[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]
Why is this happening?
We now need to explore the reasons for this bizarre internecine wars between the two disciplines if we wish to move on to more fertile pursuits. As it happens, there are, I think, a number of potentially good explanations for the sorry state of affairs of which the above was a sample. Moreover, these explanations immediately suggest actionable items that both scientists and philosophers should seriously consider.
There are three recurring themes in the science-philosophy quarrels when seen from the point of view of the scientists involved, themes that we have encountered when examining Weinberg, Krauss and Harris’ writings. The three themes are:
(i) A degree of ignorance of philosophy, and even often of the history of science.
(ii) Fear of epistemic relativism, which is seen as undermining the special status of science.
(iii) A (justifiable) reaction to (some) prominent philosophers’ questionable writings about science.
Let’s begin with (i). While clearly an appreciation of the history and philosophy of science is not a requirement to obtain a PhD in the natural sciences (whether it should be is a different issue to be set aside for another day, but see for instance, Casadevall 2015), it is not difficult to find scientists who are conversant in those allied disciplines. The degree to which this is true varies with discipline, time, and even cultural setting. For instance, physicists have historically been more sensitive than other scientists to philosophical issues, but in recent decades the explosive growth of the philosophy of biology has prompted a number of biologists to initiate fruitful collaborations with philosophers to address issues such as species concepts (Lawton 1999; Pigliucci 2003), whether there are laws in ecology (Wilkins 2009), and others.
However, physicist Lee Smolin (2007), in his The Trouble with Physics laments what he calls the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this problematic state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the complex sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Interestingly, one of Smolin’s suggested culprits for what he sees as the failures of contemporary fundamental physics is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among physicists themselves. This quote, for instance, is by Einstein, cited in Smolin’s book:
“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)
This is certainly the proper territory of historical and sociological analysis, but there is enough prima facie evidence in the literature to suggest that a number of prominent scientists simply do not know what they are talking about when it comes to philosophy (and particularly philosophy of science). I am not sure how this could be remedied (other than through the unlikely imposition of mandatory courses in history and philosophy of science for budding scientists), but at the very least one could strongly suggest to our esteemed colleagues that they follow Wittgenstein’s famous advice (given, originally, in quite a different context): Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Moving on to point (ii) above, it concerns the so-called “science wars” of the 1990s and early 21st century, Sokal affair and all included. There is no need to rehash the details of the arguments and counter-arguments here, as even books that purport to be fair and balanced (Labinger and Collins 2001) end up containing a sizable amount of what can only be characterized as sniping and counter-sniping. But — at the cost of some simplification — it may be useful to summarize the extreme positions as well as what should instead be agreed to by all sensible parties, in the hope of providing a reference baseline that can be used to argue in favor of a mutually agreeable cease fire.
On the one hand, the extreme postmodernist position (or, at least, the caricature of postmodernism that is lampooned by scientists like Sokal, Weinberg et al.) is the idea that science is largely or almost exclusively a social construction. Arguably the most infamous summary of this view is from Harry Collins (1981): “The natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge.” When one actually checks the original paper, however, it is not entirely clear whether Collins himself endorses this view or whether he simply mentions that some scholars embrace a fully relativistic take on science (in the endnote to that quote Collins seems to think that sociologist of science David Bloor and some of his colleagues do). Be that as it may, that position — whether explicitly held by anyone, implied or hinted at — is nonsense on stilts. The natural world very much plays a large (though certainly not completely determining) role in the construction of scientific knowledge.
On the other hand, the extreme scientific realist position is supposed to be that sociological and psychological factors have next to nothing to do with the actual practice of science, the latter being an activity essentially independent of culture. As Weinberg (2001) put it: “Even though a scientific theory is in a sense a social consensus, it is unlike any other sort of consensus in that it is culture-free and permanent.” But, again, read in context this strong statement by Weinberg is qualified by his acknowledgment that there are indeed components of scientific theories (which he calls “soft”) that are not, in fact, permanent, and moreover there are both psychological and sociological factors at play during the shaping of scientific theories. That said, no scientist should seriously hold to the idea that science is a purely data-driven enterprise relentlessly moving toward eternal objective truths, so that we can safely relegate that view also to the heap of fashionable nonsense.
What then? It seems obvious — but apparently needs to be stated explicitly — that a serious account of how science actually works will take on board the mounting scholarship in three distinct yet related fields: history, philosophy and sociology of science. To simplify quite a bit: history of science is in the business of reconstructing the actual historical paths taken by various scientific disciplines, their empirical discoveries, and their theoretical outputs; the aim of philosophy of science is to examine the logic and epistemic aspects of scientific practice, indicating both why it works (when it does) and why it may occasionally fail; and sociology of science is interested in the analysis of the social structure internal to the scientific community itself, to see how it shapes the way scientists think, how they determine their priorities and why entire fields move in certain directions that may be underdetermined by epistemic factors. Scientists are, of course, free to simply ignore the history, philosophy and sociology of their own discipline, as they can get along with their work just fine without them. But they are not free — on penalty of being charged with anti-intellectualism — to dismiss those very same areas of scholarship on specious ground, such as that they undermine the authority of science, or that they do not contribute to scientific progress.
Lastly, (iii) above is the area where, unfortunately, scientists do in fact have good reasons to complain. It is certainly the case that, from time to time, professional philosophers — indeed, highly visible luminaries of the field — engage in questionable and somewhat badly informed writing about science, ending up not helping the image of their own discipline. Two recent examples will suffice to make the point: Jerry Fodor and Thomas Nagel.
Fodor is best known as a philosopher of mind, and is indeed someone who has engaged very fruitfully during his long career with cognitive scientists. One of my favorite gems from his extensive collection of publications is the little booklet entitled The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (2000), his critical response to Steven Pinker’s (1997) presentation of the computational theory of mind in How The Mind Works. However, more recently Fodor (2010) co-authored a book with cognitive scientist Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, provocatively entitled What Darwin Got Wrong, and therein the trouble began (Pigliucci 2010; see also — among many others — reviews by: Block and Kitcher 2010; Coyne 2010; Godfrey-Smith 2010; Lewontin, 2010; Richards 2010).
My own take on their effort is that Fodor and Palmarini made a mess of what could have been an important contribution, largely by misusing philosophical distinctions and misinterpreting the literature on natural selection. They are correct in two of their assessments: it is the case that mainstream evolutionary biology has become complacent with the nearly 70-year-old Modern Synthesis, which reconciled the original theory of natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics; and it is true that the field may need to extend the conceptual arsenal of current evolutionary theory (Pigliucci and Müller 2010). But in claiming that there are fundamental flaws in an edifice that has withstood a century and a half of critical examination, they went horribly wrong.
Their argument against “Darwinism” boils down to a two-pronged attack. First, they assert that biologists’ emphasis on ecological, or exogenous, factors is misplaced because endogenous genetic and developmental constraints play a crucial part in generating organic forms. Second, they argue that natural selection cannot be an evolutionary mechanism because evolution is a historical process, and history is “just one damned thing after another” with no overarching logic.
The first claim is simply a distortion of the literature. The relative importance of natural selection and internal constraints has always been weighed by biologists: molecular and developmental biologists tend to focus on internal mechanisms; ecologists and evolutionary biologists prefer to address external ones. But even Darwin accepted the importance of both: in The Origin of Species, his “laws of variation” acknowledge that variation is constrained, and his “correlation of growth” implies that organismal traits are interdependent.
Fodor and Palmarini misappropriated the critique of adaptationism (the idea that natural selection is sufficient to explain every complex biological trait) that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin presented in their famous “spandrels” paper of 1979. Gould and Lewontin warned about the dangers of invoking natural selection without considering alternatives. But Fodor and Palmarini grossly overstate that case, concluding that natural selection has little or no role in the generation of biological complexity, contrary to much accumulated evidence.
In their second line of attack, the authors maintain that biological phenomena are a matter of historical contingency. They argue that generalizations are impossible because of the interplay of too many local conditions, such as ecology, genetics and chance. In their narrow view of what counts as science, only law-like processes allow for the testability of scientific hypotheses. Thus, they claim, an explanation of adaptations that is based on natural selection is defensible in only two cases — if there is intelligent design, or if there are laws of biology analogous to those of physics, both of which they (rightly) reject. Fodor and Palmarini ignore the entire field of evolutionary ecology, countless examples of convergent evolution of similar structures in different lineages that show the historical predictability of evolutionary processes, and the literature on experimental evolution, in which similar conditions consistently yield similar outcomes. There clearly is a logic to evolution, albeit not a Newtonian one.
Evolutionary biology is a mix of chance and necessity, as French biologist Jacques Monod famously put it, in which endogenous and exogenous factors are in constant interplay. It is a fertile area for rigorous philosophical analysis. But Fodor and Palmarini passed a good chance to contribute to an important discussion at the interface between philosophy and science, ending up instead by offering a sterile and wrongheaded criticism. This is unfortunately the very sort of thing that evolutionary biologists can legitimately complain about and lay at the feet of philosophy — and they have, vociferously.
The second example concerns Thomas Nagel, another philosopher of mind, perhaps most famous for the highly influential and beautifully written “What is it like to be a bat?” (1974), in which he argues that science is simply not in the business of accounting for first person phenomenal experiences (“qualia”). But even Nagel couldn’t resist the anti-Darwinian temptation, as is evident from his Mind and Cosmos (2012). Unlike Fodor’s relatively narrowly focused attack on the biological theory of evolution per se, Nagel’s broadside is against what he characterizes as the “materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature,” as the subtitle of the book clearly advertises. The problem is that it is hard to see who, exactly, holds to such conception, or what, precisely, this conception consists of. Nagel, for one, doesn’t say much about it, frankly admitting that a great deal of what he is reacting to can be found in popular (i.e., non-technical) accounts of science or the philosophy of science. (Again, plenty of detailed reviews available, including: Dupré 2012; Leiter and Weisberg 2012; Carroll 2013; Godfrey-Smith 2013; Orr 2013.)
Nagel appears to aim at two targets: the sort of theoretical reductionism advocated by physicists like Steven Weinberg, and the kind of Darwin-inspired naturalism defended by Dan Dennett. But Weinberg’s reductionism has precisely nothing to do with Darwinism, “neo-” or not, and it is arguable that Dennett (1996) — who does think of “Darwinism” as a “universal acid” corroding some of our most cherished beliefs about reality — would agree with Nagel’s characterization of his own position.
Concerning the first target, it is noteworthy that — as Leiter and Weisberg (2012) point out in their review of Nagel’s book — most philosophers do in fact reject the kind of crude theoretical reductionism that Nagel is so worked up about. (That said, perhaps it is the case that many scientists hold to that sort of reductionism, and/or that it is beginning to permeate popular perceptions of science. But these are claims that one would think need to be heavily substantiated before one launches into their debunking.)
Nagel’s second attack, against naturalism, is more interesting, but also seriously flawed. His two basic objections to what he calls “neo-Darwinian” naturalism are that: (a) it is counter-intuitive to common sense; and (b) there are examples of objective truths that cannot be explained by the theory of evolution. The only sensible reaction to (a) is a resounding “so what?” Much of science (and philosophy) runs counter to commonsense, but that has never provided a particularly good reason to reject it. (b) is more intriguing, but Nagel’s defense of it is ineffective. His two examples of objective truths that escape the explanatory power of neo-Darwinism are moral and mathematical truths. I actually agree, but it is not clear what this will purchase. To begin with, there are several accounts of ethics that are not based on the idea that moral truths are objective in any strong, mind-independent sense of the term (Campbell 2011). I, for one, think that ethics is a type of reasoning about the human condition, not a set of universal truths. One begins with a number of assumptions (about values, about facts concerning human nature) and derives their logical consequences, with things getting interesting whenever different assumptions (about values, for instance) inevitably come into conflict with each other. Of course, much more can be said about meta-ethics and ethical realism, but I have to refer the reader to the several excellent reviews of Nagel’s book listed above.
Nagel’s point about mathematical truths is interesting, as a number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics do lean toward a naturalistic version of mathematical Platonism (but see my rejection of it for the purposes of this book in the Introduction), and there are serious arguments in its favor (Brown 2008; Linnebo 2011). But the claim that natural selection cannot possibly explain how we can “grasp” mathematical truths is rather simplistic. Not only is natural selection not the only explanatory principle in evolutionary biology. It, for instance, likely cannot explain the variety of human languages either, without this implying that the existence of complex and multiple idioms somehow is a blow to evolutionary theory, to naturalism or whatever. It is also easy to imagine alternative explanations for our mathematical capacities, such as that a rudimentary ability to entertain abstract objects and engage in arithmetics was indeed of value to our ancestors, but that it is cultural evolution that is primarily responsible for having built on those flimsy basis to the point of allowing (some, very few of) us to, say, solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.
The point is that, when Nagel builds a very tentative edifice, from which he then launches into bold claims such as “in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are ‘biased toward the marvelous,’” one could see why scientists (and other philosophers) begin to roll their eyes and walk away from the whole darn thing in frustration.
All of the above said, however, it would be too facile to point to such examples as somehow representative of an entire discipline and on that basis automatically dismiss the intellectual value of said discipline. After all, in the first half of this chapter I singled out individual scientists and criticized them directly, without thereby implying in the least that science at large is therefore a thoughtless exercise, nor that scientists as a group hold to the same debatable attitudes characteristic of the likes of Weinberg, Krauss, & co. The problem of course is that all the authors mentioned so far — on both sides of the isle — are also known by, and write for, the general public. They are therefore in the unique position of doing damage to public perception of each other’s disciplines. So, let us simply admit that some scientists can write questionable things about philosophy just as some philosophers can return the favor in the case of science. But also that this does not license declarations of the death or uselessness of either discipline, and that the intellectually respectful thing to do is to seriously engage one’s colleagues across the isle, or — lacking any interest in doing so — simply keep one’s keyboard in check, once in a while.
Overcoming Philosophy’s PR problem: The next generation
What can be done in order to help philosophy out with its PR problem, other than attempting to educate some prominent physicists and perhaps gently nudge toward retirement those senior philosophers who suddenly begin to write about the evils of “Darwinism”? As it turns out, quite a bit has been done already by a number of colleagues, although the main focus so far has been on improving the field’s reputation with the public, not as much with other academics. I will briefly mention three such ventures because they are precisely the sort of thing that has helped science with its own similar issues in the past, and because they have the potential to make philosophy once again the respected profession that it was at the time in which all of Europe was enthralled by the dispute between Hume and Rousseau (Zaretsky 2009). Well, closer to that level than it is now, anyway.
The first development of note can actually be pinpointed to a specific date: on May 16, 2010 the New York Times, arguably the most prestigious newspaper on the planet, started a blog series devoted to philosophy, called The Stone. The series is curated by Simon Critchley, who is Chair of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. At the moment of this writing The Stone is still going strong, with dozens upon dozens of posts by a number of young and established philosophers, each generating vibrant discussions among New York Times readers and more widely in the blogo- and twitter-spheres. As it can be expected, the quality of the essays published in this sort of venue varies, but — snobbish sneering and misplaced nitpicking by some elderly colleagues notwithstanding — The Stone is an unqualified good for the profession, as it brings serious and relevant philosophy to the masses, and the masses are clearly responding positively.
Secondly, a number of publishers have began to offer series of books generally referred to as “pop culture and philosophy”: OpenCourt, Wiley, and the University Press of Kentucky are good examples. It used to be that if you were a layperson interested in philosophy you could do little more than read yet another “history of Western philosophy.” Now you can approach the field by enjoying titles such as The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy (referring to the television show, not the cosmological theory), The Daily Show and Philosophy (featuring the comedian Jon Stewart, seen as a modern day Socrates), and The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, among many, many others.
The last new development of the past several years in public understanding of philosophy that I wish to briefly mention is the phenomenon of philosophy clubs. They go under a variety of names, including Socrates Café, Café Philosophique, etc. In New York City alone, where I live, there are a number of successful groups of this type, a couple of which count over 2000 members, having been in existence for close to a decade. And they are by far not isolated cases, as New York is not an exceptional location (from that perspective anyway). Similar efforts have been thriving in many other American and European cities, and I don’t doubt the same is true in yet other parts of the world. There just seems to be a hunger for philosophy, and not just the “what is the meaning of life?” variety: there are cafes devoted to continental philosophy, to individual philosophers (Nietzsche is ever popular), even to reading and discussing specific philosophical tomes (often Kant’s). It is absolutely puzzling that Universities, and particularly their continuing education programs, haven’t figure out how to tap into these constituencies. Very likely they are not even aware of the existence and success of such groups.
As in the case of The Stone and of the “philosophy and…” book series, far too often I hear professional philosophers dismissing philosophy clubs, or looking down on those who spend time contributing to it. Let me be clear: not only is such an attitude snobbish and unjustified, it is self-defeating. Every academic field needs to remind the public of why it exists, why funding it is a good thing for society, and why students should bother taking courses in it. This is a fortiori true for an endeavor like philosophy, too often misunderstood by colleagues from other fields, and constantly in need of justifying its own existence both internally and externally to the academy. But as I said, the good news is, things are changing, because the snobs retire and the new generation sees involvement with the public as necessary, fruitful and, quite frankly, fun. But fun doing what, exactly? What is philosophy, really? To that question we turn next.
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Categories: Nature of Philosophy