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Can we please bury philosophy? It’s starting to smell.

September 30, 2013

           In the past few years a full-fledged bare-knuckles brawl seem to have broken out on the intertubes between science (mostly physics) and philosophy. There has been some simmering discontent  for the past few decades, exemplified by famous physicist Richard Feynman stating “philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Then the one and only Stephen Hawkings stated on page 1 of his book The Grand Design, “philosophy is dead”. And lastly Laurence Krauss, the author of A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, memorably described a philosopher who reviewed his book as “moronic”, and claimed that philosophy had not progressed in 2000 years.


          The degree of apoplexy and pushback from philosophers and their supporters has been impressive, and indeed led to Krauss half-heartedly apologizing for his statements. The sheer number and outraged tone of the philosophical-pushback posts gives the impression that the debate has been well and truly settled in philosophy’s favour. But when I reviewed several of posts, several factors in common struck me: firstly, they were long on invective and short on rational arguments, and secondly, what rational arguments they offered were vague and unconvincing, and thirdly, they played heavily on the traditional respect that people have for academic disciplines to imply that philosophy must have value. I agree that the physicists sneers towards philosophy may have juvenile and unfitting, but it was the scarcity of good defensive arguments that made me question if philosophy still has a role in the 21st century.


           Now, there are a lot of philosophers that I like. I still carry a copy of Stephen Law’s The Philosophy Gym when I go on a plane trip. I loved reading Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Just like in the fields of literature and politics, I believe that any discussion that builds on common human experiences to aid raising our consciousness has value. Additionally, a good idea or theory has value regardless of the it’s proponent’s background.


          Unfortunately philosophers have recently been trying to claim a place in scientific discussion that is not merited based on the accomplishments of their field. Like I said, an ideas value is independent of its field, but philosophers appear to trade on a presumed academic respect that other fields wouldn’t. Take, for example,  the kerfuffle over Laurence Krauss’s notion of nothing where several philosophers have criticized him for not using a definition coined by long-dead philosophers.  Let’s presume that Doctor of Literature stated “Dr Krauss’s definition of nothingness is incorrect because it is not the same as that used by Victor Hugo in the Les Miserables“. Just because a long-dead author had come up with a prior definition would not give that definition any special weight. However some philosophers, like Ed Feser, are claiming that Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s definitions of nothingness are given special weight, because….you know, philosophy is special.


          So I’m going to go over my objections to popular philosophers arguments that philosophy has a role in discussion of physical realities, specifically what nothing is. I’m not claiming that philosophy can’t be interesting, consciousness-raising or worth studying, but rather I’m arguing that it hasn’t earnt an automatic place at the intellectual table to sit alongside physics, chemistry, biology and so on. Each of those professions had to earn their own place at the table usually by producing well-tested theories that inarguably expand our understanding of the universe, in a way that philosophy hasn’t.


          Most of the arguments I present here I took from Massimo Pigliuccci and Ed Feser, two philosophers who responded to Krauss’s comments. Their arguments in defence of philosophy consist of apoplexy, taking philosophy to mean all rational thought, Courtier’s reply, philosophy as a scientific pillar, reduced gullibility and different standards.  If anyone knows of any other arguments in defence of philosophy, I would appreciate it if they could let me know.


Argument 1: Apoplexy


          Massimo Pigliucci starts his article by saying “I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch…” He then continues on in this vein for the first six paragraphs, continually building on the notion that, of course, philosophers should have the final say on what is intellectually sophisticated and how silly anyone would be to imply that philosophy is useless. These are really ad hominem arguments, where no particular argument defending philosophy is put forward, but instead constant  references to the silliness of physicists are made to imply that no defence is necessary.


          Of course most people accept that physicists are intellectually sophisticated. The discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle is not a feat that could be done by dummies. In contrast, I can’t think of any comparable advancement in philosophy in the past two centuries.


          Pigliucci then goes on to claim that Krauss does not understand what the business of philosophy is, and states that philosophical progress should not be judged by scientific standards. He goes on to say that theoretical physicists would resent having to defend the value of their work, and no-one but theoretical physicists read the papers written by theoretical physicists.


          Firstly, let me say that theoretical physicists have to defend the value of their work all the time, as do those in other disciplines. The vast majority of scientists have to compete for research grants by showing that their work has the potential to improve society. When I submitted a research proposal, I was told that it’s not enough to have an interesting idea, you also have to specify how it will change things for the average man on the street. Just about every scientist has to make an argument to the representatives of society (usually politicians who control the purse strings) every year as to why their research should continue. As far as I can gather, philosophy seems to be the exception to this, as simply submitting that other philosophers find your work interesting seems to be enough to continue employment.


          Secondly, of course people other than theoretical physicists read the papers written by physicists. Engineers, technicians, patent lawyers and even politicians read these papers. For crying out loud, even I, a cardiologist, have had to read dense physics journal articles as preparation for working out how cardiac MRI’s work. To say that only theoretical physicists read their own papers is just daft. On the other hand, I can’t think of any other disciplines that need to keep up with philosophical writings.


          As for Krauss not understanding the business of philosophy or the standards by which it should be judged, well this is an excellent chance for Pigliucci to inform us what those are. Except this article doesn’t. He just handwaves, assures us that there are these great standards and important business….but I guess we don’t need to know what they are. Why should physicists know about them if philosophers won’t come clean on what they are?





Argument 2: Philosophy encompasses all rational thought.


To say that philosophy hasn’t progressed in two thousand years is laughable. Freedom of speech, democracy, public education, science as empirical discipline based on “probing” as opposed to mere thinking – all of those are inventions of philosophers. Krauss couldn’t do what he does if philosophy hadn’t progressed – Dr Gregory Bassham, Chair and Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania


            In my experience, philosophy appears to be an elastic term in debates. When people wish to defend philosophy, they expand the definition so that nearly all rational inquiry becomes philosophy. This ignores the fact that these movements usually did not start as intellectual treatises, but as social justice movements by people looking to improve their lot in life. When the German citizens tore down the Berlin wall, was that an act of philosophy? It seems to define it as one is to expand the philosophy definition to an extent that everything becomes philosophy, and hence it ceases to be a useful term.


            However, if philosophy is used to identify an academic field that encompasses logical skills and education not found in other fields, then the progress is much less measurable. In the above quote, Dr Bassham credits philosophy with freedom of speech, democracy and public education. So which famous philosophical treatise gave birth to democracy? None that I’m aware of. Which prominent philosopher succeeded in making freedom of speech a reality? No names come to mind. Which philosophical movement paved the way for public education? None. Of course one could argue around this by claiming that Pericles, Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann were philosophers, but by using the definition of philosopher so loosely would mean that every man, woman, child and half of the world’s pets could be considered philosophers. By instead using an academic definition, such as one who received a post-graduate education specifically in skills and education not available from any discipline other than philosophy, the intellectual products of philosophy become much more meager.


          When people use the above argument, they are trying to say that because people without philosophical training used rational thought to make progress in the past, that people with specific post-graduate philosophical training should be deferred to and respected.  In fact it kind of infuriates me that philosophers would steal the credit for ideas and movements created by people with no interest in philosophy.


I’ll examine the next four arguments in the following post.


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  1. guymax permalink

    All good stuff. But you make I mistake, I think, by confusing philosophy as it is done with philosophy as it could be done. Yes, professional philosophy is a miserable mess and there’s been no progress for centuries. But philosophy does not have to be like this. The complaints should be aimed at philosophers, not philosophy. It’s not philosophy’s fault if the professors are no good at it. .

  2. Hi guymax. Thank you for your comment. Yeah, I agree that in general professional philosophers seem to be more interested in communicating with each other than the outside world. It could well be that philosophy has great potential. I just don’t think anyone’s tapped into that yet.

  3. guymax permalink

    I would say that it is just that you have not discovered the successful philosophers yet. There are many. For myself, I do not recognise any intractable philosophical problems. So let’s bury bad philosophy as soon as possible, but not the whole enterprise. It is certainly amazing that on the whole the most respected philosophers in the academic world are those that failed to solve any problems, but that is not to say they cannot be or have not been solved elsewhere. I feel strongly about this issue, but I won’t start ranting in your comments section.

  4. greg lopes permalink

    “In contrast, I can’t think of any comparable advancement in philosophy in the past two centuries.”

    —-Awe bull crap. There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Science can make atomic weapons but cannot say whether they should be used or not, or whether scientists should be responsible for the use and proliferation of the deadly fruits of their knowledge. Which leaves scientists open to the charge of being irresponsible, mercenary dupes.

    Before you write off philosophy, why not wait and see if the life on earth survives the “advances of science.” And if it doesn’t it won’t be because philosophers aren’t thinking about and warning about the excesses of science.

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