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Attacks on philosophy by scientists

By John Wilkins

Posted December 31, 2010

Something that I never really fully understand is why academics feel the need to denigrate other academic disciplines. Just because one happens to think something is so worthwhile that they devoted their lives to it doesn't thereby mean that everything else is crap. But that seems to be the attitude of many scientists and advocates of science towards philosophy. Do a Google search for "philosophy is useless" if you disbelieve me.

I know, I think, why some people seem to think that all that matters is science. I too think science is pretty damned important. But once you stop knowing about things, and start arguing about things you cannot know by science, you are doing philosophy, and so it is a little, dare I say, hypocritical, to argue, philosophically, that philosophy is crap. Not to mention self-contradictory.

Scientists sometimes think that any attempt to be philosophical about science is otiose. Feynman once remarked, although I can't find the reference, that philosophy of science is about as useful to science as ornithology is to birds. This might very well be true (although in times when the birds are under threat, ornithology can be of very great benefit indeed), but the value of a study is not the things one can sell from it. It is surely true that philosophers like Popper and Hempel and Carnap tried to constrain and prescribe science, and that project failed. But the philosophy of science is about understanding how science is done when it works. Surely that's not for nothing. How is this just "entertainment"? Is philosophy of science something scientists should ignore and deride?

Recently, Mark Perakh, a physicist, posted on Panda's Thumb another attack upon Michael Ruse, the philosopher and historian of science, because Ruse asked this question:

If "God exists" is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is "God does not exist" not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

In the context of the US Constitution and legal precedent, this is a sensible question to ask. It doesn't make much sense outside that sort of context, because in most other educational jurisdictions, what gets taught is decided by educators, not the courts, and, for example, in mine (Australia) religion is regarded as something that should only be taught comparatively or in religious education classes that are voluntary (and even those are hardly widely accepted). So is Ruse leading up to some horrible accommodationist error? No, he merely asks that question. Taking a view he calls "independence" -- that science and religious claims are independent of each other -- he says

Don't get me wrong. I don't want science removed from schools. I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution. The independence position does not raise this issue, because it argues that science has no implications either way about religious claims. You cannot argue for the independence position because of that, but it is a point in its favor.

Now I think that science, being a human activity that engages many of the same questions traditionally approached through theology, yes, and philosophy, is not entirely independent of religious questions. I have said many times that if a religion makes contrary-to-fact claims, so much the worse for that religion. So I do not agree with Ruse's position here. But I cannot think that he is merely being stupid or just the sort of entertainment one might get from watching a demented drunk dance, which is the tenor of Perakh's comment.

Ruse, is being a philosopher when he asks questions that scientists think are dumb. Philosophers often ask questions that scientists, and other firm believers in a set of shared views, think are too stupid to even challenge, because, well, that's what philosophy has always done. And what history teaches us is that philosophy, in asking those questions, often points up some weaknesses in the "common sense" views, leading to interesting conceptual developments.

Perakh thinks that philosophy of science has done nothing to help science. And yet, scientists like him constantly do philosophy of science. One of the most influential philosophers upon science, its practice and debates, was a physicist named Percy Bridgman. Bridgman's "operationalism" was a philosophical attempt to leave philosophical aspects of science such as truth claims to one side. It affected everything from physics to taxonomy. Einstein was no philosophical slouch either (and he did not feel the need to denigrate philosophy: like many of his contemporaries, he had a good humanist education), nor modern physicists like Max Tegmark. So it seems that, from the perspective of a physicist, the only philosophers of science who should be mocked and denigrated are those who do not say things that the physicist writing agrees with. In short, do philosophy so long as it concludes what I think is true...

What upsets many of these "critics" (I scare quote this because real criticism involves reasoning, not merely the restatement of prejudicial beliefs) is that some philosophers, like Ruse, do not assert that the sole method and mode of rationality is to deride, exclude or a priori reject religious credibility. Ruse, an avowed atheist, does not attack religion at every turn, and instead seems to think that religious views have a social role and place even if he disagrees with them. This is not enough for the absolutists. One must not only disagree, one must strive mightily to eliminate. The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.

The way to achieve this Utopian vision is, of course, to mock and deride any person, profession or technique that does not arrive at the preferred conclusion which we all knew, really, was true before we began. Philosophy, which must take seriously views that we dispute (so long as they are not factually false; only a few metaphysicians might accept that one could hold those views reasonably, and then only for the purposes of argument), is stupid. Useless. A waste of time and brains. Blah, blah, blah.

Can you say "special pleading", children? I knew you could. Can you say "fallacy of affirming the consequent"? Can you say "circular reasoning"? A bit of philosophical training might have helped Perakh a bit, before he dismissed an entire profession for the simple reason that it is not what he, personally, likes.

I do not think Ruse's claim that science is inherently metaphorical works as a general statement (I fail to see, for example, how mathematical models and their interpretations are metaphors), but a lot of it is, and the failure of people like Perakh to see this is one of the reasons why philosophy of science is of service to science. We do the garbage clearance, when we do our job well. Perakh's snide comment is garbage. One of the ironies of this little set-to is that it is a theological philosopher who rightly takes Perakh's exclusivism to task. The post is entitled "Mark Perakh and the Ironies of Philosophy and Science", so there's meta-irony as well.

As to Ruse's actual question, my view is this (and it is a philosophical view, like Perakh's): If the claim is made that some scientifically investigable object does not exist, like the Yangtse River Dolphin, then that assertion is science and can be taught in a science class in America. If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it's fracking philosophy! and philosophy should not be taught in science class.

That we have no scientific reason to think there is a God, well, yes, that's the point. Is science all one should rely upon in belief formation? That's another philosophical question (which I, unlike Ruse, tend to think the answer to is "yes", but not entirely).

Now Ruse seems to have a wider definition of science than I do, and that, too, should be discussed in a philosophical situation (what counts as science? Is it everything some archetypical physicist believes is true? Should Sheldon from Big Bang Theory be our arbiter of reasonableness?), but so does Perakh. Where Ruse seems to think that any belief set that is strictly derived from scientific ideas is science (I do not, for that would include Mary Baker Eddy's idiocy), Perakh is a scientific hegemonist. Science (the physicist's science) rules all and nothing else is worthy. Ruse is too inclusive, while Perakh is too restrictive and at the same time imperialistic. Ruse wants the League of Nations, while Perakh wants ... what? The Napoleonic Empire? And the whole point here is that this is a philosophical debate we're having, even if Perakh doesn't think it is.

Forgive me if I am a bit testy. I have spent decades listening to scientists, even as they make philosophical arguments, tell me how useless philosophy of science is. It's a reflex action instilled into undergraduate science students that they uncritically seem to disgorge upon the slightest stimulus for the rest of their lives. Of course not all, or even most, scientists do this (most don't care, but there are a large number of philosophically educated and interested scientists out there. In fact, they drive the philosophy of science, in my opinion). But just like being poked by a younger brother in the same place often can lead to an outburst eventually, I am provoked. Mum, he started it!


This article originally appeared on Evolving Thoughts.