Why Scientists (and Science Fans) Need Philosophers

Who wants to fight the Science Wars all over again?


Scientists have never been more disdainful of philosophy and philosophers as they are these days. High profile scientists and science writers have gone on record as saying philosophy is useless, and irrelevant to the practice of science. Lawrence Krauss calls philosophy “a waste of time.” Stephen Hawking says, “Philosophy is dead.” Neil deGrasse Tyson dismisses philosophy as useless and impractical. Why do these intelligent people all come off as being so anti-intellectual when it comes to philosophy?

The Science Wars

A lot of this is a hangover from the Science Wars of the 90s, when scientists and the faculty of science departments found themselves at loggerheads with philosophers and sociologists. Their debates were over things like postmodernism and relativism, the nature of truth and knowledge, and the authority of science. Then, Alan Sokol tricked a critical theory journal into publishing a hoax paper lampooning the loopier elements of the academic Left, and ever since, scientists and science fans have engaged in a triumphalism that’s completely out of proportion to their supposed victory over philosophers.

There are still relevant questions to be raised about the aims and methodology of scientific inquiry. We can no more go back to an era where we believed in science revealing objective reality to humanity than we can go back to a devoutly religious medieval mindset. The philosophers and sociologists of the Sixties studied science as a human endeavor conducted by historically and culturally situated agents; they showed scientists studying phenomena through the lens of theory, in a process that made reality fit their models. Feminists studied science as a program created in a male-oriented culture obsessed with colonial power and social dominance; they argued that scientific inquiry still uses gendered language and metaphors that are vestiges of its history.

Philosophers have done their due diligence and studied science. Why can’t scientists reciprocate by studying the philosophy of science rather than dismissing it?

The Obstacle Course

In Aeon magazine, UNH’s Subrena E. Smith wrote an article called, “Why Philosophy is So Important in Science Education” in which she describes the hurdles that confront students of science in acknowledging and comprehending the philosophical bases of scientific inquiry. She explains that students lack the historical understanding of how the sciences developed; they mistake philosophy’s lack of concrete results as an inability to contribute to scientific research; and they have an idealized conception of science as a completely objective, value-neutral, and fact-based process.

One gets the impression that they think of science as mainly itemising the things that exist – ‘the facts’ – and of science education as teaching them what these facts are. I don’t conform to these expectations. But as a philosopher, I am mainly concerned with how these facts get selected and interpreted, why some are regarded as more significant than others, the ways in which facts are infused with presuppositions, and so on.

Students often respond to these concerns by stating impatiently that facts are facts. But to say that a thing is identical to itself is not to say anything interesting about it. What students mean to say by ‘facts are facts’ is that once we have ‘the facts’ there is no room for interpretation or disagreement.

So it takes time and education for people to attain a realistic, nuanced idea of what science is and isn’t.

On the Oxford University Press’s OUPblog, philosophy professor Richard Healey writes in “Why physicists need philosophy” that even brilliant scientific minds like Stephen Hawking’s can’t seem to grasp that not all questions are scientific ones:

Hawking may believe there are many worlds, but plenty of physicists, mathematicians, and philosophers don’t. There is no consensus on how quantum theory should be understood. I doubt that most experts share Hawking’s belief. Behind a façade of experimental demonstration, the episode “Why are we here?” hides an appeal to authority. What is needed is the convincing argument that it is the job of the philosopher to provide.

Man’s Inhumanity to the Humanities

The way scientists and science fans have come to believe that, in the words of Sam Harris, “There is nothing as sacred as the facts,” is a prejudice that needs to be overcome when we bring scientific data into the human world of meaning and value. Data points have to be processed through cultural attitudes and value systems, and arranged into a coherent narrative for us to make sense of it. If the prospect that we’re creating modern secular folklore out of the products of scientific inquiry offends scientists, that’s too bad; humans have always created stories to give moral substance to their knowledge. There’s no way to approach questions like “Why are we here?” without talking about how we conceptualize things like life, meaning, and existence. What things mean to us —even the data generated by scientific inquiry— isn’t a scientific matter, and that’s what the question of Being is all about.

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  • Kevin K

    I could do without post-modernism, and if I had a time machine, I would strangle Aristotle in his crib. But other than that, the empirical sciences owe a lot to philosophy, and I’ve often said that science is in and of itself a philosophical pursuit.

  • Science is indeed a philosophical pursuit, as is anything that purports to tell us how reality is.

    But what is it about post-modernism that still irks people? It’s not like we can just magically go back to a time before we understood the way scientists study phenomena through the lens of theory. We have to at least acknowledge that science is conducted by historically and culturally situated agents, and that this has an influence on how we define phenomena and even the aims of inquiry itself.

  • Kevin K

    Mainly, it’s about how it’s spun into “there are no wrong answers” and “all opinions are valid”.

    No, they’re fucking not.

  • Well, that’s a pretty common science-fan caricature of post-modernism. Was there anything nutty or impractical about the way I described the post-modern approach to scientific inquiry?

  • colnago80

    Richard Feynman: Philosophy is as useful to physicists as ornithology is to birds.

  • Anthrotheist

    Me: Saying that we don’t need philosophy because now we have science, is like saying that we don’t need trees because now we have lumber.

  • Anthrotheist

    So what is the difference between science and pseudo-science? Scientists refuting philosophy are ruining their own capacity to argue the distinction between the two; saying things like “I have a PhD from Fancy University” turns them into authoritarians, which is profoundly anti-scientific. But then again, it would be hard to see why authoritarianism is anti-scientific without a philosophical understanding of science.

    Seriously, that is a lot of smart people shitting where they eat.

  • I examined that snide bon mot in a discussion over at Secular Spectrum (LINK). We concluded that the philosophy of science is indeed important to scientists, and, not for nothing, ornithology is extremely useful to birds.

  • Priya Lynn

    ” questions like “Why are we here?”.

    Because physics, chemistry, evolution. To me the idea that there is some deeper answer to that question if obviously false.

  • Mark in Ohio

    I wouldn’t say that philosophy is useless, but it is of very limited utility compared to science. Philosophy can help you understand why you are approaching a problem from a certain angle, but in the end the facts don’t depend on why or how you asked the question, or else they are not facts. Facts are what exist whether you believe them or not.

  • I’m not disputing that there’s physics and chemistry involved in human existence, and that we evolved just like all other life on Earth. What I’m disputing is that we can understand the meaning of things like human existence, art, mythology, morality and culture through the data generated by the sciences.

  • Mark in Ohio

    The questions you are raising fall under classical philosophy, and have nothing to do with the philosophy of science. While it may be entertaining and useful, classical philosophy isn’t a discipline that generates any results with any predictive value. You can generate ways to describe art or mythology, but those descriptions don’t allow you to extrapolate any further information or make meaningful predictions.

  • Priya Lynn

    To me the meaning of things like art, mythology, morality, and culture is a very separate question from “why are we here”. To me there is no meaning to human existence beyond physics, chemistry, evolution. Now what we should do with our existence is indeed a philosophical question. As to why we are here, to me it has no bearing on “what should we do”.

  • I wouldn’t say that philosophy is useless, but it is of very limited utility compared to science. Philosophy can help you understand why you are approaching a problem from a certain angle, but in the end the facts don’t depend on why or how you asked the question, or else they are not facts. Facts are what exist whether you believe them or not.

    I’d say that’s a pretty simplistic way of looking at facts. I’m not saying that our hopes and wishes can change a data point. All I’m saying is that the motivations and expectations of generating the data, and the way the data is assembled, interpreted, and arranged into meaningful narratives, are all pretty important factors in what the facts ultimately mean.

  • Mark in Ohio

    Motivation and interpretation can lead you to generate an incorrect narrative, but they don’t change the facts. That is why scientists avoid philosophy, as it gives value to the interpretation over the actuality.

  • You’ve got a very idealized view of science, as generating “facts” that simply aren’t in dispute. In reality, there are a lot of different interpretations of data that lead to expert disagreement in the sciences. For example, the importance of natural selection in species evolution has been widely debated; no one (least of all me) would dispute that species evolve, but at the detail level there’s still a lot of disagreement.

    So do avoid philosophy too? Just asking.

  • To me there is no meaning to human existence beyond physics, chemistry, evolution.

    I don’t mean there’s some sort of magic, hidden knowledge about why we’re here. But that’s one of the pitfalls of scientism, the way we feel justified in dismissing things as irrelevant just because they aren’t scientific matters. In the biological sense, we’re not here for anything. But there’s no escaping meaning, and humans have always struggled with questions about existence that science isn’t equipped to answer.

  • Priya Lynn

    Yes, I agree there’s no escaping meaning, our lives have meaning but for me, how we came to be is irrelevant to how we ought live and love. I believe our meaning comes out of our nature, that we feel pleasure, pain, love and hate. Our meaning doesn’t come out of the mere fact that we exist.

  • Mark in Ohio

    I dabble in many things. I’m an engineer by trade, so an applied scientist. I have to figure out how some numbskull is going to misuse whatever I build to hurt himself.

  • I tried my hand at dabbling, but it seemed like a lot of work.

  • Priya Lynn

    There’s more to life than making predictions.

  • Stephen

    can you say strawman ???

  • Stephen

    no, you are simply incorrect about every thing. The theory is actually called Evolution by natural selection and there quite solid consesus on it.

  • I’m not sure it’s necessarily a strawman. There’s not a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience. For instance, it’s not as if there’s anything ostensibly unscientific about cold fusion, it just hasn’t been demonstrated yet. Then you’ve got evolutionary psychology, which is little more than fact-free storytelling.

  • Stephen

    There is no meaning. Why is purple, why are we here, why a mountain – all stupid questions.
    The only meaning for anything is the meaning that we assign, with each individual having their own view. Philosphy cannot define anything,there is no evidence, not observation only speculation. It is well and truely dead and buried.

  • Stephen

    i cannot see how, can birds now read? maybe they take course via podcasts these days??

  • As I was telling Mark, I agree that species evolve and that natural selection is one of its mechanisms. But there are a lot of disagreements about the extent to which natural selection can be said to be the sole or even primary driver of evolution. Looking down the wrong end of the telescope, scientists seem to have no problem declaring that certain things are adaptations while others are mere by-products of the evolutionary process even though it can’t necessarily be proved.

  • You seem like a real expert on philosophy.

  • My point was that as ornithologists learn about bird nutrition, migration, and diseases, their research benefits bird populations through applications in the field. Similarly, philosophers can define scientific questions in a way that helps scientists conceptualize future research aims and protocols.

  • Stephen

    Fully strawman,
    ” saying things like “I have a PhD from Fancy University” turns them into authoritarians, which is profoundly anti-scientific.”

    Are you trolling ???
    nothing uncientific about cold fusion ?? really…
    oh you mean besides the fact there is zero evidence for it.
    Following this logic, you would say there is nothing unscientific about religion??

  • Stephen

    no there are not any real disagreements, it is one of the most solid theorys there is. Unless you are counting new earth creationists.

    Again the theory is “EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELECTION”. You seem to have very little understanding in this area.

  • Stephen

    how do you see a philospher defining scientific questions better than an actual scientist.
    DO we consult house painters for defining question about cosmology ?
    I may be coming across as arrogant, but that is not my intent. Just think you may be using some signifcant hand waving.
    Philosphy maybe brillaint for hypotheticals, etc, but has zero application for scientific enquiry, research, application.

  • Anthrotheist

    To be clear, you do acknowledge that modern science is purely a result of hundreds of years of philosophers’ brilliant hypotheticals, correct? Science didn’t just spontaneously generate into existence, and it doesn’t exist in some state of unassailable epistemological perfection.

    Philosophy is the essence of scientific inquiry; how do you know that scientific empiricism is logically valid without philosophical empiricism and logic? How do you apply the results of science in an ethical manner without the philosophy of ethics?

    I can’t help but feel like Shem isn’t the one doing the conspicuous hand waving.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m confused. Are you claiming that relying on credentials from a university as your sole basis of argument is not authoritarianism? Or are you arguing that authoritarianism is not anti-scientific?

    You’re kinda blowing up here, being bombastic, making statements without supporting them and asking questions as if they answer themselves. So, honestly, are you trolling?

  • Anthrotheist

    How about, instead of “why are we here?”, “what are we?” To me the questions are similar, trying to get a sense of how we fit into the universe in which we find ourselves, but asking the latter perhaps better avoids any necessary assumptions of whether humanity has a purpose.

    Science can answer “what are we?” through biology: we are mammals, specifically great apes, etc. It can answer it physically/chemically: we are molecules, solids, fluids, heat, etc. But what about the thing that is typing these words upon my screen? What is that? My mind? Even if my mind is a result of my body’s functions (which I entirely believe), is my mind real? It cannot be measured by mass, nor measured directly through the energies detectable from my nervous system. But the consequences of my mind are detectable; you are reading an example of them right now.

    To me, this is the type of area where science still needs philosophy. Basic assumptions about empiricism and linear causality still appear to me to be fundamental to science (especially the “practical” and applicable side), and are fundamentally limiting in understanding many of the things we experience in our world.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m not quite sure what you are imagining when you say “fact.” Are you saying that there are absolute, indisputable, fundamental, and immutable truths that exist in the universe regardless of human existence? Because if those truths can be of moral consequence (which I expect at some point they must) that strikes me as very oddly similar to Natural Law. The whole “it doesn’t matter if you believe it, it is true and the fact that it is true is indisputable because it is true whether you believe it or not.”

    Ultimately, scientific facts are a consensus of subjective experiences. Each experiment is run by a subjective observer, who records the results and shares it. The more runs (by more independent experimenters), the more consensus, the more “factual” it is considered to be (never mind that the final “fact” is often actually an average result from all the runs, and not representative of a single consistent repeated result).

  • I know what it’s called. If you’re unaware of the controversy about adaptationism in evolutionary biology, then I’m afraid I’m not the one lacking understanding here.

    It’s got nothing to do with creationism or crackpottery. It’s a debate that has been going on for decades in biology. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin parodied the adaptationists in their “Spandrels of San Marcos” paper back in the 70s. Here’s PZ Myers explaining his opposition to the concept of evolution as a process of cumulative adaptation:


  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    What gets overlooked here is that science has its own epistemological method that it’s settled on, and that’s what separates it from pseudoscience — falsificationism. At its core, the idea of falsificationism is that you set out to prove yourself wrong, and disprove claims. If the claim holds up despite your attempts to disprove it, then you’ve got something worthwhile. Remove falsificationism and you destroy the very idea of science as a self-correcting way of understanding reality.

    But epistemological relativists are extremely resistant to the idea that enough extremely similar subjective experiences hint at an objective truth. For instance, anyone who claims there aren’t underlying, fundamental truths of the universe regardless of the existence of humans is welcome to prove that by creating a perpetual motion machine. Or, failing that, testing the “subjective” nature of gravity by jumping out at 10th story window. And as a bonus, while falling, we can test the subjective nature of Newton’s Laws.

    Is there the slight chance that Newton’s laws might be wrong on the grand scale, where we live? Sure. That’s why scientists are never 100% certain about anything. Falsificationism demands it. But at the same time, it seems like an exercise in intellectual dishonesty — and is very reminiscent of what creationists do — when they claim that because you can’t know something 100% certain that means you’re wrong and there’s no objective truths at all (except, of course, creationists tack on the idea that theirs is the only objective truth).

    Fun side note: Science deniers and the merchants of doubt, as well as anti-Vaxxers, Creationists, global warming denialists, and the like, took their cues from the Science Wars. Specifically, they listened to the philosophers who were attacking science, and they repeated those attacks and use them to sow doubt about the validity of the scientific method. Does this mean we have epistemological relativists to blame for a lack of large-scale action regarding global warming?

    I dunno. It’s not like anthropogenic global warming is any sort of objective truth or anything. We all know those can’t exist, because we can’t be 100% certain of them.

  • There’s no need to portray anyone who has a slightly less idealized concept of science than yourself as a creationist or science denier. If the notion that scientists are ordinarily trying to make reality fit their models is too pessimistic or “relativist” for you, that’s unfortunate, because there’s no going back to that positivist mentality that people a hundred years ago enjoyed.

    Whether there’s objective reality or not, the fact of the matter is that we can only access it through the constructs we create to model it. Whether science is providing us an accurate picture of reality or just validating its own assumptions isn’t really a scientific question.

  • neiltyson

    “Neil deGrasse Tyson dismisses philosophy as useless and impractical”

    My views on Philosophy are much more nuanced than your false, straw-man caricature above. They are best captured in this conversation with Richard Dawkins on stage at Howard University, at an event called “The Poetry of Science”. I can only presume you’ve never seen this clip, even though it has enjoyed nearly a million views. The link takes you to the Q&A section where that very issue is addressed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RExQFZzHXQ&t=62m45s And I have nothing to add or subtract from those comments.

    -Neil deGrasse Tyson, New York City.

  • Christopher Norris in Philosophy Now (LINK) responds to Stephen Hawking’s anti-philosophy remarks:

    Science has always included a large philosophical component, whether at the level of basic presuppositions concerning evidence, causality, theory-construction, valid inference, hypothesis-testing, and so forth, or at the speculative stage where scientists ignore the guidance offered by well-informed philosophers only at risk of falling into various beguiling fallacies or fictions. Such were those ‘idols of the theatre’ that Bacon warned against in his New Organon of 1620, and such – albeit in a very different philosophic guise – those delusive ideas that, according to Kant, were liable to lead us astray from the path of secure investigation or truth-seeking enquiry. This was sure to happen, he warned, if the exercise of pure (speculative) reason concerning questions outside and beyond the empirical domain were mistakenly supposed to deliver the kind of knowledge that could be achieved only by bringing sensuous intuitions under adequate or answering concepts. While in no way wishing to lumber science with the baggage of Kantian metaphysics I would suggest that this diagnosis, or something like it, applies to a great many of the speculative notions nowadays advanced by theoretical physicists including proponents of string theory (Hawking among them) and some of the more way-out quantum conjectures. These thinkers appear unworried – blithely unfazed, one is tempted to say – by the fact that their theories are incapable of proof or confirmation, or indeed of falsification as required by Karl Popper and his followers. After all, it is the peculiar feature of such theories that they posit the existence of that which at present, and perhaps forever, eludes any form of confirmation by observation or experiment. […]

    No doubt there is a fair amount of ill-informed, obtuse, or ideologically angled philosophy that either refuses or tries but fails to engage with the concerns of present-day science. One can understand Hawking’s impatience – or downright exasperation – with some of the half-baked notions put around by refuseniks and would-be engageniks alike. All the same he would do well to consider the historically attested and nowadays more vital than ever role of philosophy as a critical discipline. It continues to offer the sorts of argument that science requires in order to dispel not only the illusions of na ïve sense-certainty or intuitive self-evidence but also the confusions that speculative thought runs into when decoupled from any restraining appeal to regulative principles such as that of inference to the best explanation. To adapt a quotation by Kant in a different though related context: philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind. At any rate it is rendered perilously apt to mistake the seductions of pure hypothetical invention for the business of formulating rationally warranted, metaphysically coherent, and – if only in the fullness of time – empirically testable conjectures.

  • Stephen, Shem The Penman wrote the OP, and is quite sincere.

  • If I was only a writer – I’ve written this before. But I don’t have your gift.

    Or Norris’

  • You are so good at expressing this. It would have taken me at least 4 rambling paragraphs. and only i’d be able to read it. LOL

  • I’d at least try!

  • I actually did, earlier tonight, on a thread about whether we can speculate “objectively” about God.

    It’s not even the opposite question. It’s nearly precisely the same question, with a very similar answer. =)

  • Science is utilitarian and pragmatic. It relies on empiricism for one reason, and one reason only: Success. It works. If religious worship worked then scientists would be religious worshippers (that method fails so it is rejected). Because science is utilitarian it is as objective as we can possibly get.

    Now, there are also ethical considerations and constraints. Ethics prioritizes avoiding harm to people and for some contexts it is clearcut what causes harm and is therefore unethical and for other contexts it is unclear. Because ethics is not as straightforwardly utilitarian it is less objective than science, but it has a criteria that we can evaluate from our knowledge about how our universe works and therefore is a well grounded concept. The problem for ethics is less about determining what is ethical, although in some contexts that can be difficult, and more with commitment. We are either committed to ethics or not, and when we are not committed then we are unethical. There is a similar problem for knowledge, we are either committed to respecting knowledge or not, and if not then we are ignorant.

  • borborygmus

    Then Dan Dennett must be a “science-fan.”

    Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster…

    The best of the “scientizers” (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can’t defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.


  • I wasn’t asking whether anyone ever made pronouncements against postmodernism,ever. I asked this: Was there anything nutty or impractical about the way I described the post-modern approach to scientific inquiry?

  • borborygmus

    I know. But that’s not the portion I was responding to. You called Kevin K’s assessment of postmodernism one of a “common science-fan.” Kevin’s assessment is the same as Dan Dennett’s, who you seem to like or at least use to make a point. Hence, Dan D. is someone who you would deride as a “science-fan”

  • al kimeea

    “Was there anything nutty or impractical about the way I described the post-modern approach to scientific inquiry?”

    “There’s not a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience.”

    asked and answered

    Science clearly and obviously works. Pseudoscience clearly does not as it clings to the method’s coattails while simultaneously deriding “scientism”. Cold fusion, homeopathy, psychics, reiki, etc. are all valid fields of scientific inquiry just waiting for that one positive iteration from among the decades of endless failed examinations? Not to mention no connection to physics, chemistry, biology.

    Science doesn’t know everything! Try this urine based concoction for your cancer!

  • Dennett at least had professional reasons for deriding the postmodernists, though he appeared to acknowledge in Breaking the Spell that the proponents of science studies had become more moderate and informed since the 60s. But I’m assuming you understand that the views of the postmodernists were a little more nuanced than “nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed,” don’t you?

  • Science clearly and obviously works.

    Um, yeah, because we call what works “science.”

  • borborygmus

    Dennett was harsh on postmodernism in Breaking the Spell, just as he was in the Edge articles. In fact, you might call him a die-hard science fan that didn’t touch on “more nuanced” arguments from this school. From page 262:

    In fact, one of the few serious differences between the natural sciences and the humanities is that all too many thinkers in the humanities have decided that the postmodernists are right: it’s all just stories, and all truth is relative. A cultural anthropologist who will go unnamed recently announced to his students that one of the great things about his field is that, given the same set of dta, no two anthropologists would arrive at the same interpretation. End of story. Scientists often have just such disagreements about how to interpret a shared pool of unchallenged data, but for them it is the beginning of a task of resolution: which one of them is wrong? Experiments and further statistical analyses and the like are then designed to answer the question – by discovering the truth (not the capital “T” Truth about everything, but just the ho-hum truth about this particular little factual disagreement). It is this subsequent process (which may take years) that has been declared impossible or unnecessary by these ideologues, who scoff at the very idea that there are objective truths about such matters to be discovered. They couldn’t claim to prove that there is no such thing as objective truth, of course, for that would be to contradict themselves blatantly, and they have at least that much respect for logic. So they content themselves with clucking at the presumption and naivete of anyone who still believes in truth. It is hard to convey how boring this relentless barrage of defensive sneering is, so it is not surprising that some investigators have stopped trying to rebut it, and settle for poking fun at it instead.

    ETA: personally, yes, I think there is more nuance, but I still find that Dennett is correct for the majority of thinkers

  • As far as defensive sneering goes, nothing compares to the amount of immature invective that science fans heap upon what they consider “po-mo nonsense.”

    I think there’s a valid point to be made that interpretation is a much more important facet of even scientific inquiry than Dennett lets on. What we’ve learned about the inductive, inferential processes of inquiry in the last century is that more information isn’t always the key to progress or understanding: rather it’s realizing the context of the facts, the way they’re interpreted, and how they fit with other facts.

  • borborygmus

    P1: I kind of agree, even though it is a tu quoque. However, your continued use of “science fans” as a derisive sneer kind of proves Dennett’s point.

    P2: I think you’re changing contexts. Dennett isn’t talking about adding more information, he’s talking about what scientists vs humanities scholars do with existing information that sets them apart. It seems you are discussing a different context in which non-experts are trying to decide upon perceived truths of a subject (any subject) in which they lack some expertise/info. If you are talking about scientists and how they interpret findings specifically, then it seems Dennett would disagree, while I would say that it depends upon the exact circumstances which do not apply to all situations.

  • I kind of agree, even though it is a tu quoque. However, your continued use of “science fans” as a derisive sneer kind of proves Dennett’s point.

    All I meant is that if we’re talking about the quantity of derisive sneers directed at science and those directed at po-mo philosophy (or philosophy in general), I think I know which bucket would fill up first.

    Dennett isn’t talking about etc.

    Um, do you have anything to say about postmodern philosophy or the philosophy of science apart from invoking Dennett as some sort of unimpeachable authority whose demolition of po-mo philosophy leaves absolutely nothing more to be said on the matter? I respect Dennett enough to have set his philosophy-of-science meme as the featured image for this post, but I consider his opinion to be food for thought rather than the entirety of the subject.

  • borborygmus

    P1: I know what you meant, and I somewhat agree. It is still a tu quoque fallacy, and it still plays to Dennett’s assessment.

    P2: If the topic was about my opinion of postmodern philosophy, I would have given it. But if you go back to my response (to your response to Keven K), you’ll see that this wasn’t the topic. Changing topics is a red herring fallacy. We were discussing how your assessment of Kevin as a “science-fan” would also include Dan D, and then we moved on to Dan D’s assessment of postmodernism. If you read my posts carefully, you’d realize that I’m not appealing to his authority for the simple fact that I disagree with his all-or-nothing approach to postmodernism. I don’t think it’s all bunk. I do think there is some nuance. That you would assert that this is my argument is a strawman fallacy. That’s 3 fallacies.

  • borborygmus

    If you insist on making my arguments for me, there’s no reason for me to be here. Thanks anyways.

  • Any time you’d like to discuss things in English instead of Debaterese, let me know.

  • al kimeea

    “There’s not a clear distinction between science and pseudoscience.”

  • Raging Bee

    At its core, the idea of falsificationism is that you set out to prove yourself wrong, and disprove claims. If the claim holds up despite your attempts to disprove it, then you’ve got something worthwhile.

    Not sure if that description is accurate. THE word I’ve heard is “falsifiability,” and it means you have to understand and admit how your claim can be proven wrong, if it’s wrong; and if a claim is not falsifiable, then it is, at best, suspect.

  • Dave Maier

    I love Dennett, but he is being unfair here, or at least careless. The second paragraph is fine (up to a point, in the context). And you can, of course, use the word “postmodernism,” as most people do, to refer to “academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence” or some such. But that first paragraph also contains clear and undeniable allusions to Nietzsche and Richard Rorty, neither of whom is anything like a “postmodernist” so described (though Rorty himself is careless sometimes as well). Dennett knows this, too, which is why this sort of thing from him is so disappointing.

  • borborygmus

    I agree with your assessment of Dennett. I also think he’s being unfair…I think he goes too far. The point of my original post was that the author here is doing the same in the other direction (perhaps in line with Wieseltier, who Dennett is lambasting) and using rhetoric instead of substantive discussion. Derision, as in “science-fan” coupled with a Dennett meme seems to me to be a bit immature.

    Though I am not familiar with Rorty, I can agree that there are allusions to Nietzsche. That said, I may not go as far as your assessment here. While Nietzsche was not a postmodernist – he was too early for one thing – he presaged some ideas in a few of his works. You seem to find this as a point of attack (along with Rorty) against Dennett’s argument (the second paragraph). Perhaps, but I don’t see why it would matter, because despite any similarities to Nietzsche or Rorty, Dennett is clearly making the case that Wieseltier is not doing what is good for the humanities/postmodernism and can learn a thing or two from Pinker. This is what is directly argued, though that doesn’t mean that your implied argument concerning other philosophers is nonexistent.

  • As usual with the Four Horsemen and pop-science writers in general, they understand the shortcomings of their audience and how much they can put past them. Knocking egghead philosophers is like shooting fish in a barrel, and the anti-intellectualism in this contempt is considered kooky harmless fun.

  • Dave Maier

    That’s right, I’m not arguing against Dennett’s case against Wieseltier in this matter. I just wish he wouldn’t talk about “postmodernism” that way.

  • Ruth1940

    I strongly suspect that the physicists quoted know a lot more about philosophy than most armchair philosophers know about physics. Alexander Rosenberg started out as a physics major, changed to philosophy because he wanted answers to the big questions, and concluded that physics is the answer to the big questions! https://philosophy.duke.edu/people/alexander-rosenberg The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (W.W. Norton, 2011)

  • I strongly suspect that the physicists quoted know a lot more about philosophy than most armchair philosophers know about physics.

    Really? I think philosophers, particularly philosophers of science, probably know a good deal about the history and methodology of physics. However, I’d bet dollars to donuts that most physicists are dismissive or downright hostile to philosophy.

  • Ruth1940

    Have you read anything by Alexander Rosenberg? He’s a philosopher who has studied science and gets it. More and more the evidence indicates that most of what we think we decide is already decided by the involuntary parts of our brains (before we decide to decide). Consciousness and free will may be illusions. Develop some healthy skepticism about what you believe to be true.

  • Consciousness and free will may be illusions. Develop some healthy skepticism about what you believe to be true.

    Right back atcha. If you’re appealing to the authority of Rosenberg and trying to get me to believe that physics can address the human condition, then it sounds like you’re telling me to be develop credulity rather than skepticism.

  • al kimeea

    SP – All I’m saying is that the motivations and expectations of generating the data, and the way the data is assembled, interpreted, and
    arranged into meaningful narratives, are all pretty important factors in what the facts ultimately mean.

    What you describe is bias. Any science nerd like me likely factors that in. I’m well aware that people of any stripe will manipulate any tool at their disposal, including science to further their agenda or that people could be simply drawing the wrong conclusion. Science and the BuyBull have both been used to further racism. This isn’t a secret. In fact, not long ago, some numpty prof in Ontario trotted out the old “there are racial differences” notion backed by his evidence. Guess which one is superior? Guess who soon lost their position due to evidence to the contrary, like DNA, among other factors he didn’t account for – access to education for one.

    One narrative states that iteratively adding large amounts of water, incredibly larger than a baker’s dozen of olympic pools in many cases, to a substance, then shaking it (succusion) and dumping it out after each iteration, will in fact create a stronger, more potent thing to treat illness. From its roots around 1800, it is now explained by water having a memory. People pay large go to a university to be taught this and practice medicine.

    Another narrative calls that dilution or the process by which you set the strength of, say TSP, by adding more or less water to it. More water
    less corrosive strength. Less water more corrosive strength. Same for the initial TSP used, but reversed. This idea has a neat wee formula involving Avogadro’s Constant behind it. In fact, it lies behind our drunk driving laws and how booze is proofed, paint is mixed, vaccines are built, …, n. This is taught in high-school chemistry and dovetails nicely with biology and physics.

    Which narrative should I bias and why, given that they are the same?

    What does this ultimately mean?