Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth

July 5, 2011 • 8:49 am

Well, we have Andrew Brown, over at his Guardian blog, joining the chorus of those who claim that a) science is only one of several routes to truth and b) science is itself based on unscientific and unjustifiable assumptions.  Brown’s piece, “Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd,” takes off from a speech by atheist Harry Kroto at a meeting of Nobel Laureates in Austria.  (There’s a video of Harry’s talk, but I’m not able to view it.) Apparently Harry made an offensive and insupportable claim:

. . . around eight minutes in he goes off the rails. First there is a slide saying (his emphases): “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Think about this for a moment. Is it a scientific statement? No. Can it therefore be relied on as true? No.

But formal paradoxes have one advantage well known to logicians, which is that you can use them to prove anything, as Kroto proceeds to demonstrate. Or, as he puts it: “Without evidence, anything goes.” Remember, he has just defined truth (or TRUTH) as something that can only be established scientifically. So nothing he says about ethics or intellectual integrity after that need be taken in the least bit seriously. It may be true, but there is no scientific way of knowing this and he doesn’t believe there is any other way of knowing anything reliably.

I’d say that Kroto’s assertion is a scientific one, in the sense that we can do a test: define “truth” (I define it as “things about the universe that are in accordance with fact”), and see if there are other ways to reliably achieve it.  If there are, his statement is false.  If not, it’s supported.

And if you use my broad definition of science as “using reason, observation, and experiment to determine things about the universe that can be verified as true by other independent observers”, then I agree with Kroto.  Perhaps this is what Kroto did mean by “science”. (Someone please watch the video.) And of course what Kroto says about ethics and intellectual integrity are opinions, not truths.  Who cares? Different people have different ideas of what constitutes “intellectual integrity” and different standards of morality.  But Brown (I am trying hard not to use a slur here) wants to dismiss Kroto’s opinions simply because they’re not scientific!

As I’ve said before, we don’t need a scientifically based or a strong philosophical underpinning to validate science.  All we need to know is that the method works: that it produces results that all scientists could in principle replicate (if they can’t the results are discarded), and it produces—apologies to Jane Austen—truths universally acknowledged.  It also produces progress.  It cures diseases, flies us to the moon, improves our crops.  No other “way of knowing” does that—certainly not religion, Brown’s favorite hobbyhorse. And yes, the practice of science rests implicitly on the value that it’s good to find  out what is true and real, but does Brown disagree with that?  In the end, the method is validated by its results, and needs no a priori justification.  After all, the methods of science weren’t devised before science was practiced—we simply learned from experience that if we wanted to find truth, we had to go about it in a certain way.

What Brown is trying to do, of course, is claim that there are other ways to find truth beyond science (he doesn’t define “truth”). I believe that Brown’s ultimate aim—though he doesn’t state it here—is to validate religion as a viable way of finding truth. I base this conclusion on having read—at great cost to my digestion—a number of his columns over the years.  If you look up “faitheist” in the dictionary, you’ll find Brown’s picture next to it. He goes on:

The rest of us, of course, are perfectly free to believe that education should involve the promotion of critical thought, or at least to consider the question seriously. We are under no obligation to believe anything half so silly as that science is the only road to truth. We can reasonably argue that there are lots of ways to establish truth that are not scientific. Obviously they rely to some extent on the sifting and weighing of evidence, but that doesn’t make them part of science, or else every member of a jury would be a scientist.

Well, jurors are behaving like scientists to the extent that they weigh evidence in favor of and against a hypothesis.  But of course their verdict is not the same thing as a scientific truth—it’s an imperfect consensus judgment about whether a jury sees “reasonable doubt” of guilt.  The reason juries aren’t as good as scientists as finding truth (i.e., did the person really do the crime?) is because their decisions are often based on rhetorical persuasion and the veracity of police and eyewitnesses (unsupported personal testimony isn’t really part of science), jurors aren’t allowed to ask questions and demand more evidence, or other tests, from the prosecution, and, as we saw in the O.J. Simpson case, laypeople often aren’t qualified or trained to evaluate forensic evidence.

So what are the other areas that produce “truth”?  Brown says that there are lots of them, but mentions only one: ethics.

In a similar way, we can believe that ethical truths exist, even though these clearly aren’t scientific, or the products of science; but Kroto can’t. Not that this stops him. Like anyone else who is sane he talks as if ethical truths do matter, and exist.

I don’t believe there are such things as “ethical truths”—certainly not in the same sense that there are scientific truths.  What Brown means is ethical precepts, which are value judgments about what is good and right.  How can you possibly determine whether a statement like “forgive your enemies” is true?  It is not a reality about our universe, but a guide for behavior.  (A truth claim involving ethics would be something like “everyone forgives their enemies”.) And, of course, many ethical “truths” aren’t universal at all; in fact, I doubt you’d find more than a handful that don’t have exceptions.

So Brown is wrong on ethics, and fails to mention any other methods for ascertaining truth.  He bangs on about Galileo a bit (he’s done this twice before, so I’ll spare you this), arguing that Galileo was wrong about things like the distance from Earth to the stars, and so his conclusion about a heliocentric solar system, while ultimately proved correct, wasn’t supported by his own “scientific” evidence. I’m not sure what this is about unless Brown is trying to argue, as mushbrained accommodationists are wont to do, that because science is fallible, this vindicates those “other roads to truth” (e.g. Jesus).

Andrew Brown is a fool with a megaphone. I’d urge you to go over and set him straight, but he has a history of purging criticisms that appear in his comments—and not just intemperate and nasty criticism.

201 thoughts on “Andrew Brown: there are lots of ways besides science to find truth

  1. Philosophers see themselves as the intellectual overlords of everything, including science. They don’t like it at all that their science serfs, once known as “natural philosophers,” have rebelled and established their independence from the kingdom of philosophy.

    All of that happened a few hundred years ago, and philosophers have learned to live with it. But Andrew Brown is complaining that the liberated scientists are just being too uppity about it all.

    1. Stanislaw Lem absolutely curbstomped philosophy in His Master’s Voice

      “The history of philosophy is the history of successive and non-identical
      retreats. Philosophy first tried to discover the ultimate categories of the
      world; then the absolute categories of reason; while we, as knowledge
      accumulates, see more and more clearly philosophy’s vulnerability: because
      every philosopher must regard himself as a model for the entire species, and
      even for all possible sentient beings. But it is science that is the
      transcendence of experience, demolishing yesterday’s categories of thought.
      Yesterday, absolute space-time was overthrown; today, the eternal alternative
      between the analytic and the synthetic in propositions, or between determinism
      and randomness, is crumbling. But somehow it has not occurred to any of our
      philosophers that to deduce, from the pattern of one’s own thoughts, laws that
      hold for the full set of people, from the eolithic until the day the suns burn
      out, might be, to put it mildly, imprudent”

      1. “…successive and non-identical retreats.”

        That sums up the religionist actions. Some may be cowards, because they flee or hide in mere blankets of mental safety, when reality approaches. The brave man also retreats, pushed by reality, and even if he does not surrender the impossible defense, he steps backwards, never forward, as reality surges at him on both flanks, from the front.

    2. I don’t know where you got this caricature of philosophers. Andrew Brown is not a philosopher. He’s a journalist and a pretty third-rate thinker. Most Anglo-American philosophers are big fans of science. They’re actually probably more enthusiastic about science and naturalism than some scientists are. I don’t really get the constant philosopher-bashing among some readers here. If you want to attack specific claims of specific philosophers, I understand that, but attacking an entire discipline out of ignorance of what people in discipline do is, well, unscientific.

      1. While I can agree that SOME philosophers love science, the ones that I have personally known have spent most of their time lecturing me (a scientist) on what science teaches, all without having been in a college level science class in their lives. They simply hate science, and spend hours lambasting scientists for thinking and acting like scientists.

        I don’t believe this caricature is valid for all philosphers; Daniel Dennett comes to mind as one that doesn’t fit…but unfortunately, many of us have acquired this particular caricature from actual, real life experience.

        In my science program, I took several courses on philosophy in order to better understand other approaches. Is it too much to ask that the philosphy students show the same consideration to scientists before they go around telling us what and how we think and operate?

        1. Well, there are certainly minority opinions. But then again there are biochemists who believe in ID. That doesn’t make me discredit biochemistry. It makes me discredit Michael Behe.

          1. There’s a big difference between philosophy as a field of knowledge, and philosophy as what philosophers do. The presence of crackpots may have no effect on the former, but it can help discredit the latter.

            Whether or not an academic community is damaged by crackpots in its midst, depends on how the rest of the community reacts. Amongst biochemists, Behe is an absolute laughing stock. He has no more influence of biochemistry as a whole, than David Icke does. Therefore he does no damage.

            Unfortunately, within philosophy, many of the crackpots are taken seriously.

            1. I’m skeptical there is a field of knowledge called philosophy. There are only empirical, natural questions about the world. Some are explored by scientists, some by philosophers, and some by both. The presence of a number of crackpots does nothing to make me discredit “what philosophers do”. The irony is that this discussion between Kroto, Brown, and Coyne raises the Cognitivism v. Non-Cognitivism question in Ethics, but I’m afraid that lots of people will ignore everything that philosophers have done to sort out the issues involved because they have decided a priori that they know better. Well, good luck reinventing the wheel. It strikes me as nothing more than deliberate ignorance from people who can’t be bothered.

      2. Many of the other humanities, however, are indeed filled with science-phobes. Über-successful composer John Adams recently delivered a commencement address at the Juilliard School in which he complained about the illusory superiority “painfully literal-minded” people imagine they posses. He went on to claim that the arts are where the difficult thinking is happening.

        Some commenters here don’t like Dr. Coyne’s broad conception of science. I think it’s the most accurate and the most apt definition. Insofar as we musicians are able to learn anything objective about our art, by conscientiously employing methods and failsafes aimed at avoiding biases, we’re doing science, too.

        The problem is, most practitioners in the arts aren’t interested in doing that. Their armchairs are much too comfy. It also seems to me that many music (I keep going back to music since it is where I have experience) theorists/critics/composers don’t want to think twice about anything they’ve come up with. Once they put it out there, it’s gospel.

          1. Levitin (below) mentions that George Shearing created an unusual effect by having another player perfectly match his piano melody on guitar or vibraphone. Although, it’s not clear if Shearing anticipated the effect “scientifically” or if he discovered it serendipitously.


            1. Thank you for the reccomendation! I’ll check it out.

              Regarding the effect you describe – even if it was deliberately intended by Shearing, one has to take into consideration the fact that the timbres of any two pianos or vibraphones will not be precisely the same. A composer can intended general effects, but these will be mitigated by a host of such factors. This is why I think of “The Music” as a separate, abstract entity from the actual realization, i. e., a performance. And this is in turn why transcriptions are possible. A Bach fugue played on kazoos will still give me goosepimples.

              A fair amount of rigorous analysis reveals, it seems to me, that the best composers did/do not rely on serendipity. This observation goes hand in hand with my view that artistic value should be related directly to the level of intellectual effort that went into its production.

              1. This is why I think of “The Music” as a separate, abstract entity from the actual realization

                Levitin discusses exactly that point!

                Regarding Shearing, yes the instruments had to be properly tuned, and played in sync; then the timbre was such that the audience couldn’t distinguish the piano from the other, and thought that a new instrument was being played.


          2. I am not particularly a respecter of genres. This is not to say I don’t recognize them superficially, but I think it makes much more sense to tackle the merits or demerits of musical pieces on an individual basis.

            That writ, I can admit that there are certain procedures often employed in jazz (broadly defined) that I don’t find intellectually compelling, or that don’t make for a really coherent piece of music.

            On the other hand, most music that one would call “classical” is also poorly written.

            How’s that for a non-answer?

            1. It’s a good “non-answer”

              I like it live, dirty & vibrating ones bones to dust. A handful of instrumentalists. Never the same result twice. In the moment. Leave “composed” at the door next to the intellect.

              1. Well, improvised =/= “not intellectual.” Many great composers were also famous for their skill at improvisation, notably Bach and Beethoven. Very good improvisers are people who’ve diligently studied music and practiced improvising to the point where they can basically “compose” extemporaneously.

        1. A scientific approach to music seems very fruitful. See This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin.


      3. I know I got that caricature of hardline philosophers* through philosophic determination of what of my knowledge is truth, or merely interpretation.

        (Hardline philosopher = a person who thinks philosophy is a better way to answer questions than evidence is.)

        Philosophy is a good way to get questions. It can be a good way to get hypotheses. It has proven to be a bad way to get answers or evidence.

        1. The irony is that most philosopher would describe a “hardline philosopher” as anyone who was a card-carrying naturalist and empiricist. It would be the fuzzy evidence-eschewing types that would be described as “soft”.

          1. Perhaps I should rotate my terminology then, but it still seems to me that someone who holds a specific discipline over others is holding a hard line to that discipline.

      4. I don’t really get the constant philosopher-bashing among some readers here.

        Well, it could be because

        a) “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.”

        b) because philosophy uses unsubstantiated ad hoc ideas such as “epistemology” and “ontology” to discuss reality, despite a).

        c) that has been ongoing for thousands of years without any progress on a).

        d) the same test that applies for religion applies to other story telling: What knowledge about the world has philosophy produced? Here I mean testable, verifiable, sound knowledge.

        If you want to attack specific claims of specific philosophers, I understand that, but attacking an entire discipline out of ignorance of what people in discipline do is, well, unscientific.

        Is that supposed to be supportive? Because where I stand it reads like the religious claim that attacking the subject is to be understood as the same as attacking persons (“specific claims of specific philosophers”).

        And the later claim:

        I’m afraid that lots of people will ignore everything that philosophers have done to sort out the issues involved because they have decided a priori that they know better.

        See c) above; where did the “a priori” slunk in? This is exactly the same claim that is levered against Dawkins, because d) is somehow not relevant.

        As Dawkins, I am “intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging” of philosophy in our otherwise empirical oriented society. Why should I mind story telling of any kind, if it purports to be more than precisely that?

        1. I simply find it ironic, that the question of cognitivism v. non-cognitivism would be raised in its basic form, but no one thinks even acknowledge that philosophers have been discussing these issues since the Emotivists of the 1930s. It’s a very basic question about ethical claims and beliefs, which are real natural phenomena in the world. Are they truth-apt or not? If you have a better answer to these questions about these natural phenomena, then you are free to give them, but in the absence of any non-philosophers attempting to answer them, philosophers have to fill that role.

            1. I think it’s certainly true that scientists cannot fully explain a phenomenon, then religionists will presume that theology can take on that role. #godofthegaps


      1. I quite like Dan Dennet as well… I guess, my question is, what qualifies a philosopher to speak to the fundamentals of human life more than, say, an artist, writer, or poet? Certainly there are smart, well read philosophers, but I’m not sure if they’re going to produce insight any more successfully than anyone else of equivalent learning.

        1. philosophers are no more qualified that all others to speak about “fundamentals of human life” in you words or “human condition” in mine definition (more on “human condition” definition at

          your stanislav lem comment is excellent and conveys very accurate relationship of science and scientists to “human condition” and how philosophers are missing the point

          anyone who adhers to scientific method is a scientist and how he makes money to function in “human condition” is quite another matter altogether

          check out material at the link

          for an organizational aspects of “human condition” and especially the table for the _substance_ underlying the words-as-labls along the dimensions of “institutionalization” and “transportability”

          this may give you an a-ha moment eventually leading to the realization that

          over dep (evolutionary) time SCIENCE will be _the sole_ shepherd of “human condition”

          not philosophy, not religion, not any other “-ism” of any kind but SCIENCE

          as reflection of human deliberative capability operating on relationals and as such MACHINE-THAT-GOES-BY-ITSELF and progresses by preserving integrity and non-ambiguity of itself

        2. Philosophy involves logic and reason, and much studying thereof.

          Philosophy can be a great source of insight. Just consider the influence of David Hume, and his trashing of supernaturalism, for example.

          Philosophy can be very important and useful when thinking about meaning and language. Philosophy can cut through the nonsense of theism and supernaturalism very effectively, whereas the ‘we need evidence’ of science, albeit vital, can be a blunt instrument.

          Let me give an example. I have, with a bit of success, used philosophical arguments to try and put the case that supernaturalism has not just failed to deliver when it comes to evidence, but it can’t deliver when it comes to evidence (a position shared by PZ Myers). Dawkins and Grayling have had a recent discussion on this subject at Oxford.

          This is a purely philosophical position I’m putting forward, and I think it helps us understand what is going on which supernatualist beliefs and it’s claims.

          Of course, I have to admit that Jerry disagrees (as do others, such as Russell Blackford), but I hope this shows that there is a specific and useful role for philosophy in the battle against unreason.

          1. It involves logic and reason, but as theology it goes against reason. Because of what Kroto says, it isn’t a valid way to speculate on Truth (in the Conyean sense).

            Philosophy purports to be more than it is, and by so doing it undermines the way we achieve actual knowledge. Why should I have to accept that?

            To make further progress on philosophy, it would be good to know the answers to the following:

            How would a philosopher know that he claims is invalid as knowledge, assuming it is already philosophical valid (internally consistent)?*

            If there is no answer, philosophy has no claim on “reason” or “insight”.

            * I have already given the same answer for how I would know I’m mistaken on (the empirical validity of) philosophy in another comment.

            1. “but as theology it goes against reason.”

              Philosophy goes against reason?

              I’m finding it hard to believe I am actually reading that on a forum devoted to science and reason.

              Do you honestly think that Dan Dennett is a hindrance to science? Or Patricia and Paul Churchland? Or Sam Harris (who views science and philosophy as continuous)? Or how about Simon Blackburn?

              One of the most bizarre phenomena I have come across in my experience in atheist blogs and forums is anti-philosophy prejudice. I have no idea where this comes from, but the picture that is frequently painted of poor scientists being held back by tyrannical philosophers is both amusing and silly. I can’t imagine a scientist like Jerry being held back by anyone, not even Dan Dennett (if he was so inclined) in full philosopher garb (which includes the Orb of Ontology, swung on a heavy chain).

              1. It’s not “poor scientists being held back by tyrannical philosophers,” it’s annoyed scientists being patronized by supercilious philosophers.

                Dennett respects science and scientists, and is respected in turn.

              2. the picture that is frequently painted of poor scientists being held back by tyrannical philosophers…

                Have your heard of the philosophical insistence upon ‘æther’? Or Mach’s philosophical assertion that atoms cannot be real (based on the philosophical position of “logical positivism”)? Or the retarding brakes, firmly applied by German philosophy, to the discovery of the electron?
                I could go on, but these examples will suffice for the nonce.

              3. Edit: For “Have your”, please read “Have you”.
                And, as I am given to understand that you are an admirer of the School of Python, I pose the cogent question: “What has Philosophy ever done for us?”.
                I have asked this concrete question of self-professed philosophers on countless occasions.
                But have yet to meet with any response from that is not along the juvenile theological lines of:
                “Well heaps, actually. But you don’t have sufficient philosophical training to be in our fan-club, and you don’t know the club password so get out of our tree-fort!”
                And I can “name names” of professional philosophers, replete with links to such juvenile, (nay: infantile & tribal), behaviour should you be willing to proffer we with a reasonably secure and non-public communication channel.

                “What has Philosophy ever done for us?”

        3. He has a great beard! A Father Christmas beard… hang on, has anyone seen Daniel Dennett on Christmas Eve?! I thought not – now we know!

      1. And, pray tell, what distinguishes the two?

        I freely admit that I do not have the requisite magical perception that enables others such as yourself to distinguish between true philosophers and your so-called “manqué”-philosophers.
        Where might I obtain this treasured “philosopher’s stoned” such that I might gain a sufficient perception that will allow humble me to distinguish a TRUE philosopher from a false one?

              1. Yes.
                I seem to recall that we have been through the (retrospective) respective tedium of our Earthly Academic Qualifications in what you humans curiously refer to as “the past”.
                I choose to refer to you as “mister”.
                Any complaints can be referred to Doris, in accounts.

              1. If my oily potato distilled Vodka Martini** (shaken, not shit-stirred) are an attempt at Formidicide, then you leave me no option but to activate my Q-supplied infra-digg sarcasm ray.
                Here goes:



                The ray is still under development, you understand.
                Q is “on to it”.

                ** See NewScientist

              2. Hmm… I wasn’t looking for uniformity

                NOBODY suspects uniformity!

                [Andrew Brown] I know, I know! Nobody expects the Uniform Inquisition. In fact, those who do expect –

                Our chief weapons are…

              3. “The ray is still under development, you understand.
                Q is “on to it”.”

                Wait a minute – they have them already. I saw a “Q-Ray” bracelet a while back!

              4. But my each of my ants has a p-ray.

                Contrary to theists’ experience, a p-ray can be ver’ ver’ effective.



  2. Pedantic bore says ‘It’s Jane Austen’, but otherwise thanks for an excellent post.

    Andrew Brown is a pain in the arse, always attacking atheists and scientists with his big soggy rolled up newspaper of sloppy thinking. Why the Guardian employs such a berk I can’t imagine.

  3. I love how people argue with two different definitions of truth. For a scientist, truth is hardcore knowledge… equations, theories, facts. For a normal person, random statements about culture or aesthetics can be considered ‘truth’. Or people who consider Jesus’s resurrection to be a ‘truth’ because they’d like to believe it. Of course Kroto is wrong if you consider truth to be any mush statement that a religious prophet makes, but at that point, isn’t ‘truth’ completely meaningless, since plenty of people are able to make statements and brainwash people into believing them?

    1. I’d define truth as follows:

      A statement is true if predictions can be made from it which have a better-than-chance probability of being verified.

      This definition has the advantage of allowing us to quantify truth as a continuous variable, so that, for example, relativity is truer than Newtonian mechanics, but both are true.

      Further, it has the advantage of allowing us to dismiss as nonsense those statements from which no predictions can be made (thus being, in that sense, “not even wrong”).

      Come to think of it, I propose we abandon the concept of truth entirely, and replace it with “futuribility”, defined as “the capacity to anticipate the future with better-than-chance probability”. I know, it won’t happen, but I had to try…

  4. I’m not keen on this use of truth. Truth is a difficult word. That Harry Potter could defeat a Griffin with the right spell is a truth. That there is no highest prime number is a truth. That the Bible says that Seraphim have 8 arms is a truth (well, it might not be, but I don’t really care).

    Science isn’t just about truth. It’s about what is true about reality. Someone can go on and on about ethics, but only science can give us any idea if what they say applies to the real world. There are endless truths about what might be, and they are true given the premises. But unless they are scientifically verifiable, they are just making stuff up.

    1. Truth is a difficult word. That Harry Potter could defeat a Griffin with the right spell is a truth. That there is no highest prime number is a truth. That the Bible says that Seraphim have 8 arms is a truth

      How is the truth of those claims determined except by “using reason, observation, and experiment to determine things about the universe that can be verified as true by other independent observers”? Surely reason and observation is used to understand Harry Potter’s claimed powers, and such reasoning and observation can be done by other independent observers? Surely reason is used to understand the nature of prime numbers, reason which is accessible to anyone else who works through it? Surely reason and observation tell us what the Bible says about the Seraphim’s complement of limbs, as anyone who reads it can see?

      One can determine whether it is true that a source makes a particular fictional or false claim — just because the claim itself is fictional or false does not mean there is no truth as to the content of the claim being made.

      1. “Surely reason and observation is used to understand Harry Potter’s claimed powers”

        I don’t know. I’ve never managed to find the right platform for the train to Hogwarts 🙂

        “Surely reason is used to understand the nature of prime numbers, reason which is accessible to anyone else who works through it?”

        Yes, but not empirical evidence.

        1. Quite.

          I think the point missing is the natural number don’t exist (weren’t they created by God?).

          However they have proved a useful tool for interpreting aspects of reality, and creating our own aspects of reality (e.g. Banks).

          I vaguely recall an argument about how banks don’t exist like reality exists, they are a social construct (which helps to explain how they disappear so quickly when people stop believing in them, along with money). In that sense I think one can bring empirical evidence to work on social constructs, and you end up with “economics”, which looks and feels like a science but mostly is dealing with social constructs like money.

          Sometimes the term social sciences is used, but that term is too broad. There is a difference in the nature of “Education” and “Economics” say. That although many aspects of Education maybe based on social constructs, other aspects are based on the learning capacity of chimpanzees.

          Clearly it is possible to have “reliable” economic knowledge, does that count as non-scientific truth. It may be empirically based, but I’m fairly sure it isn’t of the same stuff as the theory of evolution.

          I’m guessing skill at Jazz improvisation is a similar kind of social construct (influenced by human physiology no doubt) in which one could be reliably good, and able to teach “truths” of Jazz.

          However I don’t think this is the kind of non-scientific truths Brown was aiming for.

        2. “I’ve never managed to find the right platform for the train to Hogwarts”

          It’s like beating your head against a brick wall!

          1. Part of the problem is that Rowling confused King’s Cross and St. Pancras… At KGX, platforms 9 and 10 are not mainline platforms.

            KGX does, for now, have a Platform 0, however.


            1. Wellington Railway Station, New Zealand, does have a Platform 9 3/4 – or at least a sign for it. It went up as a publicity stunt for one of the Potter films, I think, but now it’s a dry-cleaning outlet. I guess if your suit doesn’t come back they say it’s lost at Hogwarts.

              It’s actually between Platforms 6 and 7, which gives it a better position, but rather spoils the effect. Platform 9 is the last platform, and for buses.

    2. I would steer away from the word “truth” just as I would steer away from the use of “proof”. Both are viable in closed systems, whether mathematics, the legal system (you choose, American, Aztec, Islamic, or ???), or Harry Potter novels…these are all finite systems, and “truth” and “proof” live there, live well.

      An infinitely open system, such as Reality, our Universe, has no use for the concept of “truth” and “proof”. “Certainty” and “Degree of Certainty” are more useful ways to describe the realm of the scientific, real world such as the planet we live on, and the Milky Way Galaxy.

  5. There is another way to come to the truth. Just think up some model that could possibly describe a truth in the universe. If you are very lucky, you may have stumbled upon the truth. Obviously you wouldn’t actually know whether it is true or not, but who needs that anyways?

  6. Yes, of course the instant someone blabbers on about science and “truth”, you know that they’ve gone completely off the rails.

    Truth is not a scientific concept. Unless you narrow the definition of “truth” to “objective, verifiable, evidence-based knowledge”. But this is wrong, because there are other types of “truth”. I love my parents — that’s a truth, but it’s not objectively verifiable.

    Conflating objectively verifiable knowledge with the subjective and experiential seems to be the one-trick of a very sad accommodationist pony.

    1. sad? “gone off the rails”?

      No, it is simply cowardice. Mr. Brown is a coward. It is far easier and comfortable to find a refuge that protects you from harsh reality.

      What we see as we read the stuff Andrew Brown writes is a man in full flight in retreat. Like a soldier fleeing the front lines, the bombardment, the onslaught of the enemy, we see irrationality, the stumbling and staggering. The anger and violent cries.

    2. In fact “truth” is a religious concept because it signifies an absolute, which in real life is not attainable. Theologians love to apply the term to science, comparing the “absolute truth” of religious revelation (of course an absurdity) to the continuous questioning of nature by scientists. This is why theologians live in a dream-world. Their “truth” simply doesn’t exist (or it does, as fiction), but they earn PhD’s with it.

      1. On the other hand, error comes in degrees, so it seems plausible to hold that truth does too. (Details are hard: See Bunge’s _Treatise on Basic Philosophy_, volume 5 or 6 for one take.) Of course, the garbage that people who have to *claim* the obvious fact that science isn’t the only way actually produce isn’t very true …

    3. “I love my parents — that’s a truth, but it’s not objectively verifiable. ”

      Sure it is. One could observe your behavior and see if it is consistent with the emotion of love. Or, we could put you in an MRI and see if the appropriate areas of your brain light up when you think of your parents.

      1. But is it worthwhile to even consider “I love my parents” as a “truth”? It is a condition that you contain, but the language message “I love my parents” is merely a language construction and nothing more, with no more value than the statement “North of the North Pole.”

      2. No, it isn’t verifiable. You could have very rich parents, hate them, but behave as if you love them. And this MRI experiment is not really conclusive–just like lie detectors aren’t.

        This is why the concept of “truth” is really an absurdity in legal matters and justice. Just look at the case of Strauss-Kahn.

      3. There is much more pedestrian evidence. If someone says “I love my parents” we normally consider that evidence, unless we have some reason to think them untruthful. We might also look at behavioral evidence. If someone ignores his parents in a time of need, then that would be evidence that he doesn’t love his parents. We are all collecting evidence about our social relationships all the time based on testimony and behavior. If you were incapable of collecting this evidence, you would be incapable of functioning socially.

        This argument that we hear from faith-heads all the time that “I love my wife” is immune to evidence is simply baloney.

  7. The question about whether value judgments are capable of being true or not (truth-apt) is the age-old question of Cognitivism vs. Non-Cognitivism. The jury is still out, but Andrew Brown is wrong either way. If you a Cognitivist (of the Ethical Naturalist variety), then (like Sam Harris) you believe that ethical claims are open to scientific investigation. If you’re a Non-Cognitivist, then you don’t think they are open to scientific investigation, but you also think there is no truth to be investigated. So, either way, Brown is a wrong. He has yet again proven that he is willing to bloviate on topics of which he has no understanding.

    1. Why should we nbother with “values” in the context of SCIENCE?

      Do you distinguish between “value” and “validity”?

      Would you agree that all our “value” statements pre-date scientific method and as such should be “re-evaluated” in light of what we know thru science about our configuration spaace and how we actively disturb it _before_ we understand all the relationships (think black box approach to “human condition”)

      Think about the relationships with words-as-lables and underlying _substance_ and why it is so hard to agree about “thruthness” of “value statements”.

      Don’t you think the whole idea of “value” may be incompartible with science?

      statistical probity: that quality of a statement that relates the essentially scientific probability of its factuality (there is no other) as accounting for its integrity or ‘truthedness’ -as for example-
      “We know how to teach dogs tricks” -that is, some of us, some dogs, and some tricks -all aspects of which are unambiguously definable as opposed to such statements as ‘God is great’, ‘Democracy is the best form of government’ and ‘The economy has to grow’.

      1. I don’t know if normative statements are necessary in science at all. I would suspect not, but people make normative statements about science anyway. Given the prevalence of normative statements like “You ought to believe what is true” or “I should eat more vegetables”, it would be nice to know if they are truth-apt or not.

        Between Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris, we have two people lining up on the opposite sides of the debate, at least as regards ethical claims. It’s an interesting question. My point was just that Andrew Brown is wrong either way. Either there is a fact-of-the matter, in which case, science can study it, or there is no fact-of-the matter, in which case there is nothing that science has failed to study.

        1. i am not quite sure if jerry is at the opposite end to sam because i have not heard jerry to assert his position as you have stated it

          i got your point and agree that it is valid and that brown talks nonsense from both positions

          but i am more interested which position you yourself take on the “value” issue

          i side with jerry on account of science being _the only_ way of “knowing”

          i also maintain that there is a certain way of using language that is consistent and compartible with “science”

          and i also maintain that if we take the logic of science as the only way of knowing and apply it to “human condition” we will achieve understanding of “human condition” superior to the one currently resident in philosophy, economics, political science, anthropology, and other “soft sciences”

          1. I’m pretty agnostic on the issue because it’s unsettled. My hunch is with Cognitivism although I think the right account will have to incorporate some of the Non-Cognitivist insights. Just a hunch though. As for Jerry, I was putting him in the Non-Cognitivist camp on the basis of the sentence, “I don’t believe there are such things as “ethical truths”—certainly not in the same sense that there are scientific truths.” Maybe he could elaborate.

  8. I started reading Brown’s piece, but after the six first lines I saw that this guy is too stupid to waste any more time with.

    1. He’s not stupid. Otherwise, he could not generate sentence after sentence.

      He’s a coward. Let’s start calling people by their actions, rather than grading their intellect (grading intellect is a very convoluted subject).

      Brown is simply a coward. The idea that science is the best explanation for everything in this world will ruin his personal quest for immortality. This is too frightening for him. Run away, before the real truth grabs you in its inescapable clutches.

  9. Jerry ~ to watch Sir Harry here’s a possible fix:

    Assuming you’re running Windows go to this Microsoft page & it will autocheck if you have Microsoft Silverlight installed & it’s an easy, free install if you haven’t.

    1. Michael, we’re not all running a Microsoft operating system, so Silverlight is simply not an option for many of us.

      1. Hence my “Assuming…” opening David

        Quote: “Silverlight is simply not an option for many of us.” There are usually options ~ e.g. if you’re Mac OS (not iOS though ?), then you could run Silverlight on Parallels VM

        1. Linux. No silverlight. Nor am I going to take the trouble to set up a virtual machine (VM), and then purchase a version of Windows to run in it, just to watch this video. Silverlight is not an option.

          1. That’s unnecessary. Google for “Moonlight”…

            It’s an open source implementation of Silverlight for Linux

            Also there are browser-based solutions

    1. i would not recommend “morral landscape” because there is very little if any “science” in it

      the book is an example of excellent command of english language and an attempt to grab “morality” out of the hands of “theists” and “religionists”

      because the subject is so sensitive and so against “mainstream” i give sam highest respects for even attemting a book on it

      at the same time sam never really gets to defining anything with any sort of scientific non-ambiguity and never presents logically coherent picture that would constitute _an advance_ of science

      i am curious if sam does not understand the etiology of “human condition” or for reasons of “marketability” (unconsciously of course 🙂 he does not venture into the entirely scientific territory because doing so would constitute “social and financial suicide”

      i have nothing but highest respect to sam for what he have done so far and i love his talks and sense of humor and everything but that “torture argument” he had made and about which he later “regretted” tells me that he has not found the way how to be “scientist both in and out of the lab”

      i do not blame sam because he has public persona which he cannot afford to compromise it and therefore is very carefull on what he can and cannot say

      but those who are “obscure nobody” like me 🙂 and do not depend on “reputation” can entertain “pure science”

      this is why i would recommend sam’s “moral landscape” as the language text and would not recommend as a science text

  10. “A truth claim involving ethics would be something like “everyone forgives their enemies” ”
    Actually, the way I see it, while “forgive your enemies’ is merely a guide to behaviour, the claim that “it is (generally) better to forgive your enemies than not to” is a claim with a truth value provided only that we can agree in advance on what ‘better’ means – and it shouldn’t be that difficult to produce a fairly high degree of consensus that ‘better’ means something like ‘more conducive to human happiness’. Okay, the edges are blurry, but the idea that there are no ethical truths is a questionable one, given that we all know what it’s like to experience greater or lesser levels of happiness and suffering, and that our brains are for the most part similar enough that we can usually generalise.

  11. Science does not search for TRUTH nor CERTAINTY. We merely seek the aleatoric approximations of the ACTUALITIES that surround us. Not the elusive, solipsistic “realities” that may delude us.

  12. Brown is generally a tiresome person; but when Kroto says that science alone attains to ANY degree of reliable truth, he goes a step too far, methinks; unless science is deemed to be just souped-up common sense. Common sense will get one closer to the truth than the lack of it – in the absence of science; if science be something transcending common sense. Modern physics would suggest that sometimes, at least, it is.

    1. Assuming that science and philososophy both start from common sense and diverge at some point from it, science’s approximation to the truth can be measured both by critical thinking and empirical testing. Philosophy can only be tested by critical thinking.

      Therefore science provides the safest approximation to the truth that we can attain.

      1. Common sense is neither common nor is it sense. Science is NOT intuitive as I think Kroto says.

        1. In no way, shape, form, or regard is quantum mechanics intuitive. In fact, many of its assertions are quite counter-intuitive.

          1. ‘Counter-intuitive’, like ‘ethical truths’, is a time- and context-dependent description relative to an individual, not an objective or scientific statement.

            Reading Feynman’s ‘QED’ is one way to get a better intuition. David Deutsch’s ‘The Fabric of Reality’ is another. Double-slit experiments make sense after a little study, and I don’t see any reason to doubt that intuition can do even better than that.

            1. +1 for Deutsch.

              I wouldn’t go so far as saying he makes it intuitive, but his was the first /explanation/ of QM that made sense to me. (And me with a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics!)


        2. I see common sense as the starting point to consciously think about and attempt to understand (to some degree) something or other.

          Reformulating what I said before I would say that science is the application of highly refined empirical methods in addition to critical thinking in an attempt to test possible explanations to questions. Without those empirical methods one is relying on critical thinking alone.

          Aristotle had an all-encompassing picture of the nature of things. He was led inexorably into all kinds of errors by having either insufficient empirical methods available to test his hypotheses or by having hypotheses which were incapable of being empiricaly tested.

          There is a place for philosophy: for attending to questions where empirical methods cannot be applied. Scientists learn to be very cautious before committing themselves 100% to an answer to a question. Philosophers ought to be even more cautious.

  13. 1 The world is all that is the case.
    1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
    – a well-known philosopher. Close enough?

  14. Cowardice. That is the only explanation for people like Andrew Brown. When the movie named “Real Life and Reality” gets to scary, they hide under the blankets of Woo, and pretend it really isn’t happening.

    If it never passes before your eyes, and never enters your thoughts, then it really doesn’t happen, does it?

    Andrew Brown, you are a coward. Quit grabbling for the blankets and obscuring plain vision, every time the idea that your immortality is an untrue idea comes galloping right at you.

  15. Oh I think we can bash philosophers quite a bit more. First, they can’t prove their assumptions, the very thing they like to criticize science for. Second, philosopher don’t seem to have reached any conclusions, answered any questions, or really just come up with anything useful. Philosophy is a word game. Consider that Zeno logically showed that arrows (or anything else) can’t move. I think therefore I am? Thanks for nothing, philosophy. Philosophy is not a way of knowing, just a way of talking. But somehow, we are supposed to accept the judgments of some philosophers that all ways of believing are equal.

    1. First, philosophers depend on the same empirical observation as anyone else. I don’t know who these people are who you claim criticize scientists for doing so.

      Second, you also don’t seem to understand the point of paradoxes. A paradox is an argument to a seemingly false conclusion. There are three responses to the argument. (1) Accept the conclusion. (2) Reject at least one of the premises, (3) Argue that the argument isn’t valid. The conclusion of Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion are false, and as long ago as Aristotle, people had arguments of which premises are false. I tend to think that learning something through arguments like this is a good thing, but that’s just me.

      1. i would reiterate my position in my comment earlier that _science_ is the _only_ way of knowing

        philosophy like religion is fore-father of science and is evolutionary inferior to science as the tool of making sense of reality

        why then religion and philosophy has not disappeared yet?

        because it takes time and effort to become a “proper scientist”

        religion and philosophy on the other hand automatically receive replicators because people are born in ignorance

        this is simply a number game and unless “proper scientists” move into government and work on laws to properly institutionalize science religion and philosophy will continue to get more replication than science

        but this will not go on forever

        with overpopulation and our acting out of ignorance in the absence of scientists “running the show” homo sapiens will be forced to subspeciate physically and mentally to give rise to homo cogitans who will inherit the planet from homo sapiens after first or many civilization collapse (peak everything, nuclear war, climate change – homo sapiens and his socio-economic system is doomed)

  16. The question is:

    What are our natural sources of justification and knowledge?

    The answer is:

    * experience: (sensory) perception + introspection (self-observation)
    * reason (rational insight/intuition)
    * memory
    * testimony

    Supernaturalists claim that additional epistemic sources are available to (some of) us:

    * extrasensory perception (clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy)
    * mystical intuition (distinct from rational intuition)
    * revelation

  17. Two different questions:

    1. What does it mean to say that a proposition is true?

    2. How can we know whether a given proposition is true?

    1. Are such questions within a closed system such as mathematics?

      In fact, number 2 is the basic point of departure in developing the mathematical philosophy.

      Open systems, such as reality, allow any observation and never arrive at “proof” or “truth”.

      1. In fact “truth” is not only a religious concept, but also a mathematical one. For example, in mathematical logic you have “truth tables.” Some people, including some mathematicians see mythical aspects in mathematics, such as the concept of “infinity.” This is why the Templeton Foundation loves mathematicians.

  18. I see where this guy is coming from; scientism really is a problem, philosophically.

    But, on the flip side, what do we ever do that ISN’T science? Deep down, even our primate ancestors fundamentally work scientifically.
    Chimps don’t discuss epistemology of course, but so far all results from the anti-science crowd have left me underwhelmed. I don’t have any formal philosophical training and I saw straight through presuppositionalist Christian apologetics, for example, as utterly vacant. Ironically, the presuppers do the exact thing this person accuses scientists of; that is, they assert their worldview axiomatically.

    So scientism is unwarranted, but for the same reason that formal or dogmatic atheism is; it’s an attempt to be either axiomatic or deductive about things we really only have inductive claims to. And hey, “close enough” said the engineer!

  19. The three key sentences following scientific method are

    Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine truth with any degree of reliability.

    The ethical purpose of education must involve the teaching of our young people how they can decide what they are being told is actually true.

    Thus the teaching of a skeptical. evidence based assessment of all claims is fundamentally an intellectual integrity issue.

    and he means science just as you defined it – don’t just accept anything told you by anyone, look for the evidence, and make up your mind based it it, not what someone tells you to believe. That is why he was attacked- it called a call for responsible free thinking.

    1. You beat me to it – & more concisely! I spent ages with ‘sticky notes’ to get those slides!

  20. Math and pure logic. Of course, those have different aims than science in that they are for discovering truths that would apply in any conceivable universe or even if no universe existed – given the right set of axioms, 1+1=2 even if there aren’t two atoms in existence to count with that knowledge. So it would perhaps be more precise to say that science is the only reliable way to find truth about the nature of our very specific universe, but that is implicitly what those discussions tend to be about anyway.

  21. So according to Brown the statement that science is the only reliable way of getting at the truth is equivalent to the statement that only science can get at the truth? So much for logic. Of course one might guess right about the truth but guessing is, last I checked not especially reliable. Or we can all sit in a big room and navel gaze while leafing through an old book repeating chants over and over. I suspect guessing would be more reliable.

  22. Scientism schmiantism. Whatever that means.

    Just listened to the whole thing. Kroto is talking about being inspiring, encouraging young people to take up science. He talks of how it is the young who make the great discoveries – the young Einstein etc. Hi speaks well – I have never heard him before – but was a little rushed – it would have fitted 40mins better than 30 or so!
    He started with his favourite quote for when he gets serious – “If you make people think they are thinking they’ll love you, but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”

    He said around the 8min mark the key points of his lecture, that the key points are –

    1. The body of all knowledge and understanding of the way the Physical and Natural World work;

    2. The application of that knowledge – Technology (which he said is mostly what interests journalists);

    3. The numerous ways in which this knowledge is actually discovered – scientific method;

    4. Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.

    The Ethical Purpose of Education must involve the teaching of young people how they can decide what is TRUE .

    Thus the teaching of skeptical, evidence-based assessment of ALL claims without exception is fundamentally an intellectual integrity issue.

    Without evidence, anything goes. Think about it.”

    He then gives is 4/5 rule – if 4/5 fits the evidence it is right, if 1/5 it is wrong. He goes on giving your infamous Kentucky fried Museum of Creation as an example of non-integrity…

    That is the most important part.

    The download thing must be a Silverlight issue as someone said…

    1. Very good summary!

      Since there is no edit facility I would amend that he spelled it “an Intellectual Integrity Issue”.

    2. The quotation he uses at the beginning about thinking is attributed to Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878 – 1937) American journalist and humorist according to a quotation site I found.

  23. In the end, the [scientific] method is validated by its results, and needs no a priori justification.

    C’mon, Professor Coyne. Are you really going to drag out this old sawhorse again?

    The only validation I need for God’s existence is right here — I’m thumping my chest — RIGHT HERE, I tell you. Ouch. Okay, a little heartburn may not be the best evidence, but those two free coupons to Der Wienerschniztel that I found lying on the ground tells me all that I need to know.

  24. It seems to me there are three components of knowledge, reason, observation and values.

    Reason on its own gives us mathematics.

    Observation on its own gives us stamp collecting and similar pursuits.

    Reason and observation together give us science.

    Reason and values give us philosophy.

    Observation and values give us all forms of woo, including pseudo-science and religion.

    All three together makes a fully rounded knowledge base.

    Values on its own leaves me puzzled. Perhaps that’s where all those “things that can’t be explained by science” like love and beauty belong.

    Brown seems to ignore the reason component.

  25. I haven’t heard Kroto before, but if you take away the Nobel context, what remains is as good a talk as you will hear anywhere. I learned from it. Brown apparently didn’t, if that characterization of science was what got his goat.

  26. The observational and experimental methods of empirical science have historically turned out to be the most objective, most reliable, and most successful methods of discovering *contingent* (non-necessary) facts or truths about spatiotemporal concrete reality, which I, being a naturalist, equate with the whole of reality.
    So the scientists do have an *a-posteriori* justification for their empiricist methodology.

  27. Jerry, I’m right with you on your critique of
    Brown. I’m so sick of all these folks who play the “scientism” card, taking it as obvious there are “other ways of knowing” but
    failing to support their assertions.

    BTW, the only thing I disagree with is your view on ethics:

    “I don’t believe there are such things as “ethical truths”—certainly not in the same sense that there are scientific truths. ”

    Whereas I believe (following certain Utilitarian value theories) that if you really look into the nature of how value arises, and how ought statements relate to value, then you can see that ought statements make objective claims – claims about our desires (which supply the only reasons for actions that exist) and that which will fulfill desires. Statements like “Rape is bad” (i.e. we ought not rape) would be objectively true.

    That of course is not the argument for the theory. But I do think moral realist theories are worth looking in to. (But perhaps you’ve already done so and rejected what you’ve found).

    Certain theories of moral realism get to where Sam Harris wants to go, but do so in more detail, with more exactness, and they can get underneath some of the problems Sam is still having with his “Well Being” proposal (vagueness being a major issue, as even Sam seems to admit).



  28. “It’s not “poor scientists being held back by tyrannical philosophers,” it’s annoyed scientists being patronized by supercilious philosophers.”

    Please excuse me, but I have to say – so what? I’m sure scientists aren’t poor fragile egos who will faint if some philosopher goes all supercilious on their asses.

    Whatever philosophers say is NOTHING compared to what scientists say to each other! 🙂

    1. “It’s not “poor scientists being held back by tyrannical philosophers,” it’s annoyed scientists being patronized by supercilious philosophers.”

      It’s intriguing that you would get annoyed at the mention of a loving father, who created the heavens the earth and mankind in his image and likeness, and gave his only Son to take the punishment we all deserve for our sins and yet don’t seem to get nearly as vexed by umpa loompas or unicorns.

      1. Things to be annoyed at:

        “the punishment we all deserve”

        Nobody deserves punish as described by Christianity or Islam. If hell existed, inflicting it on anyone would be pure unadulterated evil.

        “loving father, who created the heavens the earth and mankind in his image and likeness”

        This certainly deserves annoyance. It is the epitome of lying. No, not lying about the truth/falsehood of a claim, but lying about your certainty about the claim.

        “don’t seem to get nearly as vexed by umpa loompas or unicorns”

        When those other things have a church that protects child rapists, counsels against condoms, commits psychological sadism, rips the clitorises out of its little girls, kills gays, or blows up people in the name of their delusional ravings, then we might get a little vexed.

    2. Whatever philosophers say is NOTHING compared to what scientists say to each other!

      How shamelessly juvenile.
      Now, answer this serious question, if you deign to:
      What concrete advance has your beloved ‘philosophy’ ever delivered to mankind?

      1. I am betting on “the sound of crickets” as a response this question.
        I am also hoping (against hope) to be disabused of that expectation that I, for once, might engage in an interaction where I might learn something novel & positive from a self-professed philoso-maven.

        As Prof. Steven Jones has postulated:
        Philosophy rightly replaced Religion.
        Science rightly replaced Philosophy.

        Just as those of the faith-bent could not accept the philosophical demolition(s) of their rickety faith positions, professional philosophers cannot accept that their unrealistic realm has been ENTIRELY subsumed by science.

          1. What is this “science-oriented” philosophy of which you speak?
            It is a novelty to me.
            It is not incumbent upon me to “define it”.
            That task is yours, as the poser of the question.

            The sound of crickets predominates the metaphorical soundscape of responses.

            How many professional philosophers peruse this web-site? How many valid concrete responses?
            The response/philosopher ratio is exactly as I have experienced in the past: the same ratio of god-proofs/theists ratio.

            1. A science oriented philosophy is one which (a) covers large portions of traditional philosophy but (b) adjudicates their contents based on the best established contemporary science. An additional component, (c), is the recognition that science itself presupposes and is dependent on general (“philosophical”) hypotheses. Recognition of these takes place over time, so the status of these general philosophical principles also does. Finally, (d), there are concepts found in many or all sciences which tend to be also the ones analyzed and discussed by philosophers whether science-oriented or not. Needless to say, this exploration is done with an eye to (a)-(c) if the philosophy is science-oriented, and not if otherwise.

      1. It is good to eat your philosophical vegetables, even if they don’t taste good. I’d be glad to clarify my take on the relationship between science and philosophy if you have questions. Judging on your responses to others, it seems you’ve already made up your mind, however.

        1. Judging on your responses to others, it seems you’ve already made up your mind, however

          I can see that as a very fair interpretation of my current position, most certainly!
          A position based upon a long life-time of quizzing professional philosophers on one vitally pertinent question, yet never receiving what I judge to be an attempt at a response, let alone a satisfactory one.

          You sated that you’d be glad to clarify your take on my very query, should I “have any questions”. For this I thank you.

          Here is my (so-far) unanswered question (in terse form, for the sake of clarity):

          What concrete advance hath philosophy ever rendered to mankind of which science is incapable?

          I sincerely appreciate your willingness to respond to this genuine enquiry, as every other professional philosopher has flatly refused to answer what I consider to be a VERY simple question.

          I am all ears.

          1. I offered to give you my position on the ‘relationship’ between science and philosophy. I think the ‘relationship’ between these two modes of inquiry is important to emphasize, since either in isolation from the other becomes impotent. I do not believe there would be any such thing as a scientific method without philosophers like Aristotle, Bacon, and Descartes. I’d say that one of the great tragedies of our advanced age of scientific specialization is that our civilization’s great scientists are seldom also good philosophers. They tend to project the categories of explanation of their own focused discipline onto the broader scope of reality, committing what A. N. Whitehead (one of the few philosopher-scientists of the 20th century) called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For Whitehead, philosophy’s role in relation to science is to be the critic of excessive abstraction, especially of the sort which contradicts or makes illusory our actual experience in the world as conscious persons. While he is in the lab, only the Truth matters to the scientific specialist; for the philosopher, the Good and the Beautiful are no less real. Of course, as soon as the scientist takes off her white coat and becomes a conscious person living in the everyday world again, she, too, begin to philosophize about what the good life might be.

            1. I interpret this request for a concrete example, as a rather long-winded and frankly tedious and boring example of what I am staunchly against:
              bloviating philosophical drivel that says nought whatsoever.
              (Vis: that which did not only SIGNIFICANTLY avoid answering my viscously CLEAR question)
              Yet, as all sentient observers of this interaction are able to appreciate, you have NOT in the slightest manner addressed my very crystal-clear question, as have no self-confessed philosophers, (to date).

              Honestly. Stop arsing around and ANSWER MY BLOODY QUESTION!

              (Or admit that you are unwilling to to do so for some reason. At least that would be honest. Or is that a novel term to philosophers?)

              1. The short answer to your question is that philosophy gave us science itself. Science is not itself grounded in the scientific method, it is grounded in the epistemological and cosmological achievements of philosophy.

              2. philosophy gave us science itself

                That is exactly my initial premise!
                Congratters, old chap!
                But as for the consequent (frankly embarrassing) and juvenile drivel about being “grounded in the epistemological and cosmological achievements of philosophy”, neither I, nor you, nor anyone else has** the foggiest notion of that to which you refer.

                And extra points for avoiding answering my staggeringly simple query.

                Please play again, when you wish to waste the entire globe’s time.

                ** Typical of self “pleasuring” philosophers.

  29. No need to apologise to Miss Austin. She did not say “It is the only truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And if she had, she’d just about have to apologise for saying it.

  30. Yeah, what have people like Descartes, Liebniz, Locke, Hume, Frege, Russell, Whitehead, Quine, Wittgenstein or Popper contributed to human understanding?

    In a non-scientific field, for one, Locke probably contributed more to establishing liberal democracy as the predominant form of modern government than anyone; to paraphrase Whitehead, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights are “footnotes to Locke”.

  31. It’s funny that the very first comments here are going after philosophers, as my overall impression upon reading the column was that Brown’s problem is an unfamiliarity with some very basic philosophy (I see some attempted to set the record straight that Brown is most definitely not a philosopher, but allow me to amplify the point here).

    His opening salvo against Kroto appears to be a clumsy attempt at restating the Problem of Induction. That is a very valid problem, and FWIW I happen to be in the camp that believes it is an insurmountable problem, at least from a purely philosophical point of view. However, Brown fails to grasp that a) many great minds have already mounted valiant attempts at a solution, which must be considered; b) it is not just science, but all potential epistemologies which crumble once induction is discarded; and c) he can’t seriously be arguing that inductive reasoning is invalid, can he? One is reminded of the story of the alien species which endured much suffering and failure as a result of their rejection of inductive reasoning. When the human emissaries asked them why they continued to reject any form of empiricism, despite the obvious failure of their catastrophic philosophical position, the aliens responded, “Well, it never worked for us before, so….”

    In other words, while the Problem of Induction may be a very real philosophical problem, every single one of us implicitly accepts the validity of inductive reasoning anyway, so this is not really a useful argument when talking about anything practical.

    Another area where Brown shows his total ignorance when it comes to philosophy is when he states a particular meta-ethical position (Moral Realism) as if it were obviously and uncontroversially true, and then uses that to support his argument. (In fairness, Jerry takes an equally controversial position — Moral Error Theory — and does much the same thing, though at least there it is somewhat more obvious that he is stating it as his own opinion) There are some very interesting arguments in favor of moral realism, and FWIW I am almost a moral realist myself (I feel similarly to how I feel about the problem of induction, in fact: that the assumptions needed to establish moral “truths” are ultimately unsupportable, but we all basically share those assumptions anyway, so I’m inclined to simply grant them).

    To be sure, many philosophers have mounted quixotic attacks on science, refusing to recognize in the process that attacking its philosophical underpinnings does nothing to change its usefulness, while also failing to acknowledge that those same attacks, if taken seriously, render all knowledge or reasoning of any kind utterly impotent. And just as surely, other philosophers have hit back in favor of reason and science. But that is not what is going on here. This is just some dumb-ass faith-lovin’ journalist engaging in some junior high caliber philosophical musings, without any recognition of the work that has come before, the various positions that are held, or the monumental challenges awaiting those who would take the next logical step. A criticism of Brown’s article is not a criticism of philosophy; it is a criticism of philosophical ignorance.

    1. Oops, never finished my thought at the end of the second-to-last paragraph. I should have gone on to say something like:

      “But one cannot take a controversial position which is much discussed in philosophical circles, with no clear consensus, and then simply assert it in support of your argument. It would be like if I were arguing in favor of marriage equality, and to bolster my point I said, “We all agree in unlimited reproductive rights, of course, so why not this?” Both those positions happen to be right, IMO, but it would be foolish to just assume my audience agrees with me.

      1. I would say that you’ll have to elaborate further. I have no idea what you mean by that.

        Is it because I am saying, “Oh, he needs to understand that which he speaks about first,” the way theologians will say, “You can’t deny God without knowing theology”? But there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with saying that you must know about field X in order to comment on it intelligently; it’s just that if you deny the very premise, then it rings hollow when others ask you to understand what has been done with the premise. I have no need to know the details of astrology to reject it; the same goes for theology. The premise itself is preposterous.

        Or is there some other way you are saying I sound like a theist? I’m just not getting it.

        Racking my brain here… I know some atheists object to my characterization of the problem of induction — they insist that it is, after all, solvable. I don’t think that it is, but I do believe that inductive reasoning is valid — so I suppose in a way that’s a form of “faith”, and some atheists I’ve talked to on the topic do object to it. But that’s some pretty weak tea to qualify as “theism”…!

        You’ll need to clarify…

    2. Statistical generalisations are always that:
      guaranteed to oversimplify complex interactions to the limit of misunderstanding.
      Curiously targeted at the inadvertantly naïve.
      Who amongst us is able to plead “not guilty”?

      1. But it’s NOT a statistical generalization… Brown seemed unaware that there is even a controversy. It’s not that Brown thought that any metaethical position other than Moral Realism was a minority fringe position; it’s that he didn’t even seem to understand that there were other opinions on the matter.

  32. It annoys me no end that I’m late to this argument because it’s become a project of mine to go around various philosophy talks and asking pretty high calibre philosphers why Logical Positivism failed and you know the funny thing? Nobody really seems to know why. That’s really because, despite lazy scholarship from people like Mary Midgeley, Andrew Brown and pretty much everyone trying to carve out a niche for non-scientific thinking, there was no collapse of Logical Positivism.

    Essentially there are two claims that make up their position as far as I can tell. The first is something along the lines of most disagreement is really a problem of terminology, people talking past each other. The idea is that we can then resolve this by developing a sort of technical language which we can use to express particular claims in a form that makes them mutually describable. This is where the Logical side of the logical positivism comes from, they basically thought that you could use logical notation to do this. There is more to this, notably around what you need to consider axiomatic in your logical language, but I don’t think that’s important for the general gist.

    The second major doctrine is the one they get the most notice for, their verification principle. The idea is roughly that in order for terms to have meaning, they have to attach to the world in some sort of way. The idea will be roughly that in order for us to know that someone means say red with a particular word, they need to show some sign of responding appropriately to red being in the world. The conclusion this led them to was that when someone proposes the existance of something without a clear test, there’s no way for us to know what it is they really mean.

    Now the problem that’s supposed to have dealt with the Logical positivists is largely seen to be difficulties with the first project, of developing a so-called protocal language or a logical notation that can tackle the full scope of natural language terms. This stuff is however very technical and I’m only just starting to dip my toe into it but as I understand it there are some ways to deal with the criticisms here. This doesn’t really matter though because it’s very clear that critics like Andrew Brown are really after the second principle, the Verification principle and that’s where they’ve got quite a big problem on their hands.

    Let’s cut to the chase here: we have not got rid of the verification principle. Worse yet, in many cases this idea that there’s something fundamentally public to the meanings of our terms, the idea that leads us to require meaning to be testable, forms a corner stone of a large amount of modern Philosophy of Language and is pretty much assumed in some of the biggest debates in Epistemology. Hell, it’s arguable that verificationism forms a cornerstone of Quine’s argument against analyticity, one of the supposed “nails” in the coffin of Logical Positivism.

    1. In 2011, the number of philosophers who still believe that meaningfulness depends on verifiability is very low. Metaphysics has been rehabilitated several decades ago and is blooming again. The naturalists among the contemporary metaphysicians such as David Armstrong see to it that their theses and theories are consistent with the scientific knowledge available.

        1. I was tempted to ignore you Michael but I decided to give you one warning.

          I don’t mind having it pointed out if what I’ve said isn’t clear. If someone doesn’t understand what I’ve written, the honest first assumption is that I’ve failed and I’m willing to do something about that. On the other hand your comments are straying dangerously close to trolling. Prove to me we’re discussing in good faith and you can ask anything you like. The ball is in your court.

          1. What you said was not at all clear to me, nor your replies.

            I used a shorthand that I thought that you may have understood, but plainly did not.
            Your contribution(s) seems to me as a word-salad.
            But I am not trained in philosophy, you understand.

      1. Two Words: McDowell and Davidson. If that doesn’t work for you there’s Quine’s radical interpreter which of course rests on the idea of a publicly available measure of success which is Verificationism by another name as all those Verificationist interpretations of Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument can attest. Now I’ll admit, this is all fairly 20th century philosophy so someone may have made some radical contribution in the last 10 years. Something tells me I’d have heard of it by now.

        As for your point about metaphysics it may be that particular conclusion of verificationism is a problem or it may not. In either case, that has nothing to do with questions of meaning, either in language or in thought, unless you want to bring in set theory and really bring the tone down ;D.

  33. Why do we need Science, what is it really?

    Science is a process for eliminating sources of error and bias from conclusions.

    Now consider the statement “There are some things I can know more accurately by ensuring that I allow in sources of error and bias”. Seems unlikely.

  34. Interesting and informative all. My reluctance in posting here is that the two terms–science, philosophy–are defy precise definition (characterize). An underlying question for me is whether a philosopher is fully cognizant of the science of the day at their philosophizing.

    My favorite, Karl Jaspers, wrote a tidy book, The Way to Wisdom (1951), which addresses the relationship between science and philosophy with an essay, Science and Philosophy, as Appendix 1.

    While his discourse is sixty years old, it is, for me, a pedestrian inquirer, the best coverage of the subject I have found.

    Thanks for the varying views here. It is always helpful to find that the scientific community, bent on finding truth, can have such diverse views thereof.

  35. I believe that science attempts to describe the Universe in Natural Terms. And this description is correct to the extent 1. that the error between the new description and fact is reduced as compared to the existing one (if any) 2. The error is repeatable 3. So if error actually increases than that is falsifiability. 4. The description has some predictive value which continues to reduce the error. But the universe of operation is that only those description and facts of universe are required to be explained that can be represented in Natural Terms. The philosophical underpinnings of this method is teleological Provisionary Methodlogical Naturalism that it works.
    Question then arises is Are there other descriptions that need super natural terms and a method that has the ability to reduce the error between competing description in the least. Otherwise Harry is right “Everything Goes”.
    Now are Ethical description explainable in Natural terms or not. If not in what terms? Again these super natural terms need a system to determine their validity and proof of their existence. How to we do that. So we will need to create one method for existence of these terms and another method for the description. The irony is that no one so far has been able to define successfully such universally acceptable method. We do know that all major religions that assert their true methods can only universalize it by most unethical means.
    But take any ethical question. How to we know that it is not gibberish. Its because its usage has at least reduced sufferings and /or increased happiness and most importantly increased the possibility of gene survival and increased the possibility of creating a lasting body of knowledge. And in some wacky way remove the fear of death by removing the discontinuity.
    So let Andrew first establish a universally accepted terms and postulate a method. With No alternative the criticism will remain gibberish.

  36. I attended a church this morning as a guest and witnessed God at work amongst a congregation. Just ordinary people praying to and praising a Holy and Righteous God. I looked for a scientific explanation but could find none. Lawyers, cleaners and soldiers, from different people groups and ethnicities all gathered together in Love. If I ever needed evidence to show Jesus Christ is who he claims to be then this was it.

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