Science vs Philosophy – A Reply to Brian Lynchehaun

Hello to everyone visiting from Brian Lynchehaun’s article over on Crommunist Manifesto responding to an earlier post of mine about philosophy and science.

I would like to start by clarifying that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with philosophy, as it was the subject in which I did my minor. I will mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that about 60% of my requirements were spent on classes specifically focused on logic, so I would never claim to speak authoritatively on any other area of philosophy such as metaphysics or epistemology.

I also want to say that I do have a higher opinion of philosophy than I think Brian gives me credit for. When I wrote my post, The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth, part of the reason the title was so long is because every word in there was being used to narrow down what my specific objection was. I don’t say that philosophy is “totally useless”, but rather relatively so; and even then only in the specific domain of determining truth. And while this wasn’t specified, by truth I mean any objective factual claim about the nature of reality: what things exist, how they work, etc…

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that Brian and I really disagree, but I can’t really blame him as I’m also not convinced that I was particularly clear in my previous post.

First off, I don’t actually consider philosophy and science to be any sort of dichotomy. On the contrary, if philosophers and scientists are doing their job properly they each ought to be doing at least a little bit of science and philosophy, respectively. Personally I like to think of it as an Ouroboros: a cycle with neither beginning nor end. Philosophy takes observations about the world and then speculate on the implications of those observations. This is how we arrive at a hypothesis, which science can then test. Science produces results to determine whether the hypothesis should be rejected or not and then we can proceed to make more observations on the results of these experiments. And so we arrive back at philosophy.

The difference, in my experience, is that philosophers focus more on the speculative aspects, and scientists focus more on the experimental ones. But philosophers still sometimes have to gather data (for example, by doing surveys regarding people’s ethical intuitions on complicated moral problems) and scientists still sometimes have to use reason and logic in order to come to conclusions. In these cases you have philosophers doing science and scientists doing philosophy. Far from being a dichotomy, I believe the two things are intrinsically linked.

With that said, I’d like to address the assumptions that Brian suggests that I am making.

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is. My point is that typically when philosophers come up with an interesting idea, they usually need to do some science on top of it: philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident. You need science to take the next step.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

I stand by this. When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd. When you cling to “we must have a soul, otherwise we could not have a mind” in the face of the evidence that everything in “the mind” seems to be a neurochemical reaction in the brain, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by refusing to update your model of reality.

Of course, everyone does have axioms, including scientists. The difference is that scientific axioms are not generally clung to in the face of evidence. We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that. Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.

Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

I’ll stand by this one too, with one minor alteration: One doesn’t understand things merely by thinking about them really hard. Of course it takes thought and reason to properly come to conclusions, but the idea is that this isn’t enough. I reject the notion of a priori knowledge. You also need to have some facts, evidence or data on your side. I do think I was unclear in my original post, but this was the main point I was trying to get at. In order to figure out facts about the reality, you need to have facts about the reality: you can’t just brute force your way through using the power of pure reason.

On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.

Which I suppose brings us to a valid question: what is more important, reasoning or observation? Obviously both are extremely important, but when it comes to describing the way the universe is, I honestly believe that we could get by on facts alone. It wouldn’t be pretty, but imagine a hypothetical machine intended to simulate the universe. If you were to simply plug in every fact about reality into the machine, such as physical laws or properties of objects in the (simulated) universe, devoid of any interpretation; you could get a pretty close approximation of the actual universe. Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

It depends what you mean by “don’t actually tell you about the world”. Specifically, what I mean is that branches of philosophy such as the ones mentioned above don’t tell you what sorts of things physically exist or how they physically work, ie: none of these branches help you arrive at facts about physical reality. I’m going to take ethics as an example. Ethics is great at figuring out if you should kill someone, when that’s okay (or not), and why. But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).

Metaphysics, on the other hand does try to make claims about the universe. For example, when I took my metaphysics course, we learned about nominalism, which as I understand it (or as it was explained to me) makes various claims about, say, what it means to be red. Perhaps there is some ephemeral class of objects, and to be red is to be a member of that class; or that there is some inherent redness that is possessed only by red objects and this redness is shared between all red objects.

Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.

To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.

Assumption 5:  Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

I reject this, as much as I imagine Brian does. Data is the starting point for philosophy. It’s where we jump off from before we can go looking for more truth, and it’s ultimately where we come back to, with a whole bunch of science in between.

At the end of the day, philosophers and scientists are in the same boat: we’re all just looking for truth. There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig) who are doing it wrong, but philosophy properly done really is the underpinning of science, which is what feeds back into philosophy.

So why, then, do I say that philosophy is relatively useless compared to science when it comes to determining truth, considering that the two are nigh-impossible to separate? Well, okay, I’ll admit that I may have been a little bit hyperbolic in attacking all of philosophy when really I was just trying to go after a couple of positions I keep hearing over and over again (“you can’t get something from nothing!”). But (and I say this knowing full well the bias that I carry with me as being primarily a scientist), I do believe that science is doing most of the leg work when it comes to the “figuring out what’s true” part of the cycle. Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.

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Comments

  • Brian Lynchehaun  On July 23, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is.

    So… Logic is nothing more than speculating from ones intuitions?

    presuppositional apologists, for example

    The word you should be using here is “theologians”. Please stop confusing ‘theologians’ with ‘philosophers’. There are people who were/are both theologians and philosophers: take Berkeley as an example, or C.S. Lewis (who wrote some damn fine logic books). Craig is not a philosopher. Craig is plagurising Samuel Clarke, and is nothing more than a theologian with a PhD in Philosophy (which should be retracted, given his repeated abuses of Fallacies).

    philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident.

    I see.

    So if we make a list of logically possible outcomes for a particular event, and eliminate the ones that are contradicted by things we know are materially impossible, we cannot (bar accidentally) come to a true conclusion?

    Proof by elemination is no longer a valid approach to problems? Seriously?

    You need science to take the next step.

    You keep using that word. I believe that you mean “empiricism”. Science is more than “empiricism”, yet you keep talking about empiricism, but using the word ‘science’.

    When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd.

    Krauss is playing semantic word-games, and then kicking all the toys out of the pram when called on it.

    I have addressed this point on The Crommunist Manifesto. In short: I am not entitled to walk into an existing argument, redefine the terms and claim to have solved it, and then get pissy when people point out that all I did was redefine a term.

    Which part of Moving The Goalposts is a core part of science?

    We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that.

    Um… We don’t now, 100 years later. You should possibly check your history of science prior to making claims like these.

    Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.

    You are unaware, then, of David Hume? The problem of induction?

    I linked to his book on The Crommunist Manifesto. It’s worth a read. Here is the link again: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9662

    Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.

    Um…

    What?

    Empiricism is unfalsifiable. In order to falsify the idea that “new, accurate information from examing the world” (and I had intended to insert “physically” in there), we would have to have another way to examine the world. Which we don’t.

    So long as one is committed to a Materialist worldview (“the physical world is all that there is”), Empiricism is unfalsfiable. Your above statement is just crazy talk.

    I reject the notion of a priori knowledge.

    And there goes math.

    On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.

    Craig’s blather about classical logic is a smokescreen that has nothing to do with the argument that he makes. Craig does not apply ‘logic and reason’ to his arguments: his arguments are circular and Question Begging.

    Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

    This is claiming that there is a dichotomy between them, that what is science is not philosophy, and vice versa. That one must choose between them. This is false.

    But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).

    But [the standard model of physics] isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we [believe the world works], but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our [our research program] (or how we ought to).

    Bad argument.

    Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.

    And that scientist would be wrong. It turns out that our perception of colour is largely dependent on the colours around the object. C.f. Colour constancy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_constancy

    To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.

    1) Theology is not a branch of Philosophy. I’m not sure where you got this notion, but it’s not even wrong.

    Philosophy of Religion is a branch of philosophy, where Religion is studied through the lens of critical thinking and logic.

    Theology is where religious folk cherry-pick the bits of philosophy they like in an attempt to rareify their crappy arguments in favour of the existence of god.

    For example: Spinoza, even though he’s trying to prove the existence of god, is doing Philosophy of Religion. Craig is doing Theology.

    2) The basis of all modern science is Metaphysics. Metaphysics is, absolutely, speculation about the nature of reality and the attempt to shave off the logically impossible options. If one is stuck looking at 20th century metaphysics (i.e. Kripke, and Lewis, and the focus on modal operators and all that bullshit), then yes, Metaphysics is nonsense.

    But this is a naieve and shallow view of metaphysics, a discipline that goes back over 2000 years, that has had many successes. We don’t throw out physics because Becher was wrong about phlogiston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston), or because the aether turned out to be nonsense (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aether_(classical_element) ).

    One does not get to dismiss an entire discipline simply because one is unfamiliar with it.

    There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig)

    Please stop punching me in the face. Thanks.

    Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.

    QFT.

    • omniz  On July 23, 2012 at 10:19 pm

      So… Logic is nothing more than speculating from ones intuitions?

      Yeah, kind of. I mean, we look at the world and as far as we can tell you can’t have both A and not A, that A or B and not A implies B… these are intuitions about the way the world works, based on observations of the world. It’s hard to imagine these things being violated (I know I can’t), but just because something is hard to imagine doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. The closes example I can think of is quantum mechanics, where light can be polarized one way, or another way, or both. Intuitively (and under classical logic) you would discount “both” as an option though. It’s through scientific observation that we’re able to overcome our intuitions.

      The word you should be using here is “theologians”. Please stop confusing ‘theologians’ with ‘philosophers’. There are people who were/are both theologians and philosophers: take Berkeley as an example, or C.S. Lewis (who wrote some damn fine logic books). Craig is not a philosopher. Craig is plagurising Samuel Clarke, and is nothing more than a theologian with a PhD in Philosophy (which should be retracted, given his repeated abuses of Fallacies).

      I don’t think I am confusing the two. Theologians are particularly notorious examples of people who try to use pure reason to prove their points without any evidence, and thus make a good illustration of what I’m talking about, but my experience with metaphysics (as discussed) is that there are other fields of philosophy that do the same thing. And then there are many other fields of philosophy which don’t. I’m not talking about those ones.

      So if we make a list of logically possible outcomes for a particular event, and eliminate the ones that are contradicted by things we know are materially impossible, we cannot (bar accidentally) come to a true conclusion?

      Proof by elemination is no longer a valid approach to problems? Seriously?

      In order to use a list of logically possible outcomes for a particular event to do proof by elimination, you a) need the list to be finite; and b) must be able to rule out all but exactly one possibility. I don’t see how such a list could possibly be finite, and ruling out all but exactly one possibility seems extremely unlikely. On top of which, how exactly do you determine which things “are materially impossible” without consulting the world to determine how it works?

      You keep using that word. I believe that you mean “empiricism”. Science is more than “empiricism”, yet you keep talking about empiricism, but using the word ‘science’.

      sci·ence   [sahy-uhns]
      noun
      [...]
      2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
      [...]

      Krauss is playing semantic word-games, and then kicking all the toys out of the pram when called on it.

      I have addressed this point on The Crommunist Manifesto. In short: I am not entitled to walk into an existing argument, redefine the terms and claim to have solved it, and then get pissy when people point out that all I did was redefine a term.

      Which part of Moving The Goalposts is a core part of science?

      I will grant that you have done much more philosophical reading than I have, but in what little I have seen, I’ve seen many definitions of “nothing” which have included Krauss’ vaccuum. But Krauss also covers different versions of “nothing” such how spatial dimensions or the laws of physics themselves could possibly come into existence. You want to talk goalpost moving, then the broadest definition of “nothing” I’ve heard is a state whereby it would be impossible for anything to come about; which is simply begging the question. At any rate, the people who use “from nothing, nothing comes” as an argument against the Big Bang having been possible or as a reason why divine intervention is a necessary precondition of the universe are arguing from ignorance and clinging to an axiom which may very well not be true.

      We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that.

      Um… We don’t now, 100 years later. You should possibly check your history of science prior to making claims like these.

      I used present tense for a reason. But my point is that science abandons “axioms” that turn out to be false, whereas religion clings to them even when they’re shown not to be the case. Compare the time taken to get over the loss of Newtonian axioms to the fact that we’re still having arguments about evolution, over 150 years after On the Origin of Species was published. Is this the case for all philosophers? Certainly not! It’s not even the case for all theologians. But it’s a good example for how scientific observations trump axioms.

      You are unaware, then, of David Hume? The problem of induction?

      I linked to his book on The Crommunist Manifesto. It’s worth a read. Here is the link again: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/9662

      I’m not unaware of Hume, but I’ll read the book you linked to when I have some time.

      I reject the notion of a priori knowledge.

      And there goes math.

      Apologies, I reject the notion of a priori knowledge about the physical world. You can come up with whatever crazy mathematical models you want and work out all the kinks a priori, but the question of whether or not those models actually match up to anything in reality is a question that must be answered empirically.

      Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

      This is claiming that there is a dichotomy between them, that what is science is not philosophy, and vice versa.

      No it isn’t.

      But [the standard model of physics] isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we [believe the world works], but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our [our research program] (or how we ought to).

      Bad argument.

      Not sure what point you’re making. The standard model of physics tells us facts about the world, even if it itself isn’t an actual thing. Models of ethics don’t tell us about anything that exists in the physical sense, but rather they help us with decision making. Useful, but not illustrative about the universe.

      And that scientist would be wrong. It turns out that our perception of colour is largely dependent on the colours around the object. C.f. Colour constancy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_constancy

      Okay, but the point is that there’s a concrete physical definition of what it means to be red. We don’t need to invent metaphysical classes and membership relations or intrinsic properties of “red-ness” in order to explain it.

      1) Theology is not a branch of Philosophy. I’m not sure where you got this notion, but it’s not even wrong.

      Philosophy of Religion is a branch of philosophy, where Religion is studied through the lens of critical thinking and logic.

      Theology is where religious folk cherry-pick the bits of philosophy they like in an attempt to rareify their crappy arguments in favour of the existence of god.

      For example: Spinoza, even though he’s trying to prove the existence of god, is doing Philosophy of Religion. Craig is doing Theology.

      Hm, interesting. I guess today I can say I learned something. :)

      2) The basis of all modern science is Metaphysics. Metaphysics is, absolutely, speculation about the nature of reality and the attempt to shave off the logically impossible options. If one is stuck looking at 20th century metaphysics (i.e. Kripke, and Lewis, and the focus on modal operators and all that bullshit), then yes, Metaphysics is nonsense.

      But this is a naieve and shallow view of metaphysics, a discipline that goes back over 2000 years, that has had many successes. We don’t throw out physics because Becher was wrong about phlogiston (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston), or because the aether turned out to be nonsense (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aether_(classical_element) ).

      One does not get to dismiss an entire discipline simply because one is unfamiliar with it.

      That is definitely not my experience with metaphysics, so I guess I’ll chalk it up to not having a very good instructor when I took the class. As I said, I would never presume to speak authoritatively on a subject that I don’t really know much about; but all I can really do is give my impressions of a thing given my current state of knowledge, and then go and learn more and repeat.

      I still stand by my original claim that it’s absurd to cling to an axiom in the face of evidence against it. At the very least one needs to be able to consider the possibility that one was wrong, à la “maybe something could come from nothing”. In light of this conversation, I will admit that I regret tying my original post against philosophy as a whole and should have been more specific what I was addressing.

      Cheers, Brian! This has been fun. :)

  • Josh Garnett  On July 24, 2012 at 2:07 am

    My turn to make a few comments:

    1/ I honestly don’t think all scientists are philosophers and all philosophers are scientists. Sure, there’s philosophical concepts popping up in every scientifical field: bioethics, logics, epistemology, etc. But I can think of a lot of scientists who spend their whole lives recording signals from stars or proving funny combinatorial formulas; it’s when you have a completely new theory that changes the way you look at the world that you start taking a step back and thinking, but much of science nowadays is just grinding theorems. And there are lots of areas in philosophy that will say a lot about the world that science just cannot tackle: art philosophy and study of societal organization (what is work?) are two topics I can think of.
    And it’s fine! In my mind, philosophy and science are two disciplines that are distinct and that sometimes overlap, but there isn’t one better than the other – in fact, I think philosophy provides meaning, which is the best tool we can use when we deal with human psychology and all that, and thus it’s better than science (to grossly exaggerate, I feel that a scientist can tell you which area of the brain is activated when you think about God, when a philosopher will tell you how the notion of God can be formed and thought of).

    2/ While I’m at it: I think what Brian is trying to say about science and empiricism is that you can’t call any process in which someone looks in the real world for a confirmation or an infirmation of an hypothesis “science”: this is just textbook empiricism, and it’s not confined to science. Philosophy uses empiricism (it looks into the real world to see if the theories are accurate to describe the world) but it’s not science – what we think of science is any field in which there are mathematical models and empiricism/experimentation, but there is no way to prove or disprove that for instance “Francis Fukuyama says that after the Berlin Wall, it’s the end of History” with any mathematical models. Both philosophy and science offer theories to describe the world that they try to make as accurate as possible (empiricism), but there are areas in which one is competent and the other is not.

    3/ (cd assumption 1) When philosophers think of an interesting idea, they usually do *not* try to back it up with some science. Marxism, Society of Spectacle, the Ubermensch, all those and more cannot be backed with science, i.e. there is no mathematical theories that will prove or disprove them; there are, however, arguments, objections and observations firmly rooted in reality that philosophers throw at the theories and see if they’re still interesting (which is empiricism, but not science).

    4/ About the redness : that scientist would be wrong to think the work is done. I’m sure the redness was an example of an attribute, used by a teacher to make you more familiar with metaphysical machinery such as classes and membership relations and all that. But replace ‘redness’ by any adjective: science can’t say anything, when metaphysics developed a model to think about those things. Metaphysics is not just the study of redness, and since it’s been studied for such a long time by brilliant minds using empiricism, I do believe it has a lot of interesting things to say that science cannot. I would agree if you say that there are some philosophical asssertions that become wrong or useless once science provided its own answer, but definitely not whole fields of philosophy.

  • Brian Lynchehaun  On July 24, 2012 at 4:23 am

    This has been fun.

    The feeling is most assuredly not mutual.

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