Skepchick Quickies, 3.16


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. I spent a lot of time in my life reading various philosophies, and actually minored in it back in school. As time has gone on, and my skepticism developed more, I’ve come to the conclusion that philosophy as a study is interesting, but not terribly productive. Though that may be an imprecise expression.

    So much of it seems to be simply a form of either science-lite, or frequently and more specifically psychology-lite that I feel little gain any more from indulging in reading it.

    This feeling of mine does not in any way reduce my enjoyment of I ? Huckabees, which somehow managed to encapsulate 20+ years of my own development into a single film.

    Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that continuing to pursue it as I once did is a waste of my time. I’d much rather be reading about real science.

  2. @Zapski:

    My experience exactly. Minor in Philosophy, etc. And this:

    So much of it seems to be simply a form of either science-lite, or frequently and more specifically psychology-lite that I feel little gain any more from indulging in reading it.

    You read my head.

  3. So one thing that annoys me is that both the article’s author and Hawking make the mistake of creating two non-overlapping groups, scientists and philosophers, when really if you actually study the philosophy of science it quickly becomes clear that some of the greatest philosophers were scientists in other fields such as physics, chemistry, etc. Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, etc all practiced as scientists.

    My grad program recently tried to discontinue their philosophy of science class, since several very vocal faculty took a PoV similar to Hawking’s. Luckily, the graduate students and many other faculty members came forward arguing for the importance of that class in the overall curriculum.

    Having at least some grounding in the philosophy of science aides in the development of new methodologies (you can give solid arguments and justifications for why and how your method is an improvement). It allows scientists to understand WHY they go about their profession a particular way instead of the reasoning “well that’s just the way its done”. They are able to connect the tiny infinitesimal contributions they are making to actual larger applications that effect the world since they understand how science as a system works.

    More importantly, it helps scientists to better understand how science is done vs. how science is taught. Many of the largest problems we face in the US regarding science “controversies” stem from the fact that most science education is based upon old paradigms of science philosophy. People no longer understand how science works and why the claims that scientists make matter. They become trapped into a limited and old viewpoint regarding science that does not deal well with small changes and relatively flexibility which we have philosophically within the field.

    I don’t know. If anything I believe MORE people need to be taught and understand the philosophy of science.

  4. @Siveambrai: My feeling about this is similar to what I thought when I noticed the decline of ethics requirements in business school curricula … maybe not the best idea.

  5. The only thing I know about Philosophy of Science is that a lot of people talking a bunch of bullshit turn out to have PoS degrees. I don’t know what percentage of PoS majors talk bullshit in public, but the ones that do certainly don’t make a good case for the major.

    As for philosophy in general, I feel that it is largely outdated and outpaced by empirical study. Modern philosophers have a tendency to be behind on/illiterate about science, which to me would be a serious hinderance when discussing the Truths of the Universe. They also seem to value endless sophistry above all other things and get a bit pissy when you give them a consice, definitive, evidence-based answer to a problem.

    There are philosophers who don’t do this who make valuable contributions to discussions on ethics and spend more time than I would ever care to defining different types of argument/discussion and the rules thereof, but in my experience they are outnumbered by pseudo-intellectual pests. If it was up to me, philosophy would only be taught at the graduate level and would require an undergraduate degree in science of some sort. That would hopefully weed out at least some people who live to ask useless questions.

  6. Jen,

    I heard about that Al Qeada Ladies magazine. Its like something out the Onion. Its hard to believe its real, but apparently it is. Its ironic of course, given the complete disdain for women umong fundamentalist Muslim groups like Al Qeada.

  7. Ok, I went and read (or at least started) that philosophy defense and my opinions were vindicated. This writer has no fucking clue how theoretical physicists work:

    “These thinkers appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification as required by Karl Popper and his followers. After all, it is the peculiar feature of such theories that they posit the existence of that which at present, and perhaps forever, eludes any form of confirmation by observation or experiment.”

    Philosophers want so badly for there to be some Unknowable Thing in the universe for them to postulate endlessly about that they are now trying to redefine concepts of theoretical physics to be that Thing. As if these guys came up with string theory, realized they couldn’t empirically test it, said “oh well”, closed the folder, and put it in a drawer. As if continued work on these theories isn’t carried out with the express goal of coming up with some way to test them empirically! As if the people studying them believe them wholeheartedly without evidence!

    Utter silliness, I stopped there. Hawking is absolutely right.

  8. @Siveambrai:

    While your basic point is correct, I don;t think that Feyerabend ever did any science. He did a small amount of graduate work but as I understand it quickly changed his focus to philosophy.

    I’d also point out that a lot of what Popper said helped directly influence science and make it was it is today. Stating explicitly that we should try to falsify our hypotheses had a direct influence on science.

    Incidentally, the Norris piece is so bad that if I didn’t know better I’d think that the piece was a deliberate strawman for Hawking to know down. The piece makes incorrect generalizations and doesn’t discuss at all serious work by philosophers in the last few years. Tthe attempts to put science in a Bayesian framework would be on the most obvious things I’d try to mention if I were making an argument for phil sci being relevant.).This reflects a more general problem in philosophy- there’s a complete lack of quality real control. That’s also why you get so much philosophy out there that’s borderline nonsense.

  9. “We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Professional Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!”

    “What’s the problem?” said Lunkwill.

    “I’ll tell you what the problem is mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem!”

    “We demand,” yelled Vroomfondel, “that demarcation may or may not be the problem!”

    “You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing wether there may…”

    “Or may not be”, interrupted Vroomfondel

    “…or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

    “That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

    Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed across the room. “Might I make an observation at this point?” inquired Deep Thought.

    “We’ll go on strike!” yelled Vroomfondel.

    “That’s right!” agreed Majikthise. “You’ll have a national Philosopher’s strike on your hands!”

    “Who would that inconvenience?” boomed Deep Thought.

    “Never you mind, buddy! It’ll hurt! It’ll hurt!”

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (mostly from memory, with bits of the book and the Radio Show mixed together)

  10. @Joshua Zelinsky:

    Tthe attempts to put science in a Bayesian framework would be on the most obvious things I’d try to mention if I were making an argument for phil sci being relevant.).

    You make a good point. I think the emergence of the Bayesian approach is an example of a positive contribution of science philosophy. And I think philosophy of science is an important endeavor.

    But it seems to me that those practicing science in earnest and doing it well, will hit upon that type of progress naturally as a function of doing good science. And in academia, it seems to me that philosophy of science could be handled in a three or four-lecture subset of a basic science class. I don’t know that it needs to be a completely separate area of study.

    (Also, if you think about it, engaging in this conversation and posting on science and naturalist blogs makes us all philosophers of science on some level.)

    But as to traditional philosophy, I don’t want to say it’s all a complete waste of time, because I feel some ethical questions are worth considering from time to time. I just don’t think it’s necessary or worthwhile to devote a lot of time or energy to it.

  11. I find philosophy very useful (my degree) in that most people talk about and live their values and decisions in a philosophical framework, or use philosophy as a basis for their notions of ethical and proper behavior. Sometimes a social philosophy is informed by religion or other non scientific or non rational systems, so understanding how people arrive at their world view makes the job of the skeptic easer when presenting evidence of the problems associated with irrational thinking and behavior. And when skeptics try to participate in the broader philosophical debates of modern society concerning justice, legal principals, values, and how we respond to empirical evidence, having a sound philosophy that informs our values or human principals is essential. Also when a skeptic decides someone is full of dangerous woo or a fool, they’ve made a distinction of value based on a philosophical point of view. Humanists have a philosophy about the value of humans and skeptics have a philosophy about the importance of evidence and science. And to assert science is good for humans would be fairly difficult without the underpinnings of some philosophical notions regardless of how simplistic they may be or how far removed from any current research in physics.

    Philosophical thought for the day: “People only matter because I am one, all else is derivative.”

  12. @Sam Ogden: Ya gotta study the history of philosophy to at least save you the time and effort of repeating the mistakes of others. Similar to history in that respect IMO. And philosophy courses for scientists could of course be condensed and altered to not trouble the delicate empirical mind. ;-)

  13. @Jacob V: If you don’t mind, please to distinguish what you’ve described from psychology.

    I mean, what are the main points of difference that warrant a full field of study? I ask merely for clarification.

  14. To me the only philosophy that is relevant today is that done by scientists – Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett are worth listening to as “philosophy” because they also have a grounding in reality, empirical evidence and current science.

    I certainly wouldn’t say philosophy is dead, but I would argue that is has no merit as a standalone discipline. Unless you have a firm grounding in science you’re not equipping yourself to deal with tough questions.

  15. @Zapski: The study of the human process would be the psychology part, and for that matter I suppose biochemistry would be as well. What one actually thinks is a viable idea or construct suitable to guide behavior or to develop rules for governments or to ascribe value to certain endeavors or beliefs would be the philosophy part. I suppose physics could be reduced to psychology given it’s nothing more than the pondering and scratching of one particular organism within a particular environment. I’m tempted to say that most psychologists are just as useful as most philosophers, but that would be unkind given we all know a good bartender is worth a bus full of both.

  16. So, it is Hawking’s philosophical position on the matter of science is that philosophy of science is bunk? Hmmm… I think I might have detected a flaw in his thinking.

    Now, Hawking is right that most philosophers of science really suck at what they do. But let’s not take the failings of the current slate of practitioners out upon the practice itself.

    There seems to be a lot of misconception in these comments (and in the world at large) about what exactly philosophy is. I blame the educators–philosophy isn’t taught at all until college, and even then the only taste that most people get is a dumbed-down history class that is inaccurately called “Intro to Phil”. Imagine if most people’s only access to biology was a single college class in which the students spent the whole semester reading Aristotle, Linaeus, and a few selections of Darwin. Well, that’s the situation with philosophy, and it’s no wonder that everyone is so misinformed.

    Let’s draw Venn diagrams. Within your giant circle of “Reason”, draw two more circles called “Induction” and “Deduction”. In the Induction circle, draw a smaller circle called “Science”. That area left over in the Induction circle that isn’t within the Science circle? That’s Philosophy. And it’s really not so scary. It’s still reasoning, and it’s still inductive logic. It is far from being “Religion” or “Whishful Thinking” or “Nonsense”–all of those circles aren’t even within the Reason circle at all. Now, it may not confer the same degree of certitude that is found within the Science circle (which is why it’s great when we find a new way to test that for which previously there were only logical arguments), but it is by no means useless.

    I could get into a million reasons why the academic field of philosophy is dysfunctional, and Hawkings is right to criticize Philosophers of Science for failing in their duties. It must be horrendously annoying to be an expert in physics and have a bad philosopher try to tell you how to think about physics. But to say Philosophy of Science is obsolete is more or less saying that it is obsolete to think logically about matters of science for those areas in which we have yet to come up with ways to experiment. And I don’t think that Hawking really wants to say that.

  17. @Siveambrai: Amen. Philosophy is VERY misunderstood. Academics, scientists, and everyday people make philosophical arguments and come to logical philosophical conclusions all the time. Do you have good reasons for coming to a certain conclusion, even though no scientific study has been done on the subject? Congratulations–that’s philosophy! But this proper use of philosophy gets labeled “reason” or “logic”. Meanwhile, the word “philosophy” in our society is usually reserved to describe corporate mottoes, new age mysticism, or what smart guys in togas did before the invention of empiricism put them all to better use.

  18. Steven Novella takes on Hawking: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=2981

    Well, not really “takes on” but he makes an excellent, to the point, argument to the matter of philosophy of science. And why Hawking (and some of the commenters here) are arguing windmills and in the process throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    Philosophy and science are interdependent. Period. The latter can’t exist interdepently of the former, and to a lesser extent the former can’t exist interdependently of the latter. There is constant, built-in overlap, while there of course also are areas where the two exist only in parallel.

    Empiricism eradicating the need for philosophy is as nonsensical as the worst-case post-modernist subjective relativism. In fact, it is it’s mirror-image. And above that, it’s a false dichotomy…

    Thank JHVH for Steven Novella keep things in perspective with his usual clarity and pedagogical superpowers.

  19. So far none of the pro-philosophy folks have made a particularly good case for the organised, standalone discipline of philosophy or philosophy of science. Most of us aren’t arguing against philosophy as a concept (that would be stupid) but as a discipline for one to (near) solely dedicate themselves to.

    So far, at best, you’ve said that most philosophers are crap and working scientists with a sincere interest in their discipline are better at understanding and contemplating the philosophy of their particular discipline. In other words: Stephen Hawking is a better “philosopher of science” than most who would call themselves that.

    Do you disagree?

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