Over at Cosmic Variance, organizer Sean Carroll gives his take on the “Moving Naturalism Forward” workship that both Massimo Pigliucci and I reported on this week (Sean gives all links to our posts). In his post, “Nudging naturalism just a bit forward,” Sean gives an honest take on the organization of the meeting, and says there are three more posts to come on the substance.
As I’ve hinted, I think the conference suffered a bit from the dominance of the philosophers over the scientists, perhaps because most of the philosophers seemed unable (at least to me) to say anything in less than 15 minutes of monologue. That was off-putting to several of us scientists, who are used to having rapid, give-and-take conversations. And, if I can add another personal take, the philosophers seemed far more entrenched in their views than did the scientists (the exception was Steve Weinberg, who seemed pretty sure of himself, but I didn’t mind that since he seemed pretty correct in his views—except about free will!).
Another problem is that scientists like me are intimidated by philosophical jargon, and hence didn’t interrupt the monologues to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. I therefore spent a fair amount of time Googling stuff like “epistemology” and “ontology” (I can never get those terms straight since I rarely use them). Perhaps it would have been better had I been more willing to interrupt and ask for clarification, or if the moderators had asked people to explain what they were saying with less jargon. I think the jargon will be a problem when the discussions are finally put up on YouTube (they will be). As Sean said in his post:
We proceeded in the style of a family having a boisterous dinner together, with everyone speaking up whenever they had something to say. It worked quite well, but it might have worked even better if the course of the dialogue had funneled through a central person. Janna Levin, who also recognized this tendency, served as the moderator for the very last session, and I thought it was the best-run of them all.
I agree with that; Janna did a great job.
The last session of Day Two involved a discussion of representation and “aboutness” (what it means for one thing to be about something else, and how in the world such a thing can come into existence naturally). It was the only time, I think, when a subgroup of the table ran off into a technical area and left others behind; in particular, the philosophers were hashing out issues of extreme importance to them. As a result, several of the philosophers said that it was their favorite part of the workshop, while most of the scientists were lost. Maybe it’s okay to allow that more focused kind of discussion as a rare event, but I would have liked to wrangle it in such a way that everyone was equally present.
Yes, I didn’t understand a word of that discussion and eventually tuned out.
But, as I’ve said, the meeting enabled all of us to make contacts—indeed, friends—with lots of intellectual confrères, and that, in the end, may be the most valuable thing of all, for those contacts will, I’m confident, move naturalism forward.
47 thoughts on “Sean Carroll assesses the Stockbridge workshop”
Indeed — what’s an unpleasant surgery used to assist childbirth and the study of cancer got to do with freeing the willies?
I take it you saw eye to eye with Rosenberg. Was he too entrenched?
I’m glad I’m not the only one.
Epistemology is how we know what we know (infinite regress, anyone?), while ontology… well, it seems to be cladistics for philosophers.
The important thing to remember about ontology is that it recapitulates philology.
I wondered whether I was the first to discover that one. Nope, I’m at least 50 years late.
Still worth it for the win! Like Jerry, I am continually googling these words as I follow sceptic blogs. Having 65 yo memory cells doesn’t help (please don’t give me a lecture on how old my cells are).
Its long been my observation that philosophers, in spite (or perhaps, because) of the care they put into their language, seem much less interested in making their work layman accessible. I took a whole class in epistemology in college, and I still don’t quite understand it, except that its basically the study of why no one can prove anything, ever.
That’s a remarkable premise / conclusion to base a field on. Do you think they could prove it?
I think they did manage to prove to me that you can’t determine anything about the world by just sitting around and thinking.
You know, I think we might be able to come up with an experiment that could settle the matter….
I like the irony that the discussion of “aboutness” hadn’t “aboutness”. If people tuned out, it wasn’t about “aboutness” – “something else” – for everyone present.
Should be unnecessary now that science works and replaces questions on what reality is (what we observe) and how we can know it (science works).
But I don’t think philosophers would give up what they see as theirs willingly. More accusations of scientism to come in the next few decades.
Ah, but… how do we know what we observe exists and how do we know that science works?
Well, the traditional method is to take the proverbial long walk off a short pier and report back with observations. For some reason, though, the philosophers tend to get upset when I make such a suggestion….
I am glad they don’t because the last thing one wants is a philosopher reporting back about his experience in heaven.
Well, if they were lucky, we might make a marine biologist out of them.
Something tells me that, empirically, they’d wind up not in the heavens, but rather in Davy Jones’s Locker….
Continuing that line of thought, how do we know that we know that we know that we know… 😉
Indeed! See my comment on “epistemology” above (#3).
Oh yes, you called “infinite regress” first. I missed it.
The serious point I was hinting at (and perhaps you were too) is that we can become too obsessed with justifying our beliefs. Knowledge is not ultimately based on verbal reasoning. Animals know stuff even though they don’t do verbal reasoning. Verbal reasoning is a valuable tool, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of our cognitive processes.
Two, no three, phrases:
“…had I been more willing to interrupt and ask for clarification…”
“I didn’t understand a word of that discussion and eventually tuned out…”
“…the meeting enabled… us to make contacts… friends… that… may be the most valuable thing… (to) move naturalism forward.”
Could be engraved in the masthead of every website open for inqury and discussion. I shall attend these in the future. Thanks.
It’s unfortunate if there were terms used that were unknown and nobody stopped to explain them. That shouldn’t have happened. Here is a philosophy dictionary that gives definitions of such terms as “epistemology,” “ontology,” “naturalism,” and that’s reliable.
My hunch is that the philosophers were intimidated by the erudition of the physicists, and felt the need to retreat into metaphysics so that they might pull one over on the biologists.
Just a hunch, of course.
In defence of the philosophers…
Since hardly anything in philosophy can be considered settled, philosophers can’t take anything for granted. They have to explain their position almost from scratch. And it would take even longer if they avoided philosophical terminology, or spent time explaining it. (But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have done so.)
Everyone there knew some science and scientific terminology. That’s not surprising because science is so useful and successful that anyone who seriously wants to understand the world will have learnt some science. The same can’t be said for philosophy.
That right there is the most significant indictment one can make of philosophy. Indeed, the fact that philosophy has no way of telling whether or not it’s gotten anything right is proof positive that it’s exactly as worse-than-useless as theology — and for exactly the same reason.
I know, right?
Just this morning I noticed my local bookstore was selling a bunch of NEW novels! Can you believe that?
When will novelists realize that they are worse than useless? After all, they never settle anything.
The difference, of course, is that novelists are telling stories for entertainment whilst the philosophers not only claim to be answering the ultimate questions but also claim to be the only ones capable of providing answers to those questions.
Surely some novelists do what they do “for entertainment”. But the phrase “arts & entertainment” has an ampersand for a reason. I hope you would not describe Dostoievski’s Crime And Punishment as a light cops and robbers yarn.
But metaphysics is not a SuperScience that stands behind physics in the way that physics stands behind chemistry, or chemistry biology. And so it is wildly inappropriate to judge a nonscience by criteria of science such as convergence or empirical fecundity. (There’s even a word for that sort of thing that ends in “-ism”.)
As far as “answers to ultimate questions,” I’m not sure how many careful philosophers you’ll find making that claim. Rather, just as we keep on creating new social realities for ourselves that call for imaginative new responses from novelists etc., we will continue to do things like gather empirical facts that raise questions not resolvable by appeals to empirical facts. In fact, “resolve” may be the entirely wrong verb here. It may be more appropriate to say “cope with” or “navigate through”. In any case, one needs to tailor one’s evaluational criteria to the project at hand, rather than dogmatically insist that the criteria of empirical science are the only ones that count.
My dictionary defines “philosophy” as, “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.” And, as Jerry noted, much of the discussion he got bored with involved ontology — “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being” — and epistemology — “the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods, validity, and scope.”
It’s damned hard to get more ultimate or fundamental than that.
That’s just it. Only one method has any sort of track record in advancing the human cause, and that’s the one that methodically checks itself against observations.
Philosophers are still having the exact same arguments as the ancient Greeks did about the ultimate nature of reality and what the mind is and what it means to be good and what-not.
Scientists, on the other hand, have figured out Newtonian, Relativistic, and Quantum Mechanics to the point that we’re reasonably confident that we actually do understand what reality really is; neuroscientists and cognitive and behavioral scientists, with the help of information theorists and evolutionists and biochemists have painted a remarkably thorough picture of the mind; and mathematicians, psychologists, economists, and empirical ethicists have developed game theory and related disciplines to the point that we know more about what builds a strong, healthy society than anybody else ever has.
And that’s all because the scientists keep checking the answers they’ve come up with against rigorous observations, and they keep trying to refine their models against better-refined observations…while philosophers are still using the exact same techniques of guided daydreaming that we did when bronze was the amazing new technology sweeping the world.
First things first. Do you not believe that the civil rights movement has “advanced the human cause”? I would be gobsmacked if you said no. And yet MLK is not generally remembered for his groundbreaking double-blind experiments or anything of the sort. Therefore, whatever “advance the human cause” is supposed to mean, it cannot be a synonym for “adds to our accumulation of empirical facts” (although it must certainly encompass it). QED.
I have pointed out that, though marvelous on both a practical and aesthetic level, the accumulation of empirical facts clearly does not exhaust the list of worthwhile things for humans to spend their time doing during this short life. It is no response at all to a demonstration that not all Fs are Gs to simply re-intone, “but those things that aren’t Gs… AREN’T GS!!!”
Yes, philosophers are having many of the same arguments as they were thousands of years ago. Oddly enough, playwrights and musicians are grappling with many of the same themes as they were in those days too. It is almost as though the problems they are trying to solve are not the kind that can be settled by appeal to evidence in the way questions about the shape of the earth can be settled by evidence.
But don’t you see?
Dr. King was working empirically. Ghandi and others had performed experiments in civil disobedience before him. He saw how effective their results were and so copied and expanded upon them.
You don’t think he just had some sort of idea come to him out of Plato’s Cave that it might be a good idea to meet violence with non-violence, do you?
“Dr. King was working empirically.”
I simply don’t know what to say. You’ve now defined this vague phrase “working empirically” so broadly that it encompasses things like holding political rallies while not seeming to notice it would also apply to things like writing novels. After all, David Foster Wallace “saw how effective [Thomas Pynchon’s] results were and so copied and expanded upon them.” You’ve lost the ability to make the very distinction you initially wanted to bash philosophy with.
I’m content that any neutral observer would conclude that the claim “only science is worth doing” has been reduced to absurdity when one has to argue that MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech counts as “doing science”.
Staircaseghost, artists do indeed work empirically to improve their results over those of previous generations, other artists, and their own works. It’s very easy to see a progression in this regard, and it’s well supported in the literature.
But we see no such progression with philosophy. For example, philosophers are still stuck debating whether or not Platonism is true, especially with respect to mathematical constructs such as integers. And why? Because there’s no empirical test that anybody’s come up with to settle the matter.
Philosophers try to claim credit for things like the scientific method, but that again has been the result of empiricism. Publishing works better than not publishing. Peer review works better than no review. It seems very likely that open access is going to work better than paywalls, and so on.
Get back to me when philosophers come up with a way to empirically reign in their fantasies and we’ll talk. Until then, philosophy will always remain theology for atheists.
But metaphysics is not a SuperScience that stands behind physics in the way that physics stands behind chemistry, or chemistry biology.
No? Then what is it, exactly?
What does metaphysics provide that physics does not?
Seriously, though, what is a valid subject of study for metaphysics that wouldn’t be better studied by the physical sciences?
Do scientific theories which quantify over unobservables commit us to the existence of unaboservables or merely to the notion that such theories are empirically or instrumentally adequate? Are scientific laws prescriptive or descriptive? Are moral truths objective features of the world or simply projections of our emotions? Are PW semantics simply a useful fiction for talking about modal claims or do we have to take those existence claims seriously?
I don’t know. Let’s build some better instruments and find out.
…which is exactly what the science news was about this past week, with some researchers prodding Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle in novel and productive ways.
I don’t see how this question can even possibly be more coherent than asking what’s north of the North Pole.
You’re presupposing the existence of a “moral truth” in the first place. In practice, the answer is going to depend entirely on how you define that term.
I had to Google “PW semantics,” and it suggests it’s shorthand for “possible world” semantics. And I hardly think we have to worry about whether or not any such mental construct exists until we have some way of interacting with it. We can be rather confident that there are other civilizations out there, but we needn’t bother considering whether they prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream until we actually meet them. Contemplating whether or not every hypothetical you can dream up actually exists somewhere is the ultimate in mental masturbation.
So, while your answers constitute valid replies to Dan’s query, they do a superlative job at demonstrating my consistent observation of philosophy: it’s nothing but godless theology. Not a one of your answers has any more relevance to the world outside of the ivory tower than questions over angelic pin-dancing.
“Do scientific theories which quantify over unobservables commit us to the existence of unaboservables or merely to the notion that such theories are empirically or instrumentally adequate? Are scientific laws prescriptive or descriptive?”
I think these questions are misguided as posed, but there are valid questions to be asked in their vicinity, and such questions may even have some value to fundamental physics (but I don’t know nearly enough fundamental physics to decide). I’m not one of those who says philosophy is entirely useless.
“Are moral truths objective features of the world or simply projections of our emotions?”
It seems to me this sort of thing is usually put under the heading of meta-ethics, not metaphysics. Anyway, as a moral error theorist I consider the question misuguided, since it presumes the existence of moral truths, something which I deny. Still, the meta-ethical question of whether moral truths exist is a meaningful one. But I’m not sure the correct answer (no) is a useful one.
“Are PW semantics simply a useful fiction for talking about modal claims or do we have to take those existence claims seriously?
I suspect it’s called “semantics” by those who correctly perceive that it is best treated as a convenient figure of speech, not adding any substantive content to conventional ways of making modal claims. Unfortunately many people do take it as adding content, and hence I would say that any slight verbal convenience it may provide is easily outweighed by the confusion it causes. And since this usage was invented by philosophers (and was not a prior folk usage in need of explanation), I suggest that answering this question is a case of philosophy cleaning up its own mess, and not making a net contribution to knowledge.
Richard’s responses are probably better than anything I could put together on short notice. My take:
1. Empirical observation of all scientific theories so far suggests that we should not commit ourselves to the existence of the unobservables employed by the theory. This is because of the contingency of scientific theories. Empirical adequacy is the only criterion yet discovered by which scientific theories can be judged “true” or “false”. This is more a question of philosophy of science or epistemology than metaphysics.
2. Purely a semantic description. By “scientific laws” do you mean the invariants in the physical world which scientists describe? Or are you referring to the descriptions themselves? In the former case, scientific laws are prescriptive and in the latter they are descriptive. Not much of a puzzle. To the extent that this is relevant to metaphysics it’s only because philosophers confuse themselves with the ridiculous notion of “reference theories of meaning.” Meaning is representative, not referential — this fact is established pretty well by basic neuroscience (i.e. not metaphysics).
3. Begs the question by assuming the existence of “moral truths”. I have an apparently unpopular view that “morality” just refers to ways that human beings behave in various situations with nothing especially “metaphysical” involved. Some (like Richard) might say this is a question of ethics rather than metaphysics. I’d go even further and say it’s a question of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and biology rather than philosophy at all. Yes, I know, you vehemently disagree.
4. I don’t think PW semantics is even a “useful fiction.” Modal logic is a feature of natural language and so it seems to me it should be a subject of study for linguistics and computer science, not metaphysics. No one has ever made an argument that suggests to me these “possible worlds” should be taken as existing in any real sense.
I take comfort at least 2 other commenters seem to think these constitute valid responses to the question as you posed it, although of course with some reservations about how “important” or “interesting” or precise those metaphysical questions might be (none of which is relevant to whether they actually are questions which are not scientific ones).
But very briefly:
1) Being a question “for philosophy of science” is not mutually exclusive with it being a metaphysical question. Phil-Sci routinely addresses metaphysical questions (qv Frequentist vs Subjectivist interpretations of probability, reductionism, the alleged ineliminability of teleological explanation even given Darwin, the ontological status of functional properties etc.) What makes you think philosophers of science don’t “observe theories” when they argue about ontological commitments to inferentially remote entities? Like Ben Goren above, you’ve defined doing science so broadly that it includes things like philosophy of music whenever a philosopher “observes music”, thereby losing the distinction you need to bash philosophy with scientistically.
2) You write “In the former case, scientific laws are prescriptive and in the latter they are descriptive. Not much of a puzzle.” But, first, “not much of a puzzle” was not part of your original challenge, and therefore irrelevant to the question of whether this is not a question resolvable by doing more scientific experiments. Second, simply asserting your preferred solution, even if correct, is likewise irrelevant to your original challenge. Finally, it is unclear what “invariants in the physical world are prescriptive” is even supposed to mean, or if it means anything at all.
3) I am a noncognitivist. I don’t assume the existence of moral truths.
4) Your reply here is partly to the effect that you don’t find this an interesting or compelling question, which is a subjective evaluation about how relatively important the issue is, and again not relevant to the question as posed. As to how you imagine “computer science” might tell us whether “there is a logically possible world in which Obama loses the election next week” means, if true, that there really is such a world, as real as our own — well, good luck writing that paper and convincing people you aren’t doing metaphysics.
1) “Being a question “for philosophy of science” is not mutually exclusive with it being a metaphysical question. ”
True, but by my argument it’s epistemological rather than metaphysical. Science is doing all the metaphysical work and philosophy of science is just telling us whether we can believe the science or why.
Maybe I misunderstood the question? What does it even mean for a theory to “commit us to the existence of unaboservables”?
2) My argument is that the confusion between “prescriptive” and “descriptive” arises entirely from confusion over what is being designated. There’s the physical fact of gravity, and then there’s Newton’s law of gravity which is a mathematical description of the physical fact. The physical fact is (or seems to be) prescriptive, the description is descriptive. I disagree that the phrase in question is unclear in meaning.
3) Then you should be able to see why this isn’t really a question of metaphysics.
4) Your reply here is partly to the effect that you don’t find this an interesting or compelling question,
There’s an uncountable infinity of “metaphysical” questions that no one considers because they don’t find them interesting or compelling. Most of them really aren’t interesting or compelling. To those, I add this one. Because, again, no one has ever made a single argument even remotely suggesting that “possible worlds” really exist in some meaningful sense. Make such an argument and I’ll take the question more seriously.
As to how you imagine “computer science” might tell us whether “there is a logically possible world in which Obama loses the election next week” means, if true, that there really is such a world, as real as our own — well, good luck writing that paper and convincing people you aren’t doing metaphysics.
I’m talking about modal logic as a subject of study, not possible worlds. I’m with Richard on this one — “possible worlds” is a nonsensical mess of a way to try to make sense of modal logic. The better way is to rely on linguists, logicians, and computer scientists to make sense of modal logic.
To be clear, my position is that every “metaphysical” question that has been resolved so far throughout history was resolved through science. It doesn’t look that way because once they became “scientific” problems they ceased to be “metaphysical” problems. I expect the trend to continue.
The status of scientific knowledge is an epistemological problem and is legitimately philosophical (as opposed to scientific). But questions of ontology and metaphysics — of what the universe actually is — are better resolved by application of scientific method than by speculative dialectic arguments.
1) What does it even mean for a theory to “commit us to the existence of unaboservables”?
I might notice the needle on my ammeter spike, and say something like, “oh, I see the electrons are flowing again.” But then, speaking literally, all I really saw was a thin pointy piece of metal move from the left to the right, and I relied on a tangled nest of inferences including my theory of the internal architecture of the meter and my theory that matter is made up of atoms and electrical current consists in a flow of subatomic particles called electrons along the wire — I don’t actually observe all this unobservable stuff. It is inferentially remote from observation (but not any less certain for all that).
So the question arises: given the complicated theory of electricity represented by all those equations in my high school physics textbook, when I accept that it is true, do I really have to accept that inferentially remote things like electrons exist, or can I get away with the more parsimonious, Empiricist claim that believing the theory just means I believe it is empirically adequate to reproduce inferentially proximate things like immediate sensations, and all this talk of unobservables is merely instrumental?
Note that, in principle, you can’t “just do more experiments with electricity” to answer this question. The most they can tell you is that at least those other tests did or did not continue to be empirically adequate. That’s the problem of asking questions about whether unobservable objects of theory “really” exist or not. Note also for the umnpteenth time that even if you think the problem or its solution is trivial or obvious, this is irrelevant to whether it is itself a metaphysical question.
2) I still have no idea what you mean by saying “a physical fact is prescriptive”, unless you are awkwardly trying to say that physical laws are real things baked into the structure of reality that in some sense “make” effects regularly follow their causes. But this is, first, precisely the question at issue and, second, once again irrelevant to whether answering it affirmatively or negatively is something that can be done simply by conducting more experiments.
3) Only in the sense that “there are no female US presidents” is “not really a question about” US presidents, on the grounds that the term fails to refer.
4) no one has ever made a single argument even remotely suggesting that “possible worlds” really exist in some meaningful sense. If you had simply said, “I’ve never heard that argument,” that would be one thing. But the argument has indeed been made, and I’m afraid dogmatic, easily checkable statements like this made from a position of self-professed, proud ignorance are exactly why so many philosophers get so exasperated with science-minded atheists.
I also agree in the strongest possible terms that realist interpretations of PW semantics are rubbish. The difference is I don’t go around saying that organic chemistry has proved that they are rubbish, or quantum electrodynamics has proved that they are rubbish, or neuroscience has proved that they are rubbish. The claim that they are rubbish is a metaphysical claim, just as the claim that special creation of species is rubbish is a biological claim.
Eh, that’s no different from wondering if the stars are still there during the day.
The existence and behavior of electrons are overwhelmingly well established. Either your ammeter is measuring an actual electrical current or everything we know about electricity is worng. But, if that were the case, then you wouldn’t be reading these words, since it would be impossible to build a computer for you to read them on.
You’re apparently not aware of it, but the laws underlying the physics of everyday life really are completely understood, and that most emphatically includes electricity. We can be every bit as confident that the ammeter is doing what it’s supposed to for the exact same reason that you can be confident that there aren’t any crocodiles gnawing off your leg right now: the evidence would be inescapable, and yet there is no evidence.