A defense of philosophy against the attacks of physicists

June 11, 2012 • 4:31 am

In Sunday’s New York Times there was an op-ed  by author Jim Holt called “Physicists, stop the churlishness.”  It’s a defense of philosophy against its denigration by physicists, of course inspired by Lawrence Krauss’s ill-advised rant against philosophy in The Atlantic (see below) and a negative review of Krauss’s latest book by physicist/philosopher David Albert. (Holt’s own book on the origin of the universe comes out next month.)

Here’s the part of Krauss’s interview that started the fracas, which has now spread to various academic quarters of the internet.

Krauss: . . . Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

Holt is hurt:

Why do physicists have to be so churlish toward philosophy? Philosophers, on the whole, have been much nicer about science.

And he has two plaints about those mean physicists:

1.  Philosophy helps physicists think about their discipline.  

Physicists say they do not need any help from philosophers. But sometimes physicists are, whether they realize it or not, actually engaging in philosophy themselves. And some of them do it quite well. Mr. Weinberg, for instance, has written brilliantly on the limits of scientific explanation — which is, after all, a philosophical issue. It is also an issue about which contemporary philosophers have interesting things to say.

I’m not sure exactly what Holt means here, for many of us who talk about science and how it works do so without much formal knowledge of the philosophy of science.  Is a doctor who talks about how medicine works, or about treatment plans, also engaging in philosophy? Perhaps, if you construe “philosophy” broadly enough to include talking about how one does science, or how one should interpret the bizarre observations of quantum mechanics. But this kind of thinking can be done without invoking (or even knowing) any formal philosophy of science. As Russell Blackford has pointed out several times, in some ways philosophy is coterminus with physics; indeed with all of science. That’s because when a scientist thinks about how she does the next experiment, or what she needs to find out something, philosophers construe that as “philosophy.”  As Richard Feynman said in “The meaning of it all”:

There are a number of special techniques associated with the game of making observations, and much of what is called the philosophy of science is concerned with a discussion of these techniques.

I’m not dismissing all of philosophy of science: as I’ve mentioned before, philosopher like Dan Dennett (on evolution and consciousness) and Phil Kitcher (on sociobiology and evolution) have made me think more deeply about my own work.  The formidable logical skills of trained philosophers can sharpen our wits and arguments.  But I haven’t gained much from vaunted philosophers like Feyerabend, Lakatos, Popper, or Kuhn, except for the notion that a theory can explain everything explains nothing. (Yes, I know some readers will disagree about even that pronouncement.)

2. Philosophy is essential in helping physicists push their field forward.  (Note that the header of the NYT piece is: “What physics learns from philosophy.”) Holt argues;

Today the world of physics is in many ways conceptually unsettled. Will physicists ever find an interpretation of quantum mechanics that makes sense? Is “quantum entanglement” logically consistent with special relativity? Is string theory empirically meaningful? How are time and entropy related? Can the constants of physics be explained by appeal to an unobservable “multiverse”? Philosophers have in recent decades produced sophisticated and illuminating work on all these questions. It would be a pity if physicists were to ignore it.

I’m not aware of the “sophisticated and illuminating work” that is produced by philosophers who aren’t also physicists, but I’m willing to hear about it. Still, I’m a lot more dubious about this claim than I am about #1.  Certainly although I’ve benefited immensely from reading the philosophy of science, I can’t think of a single instance where it’s influenced the science I actually do.

However, a recent piece on Edge (well worth reading) by Carlo Rovelli, a well-known Italian physicist who works on quantum gravity, also claims that philosophy is essential for the progress of physics:

This may take me to another point, which is should a scientist think about philosophy, or not? It’s sort of the fashion today to discard philosophy, to say now we have science, we don’t need philosophy. I find this attitude very naïve for two reasons. One is historical. Just look back. Heisenberg would have never done quantum mechanics without being full of philosophy. Einstein would have never done relativity without having read all the philosophers and have a head full of philosophy. Galileo would never have done what he had done without having a head full of Plato. Newton thought of himself as a philosopher, and started by discussing this with Descartes, and had strong philosophical ideas.

But even Maxwell, Boltzmann, I mean, all the major steps of science in the past were done by people who were very aware of methodological, fundamental, even metaphysical questions being posed. When Heisenberg does quantum mechanics, he is in a completely philosophical mind. He says in classical mechanics there’s something philosophically wrong, there’s not enough emphasis on empiricism. It is exactly this philosophical reading of him that allows him to construct this fantastically new physical theory, scientific theory, which is quantum mechanics. . .

When you want to apply thes[e] ideas, when you do atomic physics, you need less conceptual thinking. But now we are back to the basics, in a sense. When we do quantum gravity it’s not just application. I think that the scientists who say I don’t care about philosophy, it’s not true they don’t care about philosophy, because they have a philosophy. They are using a philosophy of science. They are applying a methodology. They have a head full of ideas about what is the philosophy they’re using; just they’re not aware of them, and they take them for granted, as if this was obvious and clear.

Holt echoes this view:

Today the world of physics is in many ways conceptually unsettled. Will physicists ever find an interpretation of quantum mechanics that makes sense? Is “quantum entanglement” logically consistent with special relativity? Is string theory empirically meaningful? How are time and entropy related? Can the constants of physics be explained by appeal to an unobservable “multiverse”? Philosophers have in recent decades produced sophisticated and illuminating work on all these questions. It would be a pity if physicists were to ignore it.

Here Rovelli includes both conceptual thinking and application of a methodology under the rubric of “philosophy.”  Well, that wasn’t my definition, but since “philosophy” is an ill-defined concept, by all means let him call it what he wants.  Yes, many scientists engage in conceptual thinking (that’s how the notion of inclusive fitness—indeed, of evolution itself—was born in evolutionary biology) and they also “apply a methodology.” But to claim that that is truly philosophy smacks a bit of turf defense.  What I wonder, in the end, is whether progress in physics would have been retarded had there not been a formal field of the philosophy of science.  I’m open to arguments either way, but for now I’m unaware of any advances in physics that wouldn’t exist in the absence of the philosophy of science as a discipline.

There is much else that is good in the Rovelli article, particularly his emphasis on science as a way of knowing rather than as the accumulation of a body of facts (although this may seem a semantic question, I think the method should be emphasized when teaching), and of the importance of doubt in science as opposed to its function in religion. I’ll have more to say about those issues in another post.

155 thoughts on “A defense of philosophy against the attacks of physicists

  1. I personally believe that physics would continue to search for the truth, in our materialistic world by means of the scientific method, with or without the presence of philosophers. However, philosophers that perpetuate empiricism and naturalism, as part of their discussions and writings, when discussing the implications and ramifications of science as a world-view, do contribute to our understanding and perception of it. There are many excellent ones out there such as Peter Boghossian and Dan Dennett. In actual fact, after the Atlantic article, Dr. Krauss apologized for not making the distinction between philosophers that are empirical and those espouse ideologies and concepts without evidence. He did this in Scientific American on April 27. In the Consolation of Philosophy, he went on to write,”So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality.”

  2. Just as theology answers none of the big questions of why, philosophy does not answer any of those questions in number 2. Science, on the other hand, chips away at both sets, sometimes in tiny increments and other times in large chunks.

    I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would always place my bets on science.

  3. “Cocktail party philosophers,” he said in a lecture, think they can discover things about the world “by brainwork” rather than by experiment (“the test of all knowledge”). But in another lecture, he announced that the most pregnant hypothesis in all of science is that “all things are made of atoms.” Who first came up with this hypothesis? The ancient philosophers Leucippus and Democritus.

    Holt appears to be confused about the difference between hypothesizing something about the world and discovering facts about the world.

    1. He is fixating on labels there too. Claiming the work of ancient philosophers for your team, modern philosophers, is disingenuous. In ancient times the discipline of science did not yet exist and the discipline of philosophy was not the same formally defined field that it is today. Ancient philosophy was the progenitor of both modern philosophy and modern science, which are of course still closely related today.

        1. That is the point, they aren’t any longer. Science makes progress on understanding, philosophy doesn’t. Quite the difference.

  4. I wonder if you consider E. O. Wilson a scientist? He IS the founding father of evolutionary biology and sociobiology. And in his best selling book “Conscilience” he most definitely argues as a philosopher for the need of scientists to become more philosophy oriented. But who is he, anyway…

    1. Is your position that the more popular, or the more authoritative, a person is then the more correct their views are?

      Look around through past posts and you will find several referencing E.O. Wilson, which will give you a good idea of the OP’s views on Wilson.

      1. it’s not a question of popularity, but authoritativeness has to be considered. He’s earned the right to be taken seriously and not be summarily dismissed. And as a laymen, who am I supposed to be swayed by if not the most credentialed, the most respected, the most influential, and someone I’ve actually read? “Consciliance” (not sure of the spelling) makes a very pervasive case for the need of scientists to be way more philosophical and integrative with other scientific disciplines in order to achieve the next wave of meaningful breakthroughs.

    2. One can be a scientist — even a clever and good scientist — and be totally wrong.

      I’m thinking cold fusion here. But there are lots of others. Fred Hoyle’s static universe is another perhaps less controversial example.

      A scientist who doesn’t fail conceptually more than he/she succeeds is a technician, not a scientist.

      The trick, of course, is to know when you’re being true to the facts because you’re correct (ie, plate tectonics), and when you’re just being an iconoclast (ie, Wilson).

      1. And what factual errors are we talking about Wilson having made? There are the things he is an unquestioned master of, and there are things that are as yet unresolved. And who should the average well informed person be swayed by when the arguments are not clear cut? Where is Wilson’s cold fusion moment that you imply?

    3. “He IS the founding father of evolutionary biology”

      Uh, no. Perhaps you meant evolutionary psychology?

  5. In general:
    Can a scientist be a philosopher? Yes.
    Can a philosopher be a scientist? No.

    The reason I say that is unless you have the specialized training that goes in to becoming a scientist, it is very very hard to make valuable contributions. But the opposite does not seem to be true. It seems many scientists have profound thoughts about the wider meaning and implications of their work.

    1. I’ll agree to some extent, but two points are worth mentioning:

      1) Some philosophers do acquire specialized training in a science, and some publish in science journals.

      2) Having “profound thoughts” is not the same as doing good philosophy. Too many scientists think that the ideas they generate over drinks with friends are on par with the research done by trained philosophers. Having refereed many philosophy of science articles (including some submitted by the aforementioned scientists), I can can tell you that they typically aren’t.

      1. 1) Is a philosopher with specialized training still a philosopher?
        2) So maybe “philosophy” is a subset of other fields, but maybe not valid as an independent meta-endeavor?

        Apologize if this is unclear, blunt or argumentative – hard to type today (had an IV in my right hand and it still hurts). The next thread (8) hit on interesting question of exactly what is philosophy – if those are the disciplines, most of those areas (methodology, logic, ethics) can’t really exist as a field independent of fairly deep knowledge of some other “hard” subject, otherwise, the “philosopher” doesn’t know what they are talking about. Kind of like theology 🙂

        1. 1) Yes. (As a sociological fact.)

          2) As a meta-endeavor, we can understand the questions, and it is reasonable to answer them as best we can. It is worthwhile to try to figure out what counts as knowledge, how actuality and possibility are related, whether there are objective moral facts (and what they are), and so on.

          The fact that it is difficult to come up with decisive answers does not mean that the project is not worth engaging in.

  6. “I’m not aware of the ‘sophisticated and illuminating work’ that is produced by philosophers who aren’t also physicists, but I’m willing to hear about it.”

    For a start, see Part III (“Metaphysics and Science”) in the following book:

    * Le Poidevin, Robin, Peter Simons, Andrew McGonigal, and Ross P. Cameron. The Routledge Companion to Metaphyics. New York: Routledge, 2009.

  7. “[P]hilosophy” is an ill-defined concept.” J. Coyne

    These are the basic philosophical disciplines:

    1. metaphysics/ontology
    2. epistemology
    3. methodology
    4. logic
    5. ethics
    6. aesthetics

    I wouldn’t say that these six disciplines are ill-defined.

        1. Logic is now also part of mathematics, but this doesn’t deprive it of its traditional status as a basic philosophical discipline. Anyway, there is such a thing as philosophical logic.

      1. I think Myron’s definition is basically correct. You might be able to subsume #6 into #5, but you need not.

        More importantly, however, I don’t think a definition needs to be universally agreed-upon in order to be correct.

        1. “I don’t think a definition needs to be universally agreed-upon in order to be correct.”

          That’s incoherent, a category mistake. What could “correct” possibly mean here? In what sense is someone who disagrees with such a definition “incorrect”?

          1. It seems your comment has entered the compass of Epistemology. Maybe our behavior belies uselessness of philosophy in scientific discussions, and physics as well.

    1. Metaphysics/Ontology is the intellectual, rational inquiry into the general and fundamental nature and structure of reality/being. Thus defined, it certainly overlaps with the corresponding empirical inquiry called empirical science.

      1. “Perception does not exhaust our contact with reality; we can think too.”

        (Williamson, Timothy. “Necessary Existents.” In Logic, Thought and Language, edited by Anthony O’Hear, 233-251. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. p. 247)

        1. I agree with your delineation of philosphical disciplines and contra Jerry and Torbjorn, I think philosophy of science is a useful enterprise separate from the activities I do as a scientist. I loved the class I took on philosophy of science and have found the subject a useful way of thinking when stepping back to view my experiments in the broader context of the literature.

          But this quote shows why philosophy gets panned. Empirical work shows this idea is flatly false. Perception absolutely does exhaust our contact with reality and our ‘thinking’ is tethered to and bound by our experience. This kind of disconnect from empiricism ought to be restricted to theologians not philosophers. Its no wonder some scientists disavow the usefulness philosophy!

          1. Actually, while the quote is indeed bogus, perception does not exhaust our contact with reality and our thinking is not *solely* bound by our experience … there is also, and vitally, our *biology*, which was crafted by — ta da! — evolution. Our genome encodes experience, but it isn’t *our* experience, it is the collective experience of our phylogeny.

            For an illustration of some aspects of this, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzN-uIVkfjg

            1. An excellent point, which of course further puts the lie to the quote from Williamson! But I did not mean to exclude that part of our biology with my earlier statement. As Dennett points out sweetness, sexiness, cuteness (and color and smell and warmth and …) are perceptions born of our neural architecture which was itself shaped by evolution to detect and respond to behaviorally important stimuli. They cannot strictly be said to reflect something ‘true’ about the universe independent of us.

    2. Well yes, exactly! As a proponent of scientism I have to point out that none of those are testable areas. We can hence not say what they mean and they don’t contribute to knowledge.

      – “Onthology” and “epistemology” are philosophic inventions for stuff that doesn’t exist – no observations.
      – “Methodology” could be testable in relation to some actual use, as a philosophic study it isn’t.
      – “Logic” is math, so quasiempirical, we use some because it works in relation to empiricism. If it was testable it would be science instead.
      – “Ethics” and “aesthetics” are social areas of opinion.

      Now you may well have another definition of “ill-defined” than “(empirically) unjustifiable”,* but I would consider that definition ill-defined. =D

      * I do consider “ethics” justifiable in the use of ethical, or better, moral boards that oversee different social areas, such as experimenting on humans and other animals. But I think that is empirical ethics or rather moral practice.

      1. We can hence not say what they mean and they don’t contribute to knowledge.

        This is a philosophical claim. (It’s also a claim that isn’t testable, by the way — so by your standards, it doesn’t fare very well.)

        I take this as support for the general point that people (including scientists) are going to do philosophy no matter what. The question is whether they’re going to do it well.

        Typically, denying that philosophy should be done carefully doesn’t increase the quality of one’s philosophizing.

        1. Please, for the sake of philosophical argument, identify for us how one is supposed to tell which intellectual endeavors are and aren’t philosophy.

          I’ve got a penny here that says that your tent is so big that it might as well not exist.



          1. Go back up to the comment that started this thread. Myron correctly lists epistemology as being a core topic of philosophy.

            People have spent centuries arguing about what knowledge is — that is, doing epistemology.

            Now, you can do good science while ignoring all those arguments. But if you want anyone to take you seriously when you declare what does and doesn’t count as knowledge, then you probably should be aware of the philosophical work that has been done on the topic. It’s hardly reasonable to dismiss such discussions as not being decided by experiment, when one is championing a claim (“all knowledge is testable”) that cannot be supported empirically.

            1. But that’s not at all what I’m asking. I’m changing the subject by challenging the very foundation of the notion of “philosophy” in the first place.

              You’re making it plain that you’re of the school that all intellectual endeavors are really just philosophy in one form or another. it should be obvious that that’s a ludicrously untenable position, which is why I don’t expect you to openly (or even to yourself) admit that that’s what you believe.

              If I’m mistraken, then there should be some straightforward way of figuring out what is and isn’t philosophy.

              Let me be clear: I’m not asking for a laundry list of disciplines that you think fall under the umbrella of, “philosophy.” I’m asking for a test that one can reliably apply that determines whether or not said discipline is or isn’t under the umbrella.

              If you can’t offer such a test, or if everything falls under the umbrella, then philosophy will have, for the purposes of this discussion, been demonstrated to be just so much fancy bullshit.



              1. Obviously the term “philosophy” is used in a wide variety of ways, and we should expect to pin down a single meaning.

                Personally, I am inclined to see philosophy as the rational attempt to understand the world. As such, all the sciences are sub-fields of philosophy that have developed their own methodologies, questions, and tools, and can be considered to be fairly autonomous of the questions that remain in the purview of the professional philosopher.

                That said, the “philosophy” vs. “not philosophy” distinction becomes meaningful and relevant when someone wants to claim that only certain questions or methods are legitimate — e.g., when it is claimed that any topic that cannot be experimentally tested is meaningless or immoral.

                At this point, it does make sense to contrast what is done in the sciences (experiment and data-driven analysis of models) and what is done by philosophers (analysis of intuitions, development of comprehensive explanatory frameworks, tests for consistence).

                And then it does make sense to point out that data from experiments is never going to tell us whether or not there are objective moral truths, or whether we can have knowledge of things that aren’t testable, and so on.

                I’m agreeing that there is not going to be a useful test telling us whether X counts as philosophy or not. But I am saying that people frequently take positions on questions that are traditionally discussed by philosophers without being aware of the progress philosophers have made on the topic. And this is an epistemic failing on their part.

              2. As I suspected.

                When the proponents of something don’t even understand what they’re talking about sufficiently enough to be able to give a definition of what, exactly, it is they think they’re talking about…well, then they shouldn’t at all be surprised when the rest of the world dismisses them as a bunch of cranks.


                If you could point to evidence of something, I’d pay attention, even if you didn’t have an explanation or had an explanation that I thought was wacky.

                And if you had a coherent definition of something, whether or not you had evidence to back up your hypothesis, I’d again give it some thought.

                But, as exactly the case with theists and their gods, you can’t even tell me how to tell the difference between your idea and your not-idea, all the while claiming the whole shooting match as your special domain over which only you and your ilk are qualified to pontificate.

                As I wrote way up above and you have so powerfully just demonstrated, philosophy really is nothing but atheistic theology.



              3. lol.

                I and other philosophers know perfectly well what we’re talking about.

                We talk about the criteria that make something knowledge.

                We talk about the foundations of ethics.

                We talk about the nature of consciousness.

                We talk about how to understand quantum theory.

                The fact that you want a single definition that makes what we do “special” is irrelevant, and somewhat silly.

              4. I and other philosophers know perfectly well what we’re talking about.

                …except that you seem perfectly incapable of communicating this knowledge with everybody outside your club.

                We talk about the criteria that make something knowledge.

                That would be information theory, a rigorous mathematical sub-discipline of both computer science and telecommunications (with increasing input from biology and neuroanatomy).

                We talk about the foundations of ethics.

                Ethics has long since been the exclusive domain of specialists in the fields of medical research and political science (and similar / related disciplines).

                We talk about the nature of consciousness.

                Again, neuroanatomy with increasing input from computer science.

                We talk about how to understand quantum theory.

                …and do a job at it that’s spectacularly worse than actual quantum physicists, generally making elementary blunders about published observational facts surpassed only by quantum woo religionists.

                In short, you’re a bunch of dilettantes who pronounce deepities on subjects you’re demonstrable unqualified to lecture on at an accredited public institution.

                The fact that you want a single definition that makes what we do “special” is irrelevant, and somewhat silly.

                Hardly. Your inability to clearly express what it is you think you’re talking about is the signature hallmark of a woo-ist. Your repeated abuse of the word, “quantum,” just seals the matter.



              5. That would be information theory.”

                Information theory is currently struggling with semantics and as of yet has nearly nothing to say about justification. (Are you trying to count Bayesianism in “information theory”?) And a lot of the important work in information theory is being done in philosophy departments.

                Ethics has long since been the exclusive domain of specialists

                At my institution it’s the philosophers who teach medical ethics. And while a lot of people blithely presuppose some particular ethical foundation, it’s only the philosophers who are actually confronting the big questions of relativism vs objectivism, utilitarianism vs. deontology, etc.

                Maybe you don’t care about making sense of ethics, but that says more about you than the field.


                Yeah, but not everyone knows that yet. I’m working on teaching them.

                Your repeated abuse of the word, “quantum,”


              6. More theology. “These scientific disciplines devoted to such-and-such haven’t solved this particular problem within their domain; ergo worship philosoraptor Jesus.”

                Just because philosophy has answers to questions that science has yet to answer doesn’t mean that philosophy’s answers have any bearing on reality whatsoever.


              1. Yes and no.

                When those arguing for a position can’t even provide coherent definitions, there’s no point in even pretending to look for evidence. Evidence of what?

                Thus is the case with theologists for gods and philosophers for philosophy. You can blather all day about what the gods want and are like, but if you can’t even tell how to distinguish a god from a non-god, of what use is it looking for a god? And, as we see in this very thread, the philosophers can’t even tell us how to figure out what is and isn’t philosophy….


              2. So what can’t be measured doesn’t exist, is not true?

                How do you measure meaning or ethic? You don’t measure them because they don’t exist???

                Or is it that they are not-really-real-inferior-because-subjective-phenomenon..?

            2. physicalist, you said above:

              And a lot of the important work in information theory is being done in philosophy departments.

              I am not sure if it is the same Information Theory that we are talking about here, but I would anyway be interested in references to this important work. Just to avoid misunderstandings, this is what computer scientists, electrical engineers and mathematicians typically mean when they talk about information theory.

      2. Torbjörn,

        You’ve made a lot of philosophical claims with no evidence.

        In particular:

        (1) You’re saying that objects and knowledge don’t exist. Where’s your (testable) evidence?

        (2) I don’t understand what you mean here. Surely we could test competing methods to discover which produces better results.

        (3) I thought math had to do with numbers. But lots of logic has nothing to do with numbers. And we can certainly test logical principles: the law of excluded middle, for example.

        (4) You’re committing to a kind of ethical constructivism or nihilism here. Where’s your (scientific) evidence?

        And your tacit

        (5) ‘Only testable areas of study can contribute to knowledge.’

        Where’s your scientific evidence for that? How do you test that?

          1. As I said before, lots of logic has nothing to do with numbers. I don’t see a response to that claim here.

            I didn’t say that languages of logic had to contain Excluded Middle; there are intuitionistic and paraconsistent logics, of course. What I did say is that you can test Excluded Middle. I don’t see a response to that claim here, either.

            1. You claimed (demonstrably falsely) that math has to with “numbers”. I was just trying to demonstrate to you that this premise is absurd. Thus it is not clear what you want to achieve by arguing further that a lot of logic has nothing to do with “numbers”.

              “What I did say is that you can test Excluded Middle.”

              Again, neither was Torbjorn trying to say that nothing which philosophers consider their purview can be tested. Further also, how precisely do you propose to test “Excluded Middle”? It is a property of a formal system constructed to describe the universe: it is either put in or not put in to the formal system. It is not a property of the universe. As Torbjorn noted, we use formal systems with excluded middle because they seem to be the most useful in reasoning about the world. None of this constitutes an experimental “test” for Excluded Middle, which I should repeat, is not a property of the Universe at all, but a construct of the language used to describe it. You can’t experimentally “test” it just as you can’t experimentally “test” 2+2 = 4, or that (a+b)^2 = a^2 + b^2 + 2ab or that the Incompleteness Theorem.

      3. Scientism is first and foremost an epistemological position: radical empiricism (RE), according to whom pure reason (rational intuition) isn’t a (trustworthy) source of justification and knowledge. That is, RE is the denial of the possibility or attainability of a priori knowledge, i.e. knowledge whose epistemic ground isn’t experience/perception/observation.
        Whether RE is true is certainly a genuinely philosophical question.

        1. why is scientism radical empiricism? What you’ve described sounds like plain old empiricism. Do you have an agenda?

          1. gillt,

            Strictly speaking, philosophers usually distinguish ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ empiricism based on whether the position countenances any a priori knowledge.

            Typically, moderate empiricists allow for a priori knowledge of merely analytic truths. These are (Kant) truths such that the concept of the predicate is contained in the concept of the subject, or (Frege) theorems of logic or reducible by substitution to theorems of logic.

            Radical empiricists deny even a priori knowledge of analytic truths. So they think, for example, that no one is justified in believing that 1=1 until they perform some sort of observation. That position is obviously crazy, but moderate empiricism actually isn’t much better.

            1. If RE is an absurdist position, and Myron knows it, then he/she is simply muddying the waters by attaching scientism, a widely used accusation, to RD, which was why I asked if Myron had an axe to grind.

              The owner of this website has been accused of scientism. The owner of this website is not a radical empiricist.

  8. Four years or so ago, Dan Dennett gave a lecture at Stanford and was asked by an audience member what the purpose of philosophy was.

    If I recall correctly, Dennett said it was to guide the framing of the questions in fields of inquiry, thus suggesting more fruitful directions of inquiry, often moreso than actually providing answers.

    There have been some philosophers with a very good science background (including as the NYTimes observed the fellow who gave a negative review of Krauss’ book.)

  9. I’ve encountered this argument several times debating the merits of philosophy and theology on reddit and even in the comments here. What they are construing is the broad, everyday meaning of philosophy as having opining about something with the practice of philosophy by philosophers. It’s a “sophisticates” version of “I’m rubber, you’re glue, what ever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you,” and no different than calling atheism a religion.

  10. What I wonder, in the end, is whether progress in physics would have been retarded had there not been a formal field of the philosophy of science.

    It’s worth remembering that these disciplinary boundaries are relatively recent developments.

    Even theoretical physics (as distinct from experimental physics) didn’t appear until the early part of the 20th century.

    It’s hard to say when the “formal field” of philosophy of science arose. Perhaps the logical positivists would count, but I’d guess that you didn’t have people labeling themselves philosophers of science until the 70s and 80s. (Correct me if I’m wrong, I’m on my first cup of coffee.)

    Rovelli’s point about the philosophical astuteness of great physicists (Einstein, Bohr, Boltzmann) is absolutely right. Reading their papers, it’s astounding how philosophically engaged they were.

    Personally, I’d count the verificationism that became the default interpretive position of physics (especially quantum mechanics) as having done more harm than good, but it’s certainly an example of philosophy having a big impact on science.

    1. But where is Rovelli’s evidence? It is more likely that they did good science because they were good scientists.

      1. Read Einstein and Bohr and it will be clear that you really can’t disentangle their philosophical reflections from their scientific reflections. Grappling with questions of epistemology and metaphysics was part of their developing the theories that made them famous.

        Bohr, for example, thought that his contributions to epistemology were far more important than his contributions to atomic physics. Now, perhaps he was wrong about that, but it’s a historical fact regardless.

  11. “Philosophy deals with two sets of questions:

    First, the questions that science—physical, biological, social, behavioral—cannot answer now and perhaps may never be able to answer.

    Second, the questions about why the sciences cannot answer the first lot of questions.”

    (Rosenberg, Alex. Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. pp. 2-3)

    1. How does philosophy “deal with” unanswerable questions? This strikes me as equivocation over the meaning of that phrase.

  12. A couple of quick points:

    (1) I think physicalist is right that something like verificationism has had a lot of impact in science, and Jerry is right that falsificationism (relatedly) has had some impact. And physicalist is correct that verificationism is a bad thing.

    (2) I would add that principles of parsimony seem to have a lot of influence in science.

    For example, why (roughly) do we think space is curved? Because we don’t think there are forces other than gravity that could affect the path of light beams, and since gravity couldn’t either, it must be space itself that’s curved. Or, why do we think that time itself slows down for you as you accelerate? I take it that it’s because we don’t think there are forces that would affect timepieces other than time itself. Third, why do we think particles are superposed before they’re observed? Because we don’t like Bohmian “hidden variables.”

    (Of course, the “we” in these examples refers, as I understand it, to most but not all physicists.)

    1. I agree with the general point, but the specifics are a little more complicated than suggested here.

      (a) Both Newtonian theory and Einstein’s general relativity predicted that light would be curved by gravity; the question was how much? It was the precise numerical prediction that was at issue.

      (b) The example of time dilation is closer to the mark. It does seem that the criterion of simplicity is playing a big role, but there are more detailed considerations about whether and how observations of time dilation could be accounted for without appeal to curved spacetime.

      (c) The rejection of “hidden variables” underlying the standard quantum description usually appeals to the fact that the influence of such variables would have to travel faster than light. It’s not just a question of what we like or don’t like (except that we do like consistency with our other major theories — if we can get it).

      It’s worth noting on this last point that in the fist decades of quantum theory, nearly all physicists erroneously thought that a hidden variable interpretation would be flat-out impossible. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Bohm and Bell (both physicists who are heroes of philosophers but generally not of physicists) showed that they were wrong.

      1. Sorry, I have nitpicks:

        (a) I am not sure what you want to say here?

        Newton gravity predicts that light will be bent around massive objects (to half the relativistic value), but it is adamant on an absolute rectilinear space and a separate time.

        General relativity predicts something similar by the mechanism Tom points out. The precise meaning is that light goes in “straight lines” (geodesics), but these lines are bent around massive objects.

        (b) Time dilation also occurs, symmetrically, for relative motion. It has AFAIK been shown that no other physics than special relativity suffice to explain this. I assume it makes it hard on those other theories.

        In any case, curved space/gravity/acceleration: standard cosmology has been able to reject all alternate gravity theories. So it isn’t just simplicity, but predictiveness.

        Bohm and Bell: Bohm’s theory fails relativistically, which quantum field theory doesn’t. And Bell shows precisely why quantum mechanics and relativity combines. It makes the best test of the whole of physics, precisely on rejection of hidden variables, by some 25 sigma or so.

        1. (a) I take it we agree. I thought Tom was suggesting that the pre-relativistic account suggested light would be unaffected by gravity, which is a common, but erroneous belief.

          (b) Depends on how much explanatory power we’re going to demand. I think everyone is going to agree that relativity is the best explanation. But you can rework a Lorentzian theory to include time dilation as well as length contraction, but it’s fairly ad hoc. The chief reason you might want to go down this road is because you’re worried about the quantum measurement problem.

          (c) Depends on what you mean by “fails relativistically.” It certainly incompatible with a realist interpretation of relativity, but there’s no experiment that has (or could) show it to be wrong. It gets messy when one moves to a field context, but Antony Valentini has shown how to do it if you want to. (Not that I’m personally attracted to the option.)

    2. Why do we think space is curved? Because the mathematics of spacetime describe a spacetime with curvature.

      Why do we think time slows down as we accelerate (relative to an observer in an inertial reference frame different from out own)? Because that is what the mathematics tells us, verified by experiment.

      Hidden Variables? No evidence, and contradicts experiment, does it not?

    3. I don’t see how either verificationism or falsification had any effect on what scientists do … certainly not the things you mentioned. The role of philosophy of science is social … we can use falsificationism, Ockham’s Razor, etc. to justify the acceptance of science and the rejection of the non-scientific.

  13. I’ve writ it before and I’m sure I’ll write it again, but philosophy is naught but atheistic theology.

    Just as theologists like to claim all that exists to be part of their domain by proclaiming the lordship of their favored deities over the universe, philosophers love to subsume all disciplines under their overarching umbrella. After all, except for lawyers and medical doctors, all of the ultimately-degreed academics have doctorates of philosophy, regardless of their actual discipline. To coin a paraphrase, a discipline which encompasses everything encompasses nothing.

    Apologists for philosophy are quick to point out ethics and logic as being branches of philosophy, but they belong far more to medicine / political science and math / computer science respectively than they ever possibly could to philosophy.

    Did philosophy once rule the roost, and did it do great things to advance human understanding of the universe? Yes, of course. But so did alchemy, astronomy, and even long enough ago religion. Philosophy has a well-deserved place in the history of science textbooks, but it no more deserves a place at today’s table than does theology.



    1. I’ll echo Richard Dawkins here: I sometimes wonder what’s the point of philosophers, but then I remember Dan Dennett.

      Maybe we could call Dan Dennett simply a thinker, and ditch the term philosophy for good.

          1. Excellent point! Now, let’s take this same reasoning and reevaluate our assessment of the term “philosopher” . . .

            1. Most subject matters of philosophy can be trimmed away for either of the following reasons:
              1) areas more properly pursued under other disciplines (science, economics, political science, mathematics)
              2) obsolete modes of inquiry, rendered meaningless in the light of science (metaphysics, ontology, phenomenology)

              What would then be left would be just the application of thinking. A modern “philopher” would be just a “thinker” in the sense of applying and analysing knowledge and asking what they mean.

              1. Even that last bit needs to be trimmed away. Either the thinking is in relation to some other field (thinking about what the data means, thinking of how to test that you got the meaning right, etc.), or you’re talking about the study of cognition…again, something that belongs in another discipline (neuroanatomy and computer science).



      1. I’m afraid what this is most telling of your familiarity with contemporary philosophy. There are plenty of people doing metaphysics, and plenty of people defending it. Why, I might even be defending it right now!

        1. Really? Plenty of people doing metaphysics? I confess my unfamiliarity.

          What are they talking about regarding the fundamental nature of the reality or the world, that is not either straight physics or a review of the history of pre-scientific philosophy?

          Can you point to the new writings of modern philosophy specifically on metaphysics?

          1. I could point you tons of bad stuff, but let’s focus on the good. Here are a few I happen to have on my desk at the moment (I won’t post links lest this get hung up in moderation):

            1) Every Thing Must Go by Ladyman and Ross.

            2) Nature’s Metaphysics by Alexander Bird.

            3) Mental Mechanisms by William Bechtel.

            I could go on for a long time. Probably the most prominent contemporary metaphysician is David Lewis, if you want to get a sense of what gets taught in classes labeled “Intro to Metaphysics” these days.

            1. What the late David Lewis engaged in strikes me as a broad form of cosmology … or cosmology is a narrow form of metaphysics.

            2. Checked those books in Amazon. No reader reviews on 2 of the books. Only 2 reader reviews on “Everything Must Go”, one of which starts with this: “Everything Must Go is bold attempt to replace our standard metaphysical picture of the world with a radically different view. The motivation for this change comes from taking science, and especially fundamental physics, seriously.”

              Lawrence Krauss it appears is right. Nobody reads philosophy of science except other “philosophers” of science.

              I’ll try to research David Lewis. But I gotta say on quick scan it wasn’t promising.

              1. Umm, yeah. This stuff really isn’t written for a popular audience (although the books are more accessible than the research articles). They’re mostly written for people with training in philosophy.

                This is an unsurprising consequence of specialization. String theorists write for string theorists; cell biologists write for cell biologists, and metaphysicians write for metaphysicians.

                If you want an accessible introduction to metaphysics that’s intended for the lay person, you could look at van Inwagen’s book (although I disagree with many of his positions), or Metaphysics: the Big Questions (which is an anthology of classic and contemporary papers on various topics in Metaphysics)

              2. Actually, a better introduction would probably be the one by E.J. Lowe. He denies physicalism (the fool!), but he covers more topics that are the core of current debates.

    2. Ben,

      Do you think that people should stop doing philosophy, or stop paying attention to it? If so, do you have any empirical evidence for that claim?

      (What I’m looking for is an empirical observation of the shouldness that that claim attributes.)

      1. So long as it doesn’t involve inflicting their will upon others, people should do whatever the hell they want.

        Rather than answer questions about my wife-beating habits, let me be clear about my point — and that is that philosophy has nothing whatsoever to do with science, at least not any more and not for a long time.

        That certainly doesn’t mean that it should be outlawed, or even that it has no place in academia. The arts and humanities, after all, are only secondarily about science (and then typically about psychology and physiology).

        The difference, of course, is that artists understand that science is secondary (though vital!) to what they do, while philosophers have deluded themselves into thinking they’re at the opposite end of the food chain from where they really are.



        1. Ben,

          Thanks for your reply.

          One more question then. (My apologies if you’ve answered this before; if you have, you can simply link me to that.)

          Is there a non-circular reason to trust science? In other words, is there any non-scientific evidence that science is trustworthy or justified? (If not, do you think circular arguments confer justification?)

          I ask because I don’t think people should trust circular arguments, and I expect that any science-based argument for science would be circular. Philosophy, in contrast, would provide a non-scientific justification for science itself.

        1. Buddhist philosophers knew a long time ago that the world was made of empty atoms.
          They knew that empirically because they knew they weren’t separated from the world and they knew how look in themselves. Buddhist philosophy emerged from experience, not only intellectual reasoning.

        2. bestss,

          What is your evidence for the claim that knowledge is only about predictability?

          I define knowledge as something like justified, true belief. (There are troubling details that need to be spelled out further, but that works for most cases.) My definition seems different from yours.

    3. One of your best.

      “A discipline which encompasses everything encompasses nothing”, I’m so gonna steal that!

      By the way, the reason science started to work once is likely that it didn’t try to encompass everything by fiat, just what we can know (empirically).

      FWIW, I consider philosophy alchemy, alchemy of knowledge. Its “ontology” takes what we can know about reality and portrays it as an area of philosophy.

      Astrology have magical instant (star) action instead of causality. I assume “metaphysics” is like astrology then, having made up “cause and effect” instead of physical causality.

  14. As an example of sophisticated and illuminating work on the foundations of quantum mechanics, I would cite David Wallace’s recent book The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation.

    Unsurprisingly, the book defends the Everett Interpretation of quantum mechanics. I don’t know that it qualifies as driving the field forward, since it is dependent on Everett’s work, but in clarifying and presenting the arguments in favour of Everett’s view, I would deem it a (potentially) significant contribution nonetheless.

    (Note: I speak as a complete outsider to the field, and base my comments purely on my impressions after reading some of Wallace’s papers on the topic. I have the book itself, and have read portions of it, but not all of it).

  15. Will physicists ever find an interpretation of quantum mechanics that makes sense? Already done, at least for values of “sense” not overly restricted to the most naive of primate intuitions.

    Is “quantum entanglement” logically consistent with special relativity? Yes, see QFT.

    Is string theory empirically meaningful? Presently no.

    How are time and entropy related? Statistical dynamics.

    Can the constants of physics be explained by appeal to an unobservable “multiverse”? Not presently that, but it does minimise baggage for QM.

    My attempts at reading philosophy of physics gives me the distinct impression that philosophers are grossly lacking in basic familiarity and competency at modern theoretical physics. (They also tend to use terminology unintelligible to this audience they apparently seek to guide.)

    Of all professions though, I still would have expected a philosopher would have used better arguments to justify their case. So what if early scientists happened to also be christians/philosophers? And if the ponderings of physicists already constitute quite brilliant philosophy of science (without even knowing or intending to), isn’t that the opposite from proving any need for the traditional body of philosophy of science literature?

  16. I think that the greatest value of the philosophy of science, including the contributions of Popper, is in teaching the naive student the difference between science and non-science. I support the view that every step in science, whether novel discovery or mathematical model, is preceded, or at least followed up, by the testing of a prediction in a deductive context. Would the discovery of Tiktaalik be so interesting if it were not the result of a set of predictions based on the theory of evolution and theories from geology that allow us to determine the age and forming conditions of rock layers?
    While much of any field of philosophy may simply be viewed as masturbtion, the how we do science is an aspect of the philosophy of science. Yes, the philosophers have often gotten it wrong, and science involves various pursuits that together create what we know as science, but in the end it is the use do deduction that separates science from the ways of knowing that don’t actually lead to knowing about the natural world at all. Because students are told in other courses that there are many ways of knowing they need to learn from us that there is only one way that challenges its own knowledge in competitions capable of producing a winner and a loser (philosophers can argue if this gets us closer to Truth or not). Science makes progress, something that cannot be said for other ways of knowing. Empirical evidence shows this to be, but the philosophy of science explains the differences between science and non-science that allow for this progression of knowledge.

      1. I think that philosophy is helpful in this situation, and that the link is worth a look. I do think that falsification provides the most fundamental demarcation between science and non-science (used broadly). I accept testable hypotheses as scientific, but recognize that the ideas themselves may have been falsified and therefore that these hypotheses should be trashed and not recognized as valid science (e.g global “Noah’s” flood).
        I do think that students should start with the idea of falsification, null and alternative hypotheses, and the classic scientific method as a philosophical framework and then discuss the problems that might arise from accepting this view of science (fewer than the problems associated with adopting other views as a starting point IMO).

      2. Actually, it’s not hard at all.

        Pseudoscience (such as ESP, cryptozoology, ufology, and the like) fails spectacularly when it comes to providing evidence that can withstand the peer review process.

        Of course, there’re always excuses for why this should be so, and I’ll wager that it’s those excuses that’ve got you confused on how to make the distinction. But I’ll give you an easy test: if the claims are widespread, more than a couple decades old, and cloak themselves in scientific terminology but have yet to get published in a respected peer-reviewed journal, it’s pseudoscience.



  17. To my mind, attributing a scientific win to the scientist ‘doing philosophy’ post hoc is really not sufficient to show philosophy’s value (to science).

    To really impress scientists, philosophy is going to have to make concrete and clear recommendations as to how scientists could improve their work before those recommendations are shown to be effective or not.

    So, Dennett says it helps with figuring out fruitfull research areas? Then tell us what area of investigation chemists, biologists, and physicists aren’t currently investigating, but should, based on what philosophy says. Give some specific suggestions. And be right in your predictions, at least more often than chance or your average pundit.

    Does our experimental methodology have some systemic error phisolophy has discovered? Then tell us what it is – and how to improve our methodology in the next experiment to avoid it.

    And so on. But right now, it seems to me the claims of contribution are just something like a reverse of the no true Scotsman argument. A ‘true philosopher’ argument, if you will: did scientist A contribute something deep to understanding science? Then they are a true philosopher, becasue that’s how you can tell the true philosophers from the non-philosophers.

    1. The studies of change blindness and selective attention were largely prompted by Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained”.

  18. Not all philosophy is science, but all science is philosophy.

    Unless you’re talking about science as merely a recitation of facts about the known universe. Which I don’t think is what’s being discussed here.

    I think the distinction that has to be made is between what traditionalists think of as the method of philosophy (and theology) and the method of science.

    Traditionally, philosophy (and especially theology) is thought of as the use of unaided human reasoning to arrive at conclusions about the world around us (and imaginary things like souls and after-death experiences).

    Science is that part of philosophy that uses aided human reasoning to arrive at conclusion about the world around us.

    Now, I know the empiricist philosophers are going to be charging hard into the fray here. Put down your lances. I said “traditionally”. Aristotelian values die hard. And I think the dispute is simply that those philosophers who use aided human reasoning (ie, scientists) bridle at the thought of being seen as using unaided human reasoning.

    It’s that tiny little prefix.

    1. And I think the dispute is simply that those philosophers who use aided human reasoning (ie, scientists) bridle at the thought of being seen as using unaided human reasoning.

      I don’t think you’re characterizing the dispute right. I think what a lot of scientists bridle at is people in another discipline apparently trying to take credit for what scientists and science has contributed to human understanding. Most do not see themselves as philosophers or what they do as philosophy. JAC probably doesn’t see what he does as the-subset-of-philosophy-known-as-biology. He does biology, a field in its own right. So when philosophers come along and say that some of the best and deepest discoveries of science were actually examples of people doing philosophy, it looks like another group trying to steal credit.

      Everyone gets that science started out as natural philosophy. But the subject matter, training, and on-the-job activities are now so different that they are most rationally treated as different disciplines.

      Look, scientists often joke about the interrelationships between different scientific disciplines. Biology is just a subset of chemistry (say the chemists), chemistry is just a subset of physics (say the physicists). Its fun water-cooler talk. But no physicist ever seriously tries to claim that biology’s discoveries are really physics discoveries because biology is just subset of physics. Yet philosophy is further afield from the sciences than biology is from physics! So why would we accept such a claim coming from philosophers, when we don’t even accept such a claim when it comes from a more ‘fundamental’ scientific discipline?

      1. “no physicist ever seriously tries to claim that biology’s discoveries are really physics discoveries because biology is just subset of physics”

        If only.

        1. It’s worst than that as a lot of physicists are trying to fit their god or magic woo in the ever decreasing gaps that they are leaving open.

  19. “I’m not dismissing all of philosophy of science: as I’ve mentioned before, philosopher like Dan Dennett (on evolution and consciousness) and Phil Kitcher (on sociobiology and evolution) have made me think more deeply about my own work.” – J. Coyne

    Not everything is to be subsumed under “philosophy of science”. For example, there is a rich philosophy of biology, which might be particularly interesting to you:



  20. For my two cents, the problem with trying to shove philosophy into science is that, as far as my experience goes, philosophers are dramatically concerned with language, and the proper explanation of what one really means. And, while that is certainly not unimportant in science, I think that there are observations that are beyond human ability to describe in plain language (which is why physics and math are so interlinked).

    It reminds me of my favorite scene from A Serious Man… a student questioned a grade from a physics professor, saying he understood the physics of the cat, the poison, and the box, but not the math. The professor replied that Schrodiner’s Cat was an illustration, and that the math *was the physics. Describing something as a particle and a wave only seems confusing because its so out of human experience… but the observations are pretty clear that it does happen, regardless of how hard it is to visualize.

    1. Metaphysics/Ontology is not exhausted by or reducible to linguistic analysis. Serious metaphysicians/ontologists aren’t primarily interested, e.g., in what “causation” or “law of nature” means but what causation and a law of nature is.

      1. Fair enough, but they are necessarily bogged down by trying to describe those things in language… and to an extent, I think that may end up being a non-starter, because such things are not necessarily going to be amenable to standard human speech. You’ll probably need high level maths instead, and lots of observation besides that.

  21. You are really missing something if you dismiss Popper and group him with the likes of Feyerabrand, Lakatos and Kuhn. Popper was a great philosopher of science. Probably the greatest of the twentieth century.

  22. A rather well considered article, and I have to agree with the content. I don’t think philosophy has anything to do with empirics and it fails the outsider test in having continental et cetera different “schools”.

    As for areas where it may have retarded physics or rather science at large could be in understanding itself. One can suspect that “philosophy of science” have meant that little to no effort is spent on meta-science, empirical investigation in how science works and possibly how to improve it. (Besides the self improvement that comes from the market of ideas.)

    If I have to nitpick I would go after the two quoted physicists:

    – I haven’t read Krauss piece and its responses, but it looks to me like a good description rather than an “ill-adviced rant”. Philosophy has, to my knowledge, had no impact on science after the later came to be around the age of Enlightenment.

    I can imagine that he made people “feel threatened”.

    – Asking Rovelli is like asking the fox to guard the hen house, since he is a philosopher.

    And I’m not aware that he works in physics at all. Rovelly is in the “loop quantum gravity” math school that are known to be wrong as physics. All instances of LGQ trivially breaks relativity (because it has a reference frame) and it has no dynamics (because it has no lower energy, no “energy gap”, so you can’t make a stable oscillator in it).

    As an analogy, doing LQG is like being asked to build a brick house but instead go out and play with sand castles. It is publishable as all math is (or we wouldn’t see much string theory either), but it has never produced any testable physics.

    1. No theory of quantum gravity has ever “produced any testable physics.” And it never will if we dismiss all theoretical attempts at reconciling the two theories on the grounds that they haven’t yet succeeded.

      1. Er…you do know that Newton’s theory of gravity produced testable physics, and that it holds up supremely well when put to the test? And that Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity produced testable physics that hods up even better than Newton’s?

        Torbjörn’s complaint is that quantum loop gravity either doesn’t predict anything different from Einstein (and does so in a much more complicated way) or it makes predictions that don’t match up with observations. This is exactly what the problem was with the luminiferous aether — for the longest time, it couldn’t be tested; then, when Michelson and Morley tested it, the tests didn’t match up with the prediction.

        That’s the difference between science and philosophy. Philosophers continue to insist on the merit of pure thought long after the scientists have opened their eyes and discovered that it’s a flashlight, not a bonfire, that’s casting the flickering shadows on the cave wall — and it’s not a cave but a cliff, and it’s starting to rain so we should probably go ahead and build that fire, but under the overhang.



        1. I’m guessing that you missed the term “quantum” in “quantum gravity.” Otherwise I can make no sense of your reply.

          My point was simply that we know that there is a domain in which general relativity and standard quantum field theory both fail, and that a new theory of quantum gravity will be required.

          It makes sensed to search for that theory even though we don’t know how to bring experiment to bear on the question.

          1. Torbjörn’s original example was quantum loop gravity. As for a grand unified theory, he discusses that in far better detail than I ever could below.


      2. What do you mean by “quantum gravity”?

        1) Already general relativity has been quantized long ago. The prediction is gravitons. (The problem is that it doesn’t converge for large energies.)

        Properties of gravitons can be tested if or when we observe gravitational waves, e.g. LISA.

        2) String theory predicts gravitons and curved space et cetera too, from quantum mechanics. It is unambiguously testable at the Planck scale; it has already passed such tests as predicting QCD “flux tubes” and black hole entropy that other theories do as well.

        We have begun to probe the Planck scale, the SN1987A photon timing looked beyond that. (And found none of LQG’s bumpy “quantum foam” reference frame.) Their polarization can extend that many orders of magnitude, but then LHC has to test supersymmetry positively first.

        Personally, I don’t think “quantum gravity” is the correct research strategy at all, since we have already quantized gravity (see 1). Standard cosmology shows that general relativity relates as much to the global physics of the universe as the local. Maybe “quantum cosmology” (AdS/CFT) is the better startegy.

        That said, what Ben Goren says is more relevant to the thread than whether Rovelli’s area is or is not related to other efforts of physics.

        1. “What do you mean by “quantum gravity”?”

          Short answer: A theory that will tell us what the (probabilities of a) spacetime metric will be when the fields are in a superposition of matter density states.

          A longer answer would rely more on personal prejudices, but it would include things like not invoking a background spacetime, giving an account of the evaporation of black holes, and so on.

          Question: Do you think it is a point in favor of the LQG folks that they have generated some falsifiable predictions (predictions that were falsified)?

    2. Rovelli is both a physicist and a philosopher, but his work in physics is incompetent, and his work in philosophy is downright dishonest. In physics, he is an advocate for loop quantum gravity, an approach that has basically failed every test it has faced since its inception; the basic reason is that the framework fails to duplicate both classical gravity and non-gravitational quantum mechanics. Rovelli (and others) conveniently ignore these problems (or try to talk around them with semantics!) and continue as if they did not exist.

      In philosophy, Rovelli is even worse. The last time I checked, he claimed to have a superior “relational” interpretation of quantum mechanics. However, whenever he was pressed about the details of how this differs from, say, the Many Worlds Interpretation, he just dissembled.

  23. Certainly although I’ve benefited immensely from reading the philosophy of science, I can’t think of a single instance where it’s influenced the science I actually do.

    This. While Krauss was indeed far too flippant about philosophy/philosophers and deserves some criticism for that, the apologists for philosophy should not overreach. Philosophy in general, and philosophy of science in particular, is a worthwhile endeavor in its own right, IMO, but science doesn’t really rely on it, certainly not extensively.

    Philosophy is worthwhile, IMO, because understanding is its own reward. Surely any decent scientist can agree with that last bit! But in terms of practical applications? Some, perhaps, but let’s not overreach.

  24. the limits of scientific explanation — which is, after all, a philosophical issue.

    That is simply odious and inane at the same time. The limits of science are only going to be found out by doing science to its limits.

  25. Philosophy is a dead language, mortally wounded by the early sciences and with brain science the final stake.

    It has sucked the life out of human knowledge for thousands of years.

  26. One of the biggest problems I think we need to be alert to in discussions with philosophers is this pernicious false equivocation that is often used, with two senses of the word “philosophy”.

    One sense is extremely broad, and is generally synonymous with “rationality” or even “thinking”. This is what is intended when we talk about the limitations of scientific understanding, or other issues to do with the nature of knowledge and logic.

    However, there is a narrower, weaker sense of “philosophy” – the kind that people *actually* think when they hear the word, and that’s of people who specialise in fields like epistemology and consider often dubious, pointless questions about reality that actually cannot be informed by anything *other* than empirical inquiry, which they generally ignore.

    Many philosophers point to the broad philosophising of scientists and, in a subtle bait and switch, say, “See! Philosophy *is* useful,” when their kind is actually the second, shitty kind.

  27. Can we agree that philosophy is a branch of literature exemplified by the works of Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche and Popper.

    1. No more than we can agree that animals are a form of life exemplified by dogs, cats, bears, and finches.

  28. Philosophy is like Maths. Not everyone is doing big P philosophy, just like not everyone is doing big M mathematics. Big M and big P might not seem all that relevant to everyday life, or even have much to offer other disciplines. But to some extent or other we’re all doing little p philosophy just as we’re all doing little m mathematics. Just because it isn’t obvious that we’re doing it doesn’t mean that we are not or that it is unimportant.

    Philosophers and Mathematicians have a way of doing things (skills, techniques, etc) and topic areas and domains that they explore. Philosophy is, and should be, busy at doing away with its topic areas by solving them or methodising them (just as natural philosophers developed into natural scientists), but even if it was wholly successful we would still have a use for philosophical skills.

  29. Science (Astronomers – Galileo, Ole Rømer) measured the speed of light but it was philosophy that determined that light traveled and therefore must have speed.Science needs philosophy; neither needs religion.

    1. “it was philosophy that determined that light traveled”

      Nonsense. It is observation that tells us that the propagation of light isn’t instantaneous. And why should light be different from horses or sound? If the notion that light travels is “philosophy”, then all the worse for philosophy as a discipline.

  30. Holt’s horribly fallacious piece works against his thesis. Some scientists are doing philosophy as a counter to the assertion that scientists don’t need philosophers? That’s like saying that being able to change my own oil proves that I need JiffyLube. And Democritus? Completely irrelevant to modern physics.

    Rational conceptual thinking is invaluable, but much of what is done by “philosophers”, including this dreck from Holt, doesn’t qualify.

  31. Claim #1 looks to me like the old “everything is philosophy” claim – naturally it is ‘supported’ by the exception rather than the rule. Oh, but Weinberg was *such* a philosopher! As for the limitations of science – why is that a matter for philosophers rather than scientists? What have philosophers contributed to, say, the determination of various physical constants? Roemer estimated the speed of light using his observations of the moons of Jupiter and since then measurements had improved to remarkable precision. Later on the speed of light itself was set as a fundamental defined constant and we use it to derive units of measurement such as the meter. I fail to see the role of philosophy in that particular development (or any other development in science for that matter – if anything, philosophy impeded science for almost 2000 years).

    1. The seeds of most of what’s worng with modern philosophy (and lots more) were sowed by Plato well over 2,000 years ago.

      And I’m sure he wasn’t the first….


  32. “Lawrence Krauss’s ill-advised rant”

    Heh. That interview was beautiful, even the honesty of calling out the moronic.

  33. Oh here we go again, just because Dennett and Grayling are good thinkers we are suppose to give the rest of the salad wordsmiths a free pass. Well not on my watch, in the words of a bad CGI film ‘give them nothing but take from them everything.’

  34. Jerry,

    If you read through all the negative comments about philosophy above, it’s hard not to agree with Kither’s statement in his article on this point:

    “I also didn’t mention any particular targets – and this has induced the thought that I am attacking a straw man. In fact, scientism is alive and well and living all over the place (talk to any random sample of scientists or readers of science books for a general audience, and you’ll find some champions of the positions “The Trouble with Scientism” attributes).”

    It would seem many of the comments above provide evidence of Kitcher’s claim.

    1. and so what. I agree with you about scientism as when I argue with my family and friends about science being a proximation of the truth they just wont have it. The scientific method being so successful that even me being a scientist falls on deaf ears.

      They basically believe science will solve all problems (maybe it will but it is one hell of a double edge sword to carry.)I don’t think scientism is a problem for scientists but it looks like it may be a problem for people who don’t understand science but have confidence (faith) science will solve all issues.

      This is more an issue for Europeans than Americans as they are fighting to avoid a right wing theocracy but trying to explain that science is not a quick fix to every problem is worrying.

      TL:DR: Scientism may well become a religion due to its success but it is not fueled by scientists.

      P,S, Philosophy is still bunk:-)

  35. I have only one argument with Krauss. The worst part of philosophy is not the philosophy of science. The worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of religion!

  36. I haven’t read all the many comments to this post, so I really don’t know whether I’m going to repeat someone else’s reasoning, but bear with me anyway.

    I think this discussion is really really ill-defined. When one speaks about the “philosophy of science”, there is always a physicist coming out and saying something like:

    – philosophers are not scientists; OR

    – philosophy does not make empirical and theoretical progress as science does;

    Ok, right… is this really the problem? I mean: if philosophers were like scientists and if philosophy was theoretically and empirically progressing like science, obviously there would be no difference between science and philosophy and science and, therefore, there would be no reason whatsoever for distinguishing the two disciplines in the first place. Yet, the two disciplines exist and they are distinct. Philosophy of science does not have to be legitimated by transforming it into science and the fact that philosophy of science is not like science does not mean that philosophy of science as a discipline has to be de-legitimated.
    Beside, I really don’t know what people think philosophers do all the time when they say that they “don’t know enough of science”. I mean, do they actually think that philosophers spend their time staring at the ceiling or wondering around while waiting for an intuition, for a glimpse of truth? Well, they don’t. Philosophers of science study a lot of science: not all of it and surely not its application. (For instance, many philosophers are concerned with some epistemological issues related to the non-commutative probability embedded in Quantum Mechanics and its related ontological interpretation – these are things that many scientists working on the field don’t even think of, they don’t need to in order to do their job, yet philosophers have these interests which someone has to take care of without wanting to steal anyone’s job.) What philosophers say about science is as well-informed as possible – I actually think that all those scientists who clearly failed to established themselves as big names in their fields and write books of popular science for a living should really be thankful to philosophers, because philosophers may be their only readers – that is, the only ones who buy their books and also read them!

    Then someone else says:

    – philosophy of science does not help science.

    The point is of course debatable. Right this afternoon, I was reading an interesting essay about the sad and yet true story of US demise of the construction of a Super-accelerator Super Collider. The project was approved by the Bush administration but killed off during the first Clinton legislation, after a lot of debates. The arguments of both the opponents and the supporters of the project were absolutely ridiculous. Even brilliant scientists defended the project by appealing to nationalistic sentiments while the detractors really spoke about money all the time. The shallowness of the debate was astonishing – believe me or just check it for yourself. The only exception was the position expressed by Weinberg (supporter) and Allen (opponent). They are both physicist and they arguments revolved around the issue of reductionism/anti-reductionism, which is one of the chief topic in the philosophy of science. Surely, Weinberg and Allen are better scientists than any philosophers (who, as I said, are not scientists nor they aim to be) however, if philosophers are able to offer a conceptually clear vocabulary to scientists it’s like they have already done their job. (Same thing to be said for Einstein’s “realism”, for instance.) But that’s it, I don’t want to defend the relevance of philosophers’ work to scientists – enough of this argument, really.

    My point is another one. Why is it philosophy the one which HAS TO BE useful to science? Surely, science is useful to philosophy of science. As I said earlier, philosophers study the bits of science they are interested in. Surely, with no science, there wouldn’t be any philosophy of science. Does it mean that philosophy of science has to give something in return to science? If a discipline does not contribute to science is not a good discipline? (What about art, literature, political studies, history and so on?) And does it also mean that philosophy has to “prove” itself to be essential to science? Clearly, this is not the point. Also, there is not supposed to be any competition between disciplines – how childish, come on! (A commentator, above, said something: “If I gotta choose, I would bet on science!” – I mean… seriously?)
    Philosophy of science is a reflection about the fundamental issues of science and about its consequences. Mostly of the scientists do not tend to speak about:

    – how the world is supposed to be like if our best scientific theories are true;
    – but… are our best scientific theories true anyway? and what does “true” mean?
    – whether Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Mechanics “replaced”, “retained” or “extended” classical mechanics;
    – what is the impact of science in society? does a “more scientific” society mean also a “happier” one?

    Scientists usually don’t address this questions – especially the last one. If asked, they would say that those questions do not pertain their field of expertise. Many people may be interested in the answer to those questions and it may be the case that those people are not even scientists: they may be politicians, laymen or even other types of philosophers like ethicists. For instance, “bioethics” is a field in which ethicists and philosophers of science have to collaborate, together with biologists, legislators and politicians. Surely, biologists don’t need bio-ethicists to get their work done, but that doesn’t mean that bioethics is not an important discipline for other respects.

    So, let’s say that philosophers of science try to answer those questions about science which scientists themselves don’t even ask. (Yet, scientists feel like they are the only people in the world who have the birthright to speak about science: since they “produce” it, they feel like they also “own” it.)

    True: SOME scientists ask those question, but they are just a few. The few scientists who address those questions, do so by employing a conceptual vocabulary which is created by philosophers.

    So: does philosophy help science? No, and it doesn’t have to.

    Kind Regards,

  37. Two main themes in philosophy are logic and critical thinking, required to do good science and math. The process/methodology of philosophy is argumentation, which you employ here. i.e. your work here on how “philosophy is X and does (not) do A” is philosophy. Thus, how you dont let philosophy structure your science and understanding of it arises from a philosophical view point, albeit a self-contradicting one. If you really knew philosophy, you would know that. Those who can’t do philosophy well should not use it haphazardously, as those who cannot do science well should not either.

    1. fantastic comment, I totally agree…

      Sometimes scientists seem to forget what is science. Maybe they unconsciously want to delegate all human functions to machines… the negation of philosophy leads just to this point.

  38. in cognitive sciences philosopshy is necessary… I’v e found some of the comments and some parts of the post very ignorant.
    Philosophy and sciences are necessarly two faces of the same coin.
    Any discovery in science field needs philosophy to be diffused in a non-technical world.
    An example are the recent studies of marcel brass and sartori on free will.

    Philosophy is related not tonly to human wondering, but also to human well-being.
    Too many scientists seem to be (in a very scientifical definition), affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder due to an ill form of perfectionism and a clear lack of empathy.
    Science needs philosophy, and to fight against this obviousness is like a child’s behaviour, who plugs his hears when he discovers the world not to hear the advices of his parents.

    Matteo Franco Cesarini

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