claims being made by media and demonstrators are true – that those demonstrating for freedom of speech are “Nazis” “white supremacists,” or just outright “conservatives” – what happened to the old adage I was brought up with:

“I don’t for a minute accept what you say – but I will fight to the death for your right to say it!”

So in these days of confusion and lack of any reliable moral compass when it comes to understanding politics, I have had to turn to that one reliable source of guidance – Monty Python.

I have always enjoyed the “Galaxy Song” from “The Meaning of Life.” And more than ever I am finding solace in the last lines of that song:

“So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth!”

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The limits of philosophy

Or should I say – “The trouble with philosophy?”

Whatever. The title certainly makes a change from those like “The Limits of science.” How many times have I seen such titles on articles written by religious apologists, philosophers of religion, or even straight non-religious philosophers. These articles usually annoy me because they often set up a straw man – a claim that science has no limits – which no scientists is making.

So it’s nice to turn the tables for a change.

Monty Python’s Football – Philosophers often play for different teams

I often get criticised by philosophers, theologians, philosophers of religion and students of philosophy for making philosophical mistakes – or so they claim. I’ve been told that I should not write about the science of morality if I haven’t read and studied a long list of ancient, and not so ancient, philosophers. Commonly I am admonished for trying to determine an “ought from an is” – a violation of “Humes Law.” And I have been told that scientists should leave questions like origins of life and the universe, or the question of existence of supernatural beings, to philosophers. Such questions, they tell me, are outside the limits of science.

Oh yes, about now I also get accused of “scientism!”

Very often my reply to such criticisms is that there is no such thing as an accepted unified philosophical dogma. That the claims thrown at me come not from philosophy in general, but from a particular school of philosophy. There is “philosophy” and then there is “philosophy.” My critics should be up front and advance their claims as representative of their own philosophy, or the particular school of philosophy they adhere to, not as representative of philosophy in general.

“What do Philosophers Believe?

So I am pleased to see the on-line publication of the paper What Do Philosophers Believe? by David Bourget and David J. Chalmers. This study confirms that philosophers are indeed divided on a number of issues – they hold a range of beliefs which can influence their philosophical thoughts and positions. These beliefs are influenced by a range of demographic and social factors. And philosophers themselves often have a false opinion of the degree to which different beliefs are common in their professional community.

Sean Carroll, at What Do Philosophers Believe?, and Jerry Coyne at The consensus of philosophers, have commented briefly on the paper. Have a look at those articles, or the paper itself (download here), for a full list of beliefs and their degree of support among philosophers. But here are a few which seem relevant to debates I have had here. (Sorry about the briefness of the terms – that’s related to the nature of the survey):

1. A priori knowledge: yes 71.1%; no 18.4%; other 10.5%.

5. Epistemic justification: externalism 42.7%; internalism 26.4%; other 30.8%.

6. External world: non-skeptical realism 81.6%; skepticism 4.8%; idealism 4.3%; other 9.2%.

8. God: atheism 72.8%; theism 14.6%; other 12.6%.

10. Knowledge: empiricism 35.0%; rationalism 27.8%; other 37.2%.

15. Metaphilosophy: naturalism 49.8%; non-naturalism 25.9%; other 24.3%.

16. Mind: physicalism 56.5%; non-physicalism 27.1%; other 16.4%.

18. Moral motivation: internalism 34.9%; externalism 29.8%; other 35.3%.

20. Normative ethics: deontology 25.9%; consequentialism 23.6%; virtue ethics 18.2%; other 32.3%.

25. Science: scientific realism 75.1%; scientific anti-realism 11.6%; other 13.3%.

So I feel vindicated in answering my critics by pointing out the lack of consensus among philosophers on many issues. What right has a philosopher of religion to assure me their arguments against my statements are “philosophical” (and not just representative of a school of religious philosophy)? Similarly, why should I simply take on trust assurances that “philosophy” has a particular position on scientific realism, moral motivations or the nature of ethical norms?

There is “philosophy” and there is “philosophy.” If you wish to lecture me about philosophical positions at least be open about the philosophical school you are representing or adhere to.

No suprise at differences

Frankly, I am unsurprised at the lack of consensus among philosophers. It contrasts sharply with the situation in science – which on most matters has a high degree of consensus. OK, there are debates at the edges – and these can be intense. Remember the scene in “The Big Bang Theory” where a romantic alliance between two physicists broke up because one was aString Theorist while the other adhered to Loop Gravity“.  Just imagine the problems they would have raising their children!

Ben Goren commented at Jerry’s website on the poor philosophical consensus compared with science :

“Survey a bunch of scientists on comparable topics, and you’ll find overwhelming consensus that, for example: Evolution is true; Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are basically right on (and anything that replaces either is going to have to reduce to both at suitable scales); that the Earth’s surface moves in manners described by Plate Tectonics; and so on.

Yet these jokers are doing good just to get a slim majority that don’t think that we’re all literally outside of our brains.”

But while we should be aware of the different levels of confidence in philosophical and scientific knowledge this  does not show differences in personal capabilities between the two professions. The difference is exactly what we should expect from the different nature of the two subjects.

Philosophy could be said to be an “armchair” subject. Philosophers reason and think. They apply logic to hypothetical situations. Often scenarios which have no possible reality but are at least “logical possibilities” will get a lot of attention. It’s also not surprising that demographic and social factors can influence philosophical reasoning. Humans are just not very rational and their reasoning often suffers from ideolgical and social motivations.

Science is usually a very much “hands on” subject. Ideas are tested against reality. Scientists are just as irrational (or human) as anyone else – they also easily fall into the trap of motivated reasoning. But the final arbiter of ideas for science is reality itself. Experiments can be performed or observations made to check predictions of hypotheses.

Of course philosophy and science does merge at the edges. There is actually a field of experimental philosophy and good philosophers do pay attention to scientific knowledge. On the other hand some science cannot always be tested in practice – at least with the current technological limits. Some scientists seem to work more like philosophers – and some philosophers work more like scientists.

But let’s get away from the idea that logic or philosophy is the final arbiter of knowledge. That is taking philosophy beyond its limits.

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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.

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.

Continue reading

Using philosophy

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 emprirical evidence.

Continue reading