Philosophy’s PR problem — II

postmodernism[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.


Block, N. and Kitcher, P. (2010) Misunderstanding Darwin. Boston Review, March/April.

Brown, J.R. (2008) Philosophy of Mathematics: A Contemporary Introduction to the World of Proofs and Pictures. Routledge.

Campbell, R. (2011) Moral epistemology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (accessed on 11 October 2012).

Carroll, S. (2013) Mind and Cosmos. Preposterous Universe, 22 August.

Casadevall, A. (2015) Put the “Ph” Back in PhD. Johns Hopkins Public Health, Summer 2015.

Collins, H. (1981) Stages in the Empirical Programme of Relativism. Social Studies of Science 11:3-10.

Coyne, J. (2010) The improbability pump. The Nation, 22 April.

Dennett, D. (1996) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Simon & Schuster.

Dupré, J. (2012) Mind and Cosmos. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 29 October.

Fodor, J. (2000) The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way. MIT Press.

Fodor, J. and Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (2010) What Darwin Got Wrong. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2010) It got eaten. London Review of Books, 8 July.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2013) Not sufficiently reassuring. London Review of Books, 24 January.

Gould, S.J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist program. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B205:581-598.

Labinger, J.A. and Collins, H. (eds.) (2001) The One Culture?: A Conversation about Science. University Of Chicago Press.

Lawton, J.H. (1999) Are There General Laws in Ecology? Oikos 84:177-192.

Leiter, B. and Weisberg, M. (2012) Do You Only Have a Brain? On Thomas Nagel. The Nation, 3 October.

Lewontin, R.C. (2010) Not so natural selection. The New York Review of Books, 27 May.

Linnebo, Ø. (2011) Platonism in the philosophy of mathematics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 11 October 2012).

Nagel, T. (1974) What is it like to be a bat? The Philosophical Review 83:435-450.

Nagel, T. (2012) Mind and Cosmos. Oxford University Press.

Orr, H.A. (2013) Awaiting a new Darwin. The New York Review of Books, 7 February.

Pigliucci, M. (2003) Species as family resemblance concepts the (dis-)solution of the species problem? BioEssays 25:596–602.

Pigliucci, M. (2010) A misguided attack on evolution. Nature 464:353-354.

Pigliucci and Müller (eds.) (2010) Evolution – the Extended Synthesis. MIT Press.

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. W.W. Norton & Co.

Richards, R.J. (2010) Darwin tried and true. American Scientist May-June.

Smolin, L. (2007) The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Mariner Books.

Weinberg, S. (2001) Physics and history, In: Labinger, J.A. and Collins, H. (eds.) The One Culture?: A Conversation about Science, Chapter 9. University Of Chicago Press.

Wilkins, J. (2009) Species: The history of the idea. University of California Press.

Zaretsky, R. (2009) The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding. Yale University Press.

167 thoughts on “Philosophy’s PR problem — II

  1. synred

    You’d have a big argument over which versions to teach! For example, issues such as whether science can deal with the supernatural, or must adopt metaphysical naturalism, are highly controversial. Of course one could teach all versions.”

    If such things as ESP where real then science could deal with them. Indeed, scientist have tried, but there’s no-there-there.

    The term ‘supernatural’ seems almost self-contradictory. If a phenomena exist it is natural.


  2. davidlduffy

    “this bizarre internecine war[s]”

    Michael Fugate comment points me to the idea that a certain amount of the “war” is against a lumping together of the “forces of superstition and irrationality”. The “science wars” were with an actual philosophical movement – post-modernism. It seems disingenuous to not discuss this as an important background to the present, though I’m guessing there is a later chapter. And the conservative religious involved in fighting the teaching of evolution are the people who buy Mind and Cosmos, and read articles supporting it in Prospect magazine (“Thomas Nagel is not Crazy”) or The Globe and Mail (“Tired of those Smug Scientists?”). These thing do have some effect on science funding and teaching.


  3. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    “The term ‘supernatural’ seems almost self-contradictory. If a phenomena exist it is natural.”

    Yes, but that also demonstrates that “natural” has no meaning, as there is no criteria for ruling things in or out of the category.


  4. synred

    Well in a philosophical context I’d say natural is anything that really exist as apposed to imaginary stuff that we make up. It perhaps redundant with ‘things that exist’, but a reasonable meaning for the word.

    Of course there is the everyday meaning of something not made by people (or aliens? Or chimps?) that is so-often misused.

    There’s no such thing as ‘a natural chicken’, but what-the-hell why let a nit-pick get in the way of a better price? And also, if not a lie, indicate the chicken has been less mistreated than many of it’s co-specifics.


  5. brodix


    “the prediction and then detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes showed that our model of gravity works very well.”

    Dark matter is a rather large fudge between the models and the data.


    What if much of the universe isn’t invisible, but we are just not putting the parts together and having to add large patches?

    Here is an interesting interview with Carver Mead, that I came across years ago;

    The relevant points;

    “He felt that he could develop a wave theory of the electron that could explain how all this worked. But Bohr was more into “principles”: the uncertainty principle, the exclusion principle–this, that, and the other. He was very much into the postulational mode. But Schrodinger thought that a continuum theory of the electron could be successful. So he went to Copenhagen to work with Bohr. He felt that it was a matter of getting a “political” consensus; you know, this is a historic thing that is happening. But whenever Schrodinger tried to talk, Bohr would raise his voice and bring up all these counter-examples. Basically he shouted him down.”

    “A ten-foot electron! Amazing

    It could be a mile. The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.

    A mile-long electron! That alters our picture of the world–most people’s minds think about atoms as tiny solar systems.

    Right, that’s what I was brought up on-this little grain of something. Now it’s true that if you take a proton and you put it together with an electron, you get something that we call a hydrogen atom. But what that is, in fact, is a self-consistent solution of the two waves interacting with each other. They want to be close together because one’s positive and the other is negative, and when they get closer that makes the energy lower. But if they get too close they wiggle too much and that makes the energy higher. So there’s a place where they are just right, and that’s what determines the size of the hydrogen atom. And that optimum is a self-consistent solution of the Schrodinger equation.”

    So much of theoretical physics is specifically referred to as “particle physics.” What if the wave is more fundamental? For instance, if light is an expanding wave and photons are just the initial collapse of this energy as units absorbed by atomic structures, it might explain lots of mysteries, from how light can travel for billions of years and still remain extremely clear. A wave wouldn’t be scattered, like distinct quanta would likely be and would naturally warp around and through gravity fields.

    Also all we really know of gravity is its vacuum effect and that this effect travels at light speed. So if light is the expansion of waves, would gravity be the collapse/contraction of waves? Which would start with the photon, as mentioned above and so this effect would be much broader than that expressed by mass, eliminating the need for dark matter. Thus mass would be an effect of gravity, rather than gravity an effect of mass.

    Just some thoughts to consider, given the real lack of progress in physics.


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    “Well in a philosophical context I’d say natural is anything that really exist as apposed to imaginary stuff that we make up. It perhaps redundant with ‘things that exist’, but a reasonable meaning for the word.”

    It would mean that “Naturalism” is the position that everything that exists, exists.

    That would make even the Pope a Naturalist.

    But what about theoretical entities, such as strings (in the physics sense) that might turn out not to exist? Would you say that they do not yet fall into yhe classification of “natural”?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Robin Herbert

    Was post modernism ever a philosophical movement as such? What I have seen of it (admittedly not a lot) seems to fall more in the area of literary studies or politics.

    Are there still pomo supporters around? Or was it more of a 90’s thing?

    And did it evee teally constitute a war on science?


  8. Robin Herbert

    Hi davidlduffy,

    ” And the conservative religious involved in fighting the teaching of evolution are the people who buy Mind and Cosmos, and read articles supporting it in Prospect magazine (“Thomas Nagel is not Crazy”) or The Globe and Mail (“Tired of those Smug Scientists?”).”

    That seems an odd comment. Have you never read any of these yourself? If not, then how are you in a position to judge their content? But if you have read any of them then you have, by your own thesis, identified as a conservative religious person fighting the teaching of evolution in the classrooms.


  9. synred

    I don’ know. Strings might or might not exist. If God existed he would be natural and could be studies scientifically As he doesn’t he isn’t. and can’t.

    It might be better if I just leave sorting out the words to philosophers and just consider ‘supernatural’ being a contradiction in terms a joke.

    Certainly, I am drifting off topic and should stop.


  10. Patrice Ayme

    Synred: Some experiences were made at low temperatures, for technical reasons. Others were made at ambient temperature. However biological systems use Quantum Mechanics continually, at the smallest scale (at least so I think).
    So far it’s proven for chlorophyll. Basically Quantum Non-Locality enables to find the lowest energy outcome in a way which is (classically) magical.
    From Nature:

    “On the face of it, quantum effects and living organisms seem to occupy utterly different realms. The former are usually observed only on the nanometre scale, surrounded by hard vacuum, ultra-low temperatures and a tightly controlled laboratory environment. The latter inhabit a macroscopic world that is warm, messy and anything but controlled. A quantum phenomenon such as ‘coherence’, in which the wave patterns of every part of a system stay in step, wouldn’t last a microsecond in the tumultuous realm of the cell.

    Or so everyone thought. But discoveries in recent years suggest that nature knows a few tricks that physicists don’t: coherent quantum processes may well be ubiquitous in the natural world. Known or suspected examples range from the ability of birds to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field to the inner workings of photosynthesis — the process by which plants and bacteria turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into organic matter, and arguably the most important biochemical reaction on Earth.

    Biology has a knack for using what works, says Seth Lloyd, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. And if that means “quantum hanky-panky”, he says, “then quantum hanky-panky it is”. Some researchers have even begun to talk of an emerging discipline called quantum biology, arguing that quantum effects are a vital, if rare, ingredient of the way nature works. And laboratory physicists interested in practical technology are paying close attention. “We hope to be able to learn from the quantum proficiency of these biological systems,” says Lloyd. A better understanding of how quantum effects are maintained in living organisms could help researchers to achieve the elusive goal of quantum computation, he says. “Or perhaps we can make better energy-storage devices or better organic solar cells.”


  11. Patrice Ayme

    My reply to Steven Weinberg:

    Science: Discovery Or Construction? Discovery Of Construction!

    Weinberg asserts that modern science was DISCOVERED. Modern science was out there, under a bush, and a couple of physicists Weinberg esteem (Galileo, Newton), lifted the bush, and uncovered “modern science”.

    This may not look like it, but that subtitle itself, that science was discovered, is a speculation on what reality is. In other words, it is a piece of bold philosophy… which, thanks to modern scientific advances in biology, can be philosophically shown to be, most probably, erroneous.

    Indeed: is not the mind constructed? Modern experiments in neurobiology have shown this.

    A kitten shown only a very distorted version of the world does not learn to see correctly.

    (In an interesting case of cecity, Weinberg disparages the inventor of analytic geometry, Descartes, who made modern mathematics possible, including infinitesimal calculus, and Newton’s little activities: no Descartes, no Newton. However, once Descartes had invented analytic geometry, and another Frenchman deduced the correct universal attraction law, the work made by Newton was a matter of at most a couple of decades, since Kepler’s laws were already known. Kepler erroneously thought the attraction was 1/distance, when it’s actually 1/square of distance…)

    Weinberg tried to clarify the subtitle of his book (‘the discovery of modern science’): science was not just ‘constructed’ but actually ‘discovered’. In truth, one should be careful. Take agriculture. Was it discovered, or invented? Both. Most agricultural products were not just discovered, but also literally engineered, through domestication. (A process which is still poorly understood: how can one get from a wild tree which could poison a human to death by eating twenty nuts, to a nutritious modern almond tree? Is not that an achievement more awesome than Newton’s? And the fact is, millions, nowadays, know how Newton did it, but none how Neolithic farmers made what was deadly, edible.)

    Our apparent discoveries modify our brains, so, in a sense, they are constructions. Neurological constructions.

    Now let’s ponder this: when something which has been constructed “discovers” something else, has that something else been uncovered, or constructed?

    Are then what we think of the things of our world and the architecture our minds are made of, discovered or constructed?

    No doubt, some will say, a bridge is constructed. Clearly so, when it is made by hand (as even Heidegger will understand). But, animating these hands are minds. Not just the ones of the builders, but the minds of those who made the minds of the builders. Because cultures, transmitted by languages, make minds.

    Furthermore, what is the difference between a bridge made of stones, and a bridge between two neurons, or two systems of neurons? Philosophically speaking, not much.

    The point is that we feel, or think we observed, that things of the world are some way, and from that, we build bridges between neurons, or systems thereof.

    Appearances are not just deceiving. Appearances we perceive lead to constructions of, and in, our minds. Shallow makes deep.

    The process cannot be any different with “science”. From appearances, that we call “experiences”, we build explanations, connections between neurons, or systems thereof. So what did we truly discover, when we made a scientific discovery?

    What we discovered is that we can build a mind in ways not suspected before. And that, somehow, it fits the real world better, meaning we can increase our powers on matter. This is all what modern science is. The same old same old which has made us evolve ever closer to the gods we are becoming at an accelerating pace. For better or worse.


  12. Massimo Post author

    Robin, synred,

    “It would mean that “Naturalism” is the position that everything that exists, exists. That would make even the Pope a Naturalist.”

    Exactly. We have covered this topic too ad nauseam, I’m afraid, but I still can’t wrap my mind around some people’s flat out denial that the concept of the supernatural is coherent. I don’t believe it actually corresponds to anything real, but it is coherent. It may not be sharply distinguished from the natural, but then again few complex concepts have sharp boundaries (Wittgenstein docet).

    As Robin says, if one denies the very coherence of supernaturalism, then naturalism itself lacks coherence, because it is usually conceptualized as distinct from, and opposed to, supernaturalism. Coel will not be surprised to hear me say that I think this is yet another imperialist-scientimist move.

    That said, I will get soon to discuss the issue of naturalism in philosophy, from a technical perspective, providing definitions and arguments. So stay tuned…


    “Really Robin? That’s the best you can do?”

    With due respect, please let us lay off the sarcasm and try to provide substantial comments. (Yes, of course that goes for Robin as well.)

    brodix, Patrice,

    please keep your comments shorter and to the point. In particular, less theoretical physics that has precious little to do with the discussion at hand, and no longwinded history lessons, thanks.


  13. Robin Herbert

    I an not sure which one of my comments upset Michael. I reread my last one and it seems reasonable comment to me. Perhaps he could explain what was wrong with it.


  14. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Massimo, Robin,

    > Exactly. We have covered this topic too ad nauseam, I’m afraid, but I still can’t wrap my mind around some people’s flat out denial that the concept of the supernatural is coherent.

    Well, I guess debate on this can wait until Massimo addresses it, but I have thoughts on this issue. I do agree that it is a problem, and I do agree that the concept of the supernatural is (at least bordering on) incoherent, but I also think it is possible to define a difference.

    I think it is wrong to define “natural” as simply “that which exists” for the reasons suggested. But it does seem that everything in the natural world supervenes on the physical laws, which are expressible in the language of mathematics. This does not seem to be the case for supposed supernatural entities such as ghosts and ESP and God and so on. So to me, the natural vs supernatural distinction is about whether mathematical physical laws ultimately drive the behaviour of the entity or not.

    Let’s take God as an example. If God were formed of, say, “God” particles (Higgs boson or otherwise), and if these particles obeyed physical (mathematical) laws of some kind, and if everything that God did could be explained as supervening on or emerging from the interactions of those particles according to physical law, then God might be natural. But God is not usually conceived to work like that. He is in some sense a primitive, and He cannot be reduced or regarded as supervening on anything more basic (I would say he essentially works by “magic”, not that a theist would usually agree to that description). The problem is that God is a primitive that does not obey any kind of physical law (unlike the primitives of physics), so that makes Him supernatural whether He exists or not. Similar things could be said for ESP or ghosts or libertarian free will or whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. brodix


    The issue of God might be one where a bit of history of its conceptual evolution would make it more sensible, than just the current folk understanding of a supernatural father figure, as it is deeply entwined with the evolution of western philosophy. As polytheism, it was the original “platonic ideal,” Pantheism was a recognition of the interconnectivity/networking of these conceptual nodes and monotheism was a bit of a step back toward seeing everything as a singular whole, not just connected. Given LeMaitre’s original conception of the universe as a “cosmic egg,” this was the inherent concept underlaying current Big Bang theory.


    It’s hard not to follow the logic out a little ways, but I’ll try to keep it short.


  16. brodix

    Also that father figure concept has significant political implications and should be considered largely in that context.


  17. Robin Herbert

    Hi DM,

    It could be said if every metaphysical system, including Naturalism, that it works, on some level, by “magic”.

    After all, you can’t keep appealing to a more fundamental principle to explain why things work as they do. At some level you have to have something that just is.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    > At some level you have to have something that just is.

    OK. But there’s a difference between whether you can write equations that describe perfectly how they happen to work (F=ma), or whether you’re reduced to fuzzy platitudes (God is love). That’s the difference I’m trying to pinpoint, in my mind the difference between magic and mechanism.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. brodix


    When those fuzzy platitudes have broad cultural significance, it is worth examining them logically and not just dismissing the most simplistic versions. For one thing, “God as love” would clearly be a very limited entity, given there is much that is not love.
    Logically a spiritual absolute would be the essence of this source of animistic consciousness from which more complex forms arise, not an ideal of knowledge and judgement from which we fell. Which would certainly raise far more complex issues than simply mudslinging over the possibility of some old guy up in the clouds.
    Given these concepts are foundational to western philosophy, it might be useful to examine them more deeply.


  20. brodix

    Trying to understand religion from a particular faith based point of view would be like trying to understand government from a particular political point of view. It would not be objective. Go to the historians of religion to get some sense of the processes leading up to this current situation.


  21. Coel

    Hi DM,

    If you want a definition of “supernatural” I suggest that Pascal Boyer’s is pretty good. That defines “supernatural” is normal, real-world behaviour with a couple of counter-factual elements added in.

    Thus “ghosts” are human beings, but disembodied. The OT God is a patriarchal tribal leader, but again disembodied.

    You are right that you could not readily describe the OT God with mathematics, but then you’d also struggle with a gorilla.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. davidlduffy

    Hi Robin. “…odd comment. Have you never read any of these yourself?” Do you mean the article such as Horgan on “Smug scientists” or Nagel’s book? I suppose I was trying to sort out where the emotions that lead to a “war” or PR battle between a few physicists and philosophy comes from. On one side, I think many scientists seem to be proud of Sokal and how he thinks. Not that his stance is not shared by many philosophers too eg the recent Badiou Studies prank. Perhaps Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Latour, ZIzek etc are not really important in the grand scheme of things in US intellectual culture any more, but they haven’t gone away completely.

    From the other side as an example, Krauss seems to align with the NA camp, so rather than there being just the cosmological and philosophical questions that David Albert and others bring up, there is also the overlay that this kind of contention is of interest to the public in a way it would not if it was just a “technical” question about what nothing is. That is, the atheistic physicist has been caught out.

    Ditto complaints about Templeton funding being a subtle or not so subtle “attack” on naturalism or science. That is, part of a war between religion and science being waged by funding particular types of philosophy or science to break up that consensus alluded to by Chalmers (most philosophers are atheists and naturalists), or “most of the US National Academy of Sciences are atheists”, and are also presumably happy with the view the sciences give.

    I should also apologize in that “disingenuous” was not at all the right word – I meant I thought it understated the importance of the “science wars” to just have three paragraphs on the topic.


  23. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Coel,

    > You are right that you could not readily describe the OT God with mathematics, but then you’d also struggle with a gorilla.

    Right, which is why tried to be clear that I was talking about supervenience. Everything a gorilla does it does because of how the particles that make it up are behaving according to the laws of physics, at least from a physical point of view (there are of course more useful kinds of descriptions). This is a schematic, high-level explanation of how it is gorillas do what they do. Of course it’s not practically possible to produce a detailed explanation of gorillas in the language of subatomic particles, but most naturalists would believe that this supervenience thesis would hold.

    Conversely, the supervenience thesis would not hold for libertarians when describing human behaviour, because there is something other than the mechanistic, mathematical behaviour of the particles which is affecting the outcome. That’s the naturalism/supernaturalism divide for me.

    > That defines “supernatural” is normal, real-world behaviour with a couple of counter-factual elements added in.

    I don’t think that is as good a definition, firstly because a genuine supernaturalist wouldn’t agree with any definition that bakes “counter-factuality” into the very definition of what they are supposed to believe in. I think a definition of something people actually believe in has to at least allow for the possibility that the thing we are defining exists, just so we can discuss it sensibly. But if we change the “counter-factual” to “unusual” or some such, then it’s hard to see how something like anti-matter wouldn’t be supernatural. It’s just normal, everyday matter with the “unusual” element that all the charges are reversed.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi DM,

    I don’t get it. If you have something which is the way it is, rather than some other way, for no reason at all, and which behaves the way it does, rather than some other way, for no reason at all, then why would you have an expectation that at it ought to behave in a mathematically regular fashion?

    If it really were the way it is for no reason at sll then, by definition, you can have no expectations of it at all and nothing at all could surprise you about it.

    There could be no reason, for example, why the fundamental principle of reality was not a friendly moose called Eric who burped up Universes.

    On the other hand, if you have some expectations that there are certain attributes the fundamental principle of reality can or can’t have, then you are implicitly saying that there are at lèast some reasons for it to be the way it is (whatever it is).


  25. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    > then why would you have an expectation that at it ought to behave in a mathematically regular fashion?

    Well, me specifically because I think the universe is a mathematical object. For other people, no reason, necessarily. I’m not talking about how the universe ought to behave, I’m distinguishing between natural and supernatural.

    > There could be no reason, for example, why the fundamental principle of reality was not a friendly moose called Eric who burped up Universes.

    Yes, but I regard that as a supernatural explanation, whether or not it is true.


  26. Robin Herbert

    But I am still not getting it. If something is happening for no reason whatsoever, there is no mechanism, so what difference does it make if there is a mathematically regular description of the thing it does for no reason at all, or not?


  27. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Hi Robin,

    > what difference does it make if there is a mathematically regular description of the thing it does for no reason at all, or not?

    If there is a mathematical description, we can model it. We can predict it. We can simulate it. This is a kind of understanding. A kind of explanation. We can’t say why it is the way it is, but we can at least understand its behaviour as it is. That’s what science is looking for, generally (at least physics). I’m just saying that the natural/supernatural divide seems to me to be a matter of whether such explanations are available (at least in principle) or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Daniel Kaufman

    I thought F&P’s book was excellent and that much of the reaction strikes me as herd-like; almost political. It is worth mentioning that they have replied to their critics, at some length and in some detail.

    As for Elliot Sober, he pretty clearly lost this debate on the subject with Fodor, on BHTV, a number of years ago. (In my view, so badly, that he was reduced to repeating the same point, over and over again, regardless of how many times and how many different ways, Fodor refuted it, making me wonder whether he even understood the critique) Whether that’s because Fodor’s right on the biology or simply because he is a much, much better philosopher than Sober, is obviously, up for grabs.

    I’m not saying that, at the end of the day, they are correct. But they are hardly dismissable in the manner that people — many of whom are vastly lesser thinkers than Fodor — have tried to dismiss them. Even Alex Rosenberg, who thinks they are wrong, thinks that in their wrongness F&P have done a substantial service to the discussion on the subject.

    Fodor’s presentation at the same conference was also excellent and anything but obviously wrong.

    So, I would have to disagree, strongly, with the idea that F&P’s book somehow justifies or provides a good rationale for some scientists’ dismissals of philosophy.

    I can’t comment on Nagel’s book, as I have not read it, but the bandwagony reaction there makes me suspicious too. Not to mention Nagel’s similarly outstanding contribution to philosophy over the course of his career. Beyond “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel has done remarkable work, “The Fragmentation of Value,” being just one example.


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