Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

July 5, 2016 • 10:00 am

When I read the title of this New York Times piece in The Stone philosophy section, “There is no scientific method,” I thought at first it would be about Paul Feyerabend’s contention that, in science, “anything goes.” I discuss this in Faith versus Fact, agreeing that the classic presentation of “The Scientific Method” in the classroom is misleading.  That presentation usually goes like this: concoct hypothesis—> test hypothesis —>support or reject hypothesis based on test.

But not all science is done like that. For example, facts usually precede hypotheses, at least in biology (Darwin often used that method to concoct his theories).  And much good science can be done without any hypotheses at all. An example would be describing all the species in an area like a patch of Amazonian rain forest. Those facts may be useful some day (e.g., for conservation or for finding new drugs from plants), and also can turn up fascinating nuggets of information about natural history—knowledge. The only thing in common among all “scientific methods” is that they use empirical tools and rationality to find out the nature of reality, and produce conclusions that can be empirically checked by others. In the case of theoretical work, that usually involves producing results that either are testable or might someday be testable by empirical methods.

Sadly, that is not what this article, by James Blachowicz—professor emeritus of philosophy at Loyola University here in Chicago—is about.  It’s about Blachowicz’s misguided claim that there is no scientific method that differs from the way an artist writes a poem, or the way a philosopher arrives at a definition of a term.

His first example comes from Stephen Spender’s description of how he wrote a poem, showing successive drafts up to the final one. As Blachowicz says,

I was immediately struck by the similarities between [Spender’s] editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

There is meaning, which we can grasp and anchor in a short phrase, and then there is the expression of that meaning that accounts for it, whether in a literal explanation or in poetry or in some other way. Our knowledge separates into layers: Experience provides a base for a higher layer of more conceptual understanding. This is as true for poetry as for science.

Right away you can see this man (Blachowicz, not Spender) is deeply confused. Poetry is not at all like science: it’s a way to express emotions in a lyrical way, and if a poem has a message, it tells us nothing about the nature of reality save a) that the poet felt that way and b) if it conveys anything about reality beyond the poet’s feelings (which of course can be misguided), it would need to be checked empirically, by science.  This is not to denigrate poetry, which I love, but to say that the intent of poetry, and the way poets write, are completely different from the way a scientist goes about finding truth.

Blachowicz then goes on to compare the scientific method to the way a philosopher like Socrates would go about defining “justice” or “courage.” That, of course, involves interrogation of people’s notions, refining them in view of contradictions, and so on until one arrives at a satisfactory concept. Again, he sees this as pretty much the same way that scientists find truth:

It’s important to see that this process — like that whereby a poem is written — rests on two requirements that have to be met. A good definition or poem must be one (a) whose expressed meaning matches the actual meaning that was grasped in a pre-articulated way and (b) which satisfies some criterion of form (embodies an explanatory principle or satisfies poetic form).

The problem, of course, is that every person has a different notion of “justice” or “courage,” and what the philosopher’s trying to do here is simply come up with a definition that comports with the individual’s notion.  There is no objective definition of what constitutes “courage” or “justice” that everyone can agree on, nor will everyone agree on whether a given act is “courageous” or a given result represents “justice.” For reasons that escape me, Blachowicz doesn’t see the fundamental difference between this semantic exercise and an exercise like discovering how many carbon atoms there are in a benzene molecule, or finding out when the hominin lineage diverged from that which produced modern chimps and bonobos.

To defend this wonky notion, Blackowicz says that scientists like Kepler (his example is Kepler’s analysis of the orbit of Mars) do the same thing: we tweak our hypotheses if they don’t fit the data (note: the data, not some intuitive notion of “courage”), until we arrive at a satisfactory result.  The final empirical understanding, as embodied, for example, in classical mechanics, is supposed to be like Socrates concocting a definition of “justice” that fits someone’s preconceived notion. The ad-hocery of science is described like this:

Kepler could have hammered out a patchwork equation that would have represented the oval orbit of Mars. It would have fit the facts better than the earlier circle hypothesis. But it would have failed to meet the second criterion that all such explanation requires: that it be simple, with a single explanatory principle devoid of tacked-on ad hoc exceptions, analogous to the case of courage as acting in the face of great fear, except for running away, tying one’s shoelace and yelling profanities.

Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed. While Galileo’s law prescribes that the trajectory of a projectile like a cannonball follows a parabolic path, the true path deviates from a parabola, mostly because of air resistance. That is, a second, separate causal element must be accounted for. And so we add the ad hoc exception “except when resisted by air.”

Note the difference, though: we have two different physical forces acting on the cannonball: air resistance and its momentum imparted by the cannon. This differs from tweaking a definition until it jibes with someone’s preconceived notion: in the case of physics, it’s simply the momentum of the cannon ball acted upon by two external forces: gravity and air resistance. The sum of these two vectors explains the motion of the cannonball: straight classical mechanics.  Someone’s opinion is not the same as an objective fact about nature: the observation of a cannonball’s trajectory. You can explain the latter with physics in a way that can be generalized to all cannonballs in the air, and every rational person can confirm that physics. In the case of defining a philosophical term, the “satisfactory” result holds for only a single person or a subset of people, and there’s no objective way to see if “courage” really does comport with that notion. We are not finding out a truth about nature that holds for everyone.

At the end, Blachowicz descends into complete gibberish as he ponders why science is so much more reliable than philosophy:

An obvious question at this point is this:

If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.

I am not a practicing scientist. So who am I to criticize scientists’ understanding of their method?

I would turn this question around. Scientific method is not itself an object of study for scientists, but it is an object of study for philosophers of science. It is not scientists who are trained specifically to provide analyses of scientific method.

All I can say here is “WTF”? Does this man have any inkling of the difference between science on the one hand and philosophy or poetry on the other? The reason the results of science are reliable (and how does he know that the results of philosophy aren’t reliable?) is because science is in the business of finding objective truth. Poetry is in the business of expressing emotions and communicating the writer’s apprehensions and feelings to others. Philosophy is in the business of working out the consequences of a logical system, or, as Blachjowicz describes, digging into people’s beliefs to see what they entail. Neither philosophy nor poetry are “ways of knowing,” as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. That’s not to denigrate either enterprise, for it’s not the business of either to find out truth. (I hasten to add that the application of philosophy and rational thinking to empirical observation may hasten the discovery of truths. And, of course, as always, “truth” is provisional in science.)

I would further add that scientists do what they do, by and large, without the input from academic philosophers—especially those who analyze what the “scientific method” entails. That’s again no criticism of philosophy, which I can often be a valuable enterprise (but often is not), but simply to say that the job of philosophers of science is to describe and analyze, post facto, how science works—not to tell us how to do it.  (But again, philosophers can sometimes point out errors of thinking or logic that can be useful to scientists; Dan Dennett is good at this.)

I’ll close with a quote from Greg Mayer, who, among others, sent me this link. He’s a herpetologist and evolutionary biologist, but at his small school he was once appointed as temporary head of the philosophy department. His quote about Blachowicz’s piece is this:

“As you know, I’m a former philosophy department chairman, and hold philosophy in high esteem. But junk like this gives license to those who would dismiss the whole enterprise.”

If the NYT can publish tripe like this, perhaps it’s time for someone to pull a Sokal-like stunt, writing a bogus philosophical analysis of science and submitting it to The Stone. But perhaps that’s exactly what Blachowicz has done!

h/t: Reader Jerry M. for correcting a stupid physics error I made.

44 thoughts on “Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

  1. I am not a practicing scientist. So who am I to criticize scientists’ understanding of their method?

    This immediately reminded me of the smug response of so many religious people, “I am not God, so who am I to judge?” Of course, they then carry on to judge just as Blachowicz criticizes the scientific method. Just for good measure, he managed to get some credential-mongering in there, as if scientists are the only ones who can grasp the methods of science, while using the “not a scientist” trope which is a favorite among our wonderful evolution and global warming denying politicians. I have to say, this is an impressive amount of fluff to pack into only two sentences.

  2. I was gratified to see that comment after comment savaged the article. No so in the WaPo article by the demon-fighter, in which half of the comments were supportive. It appears that NYT readers are not only smarter that WaPo readers, but smarter than NYT and WaPo writers.

  3. I guess I’d say science does proceed in a series of “drafts”, but the way those drafts are achieved is completely different from the way personal aesthetic preference is used to refine successive drafts of a piece of poetry, literature, or music.

    Mr. Blachowicz seems to be a very superficial thinker.

  4. I do think that most, if not all things, whether they be poems or scientific theories, are created (evolve) through a process of “multiple drafts.” That, of course, does not make them equivalent.

    I have read earlier versions of my favorite poem, “Design”, to see how this masterpiece evolved in Robert Frost’s mind.

    The difference is that a poem, or a philosophical construct, does not have to accord with observation and experiment. Gerard Manley Hopkins beautiful poems on the grandeur of god being expressed through nature are not diminished, to me anyway, by the fact that nature can be explained by purely materialistic processes.

  5. Thanks for your second paragraph, Jerry. Alas, description seems to be a neglected topic in the philosophy of science. As you’ve noted, Darwin would have been nowhere if he hadn’t had centuries of painstaking descriptive work at his disposal. And I suspect he wouldn’t have know how to use it if he hadn’t done considerable fieldwork himself, thereby getting a feel for the phenomena.

    Several years ago a historian of science, Brian Ogilvie, published an interesting and important book, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (2006). According to Ogilvie naturalists during the Renaissance were prompted by a simple question: Are the flora and fauna described by the ancients the same as those around and about us today? That question led to similar questions, such as: How do we determine whether or not a specimen observed near Florence is the same kind of creature as one observed near Paris? Figuring out how to undertake reliable description took awhile.

    More recently, one of the most important biology papers of the previous century, Watson and Crick 1953, was an act of description: The DNA molecule takes the form of a double-helix. Of course, we’re a long way from naked-eye observation. Now we’ve got sophisticated equipment and mathematical reason to arrive at description. But once that description was in hand….

  6. I started reading this article yesterday, but got maybe 1/3 of the way through. I thought it very superficial and I looked to see who had written it; having never heard of him, I quit reading. Nice to know I didn’t miss anything.

  7. This is the usual full-retreat-while-declaring-victory that certain adherents of the liberal arts side of the academy feel the need to do every once in a while in the face of the incredible progress of science and technology. And I say that as an English Lit degree holder.

  8. A further buttressing of Richard Feynman’s observation, philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

    1. I daresay birds have benefited from the efforts of ornithologists to conserve and protect them, whether the birds realize it or not.

    2. I think this points us in the right direction, but the syllogism would have to extend further, to birdshit, to reach the Times’ piece. I never thought they would stoop so low.

  9. Another question might be, Can a philosopher who seems to not understand Science very well, be a good philosopher?

    I listened to Sam Harris have a discussion with Dan Dennett the other day on free will and sometimes I wondered if they were discussion the same thing.

    1. Dennett’s grasp of the science seemed pretty firm to me. It was Harris who kept retreating into unsupported claims about people’s “felt experience”.

      1. Sorry I could not get back to this. Just seemed to me as though Dennett will not accept or fully believe in free will and at least one of the reasons is because to remain moral people must have free will. They must have law and punishment or they have no way to do what is right. What are the genes and the environment for then?

        1. As I recall, Dennett’s point there was not that people need the threat of punishment in order to behave themselves. Rather, his claim is that folk psychology includes pragmatic notions of what sorts of behavior are culpable and when people can legitimately be excused (a point with which Harris agreed), and the law must be seen to align with that folk wisdom or people lose respect for it. That’s what he means by treating people as morally responsible (“free”) agents.

          I don’t see any science denial in that.

    2. Dan Dennett does not use the word “freewill” in its traditional meaning. Whether he uses the word in the right way is just a matter of taste.

  10. Ugh. Where’s a journalist-friendly good philosopher of science like Kitcher when you need him?

    And I think of “the” scientific method as a *metamethod*, a way to craft specific methods and (also) to measure the state of scientificity of a discipline.

    Bunge’s 10-tuple in (say) _Finding Philosophy in Social Science_ is as good a place as any for such, as a starting point.

  11. As I understood the argument:
    Because philosophy, poetry, and science can share similarities (e.g., successive refinement of statements; juxtaposition of ideas) that they operate in basically the same way and are equivalent.

    This is like saying that because philosophy, poetry, and science use word to communicate, that they seem equivalent.

    Or, because philosophy, poetry, and science can be influenced by dreams (a la Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Kekule’s benzene) that they are equivalent.

    I think this is called the fallacy of False Equivalence.

  12. In “How to be a Good Empiricist” (1963) Paul Feyerabend did defend materialism and empirical science. This type of defense of is now known as “eliminative materialism”; nicely explained here “”, if you are interested. Paul and Patricia Churchland are nowadays the best known eliminative materialists.

    Later Paul Feyerabend rejected EM and even became a leading cultural relativist (anything goes). I’m not that smart as he was so I still believe EM is right.

  13. The truth of science is objective. The truth of poetry is shared subjectivity and seems true because it gives a sense of ordered rightness to our lives. (Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” with its claim that truth is beauty embodies this sentiment.)

    The Sokal hoax did indeed contains silly criticisms of the “so-called scientific method” [no pun intended- the words are Sokal’s!!]

    But furthermore, in the Sokal hoax, Alan Sokal put in a lot of deliberate and known falsehoods about physics, like confusing the mathematical and sociological meanings of “linear”. He even knowingly misrepresents Sheldrake’s morphogenetic field theory. As he puts it “I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize that it is a spoof.” (much like the French mockumentary claiming Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings with interviews with multiple NASA scientists with the same names as various Kubrick characters.)

  14. It it ok to toy with analogies where one wonders ‘gee, is this thing sorta like this other thing?’ But what has happened here is that this philosopher became far too enamored with his with his analogies and forgot to ask if it made any sense.

    I can, for example, play with the idea that how scientists work their way toward the truth is a bit like a painter painting a still life. Both continually check their ideas against reality, and so on. But I know not to push the analogy and declare that a scientist is an artist, or the artist a scientist.

  15. Art and philosophy resemble science in that they can all employ, somewhere in their varied processes, something along the lines of abductive reasoning to the best explanation.

    Seems like pretty thin gruel for Blachowicz to make a meal out of in The Times.

  16. “Professor Emeritus of Philosophy” doesn’t count for much, in my book: pretty much all it means is that he’s read a bunch of books by other philosophers and used it to come up with his own brand of word-weaving in this “inbred” field of “study”. Remember that one of the definitions of “profess” is, “to make a pretense of” (sorry, PCC).

  17. Blachowicz misses one crucial difference between creating poetry and advancing science. Scientists confirm their theories and disprove their rivals by making novel predictions that are confirmed by independent observers. What piece of poetry has ever done that? Science progresses when scientists make confirmed predictions that include more and more empirical phenomena. Look at the way that cosmology and particle physics have combined in their predictive power to explain the very beginnings of the universe, the outermost extremities of the visible universe and the hidden, micro-micro events residing deep inside all of us. When poetry can meet the challenge of explaining our current mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, then I’ll give some epistemic credence to poetry.

    Imre Lakatos put predictive power centre stage in his well-known Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes (MSRP). His MSRP has been expanded into a more general objectivist epistemology at Lakatos was the great rival of Feyerabend (and Kuhn). Unfortunately, Lakatos died suddenly and far too young. His contributions far outweighed that of lightweights like Blachowicz.

  18. Neither philosophy nor poetry are “ways of knowing,” as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. That’s not to denigrate either enterprise, for it’s not the business of either to find out truth.

    Do poetry or philosophy have a metric of value? A measure by which one instance of poetry can be compared with another to determine which has a greater or lesser value, that value being what we call truth. In the sciences, that’s relatively easy – you look for the hypothesis that minimises the difference between your observed data and your predicted data, and that is the “best” hypothesis.
    How do poets (or other artists – I was chatting with the wife earlier about how much of a waste of space most of the current contents of the exhibition halls at Tate Modern were) determine the value of their work compared to, for example, playwrights or (more of a stretch) glass blowers?

    1. I would say universality and endurance are such metrics. Those objet d’art which speak to humans in all cultures and over many generations have greater merit than works which are narrow and ephemeral.

      1. So, if it survives the “keep | bin” dichotomy over several generations, it’s good.
        Well, it’s a metric. How do I apply it to this bit of art fresh from the pen/ brush/ chisel arc welder of the artist?

        1. Well, experienced art collectors are looking to buy pieces that they think will pass the test of time, so maybe price? All sort of seems circular, doesn’t it?

          My own standard is if I like it, it is good.

          1. Which is th problem – there are as many standards as observers. Worse, as people’s tastes change (“I brought THAT!??”), there are probably almost as many standards as there are experiments.

  19. “But not all science is done like that. For example, facts usually precede hypotheses, at least in biology (Darwin often used that method to concoct his theories). And much good science can be done without any hypotheses at all.”

    I said essentially the same thing when I was taught the “scientific method” in high school, but of course that wasn’t the “textbook” answer. 😛

    Reminds me of an aptitude test I once had to take, some decades ago, when I worked in the IT (then DP) department of a bank. The test was multiple choice, and there were several times that I wanted to ask, “Do you want the answer the test designers think is right, the answer the bank thinks is right, or the _right_ answer?” But I kept my mouth shut and lasted a few more months.

  20. > Neither philosophy nor poetry are “ways of
    > knowing,” as I discuss in Faith Versus
    > Fact. That’s not to denigrate either
    > enterprise, for it’s not the business of
    > either to find out truth.

    I’ll grant that the Blachowicz is a hot mess, that confuses and conflates so many different things that it’s impossible to defend.

    However, I disagree with your conclusion that philosophy and poetry aren’t ways of knowing, and are not in the business of finding truth.

    It’s common and conventional to consider objective reality as the only reality, even when everyone claiming that fact has cognition, consciousness, and emotion. By that view, only phenomena available to empirical observation are ‘real’ and ‘true’.

    And while neuroscience and related fields are beginning to poke at the edges of empirical observation around consciousness, they only find pieces, and not the whole.

    Poetry, philosophy, and many other forms of expressive effort are in the business of finding the truth of this inner life of individuals and collectives. It’s not the same as science, because the truth is of a different nature than observable reality. But there are still rules and processes and methods of inquiry that evaluate expressive works — aesthetics among them — but they’re wildly underdeveloped, given the observable/material/empirical bias of Western society for the past several centuries, and the disregard and disdain such attempts encounter in academia and ‘hard science’ domains.

    1. Could you give us, say, three or four examples of the “truths” of individuals’ inner lives? And a way to verify that these are indeed truths without using the methods of science?

  21. “Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge or error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we *can* know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.”

    “We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.” –Jacob Bronowski

  22. “Mark Sturtevant
    “Posted July 5, 2016 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    “It it ok to toy with analogies where one wonders ‘gee, is this thing sorta like this other thing?’ But what has happened here is that this philosopher became far too enamored with his with his analogies and forgot to ask if it made any sense.

    “I can, for example, play with the idea that how scientists work their way toward the truth is a bit like a painter painting a still life. Both continually check their ideas against reality, and so on. But I know not to push the analogy and declare that a scientist is an artist, or the artist a scientist.”

    Richard Feynman investigated this matter, but I can’t recall the details; I recall, however, that analogy had nothing to do with it. Perhaps someone with a better memory can enlighten us? Feynman did become a pretty good artist.

    I believe an answer to this discussion lies beneath the surface. I am waiting for someone to expose it. This is one of those subjects that will put this Forum to the test . . . whether is is a playpen of the vanities or a place, at long last, where conclusions can be reached sans hubris.

Leave a Reply