[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]
“Philosophy is dead.”
However one characterizes the discipline of philosophy, there is little doubt that it has been suffering for a while from a severe public relation problem, and it is incumbent on all interested parties (beginning with professionals in the field) not just to ask themselves why, but also what can be done to improve the situation. This chapter is offered as a series of reflections on these two aspects of the issue. We will examine in some detail a series of representative examples of brash attacks on philosophy (to which I will offer my own, shall we say, blunt response), mostly carried out by a small but influential number of scientists and science writers, attacks that seem to capture something fundamental about the broader public’s attitude toward the discipline.
As a scientist myself, I think I am unusually positioned to understand some of my colleagues’ take on philosophy. We will also see, however, that there is a number of prominent philosophers who have had the unfortunate effect of contributing to the problem by writing questionable things about science, thus somewhat justifying the backlash from the other side. Finally, we will look at how — despite the obliviousness of, and sometimes even objections and resistance by, most professional philosophers — the field has been making significant inroads in public discourse, ironically by essentially following the example set forth by science popularizing.
(Some) Scientists against philosophers
Science, as is well understood, is one of philosophy’s intellectual offsprings, and was in fact known until the mid-19th century as “natural philosophy.” The very word “scientist” was invented in 1833 by philosopher William Whewell, apparently at the prompting of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Snyder 2006). There are very good historical and conceptual reasons for the weaning to have occurred (Bowler and Morus, 2005; Lindberg 2008), a process that eventually led to the professionalization of academic science, which dramatically accelerated after World War II with the establishment (in the United States and elsewhere) of government sources of funding for scientific research. Given that the separation of the two fields has occurred slowly and — initially at least — amicably (both Descartes and Newton, for instance, considered themselves natural philosophers), one would expect each side to eventually go on with their business and leave the other to pursue its own. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.
As we shall see in a couple of chapters, some philosophers, especially analytical ones, do seem to suffer from a degree of “lab coat envy,” so to speak, which nudges them to concede perhaps a bit too much epistemic territory to science. At the opposite extreme, we have also had episodes of philosophers lashing out at science, often for egregiously bad reasons, thereby generating a (frequently scornful) reaction from the scientists themselves. It seems therefore appropriate to begin with an examination of what some vocal and prominent exponents of modern day natural philosophy have had to say recently about their mother discipline, and why they have so frequently and reliably missed the mark. Be forewarned: going through this section will increasingly feel like seeing some dirty intellectual laundry being aired in public. But I think it is a necessary preamble to my argument, and at any rate the pronouncements I will focus on and criticize below are already out there for anyone to see and make up their own mind about.
A good starting point, which I will discuss in detail since it is so paradigmatic, is a famous essay by Nobel winning physicist Steven Weinberg, boldly entitled “Against Philosophy” (Weinberg 1994). The question Weinberg poses right at the end of the first paragraph of his essay, “Can philosophy give us any guidance toward a final theory?” is at once typical of physicists’ complaints about the discipline, and clearly shows why they are misguided. While there are a number of good examples of fruitful collaborations between scientists and philosophers, from evolutionary biology to quantum theory, the major point of philosophy of science (Weinberg’s main target) is most emphatically not to solve scientific (i.e., empirical) questions. We’ve got science for that, and it works very nicely.
Weinberg immediately tries to take some of the sting out of his overture by acknowledging the general value of philosophy, “much of which has nothing to do with science,” but immediately springs back to slinging mud within the same paragraph: “philosophy of science, at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science.” There are various aims of philosophy of science (Pigliucci 2008), only some of which have to do with helping physicists formulate new theories about the ultimate structure of the universe (or biologists to formulate new theories of evolution, and so on). Broadly speaking, philosophers of science are interested in three major areas of inquiry. The first deals with the generation of general theories of how science works, as in Popper’s (1963) ideas about falsificationism, or Kuhn’s (1963) concept of scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts. Second, philosophers of particular sciences (such as physics, biology, chemistry, etc.) are interested in the logic underlying the practice of the various subdivisions of the scientific enterprise, debating the use (and sometimes misuse) of concepts such as those of species (in biology: Wilkins 2009) or wave function (in physics: Krips 1990). Finally, philosophy of science may serve as an external mediator and sometimes critic of the social implications of scientific findings, as for instance in the case of the complex evidential and ethical issues raised by human genetic research (Kaplan 2000). While some of the above should be useful to working scientists, most of it is an exercising in studying science from the outside, not of practicing science itself, thus making Weinberg’s demand for direct help from philosophers in theoretical physics rather odd.
It is also not difficult to find outright misreadings of the philosophical literature in “Against Philosophy.” For instance, at one point Weinberg cites Wittgenstein in support of his thesis that philosophy is irrelevant to science: “Wittgenstein remarked that ‘nothing seems to me less likely than that a scientist or mathematician who reads me should be seriously influenced in the way he works.’” But this should be read in context (admittedly, not an easy task, when it comes to Wittgenstein), as the author was actually making an argument for the independence of philosophy from science and for the simultaneous deflating of the latter, and was definitely not talking about philosophy of science. Weinberg then comes perilously close to anti-intellectualism when he complains that, after reading some philosophy “from time to time,” he finds “some of it … to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound obscurity with profundity.” I’m confident that precisely the same unwarranted judgment could be made about any paper in fundamental physics, when read by someone who does not have the technical training necessary to read fundamental physics!
Weinberg complains about the fact that when he gives talks about the Big Bang someone in the audience regularly poses a “philosophical” question about the necessity of something existing before that moment, even though physics tells us that time itself started with the Big Bang, which means that the question of what was there before that pivotal event is meaningless. But a Nobel winner ought to understand the difference between a random member of the audience at a popular talk and the thinking of professional philosophers of physics. Indeed, Weinberg himself gives some credit to philosophers past when he points out that Augustine (in the 4th century, nonetheless) explicitly considered the same problem and “came to the conclusion that it is wrong to ask what there was before God created the universe, because God, who is outside time, created time along with the universe.” So, philosophers do get some things right after all, in this case a full millennium and a half before physicists.
It is interesting that Weinberg attempts to show how philosophy (of science) occasionally does help science itself, but only insofar as it frees scientists from other, bad, philosophy. His examples are illuminating as to where at least part of the problem with his analysis resides. He mentions, for instance, that logical positivism — a philosophical position that was current in the early part of the 20th century — “helped to free Einstein from the notion that there is an absolute sense to a statement that two events are simultaneous; he found that no measurement could provide a criterion for simultaneity that would give the same result for all observers. This concern with what can actually be observed is the essence of positivism.” Moreover, again according to Weinberg, positivism played a constructive role in the beginning of quantum mechanics: “The uncertainty principle, which is one of the foundations of the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, is based on Heisenberg’s positivistic analysis of the limitations we encounter when we set out to observe a particle’s position and momentum.”
But Weinberg then complains that the “aura” of positivism outlasted its value, and that its philosophical framework began to hinder research in fundamental physics. He endorses George Gale’s opinion that positivism is likely to blame for the current negative relationship between philosophers and physicists, going on to list examples of alleged damage, such as the resistance to atomism and the resulting delayed acceptance of statistical mechanics, as well as the late acceptance of the wave function as a physical reality. But even assuming that Weinberg’s take on the history of science is correct (after all, he is relying on anecdotal evidence, not on a professional, systematic historical analysis), there is a basic fallacy underlying his reasoning. He is imagining a static model of philosophy, whereby views do not change — much less progress — over time. But why should that be? Why is it acceptable that science abandons, say, Newtonian mechanics in favor of relativity theory, while philosophy cannot abandon logical positivism in favor of more sophisticated notions? Indeed, this is precisely what happened (Ladyman 2012). It is simply historically incorrect to claim that positivism may underlie the current disagreements between philosophers and physicists, because philosophers have not considered logical positivism a viable notion in philosophy of science since at the least the middle part of the 20th century, following the devastating critiques of Popper and others in the 1930s, and ending with those of Quine, Putnam and Kuhn in the 1960s. If physicists still think that positivism commands the field in philosophy then it is the physicists who need to update their notions of where philosophy is. When Weinberg states that “it seems to me unlikely that the positivist attitude will be of much help in the future” he is absolutely right, but no philosopher of science would dispute that — or has done so for a number of decades.
At this point in Weinberg’s essay there is what appears to be a seamless transition, but is instead a logical gap that reveals much about some scientists’ misconceptions regarding philosophy. After having dispatched logical positivism, the author turns to attack “philosophical relativists,” by which he likely means some of the most extreme postmodernist and deconstructionist authors that played a role in the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s (Sokal and Bricmont 2003). I will tackle this particular episode in more detail below and then again in the next chapter, but it is worth remarking here that scientists such as physicist Alan Sokal have been joined en force in rebutting epistemic relativism by a number of philosophers, mostly, in fact, philosophers of science. What Weinberg does not appreciate is that philosophers of science are typically highly respectful of science and do come to its defense whenever this is needed (other classic examples include the debate over Intelligent Design (Pennock 1998) and discussions about pseudoscience (Pigliucci and Boudry 2013)).
Indeed, Weinberg himself could use some philosophical pointers when he struggles against the postmodern charge that science does not make progress. He says: “I cannot prove that
science is like this [making progress], but everything in my experience as a scientist convinces me that it is. The ‘negotiations’ over changes in scientific theory go on and on, with scientists changing their minds again and again in response to calculations and experiments, until finally one view or another bears an unmistakable mark of objective success. It certainly feels to me that we are discovering something real in physics, something that is what it is without any regard to the social or historical conditions that allowed us to discover it.” What Weinberg cannot prove, what he has to resort to his gut feelings to argue for, is the bread and butter of the realism-antirealism debate in philosophy of science, to which we will turn in some depth later on, as one of the best illustrations of the idea underlying this book, that philosophy makes progress.
The second example of a scientist who misunderstands philosophy that I wish to discuss in order to build my case is another physicist, Lawrence Krauss. He first presented his thoughts on the matter in an interview with The Atlantic magazine conducted by journalist Ross Andersen (Andersen 2012). To put things in context, the discussion took off with a reference to Krauss’ book on cosmology for the general public, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, in which Krauss maintains that science has all but solved the old (philosophical) question of why there is a universe in the first place. The book was much praised shortly after publication, but later had been harshly criticized by David Albert in the New York Times. Here is Albert (2012) summarizing the gist of his criticism of Krauss, that the physicist played a bait and switch with his readers, substituting quantum fields for the “nothing” of the book’s title:
“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields … They have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”
That’s harsh, as much as I think it is on target, and Krauss understandably didn’t like Albert’s review. Still, I wonder if Krauss was justified in referring to Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” considering that the latter is not only a highly respected philosopher of physics at Columbia University, but also holds a PhD in theoretical physics. I didn’t think Rockefeller University (where Albert got his degree) gave out PhD’s to morons, but I could be wrong.
Nonetheless, let’s get to the core of Krauss’ attack on philosophy. He said: “Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” This seems to show a couple of things: first, that Krauss does not appear to genuinely care to understand what the business of philosophy (especially philosophy of science) is, or he would have tried a bit harder; second, that he doesn’t mind playing armchair psychologist, despite the dearth of evidence for his pop psychological “explanation” of why philosophers allegedly do what they do.
Here is another gem: “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. … They have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”
In response to which, I think, it would be fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists. More seriously, once again, the major aim of philosophy (of science, in particular) is not to solve scientific problems. To see how strange Krauss’ complaint is just think of what it would sound like if he had said that historians of physics haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. And the reader will have noticed the jab at philosophy for not making progress, which is the underlying reason to discuss these statements in the present volume to begin with.
Andersen, at this point in the interview, must have been a bit fed up with Krauss’ ego, so he pointed out that actually philosophers have contributed to a number of science or science-related fields, and mentioned computer science and its intimate connection with logic. He even named Bertrand Russell as a pivotal figure in this context. Ah, responded Krauss, but really, logic is a branch of mathematics, so philosophy doesn’t get credit. And at any rate, Russell was a mathematician, according to Krauss, so he doesn’t count either. The cosmologist goes on to claim that Wittgenstein was “very mathematical,” as if it were somehow surprising to find philosophers who are conversant in logic and math.
Andersen, however, wasn’t moved and insisted: “Certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss was forced to deliver one of the lamest responses I can recall in a long time: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention.” This is a rather odd admission from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.”
Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, he claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” I’ve practiced science for a quarter century, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any suggestion that he might be wrong. Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold. Scientists are just human beings, and like all human beings they are interested in mundane things like sex, fame and money (and yes, the pursuit of knowledge). Science is a wonderful and wonderfully successful activity, but there is no reason to try to make its practitioners into some species of intellectual saints that they certainly are not.
Finally, on the issue of whether Albert the “moronic” theoretical physicist-philosopher has a point in criticizing Krauss’ book, Andersen remarked: “It sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” To which Krauss replied by engaging in what looks to me like a bit of handwaving: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff, then I’ll go with that.” A nothing full of stuff? No wonder Albert wasn’t convinced.
But, insisted Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responded: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.” Again, this from someone who had just lectured readers about honesty in communicating with the public. I think my case about Krauss can rest here, though interested readers are invited to check his half-hearted “apology” stemming from his exchange with Andersen and published in Scientific American (Krauss 2012), or is equally revealing interview in The Guardian with philosopher Julian Baggini (Baggini and Krauss 2012).
I do not wish to leave the reader with the impression that only some physicists display a dyspeptic reaction toward philosophy, a few life scientists do it too. Perhaps my favorite example is writer Sam Harris (2011), who — on the strength of his graduate research in neurobiology — wrote a provocative book entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. What Harris set out to do in that book was nothing less than to mount a science-based challenge to Hume’s classic separation of facts from values. For Harris, values are facts, and as such they are amenable to scientific inquiry.
Before I get to the meat, let me point out that I think Harris undermines his own project in two endnotes tucked in at the back of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’” But if that is the case, if we can define “science” as any type of rational-empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his) then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says “How Science Can Determine Human Values.” One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here. Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [But] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” In other words, the whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed by Sam Harris because he finds its terminology boring. Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?
Broadly speaking, Harris wants to deliver moral decision making to science because he wants to defeat the evil (if oddly paired) twins of religious fanaticism and moral relativism. Despite the fact that I think he grossly overestimates the pervasiveness of the latter, we are together on this. Except of course that the best arguments against both positions are philosophical, not scientific. For instance, the most convincing reason why gods cannot possibly have anything to do with morality was presented 24 centuries ago by Plato (circa 399BCE / 2012), in his Euthyphro dialogue (which goes, predictably, entirely unmentioned in The Moral Landscape). In the dialogue, Socrates asks a young man named Euthyphro the following question: “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods?” That is, does God embrace moral principles naturally occurring and external to Him because they are sound (“holy”) or are these moral principles sound because He endorses them? It cannot be both, and the choice is not pretty, since the two horns lead to either a concept of (divine, in this instance) might makes right or to the conclusion that moral principles are independent of gods, which means we can potentially access them without the intermediacy of the divine. As for moral relativism, it has been the focus of sustained and devastating attacks in philosophy, for instance by thinkers such as Peter Singer and Simon Blackburn, but of course in order to be aware of that one would have to read precisely the kind of metaethical literature that Harris finds so increases the degree of boredom in the universe.
Ultimately, Harris really wants science — and particularly neuroscience (which just happens to be his own specialty) — to help us out of our moral quandaries. Except that the reader will await in vain throughout the book to find a single example of new moral insights that science provides us with. For instance, Harris tells us that genital mutilation of young girls is wrong. I agree, but certainly we have no need of fMRI scans to tell us why: the fact that certain specific regions of the brain are involved in pain and suffering, and that we might be able to measure exactly the intensity of those emotions doesn’t add anything at all to the conclusion that genital mutilation is wrong because it violates an individual’s right to physical integrity and to avoid pain unless absolutely necessary (e.g., during a surgical operation to save her life, if no anesthetic is available).
Indeed, Harris’ insistence on neurobiology becomes at times positively creepy (a sure mark of scientism since at the least the eugenic era: Adams 1990), as in the section where he seems to relish the prospect of a neuro-scanning technology that will be able to tell us if anyone is lying, opening the prospect of a world where government (and corporations) will be able to enforce “no-lie zones” upon us. He writes: “Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. … Many of us might no more feel deprived of the freedom to lie during a job interview or at a press conference than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in the supermarket.” I don’t know about you, but for me these sentences conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother, which I most definitely would rather avoid, science be damned (on the dangers of too much utilitarianism, see: Thomas et al. 2011).
At several points in the book Harris seems to think that neurobiology will be so important for ethics that we will be able to tell whether people are happy by scanning them and make sure their pleasure centers are activated. He goes so far as arguing that scientific research shows that we are wrong about what makes us happy, and that it is conceivable that “evil” (quite a metaphysically loaded term, for a book that shies away from philosophy) might turn out to be one of many paths to happiness — meaning the stimulation of certain neural pathways in our brains. Besides the obvious point that if what we want to do is stimulate our brains so that we feel perennially “happy” then all we need are appropriate drugs to be injected into our veins while we sit in a pod in perfectly imbecilic contentment (see Nozick’s (1974, 644-646) famous experience machine thought experiment), these are all excellent observations that ironically deny that science, by itself, can answer moral questions. As Harris points out, for instance, research shows that people become less happy when they have children. What does this scientific fact about human behavior have to do with ethical decisions concerning whether and when to have children? 
Moreover, as we saw, Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions on the simple ground that he finds metaethics “boring.” But he is a self-professed consequentialist who simply ducks any discussion of the implications of that a priori choice of ethical framework, a choice that informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware of (or doesn’t care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various counter-moves in conceptual space that consequentialists have made to defend their position (we will explore some of this territory). This ignorance is not bliss, and it is the high price Harris’ readers pay for the crucial evasive maneuvers that the author sneaks into the initial footnotes I mentioned above.
Now, what are we to make of all of the above? I am not particularly interested in simply showing how philosophically naive Weinberg, Krauss, Harris or several others (the list is surprisingly long, and getting longer) are, as much fun as that sometimes is. Rather, I want to ask the broader question of what underlies these scientists’ take on science and philosophy. I think it is fair to say that the above criticisms of philosophy are built on the following implicit argument:
Premise 1: Empirical evidence is the province of science (and only science).
Premise 2: All meaningful / answerable questions are by nature empirical.
Premise 3: Philosophy does not deal with empirical questions.
Conclusion: Therefore, science is the only activity that provides meaningful / answerable questions.
Corollary: Philosophy is useless.
Now, P2 is awfully close to the philosophical (!) position known as logical positivism, which as I mentioned has been demolished by the likes of Quine, Putnam, Kuhn and others (and which, you may recall, Weinberg himself clearly didn’t like). I have already pointed out that there are plenty of questions whose nature is not empirical, or not wholly empirical, and yet that are meaningful. P3 can be interpreted in more than one way: yes, philosophy isn’t in the business of answering empirical questions (just like mathematics and logic), but it is a caricature of the field to claim that empirical facts are irrelevant to philosophical considerations, and no sane philosopher would defend such claim.
This would already be enough to show that both the Conclusion and the Corollary do not follow, and we could go home with the satisfaction of a job well done. But I want to add something about P1. This appears to be the assumption of some prominent scientists, manifested most clearly in biologist Jerry Coyne’s argument that plumbing is for all effective purposes a science because it deals with empirical evidence, which plumbers use to evaluate alternative “hypotheses” concerning the causal mechanism underlying your toilette’s clog. There is a fallacy of equivocation at work here, as the word “science” should be used in one of two possible meanings, but not both: either Krauss, Coyne et al. mean that (a) science is any human activity that uses facts to reach conclusions; or they mean that (b) science is a particular type of social activity, historically developed, and characterized by things like peer review, granting agencies, complex instrumentation, sophisticated analytical tools etc. (Longino 1990, 2006).
(b) is what most people — including most scientists — mean when they use the word “science,” and by that standard plumbing is not a science. More importantly, philosophy then can reasonably help itself to facts and still maintain a degree of independence (in subject matter and methods) from science. If we go with (a) instead, it would follow not only that plumbers are scientists, but also that I am doing “science” every time I pick the subway route that brings me somewhere in Manhattan. After all, I am evaluating hypotheses (the #6 train will let me get to 86th Street at the corner with Lexington) based on my theoretical understanding of the problem (the subway map), and the available empirical evidence (the directly observable positions of the stations with respect to the Manhattan street grid, and so on). You can see, I hope, that this exercise quickly becomes silly and as a consequence the word “science” loses meaning. Why would we want that?
 Interestingly, that empirical result depends on one’s definition of happiness: the research shows that people’s moment-to-moment feelings are negatively affected by the presence of children, but also that their self-satisfaction with the trajectory of their lives is higher if they have children. The ancient Greeks would have called the latter type of happiness eudaimonia, or flourishing, and they would have rejected its confusion with the former, hedonic, concept.
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Categories: Nature of Philosophy