64 thoughts on “Apropos Drs. Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini

  1. Don’t forget the snarky alt-text:

    “I mean, what’s more likely — that I have uncovered fundamental flaws in this field that no one in it has ever thought about, or that I need to read a little more? Hint: it’s the one that involves less work.”

  2. Seen on a bumper once (it’s always surprised me that I’ve never seen it again): “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”

  3. This is actually a serious question:

    Is there a rise in the number of distinguished people in one field who make fools of themselves in other fields or is it just more noticeable to public due to the expansion of media pathways?

    1. What’s your time frame? It’s been that way as long as I can remember. For example, there is a long tradition of physicists thinking they can spend their retirement by applying some of the order of their field to biology.

      There is also a tradition of lawyers thinking that a dose of their legal reasoning is just exactly what is needed to straighten out science. Phillip E. Johnson is certainly not the first Creationist lawyer, I am working through a book by Norman MacBeth on the same theme from 1979. (His ignorance of biological matters is apparent by page 2.)

      Going all the way back to Plato, his depiction of Socrates constantly argued for leaving government to experts on governance, although this can be understood as apologism for anti-democratic authoritarianism.

      1. Well, Schrödinger didn’t do too badly, did he?
        Or Francis Crick, Manfred Eigen, Werner Arber, to name but a few?
        Or just an example from a younger generation: Ned Wingreen?
        Quite a few physicists seem do have done biology some good; more so than philosophers, at any rate.
        As for Fred Hoyle, naming him in this context in the same breath as Roger Penrose, really… Might as well mention Fodor and Dennett together because they both wear the ‘philosopher’ tag.

  4. As a professional philosopher I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for Fodor and to reasure that many of my colleagues find his recent claims as tedious as the biologists. Mind you, many philosophers don’t. Which, also, is tedious.

  5. “Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.”

    Richard Feynman

    1. The relation between science and philosophy is like the symbiotic relationship between the countryside and town. The former provides the latter with food receiving garbage in return.

      L. Kolokowski

      1. Close, but not quite. The problem isn’t that philosophy increases entropy (because if it did, we would learn from it) but that it is indiscriminating (which is why we can’t learn from it). And science definitely doesn’t need philosophy.

        The relationship is more like the relationship between a grocery owner and a punk. The former selects wares and shelve them in order, the later scrambles the shelves with various odds and ends and then proudly tag the window.

      2. Xkcd’s usual genius notwithstanding, I’ll be sure to mention these colorful opinions to my cognitive science professors cross-appointed at the philosophy department. I’m sure they’ll have a nice laugh.

    2. First, I don’t think Fodor is a great example of a philosopher of science. Basically, he misunderstands what philosophy can do. Certainly, it’s pretty hard to find a conceptual confusion in a concept that is used successfully everyday in biology. That should have been a clue that he had something wrong. But, undaunted, he has forged ahead, even though the responses to his London Review piece about pigs and wings showed him quite clearly where he had gone wrong.

      But just because one philosopher makes a pretty big error, doesn’t mean that all philosophers do. They teach that kind of reasoning in science class? Right? So, don’t knock all philosophers because one does not seem to understand. But one thing is just wrong. Philosophers don’t, as a rule, ‘say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science.’ Read some philosophy of science and see. Just let me recommend, again, reading Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. You’ll appreciate then that philosophy can be a sharper conceptual tool that is being suggested here. Even scientists should use evidence!

      1. In the cited case, Dennett is a scientist espousing scientific notions. It is incidental that he happens to be a philosopher as well. He may also collect stamps for all that his wisdom alludes to the consequences of collecting stamps.

        To quote Steven Weinberg:

        Wigner calls the “unreasonable effectiveness” of mathematics; here I want to take up another equally puzzling phenomenon, the unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy.

    1. But it starts out with “”Religion,” novelist Mary McCarthy wrote, “is only good for good people.””

      That is accomodationist! 😀

      “”With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. ” [Wikipedia on Steven Weinberg.]

      I’ll read it as soon as I have access though. Thanks!

      1. The paper itself didn’t seem extremely accomodationist to me. The News article in Nature, maybe slightly more so. It’s hard to say. I report, you decide… 🙂

      2. I’m glad to see Mary McCarthy quoted with that observation, which precedes Weinberg’s by several decades. She made it in an autobiographical piece (collected in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) about her horrendous childhood at the mercy of a pair of warped relatives who tormented her and her three brothers.

      3. Weinberg is simply wrong, though, as Milgram and Zimbardo have shown us. Doing evil merely involves peer pressure, and only extraordinarily good people will refrain.

      4. Well, that oversimplified what Milgram and Zimbardo have ‘shown us’ quite a bit. For one thing it’s not actually ‘extraordinarily good people’ (in the usual understanding – altruistic etc) who do well in the Milgram experiment; it’s risk-takers.

        For another thing the Milgram experiment obviously does not sum up all the possibilities of being good or being bad, and I’m pretty sure both of them would disavow any claim to have shown that ‘doing evil merely involves peer pressure.’ They showed that peer pressure under certain circumstances can play a huge role – but they weren’t even trying to show that it was everything.

        And that (what I just said) is, I suppose, a kind of amateur philosophy, and if I’m right about that, it’s a rough and ready illustration of why philosophy is indeed necessary and useful.

  6. Now looky here – philosophy can be very useful for science. Testing and clarification of concepts is no bad thing. (Ben Goldacre has something very shrewd and amusing to say about this in the next issue of The Philosophers’ Magazine.) The contrary is by no means demonstrated merely because one philosopher may be/is wrong about something.

    1. The contrary is by no means demonstrated merely because one philosopher may be/is wrong about something.

      One philosopher? Far more than one, I’m afraid. The arrogance of philosophers, particularly in defining the limits of science goes far back. Comte famously declared in 1835 that we would never be able to learn the chemical composition of the stars – within a generation a spectrograph was attached to a telescope and we could study that very thing. The long line stretches down to people like Alvin Plantinga today, with his vapid pronouncements on naturalism and evolution. Of course there are philosophers who don’t do that, but the numbers that do are somewhat overwhelming. For every Dennett there seem to be a dozen Plantingas.

      1. As for Plantinga, and William Lane Craig with him, the tradition of substituting sophistry for genuine philosophical inquiry dates back at least as far as classical Greece.

      2. And the history of arrogant scientists doing bad science goes as far back as the eye can see. It’s even overwhelming, all those Piltman Hoaxes and such. Therefore, science is useless, am I right?

        Honestly, folks, pull yourselves together. There’s plenty to criticise about the profession of philosophy and its tolerance of the aprioristic philosophy you see in Fodor. And this critique is LONG overdue, and very serious. But you’re not exactly making a compelling case by the use of flimsy analogies, motivated by quotes that are blissfully innocent of the subject of their critique.

    2. I definitely agree.

      To take just one example relevant to this blog, the whole issue of whether I.D. and Creation Science count as science or not was not solved purely *scientifically* – though that of *course* was also exceptionally important – it was also an issue for the philosophy of science, and what counts as good science and what doesn’t, even if it was quite a dull one.

      A few scattered observations: The problems that Feynmann was talking about, with philosophers trying to classify what all science should be, are less pressing now. Many more sophisticated philosophers of science don’t try and press everything into being falsifiable or to fit the verification principle, or whatever.

      I do have sympathy with the observation that philosophers can credit themselves with being able to instantly see the fallacies that people in other fields have been blind to, like some kind of philosophical ‘spidey sense’, when in fact they really can’t so easily.

      Generally the warning should be: “Know a lot about something before you talk about it critically, whatever it is you want to say.”

      That applies as much to historians talking about mathematics, as it does to philosophers talking about science.

    3. …quotes that are blissfully innocent of the subject of their critique.

      Leszek Kolakowski, (1927-2009), was not exactly “blissfully innocent” of the subject, but rather an internationally renowned Polish philosopher and historian.

      1. And sometimes he’s in better moods. From his obituary:

        “What philosophy is about is not Truth,” said Kolakowski in a 1982 lecture in Australia. “Philosophy can never discover any universally admissible truths; and if a philosopher happened to have made a genuine contribution to science (one thinks, say, of mathematical works of Descartes, Leibnitz, or Pascal), his discovery, perhaps by the very fact of being admitted as an ingredient of the established science, immediately ceased being a part of philosophy…

        “The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth.”

        Kolakowski doesn’t go so far as to say here that we should cherish the truth but beware of anyone who claims to know it. But he says “philosophers neither sow nor harvest, they only move the soil. They do not discover truth; but they are needed to keep the energy of mind alive.” He calls them “diggers,” and as important as the diggers are the “healers,” those who “apply skeptical medicine” in order “not to let us get carried away by wishful thinking.”

      2. The blissfully innocent of the subject of their critique are not always those who we think.

        Richard Feynman is in danger of being forever misrepresented as the Will Rogers of folksy science quotes. The words quoted above, from the second of his famed ‘Lectures’, were intended as a cautionary injunction against naive generalisations of science-philosophical precepts then en vogue, at a time when the meta-scientific world was abuzz with Kuhnian paradigm shifts and Popperian reproducibility and falsifiability. It’s good to read the rest of the Chapter, ‘Basic physics’.

        Leszek Kołakowski’s lifelong preoccupation with truth and those pretending to possess it was shaped by his bitter personal as well as political and philosophical experiences with Marxism. To put it blandly, discussing the pre-Socratic concept of ‘aletheia’ was less lethal than investigating its Marxian equivalent. The first sentence of his monumental ‘Main Currents of Marxism’ reads: “Karl Marx was a German philosopher.”
        On close reading — and Kołakowski always needs very close reading — this sentence was as much an indictment as a statement of fact.

      3. People had reason to be annoyed at those currents in the sense that Kuhn’s followers were fairly obnoxious. But Kuhn doesn’t deserve any blame. Fine, he was not an especially good philosopher — he was a physicist who turned to history, then philosophy — but he also had some fairly interesting and useful things to say, and which essentially gave structure to a more empirically sensitive field of empirical enquiry. If the cost of this renewed and fascinating branch of structured investigation is that people misuse the phrase “paradigm shift” on Oprah, then so be it.

        Popper was mistaken about his demarcation criterion, but what about Quine? I mean, Quine’s attacks on naive verificationism apply just well to Popper’s naive falsificationism. And he had his own way of formulating the science-philosophy continuum.

        But notoriously, Feynman had no patience whatever for philosophy. In his autobiography he recalls the one philosophy class he ever took, and how the prof always mumbled. Maybe if he had been taught by someone half decent then the philosophical community wouldn’t have to put on their shit-eating grin every time one of his anti-philosophical aphorisms gets trotted out for common approval.

  7. In some ways it is easier to think that you are really good in a subject if you know little about it.

    The joke in my gradate school: “I used to be good at math!” Most of us thought that we were hot stuff when we were undergrads; then we showed up and (most of us, myself included) got our butts handed to us in grad school. 🙂

    Anyway, that is why I seldom discuss science issues with, say, friends on facebook. For example if evolution comes up, invariably I hear the old “wind through the junkyard produces a 747” “argument”, at which point I lose my temper and get defriended or I just bite my tongue and come back with “How about those Saints!”..

    1. When you think you know everything, you get your Bachelors.

      When you learn you know nothing, you get your Masters.

      When you realize neither does anybody else is when you’ve earned your PHD.

  8. I was reading some of Mr Darwin obituaries, born from my curiosity how was he-Mr Darwin-regarded after death. One of the headlines rendered some spice to his omnipresent stature today. It reads (from the London News obituaries, 20 April 1882 if not mistaken): “Yesterday, noted naturalist and controversial scientist Charles Darwin died. Mr. Darwin had been in declining health for several years”. Other one that caught my eye included a comment on natural selection: ” There is another sense, however, in which it is equally true that selection originates nothing. “Unless profitable variations …. occur natural selection can do nothing” (“Origin,” Ed. I. p. 82). “Nothing can be effected unless favourable variations occur” (ibid., p. 108). “What applies to one animal will apply throughout time to all animals–that is, if they vary–for otherwise natural selection can do nothing. So it will be with plants” (ibid., p. 113). Strictly speaking, [289] therefore, the origin of species in general lies in variation; while the origin of any particular species lies, firstly, in the occurrence, and secondly, in the selection and preservation of a particular variation. Clearness on this head will relieve one from the necessity of attending to the fallacious assertion that natural selection is a deus ex machinâ or occult agency.

    Those, again, who confuse the operation of the natural causes which bring about variation and selection with what they are pleased to call “chance” can hardly have read the opening paragraph of the fifth chapter of the “Origin” (Ed. I, p. 131): “I have sometimes spoken as if the variations …. had been due to chance. This is of course a wholly incorrect expression, but it seems to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation.”

    Another point of great importance to the right comprehension of the theory, is, that while every species must needs have some adaptive advantageous characters to which it owes its preservation by selection, it may possess any number of others which are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous, but indifferent, or even slightly disadvantageous. (Ibid., p. 81.) For variations take place, not merely in one organ or function at a time, but in many; and thus an advantageous variation, which gives rise to the selection of a new race or species, may be accompanied by others which are [290] indifferent, but which are just as strongly hereditary as the advantageous variations. The advantageous structure is but one product of a modified general constitution which may manifest itself by several other products; and the selective process carries the general constitution along with the advantageous special peculiarity. A given species of plant may owe its existence to the selective adaptation of its flowers to insect fertilisers; but the character of its leaves may be the result of variations of an indifferent character. It is the origin of variations of this kind to which Darwin refers in his frequent reference to what he calls “laws of correlation of growth” or “correlated variation.”
    Very excited that now i know obitiaries are useful

    1. Excellent. Why don’t you make a scholarly study of them? Be sure of course not to write anything on the subject until you have done exhaustive research – that is absolutely crucial.

  9. Ben Nelson wrote:
    And the history of arrogant scientists doing bad science goes as far back as the eye can see. It’s even overwhelming, all those Piltman Hoaxes and such. Therefore, science is useless, am I right?

    No, you’re not. There is no history of scientists, arrogant or otherwise, telling philosophers how to philosophize, outside of scientists’ area of expertise. And the Piltdown hoax (there was only one) is a particularly poor example, since rather than perpetrating it, it was scientists who suspected fraud from the beginning and eventually exposed it. No, for arrogant, unevidenced assertions about a field in which they have little knowledge, it’s difficult to find more blatant examples than those from some philosophers. For example, Plantinga, on Evolution and Naturalism

    1. Piltdown Man, yes. I realised it immediately after posting. I regret the error.

      Nevertheless, the point has hardly been touched, unfortunately. It is just this: there are obviously plenty of scientists who have, throughout its history, committed fraud or malpractice for personal gain. This is so obvious that it is a banality. It’s super-unfortunate that the analogy is, even now, still a mirror form of your claim against “some” philosophers. And, hence, your claim is just as boring.

      Once again: there are actual, legitimate critiques to be made against so-called professional philosophers. You can do better than summoning up Plantiga (or Rorty, or whoever else). You can criticise the methods: lax peer review, hiring practices, standards of critique, and so on. So do it! What are you waiting for? I’ll cheer you on, man.

      1. Ben Nelson wrote:
        there are obviously plenty of scientists who have, throughout its history, committed fraud or malpractice for personal gain

        So what? Who cares? You think philosophers are committing fraud for personal gain by philosophizing about science? Ridiculous. I doubt if anyone, certainly not me, thinks that Plantinga or anyone else doesn’t actually believe what they say. Your analogy makes no sense.

      2. I do think that some people who call themselves philosophers (scholars of philosophy would be better) are committing species of fraud and malpractice for personal gain through the proud insulation from empirical data. That is the “aprioristic” stance that I have been referring to.

        And if you don’t think that something like this is going on — well, then who cares, indeed? That’s my point. Make a list of whichever scholars you find annoying (Plantiga, Fodor, Rorty… etc.), then make them walk the plank one by one, and have fun with that. But so long as you’re abstaining from articulate speech over violation of rational kinds of conduct, and ascribing it to the field as a whole, you’re just committing the One True Scotsman fallacy in reverse.

      3. Ben Nelson wrote:
        I do think that some people who call themselves philosophers (scholars of philosophy would be better) are committing species of fraud…

        So you think that people like Plantinga, Armstrong, or others who call themselves philosophers, are committing a “species” of fraud (whatever that is) by selling books that make money with their considered opinions in them. While there may be no cure for such convoluted thinking, you could certainly cure your ignorance by using a dictionary to look up the word fraud. Every definition contains some variation of “A deception deliberately practiced in order to secure unfair or unlawful gain.” No matter how much you might want it to, that simply does not apply to philosophers ruminating on any subject whatsoever.

      4. Tom, let’s not leave behind the role of your argument in the conversation. *You* get to supply the names of all the people you don’t like: because they’re “arrogant”, or produce garbage, or whatever. So take Plantiga, just for fun, and add to the list as many bad apples as you like. You evidently don’t want to generalise to all philosophers, so you limit your critique to just them. You seem to want to grumble about the mischief of these philosophers, while leaving it at that. But why stop there? If you’re really serious about the problems of philosophy, then you have a responsibility to press further.

        So I think terms like “malpractice” are more fitting for present purposes. And a species of fraud is not far off, even in alignment with your happy diction. The philosophical arm of ID, for instance, is pretty obviously out for unfair gain. If we think they’re self-conscious about it, then we can use words like deception, intellectual fraud, and the rest of it.

        I think this is a view that, whatever its other defects, at least has internal consistency and intellectual spine. So I really don’t understand why you’re suddenly so gun-shy. The truth matters, doesn’t it? If it matters, then shouldn’t the febrile nitwits that make a mess of science through neglect and abuse be forced out of the limelight of academic respectability and into private publishing?

  10. I knew I would eventually dig up this quote:

    “I think many philosophers secretly harbor the view that there is something deeply (i.e., conceptually) wrong with [this scientific field], but that a philosopher with a little training in the techniques of linguistic analysis and a free afternoon could straighten it out.”
    – Jerry Fodor
    Psychological Explanation, 1968, vii

    Of course, the discipline I elided is “psychology”, and the remark was meant sardonically. It now seems that nearly 40 years later, Fodor actually harbors this view about biology.

      1. Mind you, if the field had been poststructuralist literary theory …

        Some fields really do develop a degree of bogusity. Philosophers should show a bit of deference before pronouncing that an entire field of study is conceptually confused, as with the racing car on a train example, which Einsteinian theory already takes into account, but it’s still good having philosophers around to ask questions.

        In this case, I think Fodor has picked on the wrong field, and in a way that does political damage, since it appears to give succour to creationists, etc. But, in principle, having philosophers look over everyone’s shoulders, including each other’s, is not a bad thing.

      2. Quite so. Funny that “scientists looking over philosophers’ shoulders” is somehow seen as being conceptually different. Philosophers can meddle in science all they want, yet the very moment a scientist sticks his nose into something philosophical, he is accused of being an ignorant philistine, and is referred to “Critique of Pure Reason” or “Tractatus”, or one of the other holy scriptures.

      3. Therion. If you believe in this so sincerely, then I would like to suggest that you act in the way that you think people ought to behave.

        Take, for instance, the other Fodor thread. I haven’t read the relevant literature by Lewontin and Gould on panadaptationism. When prompted, I asked a few honest questions on these matters, because I am not at all confident that I understand the terms and theory involved. But instead of explanations and courteous answers to my questions, I am given peremptory citations without a substantive discussion.

        Now I don’t take these peremptory citations personally. People really do have lives besides mine, and cannot cater to my banal questions. But nevertheless, I am quite cognizant of the fact that so long as you remain tight-lipped, I haven’t learned a thing, and will continue on being confused on these matters — probably even tolerating absurdities when they arise when uttered from the lips of colleagues and dilettentes. That’s just how it goes.

        Likewise, if someone misquotes or misrepresents Wittgenstein in the Tractatus in such a way that they declare that Old Ludwig allows for infinitely divisible objects, then you might not be able to dismiss it out of hand as nonsense (which it is). And how could you? That’s just the natural consequence when you’re dealing with another discipline, given the pile of unread books that we all have at the foot of the bed, and the amount of hours in the day.

      4. The relevant paper is freely available here.

        It is written in a very non-technical style, so any courteous answers would be more or less redundant with actually reading the piece.

        And for a snarky rebuttal, see here.

      5. Thank you, J, but my point — for consistency’s sake, given the nature of Therion and Jerry’s complaints about philosophical aloofness — is that it is not such a terrible thing to be redundant in this context.

  11. Conjecture: philosophers have an gene that makes them annoying. Example: one of our “religious studies/philosophy” types asked me how our department search was going. I replied “excellent; we have some outstanding candidates!”

    He replied: “but will these people be good teachers?”

    Oh…gee, our department (mathematics) didn’t think to consider that aspect of the search…thank you so much for reminding us! /sarcasm

  12. Why is my brief remark on the xkcd link held back in moderation? That man’s a genius, I want to see the full-sized cartoon over there, and your blog post, Jerry Coyne, failed to give the specific link. Can’t even find it searching for “special relativity” over there.

  13. “Example: one of our “religious studies/philosophy” types”

    Well there’s your problem right there – religious studies and philosophy are different things and shouldn’t be hyphenated that way. Presumably you don’t have history/philosophy types, or geology/astronomy types. A religious studies/philosophy type sounds like a bullshitter.

  14. Let’s see if I have the claims straight:
    1) Philosophers who talk about anything to so with science should first do the hard slog of learning the science they wish to talk about.
    2) Philosophers who do the hard slog of learning the science are no longer philosophers but scientists.
    3) And the philosophers who expect scientists to do the hard slog and learn about philosophy before the scientists talk about it? Well, those philosophers are just being unreasonable.
    I leave it as an exercise in informal logic for people to do draw the correct conclusion.

  15. Let’s see if I have the claims straight:
    1) Philosophers who talk about anything to so with science should first do the hard slog of learning the science they wish to talk about.

    No, but philosophers who talk about highly specific aspects of a scientific discipline should indeed have a modicum of understanding of that discipline, especially the issues surrounding the aspects they wish to talk about.

    1. The full quote is,
      “Philosophy is to science as pornography is to sex: it is cheaper, easier, and some people seem, bafflingly, to prefer it.”

      –Steve Jones

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