Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: Is Philosophy Dead?

One of Jen’s Quickie entries yesterday sparked a pretty good, although abbreviated discussion about  philosophy of science and philosophy in general. And I thought we might be able to flesh it out  little better by dedicating today’s Afternoon Inquisition to the subject.

Apparently, Stephen Hawking wrote that philosophy is dead, and he deems philosophy of science to be an obsolete pseudo-discipline.

Now, hardcore skepticism operates within the framework of empiricism, though some would argue there is room within skepticism to incorporate innate knowledge. And perhaps we should note that everyone who participates in a science or naturalist blog or online community can be labeled a philosopher of science on some level.

But what about the bigger picture? What about traditional philosophy? What about philosophy of science as a discipline?

Do you agree with Hawking? Is philosophy a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space? Why? Disagree? Why?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I’d say no. For one thing, what I enjoyed most about college philosophy class was the history of philosophy. How did people explain why we were here, what the world was like, who we were…

    Just as science struggled, and often got it wrong (and hopefully not so often still does), philosophy filled a need in humans for answers. People want to know, and that need has helped us grow and succeed. Philosophy lead to people treating each other better in some cases. I’ve heard physicists wax poetic about our small place in the universe and how lucky we are to be “alive” , in an attempt to make everyone appreciate being alive more. I’ve heard surgeons (mine own most recently) talk about why he became a surgeon and what it means to him, in most non-scientific terms. People are human, not machines, and that human element that is not always rational has helped us succeed as a species.

    Sort of like love, doesn’t make sense, it’s not always successful, but keeps on happening every day.

  2. As a philosophy major, I certainly don’t think philosophy is dead. In part it is important because it helps us to understand how to think. I also think it’s highly important because philosophy is the discipline in which we question knowledge, how we gain knowledge and where the basis of our knowledge is. As a skeptic, this is essential.
    I also think there are some essential disciplines of philosophy that science has barely brushed-aesthetics and ethics to name two. There are definitely elements of philosophy that have been overshadowed by science, but keep in mind that ancient versions of philosophy included what we now term as both philosophy and science. They complement each other.

  3. Is philosophy dead? No.

    Is the academic version of it often deliberately obscurantist, out of touch with modern empirical methods in fields from which it frequently draws inspiration (psychology, neuroscience, economics), and generally prone to feeding on itself and showing little relevance outside of academia? Yes, absolutely.

    There’s nothing wrong with any of that, per se. It’s not as though philosophy really needs to do anything other than provide useful ideas/systems/theories for other liberal arts types to use in their own wankcraft. One can derive insights from this process, even if the dominant paradigms tend to end up reducing every problem to the same or similar results.

    The only problem I have with philosophy and philosophy-type things is when they either start claiming unique access to the truth, or diluting everything to relativistic postmodernism. To me, it seems very hard to take seriously any truth claims made by a field that often derides empiricism as an “imposed Western narrative.”

  4. I’ll go with what Steve Novella said. It seems to me that while science is about human process and information, the value and requirement to prioritize the products of science require philosophy.


    Is the academic version of it often deliberately obscurantist, out of touch with modern empirical methods in fields from which it frequently draws inspiration (psychology, neuroscience, economics), and generally prone to feeding on itself and showing little relevance outside of academia? Yes, absolutely.

    Very much that.

  5. Of course philosophy is dead. Philosophy used to be ahead of science; now it’s lagging behind desperately trying to shoe-horn the findings of modern science into its nice little thought-packages. And failing. Miserably.

    And pointing to Dennett won’t do you much good. Dennett is more of a cognitive scientist than a philosopher. He starts with the evidence, you see, not with the concept. And that is something which is utterly foreign to philosophy.

    So as a means to “make sense” of empirical and scientific reality, yes, philosophy might have a role. But as a means to CREATE sense, which is what it’s been trying to do for two and a half millenia, it’s dead.

    It’s an Ex-discipline.

  6. Skepticism IS a philosophical position. It’s an epistemological viewpoint that makes fairly strong claims about what knowledge is and how we obtain it.

    I’m always confused when scientists and skeptics dismiss philosophy when their own positions rest on unquestioned philosophical assumptions.

    Not to say that all of philosophy is perfect, or that all philosophers are intellectually honest. But neither is science, and neither are all scientists.

  7. I would propose that any scientist with philosophical proclivities is going to be better at philosophy than someone who only studies philosophy. Philosophy of Science is an unnecessary discipline.

  8. I wouldn’t necessarily say that all philosophy is bunk; however, it does bother me when philosophers present some argument as “true” when the entire argument is based on logic, with no recourse to physical reality. I remain firmly convinced that a good philosopher could come up with an airtight argument as to why the sky must logically be red. But when you go outside and look up, it’s clearly blue. This is why I prefer science to philosophy – I prefer experimentation to semantic arguments.
    There’s a great line in one of Asimov’s books where two characters are discussing robots, and one says that they must be superior because robots are inherently logical. The other character corrects him by saying, “Robots are always logical, but they are not always reasonable.”
    Or, as Spock put it, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom…not the end.”

  9. Philosophy is far from dead. We have a poetry jam at my house once a month and people bring in all sorts of interesting ideas from Sufi to Suffragette. The ideas are still interesting and inspiring, and you can talk about them without converting.

  10. First off, I’m with Steve D. Whoa.

    Second, we, in this culture, need philosophy (depending on how, exactly you define philosophy) as an adjunct to science. Without it, ethics would be near impossible and we’d mostly be a fucking mess. Since I do science ethics, I’m kinda in favor of this…

  11. The one thing that bothered me most when reading Hawking’s The Grand Design is how he just said “philosophy is dead,” with no preamble or proof, as if the statement needed no explanation at all. Nearly everything else in the book was carefully constructed and introduced after pages of supporting information set up the reader for some of the more far-out theories in modern physics. The failure to back up his dismissal of philosophy really kind of stood out for me as a major flaw in an otherwise fascinating book.

  12. I think a little training in philosophy, logic and rhetoric are essential tools in the education of any thinking person, especially scientists. But let’s not overdo it, eh?

    Without philosophy majors, would we be in danger of running short of baristas? Are there really enough extra english majors to cover the shortfall?

  13. Yeah, I guess I am surprised to find so many people on a skeptical website dismissive of philosophy. There would be no skepticism, no logic, no scientific method, without philosophy. I think philosophy of science is dead in the sense that no one is paying attention to it anymore- at their own peril. I find this especially glaring in the social sciences- I got a BA in philosophy, and and MA in Anthropology- those archaeologists don’t know what to do with theory at all. They don’t even know how to distinguish social science from hard science. The questions social scientists ask- and the way they evaluate evidence- affects how we view important concepts such as culture. I wish philosophy of science were required for anyone whose research would be taken seriously.

  14. @genjokoan: Please… so long as there are journalism majors, there will be baristas aplenty.

    That said, yes, I think that there is still value in philosophical study. If nothing else, I would argue that it’s the best tool we have for examining ethics without resorting to religion (any “atheistic ethicist” is going to be neck deep in philosophical conundrums).

  15. I took an upper division “Philosophy of Biology” course in college (in the early 80’s). In addition to the usual “science vs creationism” issue — really being a non-issue, I found it a good examination of how scientists actually pursue their work. For example, an examination of scientific paradigm shifts is most interesting.

    Will it inform and change science?

    But it can be useful for understanding how science is actually done.

  16. I think that Hawking is pontificating outside his area of expertise.

    To do good science you need to know statistics, or rely on someone who does – otherwise you have no way to tell whether a theory you’re testing is consistent with your observations or to choose between alternative theories. If you know enough statistics, you realise that apparently simple concepts like significance tests rest on theoretical bases.

    There is more than one way to approach these – a ‘classical’ significance test may give you a different practical result from a Bayesian one. If you try to choose between these without at least some grounding in philosophy you’ll be doing so on a basis of prejudice rather than reason.

  17. @MadLogician: nailed it. Hawking is out of his field of expertise and is exhibiting the arrogance of ignorance.

    The problem is that we don’t know what we need to know. Are there still things to be discovered like Godel’s theorem.

    It isn’t that we need more crappy philosophers, we need more good philosophers.

  18. I had to take a few philosophy classes as an undergrad, but being at a Catholic university meant that everything we learned was based in religion – beauty can’t exist without God and the like. I have to say that they were some of the most interesting classes I’ve taken, despite the fact that I disagreed with every argument made. Also, the textbooks were published in the 50s.

    I have to say that I hope philosophy has advanced a bit since then, or that something exists beyond my own warped education. If not, I won’t necessarily be sad to see it go.

  19. Considering that those sound like medeival arguments, then yes, philosophy has come a long way since then.

  20. I recently encountered a professor who teaches philosophy of science. He was a guess speaker in an environment and natural resources class that I’m taking. We read a paper that he had published and discussed it with him. Unfortunately it was a total piece of bunk which has put me off of the entire subject. He compared an entomology case of horn flies adapting to avoid pesticide tags to a woman he knew who had “multiple chemical sensitivity” and concluded that maybe the people with MCS have evolved to avoid the toxins in our modern world. Never mind that MCS is not genetic, isn’t even generally accepted as a physical condition, and has absolutely no actual link to the real science of the flies. I don’t know much else about philosophy of science, but that was enough to make me genuinely angry.

  21. Do not conflate all of philosophy with metaphysics. Philosophy contains many disciplines that don’t make strictly scientific claims as metaphysics does–however untestable some of those claims may currently or forever be.

    Logic and epistemology are so central to what skepticism is. Without them we wouldn’t know how to construct a proper argument or recognize a flawed one. Nor could we discern what is a reasonable claim to knowledge; what can be known and how. Not all skeptics may formally know these things but any good one employs them regularly.

    While academia can be prone to the nonsense Lizzy talks about let’s not forget that heuristics like Ockham’s razor fall under the purvey of philosophy of science. One thing I do know is metaphysics would be worth a damn if more scientists were involved with it. After all, guys like Einstein and Bohr were engaging in it often and their disciplines were the better for it. Granted, much of those metaphysics either became physics or were tossed aside, but even some of those failed musing helped push the field. Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox anyone?

  22. Masters in Phil here. It is hard to know where to begin to try to defend philosophy, because the detractors here (well, more so in the last post about it) are showing that they have no clue what philosophy even is. Saying it’s dead, or that empiricism and science could exist without it, or that skepticism (a philosophy) is rooted in empiricism–these statements really don’t make much sense and drive home to me how poor a job philosophy professors do at teaching the subject matter.

    Guys, philosophy and science are both just inductive logic. Are you coming to a conclusion based on reasoning from what you already know? Great, you’re doing philosophy. Did you throw some experimentation in there? Now it’s science. Note how some disciplines that were once considered philosophy (most recently psychology) became science as soon as someone figured out ways to run experiments.

    You all philosophize all the time. I promise. So does Stephen Hawking. As Steve D pointed out, you can’t even engage in this argument without resorting to philosophy. “Philosophy is bunk” is a self-defeating position.

    Asking whether philosophy is dead is like asking whether mathematics is dead. It’s kind of a nonsensical question. You can ask whether math is the right tool to use for any given thing, and you can assert that mathematicians are lousy at what they do, but math is just math and will always just be math. Same with philosophy. Like math and science, philosophy is a type of logical reasoning. It’s a tool that’s there if you need it. How can it “die”?

    What’s really sad to me is that this generation of skeptics seems to have no notion of the roots of skepticism. The Amazing Randy didn’t invent it, I assure you. For those that haven’t already read it, go and read The Apology of Socrates. It’s not long. I dare you, as lovers of reason, to be unmoved by it.

  23. @Manitou: thank you for saying what i don’t seem to have the eloquence to say today. philosophy is the root of every discipline, and i think every discipline should have a ‘philosophy of’ course to start their training.

  24. Looking at the history of thought there are two things that have happened to philosophy:

    1) It has shrunk over time. Once philosophy encompassed everything, but now most bodies of thought are held by other disciplines.

    2) All the major progress seems to happen outside it. Philosophy does make gains, but in a very slow and uncertain way.

    These things could lead one to conclude that philosophy is a moribund discipline, but I think the real reason is that philosophy acts as an intellectual incubator. The hard problem are tossed around until someone comes up with a way of thinking about that thing in a rigorous and systematic way, at which point a new discipline is born.

  25. @Manitou:

    Why is it, every time I’ve ever heard anyone say anything that could remotely be viewed as disparaging about philosophy, some Philosophy major responds with, “Well, you just don’t understand philosophy?

    That’s quite a loophole you guys have for yourselves.

    I may be mistaken, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that the concept(s) of philosophy is dead. I’d wager we all know that we use the concept(s) all the time. We’re doing it here on this blog and in this thread. The way I read it is, the domain of Philosophy (with a capital P) has shrunk so much that an area of study devoted solely to it has become unnecessary, and Hawking apparently believes those laboring in that area of study are a waste of space.

    For the record, I think philosophy of science is an important endeavor. The introduction of the Bayesian model is a great recent example of how it can impact how we do science. But is philosophy of science worthy of being a standalone discipline or can the processes be taught in a 3-lecture series as part of a basic science class?

    I’m going with the 3-lecture lesson.

    And if you don’t agree with me, you just don’t understand me.

  26. I haven’t got a strong opinion on this, so my comments will sometimes favour one side, sometimes the other.

    ergoqed (and echoed by others) “Skepticism IS a philosophical position. It’s an epistemological viewpoint that makes fairly strong claims about what knowledge is and how we obtain it.”

    But this is all old news. Maybe philosophy has done its work, found all the important thoughts, and now is just pin-head-dancing-angel-counting because there is nothing left.

    Steve D: “Wait, can you discuss whether philosophy is dead without engaging in philosophy ? Whoa, dude…”

    I think it is extremely presumptuous to proclaim philosophy dead without having spent a significant time studying it. But, possibly, after such study maybe you would come to this conclusion. However, it can only ever be a minority position among philosophers – presumably, once convinced of this, they would quickly become ex-philosophers.

    (On the other hand, it doesn’t take much study of homeopathy to be able to declare that it is dead.)

    “I wouldn’t necessarily say that all philosophy is bunk; however, it does bother me when philosophers present some argument as “true” when the entire argument is based on logic, with no recourse to physical reality.”

    While not being a philosopher, I don’t think they do this. They may present such an argument as “valid”, which is different – that the conclusion follows from the premises. “True” would require both a valid argument and also true premises, and you need recourse to physical reality to test the truth of the premises.

    James K: “It has shrunk over time. Once philosophy encompassed everything, but now most bodies of thought are held by other disciplines.”

    Alternatively, you could say its children have grown up and moved out and are now living independent productive lives – but there may be more children yet to come.

    Finally: a distinguished scientist I’ve worked with once commented that as they near the end of their careers, there is a tendency for good scientists to transform themselves into bad philosophers. Whether this sentiment is true, and whether it applies to Hawking I leave as an exercise for the student.

  27. @Sam Ogden: It may seem kind of cheap to make this comparison, but I am going to do it anyway: People who intimate that we are living in a ‘post-philosophy’ world remind me very much of people who believe we live in a ‘post-patriarchy’. Saying that you don’t know enough about philosophy is not a ‘loophole’ but a fact, in the same way as saying that you don’t know enough about feminism. Science is wonderful, I truly love it, but all it gives us is data. That is all it can contribute. Data is entirely meaningless outside of a theoretical framework, and that can only come from philosophy. The idea that somehow science has outgrown a need for this I see as ridiculous and naive. As our knowledge about the world changes, our need for new theories about how to deal with that information will increase. I can’t understand the position that somehow we are so advanced that we don’t need any new theories- what a crazy idea!

  28. I am certainly no expert in philosophy, but I am tempted to side with Hawking. That is not because I can extract a covincing line of arguments from the excerpts of his book I read so far. But Jen’s Quickie entry linked to an article by Christopher Norris, claiming to defend philosophy – “sturdier” and “on principled grounds”. In my eyes, that attempt backfired.

    The essay talks at length about how philosophy of science provides the natural sciences with a framework to do good science: safeguarding against fallacies and theorising without heeding falsifiability, for example. That is all good and well, but that work appears to be completed: those principles are accepted and practised by scientists. But Norris fails to name open questions in philosophy which are of direct relevance to reseach in the natural sciences. Such a shortcoming in a “sturd[y] defence on principled grounds” raises a question: What is research in philosophy of science good for today?

    I suspect Hawking asked himself that question, came up as blank as Norris, and framed his conclusion accordingly.

  29. @Filias Cupio:

    Alternatively, you could say its children have grown up and moved out and are now living independent productive lives – but there may be more children yet to come.

    Yes, that’s my interpretation as well, sorry if that was unclear.

  30. It’s telling that the “pro” camp is arguing against a massive strawman (not a particularly surprising one either, given the galling arrogance associated with the discipline). We’re not clueless here, we (I assume) know that philosophy as a concept is important, and that every discipline has an underlying philosophy. But saying that everyone does philosophy all the time doesn’t really help your case. In fact, it bolsters the point that standalone philosophers might be an outdated concept. Someone studying the Philosophy of Science without studying a great deal of actual science is, in my opinion, massively wasting their time. I would imagine that this holds true for most disciplines.

    As has been stated in other comments, the domain of the philosopher has shrunk. I think it’s more reasonable now to expect experts in any discipline to have a decent understanding of the philosophy relevant to their discipline (and a bit of general philosophy). Motivated people already acheive this level of understanding through logic, inference, and study. I would imagine that Hawking is a better philosopher of science than anyone carrying a degree with that title.

    Overall, I think philosophy needs to be integrated more into other disciplines and studied alongside other subjects. Any undergraduate major should include a semesters worth of philosophy (general and specific to the topic) in the third or fourth year and Philosophy of “X” should be a graduate degree option for folks with an undergraduate degree in Subject X.

  31. @Sam Ogden: Sorry, but it’s true. Philosophy is very misunderstood. That’s more a fault of the educators than the educated, so I’m really not trying to attack the commentors here or trying to troll. I have years and years of academic study that backs up what I’m saying, but there’s really no way I can squeeze all of that into a comment on a blog. And on your end of things, there is really no reason why you should take some stranger’s word on the internet as gospel instead of relying on your own experience. So it is very frustrating to me. It’s like if you were arguing with someone who said, “Science is just another way of looking at things, no different than any other world view”. They are wrong in soooooo many ways, but where do you begin to argue with them, since it is obvious you won’t have many premises in common as a starting point? That’s how I feel about some of the comments here. I know that sounds condescending and insulting, and I really wish I was eloquent enough to put it another way, but, it’s true. You don’t understand philosophy.

    Anyone who thinks that philosophers are into post-modernism, relativism, or arguing about angels on the heads of pins is just plain unfamiliar with the discipline.

    Let me try it this way:

    Philosophy isn’t taught at all until college. In undergrad, what is called philosophy is really more history of philosophy. The field of philosophy doesn’t attract the best and the brightest (low prestige and no jobs in the field other than being a professor). In fact, the field of philosophy tends to weed out some of the best and brightest by inane adherence to “publish or perish” in a discipline where truly original ideas are few and far between, encouraging bullshitting (that’s a technical philosophical term). The numbers of philosophers are few, so their voice is really not heard. Their few numbers also mean that the best philosophers are not as bright as the best scientists, for the same reason that large countries like Russia and the US end up with better sports teams than Cuba and Finland. There are very, very few mainstream philosophers that write books for laymen (Can most of you name a living philosopher other than Daniel Dennett and Noam Chomsky?). Now… given all of that, isn’t it possible that you are judging something you know very little about?

  32. @mikerattlesnake: You know, in addition to being naturally good at philosophy of science, scientists are also very good at mathematics. They need to be, to analyze their data. Given that scientists are good at math, we really should just stop teaching math as a separate discipline, since mathematicians by themselves aren’t needed anymore.

  33. Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with your personality, but also who trains you.

    My favorite professor wove Scientific Philosophy through all his classes – part history lesson, part mental exercise. Our homework assignments from him were rarely anything but thought exercises, and my strat/sed final from him still gives me nightmares: Here’s a coastline, a current and a climate: what’s going to happen? (In a class of 15, only two of us came up with approximately the same scenario.) It wasn’t about being right, per se, but about thinking through all the possibilities and showing you you arrived at your chosen possibility.

    Indeed, you could get graded higher for showing thought processes that brought you to the wrong place, rather than by parroting the lecture verbatim. Granted, you had to stay after class or meet him later to discuss the factual errors in your thought process that led you to an incorrect conclusion. But he was more concerned with training us to think critically and communicate clearly, than to be absorbed in the the facts that could change next week with a new discovery.

    But there was one prof in the program who openly disdained this prof’s love of the scientific process. He was all about straight facts and figures, and didn’t encourage us to be overly curious. If he had taught more than one core class, I don’t know how my training would have looked. (And his class was universally loathed for how boring and pedantic it was by comparison.)

    All of which brings me back to @nenfea‘s comment:

    I also think there are some essential disciplines of philosophy that science has barely brushed -aesthetics and ethics to name two.

    The walls of my office are filled with a combination of art posters (cheap) and framed 19th century scientific illustrations (ungodly expensive). I think you don’t realize that many scientists have a rather substantial aesthetic sense – most mathematicians and physicists I know find beauty in so much of the world around them because of their training. And my love of the drawings on my wall is directly attributable not only to my general love of art, but my prof’s utter joy in the beauty of scientific illustration from a time when cameras were not available. (He actually gave us drawing assignments from “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” to enhance both our drawing and observational skills.)

    Not to mention that I know far more scientists who are respectful to the impact of their work on their community and humanity than those who aren’t. Because we understand that our actions have direct and lasting impact – our work isn’t a thought exercise.

    It’s just that the former type of scientists make for lousy press, so you rarely hear about them. And neither do they make for toothy object lessons for Philosophy majors.

  34. Mikerattlesnake #35:
    You are right about the strawman. Look at mikespeir #36 – with a nice illustration, too! All right, sorry: I’m joking.

    Manitou #37:
    As understandable as your exasperation may be, you are still arguing from a position of (your) authority. Does it not strike you as odd that you refer us to Sokrates in your inital post #27, when Sam’s inquiry deals with what Hawking says about philosophy of science today?
    If you are as knowledgeable as you say you are, then it should not be too hard for you to explain in a few words what today’s philosophical challenges are – without repeating the undisputed (generally and specifically in Sam’s inquiry) merits of the past.

  35. Oh, and by the way – if no one else thinks that it’s not !@#$%^&*ing hysterically subversive that the world’s most famous theoretical physicist and cosmologist is essentially bitching that he doesn’t have anyone around who is smart enough to play in his sandbox, then I don’t know what to think.

    He’s baiting the hook. He wants people to play with him at his level or above it, and if he has to taunt them into doing so, well, then that’s how he’s going to play it.

  36. @Manitou:

    I’m really not trying to attack the commentors here or trying to troll.

    Oh I know. I really didn’t mean to single you out. I appreciate your contribution here. It has been both well thought out and civil. It’s just that I have heard the “You don’t understand philosophy” (YDUP) quip from a number of people, and yours was just the nearest comment for me to cite.

    The thing is, I know I’m not the brightest person on the planet, but I studied philosophy in college. It was my minor. And maybe just having it as a minor isn’t enough for me to understand it fully. Maybe once it’s your major, or master, or PhD, the level of understanding is somehow exponential to that of a mere minor, or to a lowly science or liberal arts major.

    But in school, it struck me as odd (and I’m not referring to history of philosophy, but the actual ideas) that an entire discipline was devoted to relatively basic intellectual curiosities. When I was exposed to the existential questions for example, I couldn’t help thinking that the subject matter was the exact type of thing I had contemplated as a 7 year old boy, lying on my back in the grass, looking up at the sky. But then sadly, I realized that wasn’t what the discipline was built on at all. The discipline was built on arguing the excruciating minutia of every one of those ideas, whether existentialism, morality, politics, asthetics, and even logic.

    Turned off by that element of the discipline, I started looking for ways in which modern philosophical ideas were applied to anything, ANYTHING, other than the cigar circle conversation down at the local coffee shop. And I found that over the latter decades those applications were becoming rarer and rarer. So much so that I was a little pissed that I had paid for the philosophy courses at school.

    Now, I will say that I am a proponent of regularly examining questions of ethics, because I think ethics are a maleable construct, and one approach that works now may not work, or even apply, at some point down the road. They are revisable.

    But I still don’t see a need for any of it to be encompassed within a standalone discipline.

  37. @Manitou: so…. most philosophers are crap, there’s no useful work for philosophers to do, barely any new ideas come out of the study of philosophy on its own, most of the people who study it are stupid or lazy, and other people do it better….


    You just can’t tell us why. Maybe you should have majored in compelling arguments… or taken a class in it at least. Oh wait, isn’t that what a philosophy major is supposed to provide? See paragraph one, I guess.

    RE: math

    Mathematicians are useful. Statistics, theoretical physics, and probability are just three of the living fields/topics that require, primarily, knowledge of pure math.

  38. Question: Is the nature of debate of this thread whether or not discourse, rhetoric, and differing world-views have a place in science? Is this actually the discussion?
    Because, well:
    Philosophy- You’re Doing It.

  39. @Kai: I’m not trying to pull an argument from authority. I even said there was no reason for you to just take someone’s word on the internet. I think it is coming across as an argument from authority because I am not addressing the central issue–the value of philosophy of science–head on. That is purposeful. As I said, I don’t really think the common ground is there to have the debate.

    What I am trying to do is convince you that there might be more to it that you realize, to withhold judgment until you can investigate further. I’m trying to say that there the reasons philosophy gets a bad rap are due to bad PR, and if you look a little deeper you should find something of value.

    I don’t quite understand what you’re asking with your last paragraph. You want me to demonstrate the value of philosophy without reference to any of philosophy’s past successes? Why? Aren’t all of science’s successes in the past also? I’m reminded of the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the contributions of the Romans are discussed. Other than logic, empiricism, giving birth to science, tweaking and clarifying the scientific method, and being the uncredited source of new scientific hypotheses, what have the philosophers of science ever done for us? (That last part works better if you imagine it in a British accent.)

  40. @mikerattlesnake: Three things here:

    First of all, your paraphrasing of my position is very inaccurate. I do not believe those things.

    Secondly, philosophy is not about making compelling arguments and convincing the masses. You’re thinking of rhetoric.

    Thirdly, you are coming across as combative and rude. I don’t mind continuing this conversation if you keep a civil tone, but I have no intention of getting into an internet flame war.

  41. @Sam Ogden: Having taught and helped to teach undergrad philosophy, your story really saddens me, because it is a common experience. There is a very real disconnect between how philosophy is taught at the lower levels and how it is done at the upper levels, so a lot of minors and majors (rightfully) feel cheated by pursuing a discipline that isn’t what they thought it was. (I’m sure you know this, Sam, but for the non-majors/minors out there, the intro stuff is more history and humanities, and the upper stuff is more analytic nit-picking.)

    At the risk of sounding like a jackass again, I will assert that there is a big difference between an undergrad minor and grad school (though maybe not “exponentially” different). I don’t think this is unique to philosophy though. It is my understanding that there are many fields in which it is only at the graduate level where they start to really dig in to the meat of things, and where they start to really train you instead of just explain things to you. You probably got a taste of this if you had the chance to take any seminar level courses, especially if they were jointly undergrad/grad courses.

    As for the “excruciating minutia”–yeah, your criticism is really right on the money on this one. You won’t find me defending the discipline on this point. You ever notice how at a party when there are two people having a debate in a corner, their arguments get sillier as the night drags on? Because the one guy is coming up with a silly hypothetical counterexample meant to be a reductio ad absurdum of the third premise of the other guy’s argument that was posed in order to establish the starting point of the first argument that he had come up with. So, at 8:30 pm they were talking about women’s rights, but by midnight one of them is shouting, “You know damn well you would favor the railroad track with the brain in a jar over the zombie abortionists, stop being so obtuse!”–even though the conversation hasn’t changed topics. Well, that’s what philosophy journals can be like.

    That said, I have often had the wonderful experience of having my beliefs totally reversed by a well-reasoned argument that blew my own notions out of the water. It really is something to be a firm proponent of a position, then you crack open a book or attend a lecture, and the next thing you know you’re realizing you’ve been wrong all along and that the world is slightly more complex than you thought it was. That’s philosophy when it is done right, and to me that’s worth putting up with the excruciating minutia.

  42. I don’t think that was what Hawking was trying to say. I have the book in front of me as I write and even reading it again I think this is an allusion to Nietzsche. Nietzsche was saying that the ability to invoke god as creating a universal order was gone (replaced by science) and he believed this had consequences for morality. Hawking isn’t saying that philosophy is gone but that it has been supplanted by science (which in the book he clearly though implicitly sees as containing philosophy) when answering questions about the universe. It’s not a bad book, Hawking likes sting theory more than the evidence indicates he should but it’s still pretty good.

  43. Another point: If you have a look at Dr Novella’s comments you can see a philosopher in the comments explaining why physicists are wrong about the big bang. As a physicist we get this a lot, philosophers are very much like our creationists. It is quite common after a physics talk to have someone stand up and try to argue from philosophical grounds why quantum physics or relativity or our understanding of time is wrong. There was a talk given to the general public about the LHC last year at my university and in the q&a an audience member tried to argue using only logic that the higgs boson could not exist. That’s literally all I knew about philosophy before I started reading AC Graylings stuff, it’s that way for a lot of physicists. There is not a lot of love for philosophy in physics circles.

  44. Can anybody name any question in philosophy that has been raised, debated, investigated and resolved to the same degree that what drives the motions of the planets or how we inherit traits from our parents, or why some things glow in the dark, yadda yadda yadda, have.

    Science (what was once called “natural philosophy”) has only been around for between 400 and 500 years, and has given us answers.

    What answers has philosophy (what should now be called “unnatural philosophy”) given us, that aren’t still being debated, in the same time frame.

  45. @ferulebezel: Your premises here are incorrect. Science is itself a branch of philosophy- hence the name “natural philosophy”- and any advances in science can be seen as advances from philosophy. Science is a branch of philosophy that gathers evidence about the outside world and analyzes it. “Pure” philosophy is interested in more basic questions about the nature of reality and truth claims. These types of questions cannot be resolved in the same way as scientific questions can, as they do not deal as directly with material evidence. Philosophical questions are important, as they determine what we will do with the evidence we gather. You think taxonomies just jump out of nature? Or theories just spring out of physics? Philosophy is the basis of all knowledge, and is crucial for doing good science.

  46. @ferulebezel:

    “Can anybody name any question in philosophy that has been raised, debated, investigated and resolved to the same degree that what drives the motions of the planets or how we inherit traits from our parents, or why some things glow in the dark, yadda yadda yadda, have.”

    Yes: what drives the motion of the planets. Also: how we inherit traits from our parents.

    No, I’m not being either glib or flip. The idea that scientific questions are *not* philosophical questions is an error: scientific questions are those philosophical questions which can be answered within the framework of science.

    Explain to me, without reference to philosophy: what constitutes ‘evidence’? How does data ‘warrant’ a conclusion? When it is said that the data ‘underdetermines’ the hypothesis, without reference to philosophy, what is being said and why is it a problem?

    To proclaim the death of philosophy is to proclaim (loud and proud) one’s ignorance.

  47. @Manitou: Combative? Rude?

    Heaven forbid!

    You shouldn’t talk to someone like that! In fact, it’s probably not even worth coming up with a reasonable defense of your position to someone like that, since they’ve already proved that they’re wrong by being all ruuuuude and stuff. You had better find someone civilized to talk to!

    “That said, I have often had the wonderful experience of having my beliefs totally reversed by a well-reasoned argument”

    Ah, you must have been talking to a rhetorician.

  48. And I may have exaggerated slightly, but this is what you said:

    “The field of philosophy doesn’t attract the best and the brightest ”

    “the field of philosophy tends to weed out some of the best and brightest by inane adherence to “publish or perish””

    “truly original ideas are few and far between”

    “Their few numbers also mean that the best philosophers are not as bright as the best scientists”

    When the rest of your defense amounts to “This is awesome but I can’t tell you why (and you can’t know until you waste as much time and money on a philosophy degree as I did!)”,” the above points make a stronger case.

  49. @Manitou:
    Sorry for the late reply; I didn’t have time. I guess the discussion died out by now, but I consider it polite to reply nonetheless.

    I accept your reaffirmation that you don’t want to argue from authority. I still find it hard to reconcile with your line of reasoning, but I am not here to stick a label on you.

    What I can not accept is that you ask me to withhold judgement until I am knowledgeable enough to assess whether philosophy of science can contribute to the natural sciences today. You presented yourself as someone who knows this stuff, you should be able to name today’s challenges – if there are any. Tell me how your request is not a delay tactic. It makes me wonder whether Hawking is right – just as Christopher Norris’ piece did.

    My last paragraph was meant to illustrate this: Sam, Chasmosaur, and I ask what philosophy of science can contribute today – you provide a guy who has been dead for how long? Unless you use him to make the connection to today’s research, you only prove philosophy was alive once. Which is a prerequisite for dying.

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