*&^%$#@! Philosophers…

Speaking as a physicist, I think our biggest problem in science is being boring. Easily 95% of what we publish is ho-hum stuff, perhaps interesting to a handful of fellow experts in a sub-sub-subspecialty, but almost no one else. My own work has been no exception.

But as a physicist who is interested in religious and paranormal-related questions, I have to mess with philosophy as well as science (see my books). And I suspect that the problem with a lot of philosophy is pompous bullshit philosophers pull out of thin air.

The immediate cause of this rant is a book review I was reading, which discusses, among others, Heidegger (there’s exhibit 1 right there) and Levinas. Now, existentialist moaning from continental philosophers is bad enough, but when I came across the bit about Levinas responding to Nazism I snapped. Here it is:

After the war, gruesome revelations about the death camps–in which most of Levinas’s own extended family perished–provoked him to reassess the Western tradition in toto. Why was it, he inquired, that Western philosophy, despite its manifest sublimity and grandeur, could do nothing to prevent the genocidal mania of the Nazis? Especially damning, in Levinas’s view, was the realization that in the face of the radical evil of Nazism, Western thought had demonstrated its own comprehensive impotence.

So, what, aside from divining the bleeding secrets of the universe from their armchairs, philosopers are now supposed to be an equivalent of a military force? What sort of lunatic ambition is it to expect that philosophy should prevent Nazism? Levinas really did think, I’m guessing, that all that is important in a culture proceeds out of Very Very Deep Philosophical Presuppositions. After all, his way of solving the problem was to elevate ethics to a “first philosophy.” Sigh.

OK, I never expected much from continental philosophy in the first place. It can be an interesting form of literature, if you like that sort of thing and don’t take it too seriously, but that’s about it. I’m much more at home with philosophy of science and the sort of philosophy that works closely with and is continuous with the sciences. And maybe the more analytical strain of Anglo-American philosophy.

But then again, philosophers who are more interested in analysis and whatnot also, I think, regularly go off the deep end. Modal metaphysicians, and just about anybody enamored of armchair proofs or disproofs of God come to mind. Their whole enterprise is intellectually sterile, largely because they still haven’t quite let go of hopes for a “first philosophy,” and still entertain the delusion that you can get something interesting, even vital, solely by reflecting on concepts and not making connections to the rest of intellectual life. It’s the lingering ghost of the notion that you need to get some “metaphysical” things straight, and all the rest will proceed out of such fundamentals.

Now, this is just the sort of complaint many philosophers have long been making. I can only add my frustration from the outside, and hope the excellent insider-critiques by philosophers will eventually get somewhere. But damn, some parts of philosophy — especially backwaters like the philosophy of religion — have been slow in learning, and I’m not going to hold my breath for progress any time soon. Ignore the bastards, and get on with the real job of learning about our world.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15626227765058835891 Jimmy Licon

    Dr. Eddis,

    Granting that some philosophy is bullshit, I think you’re comments are a bit extreme, especially given three things,

    (1) Much good has come out of philosophy, from Aristotle to Kant and Wittgenstein.

    (2) The more physicists majors I get to know, the more I do not care for physicists. Many of them tend to be extreme empiricists– and too naive to realize who dangerous such an epistemological stance can be. But from this it does not follow that physics is pompous or naive. That would be a logical error.

    (3) Finally, as Pascal once said ‘To ridicule philosophy is really to philosophize.’ This is one of the amazing things about philosophy– you must always engage in it AND everyone has a philosophy whether they know it or not. It is better to have people professionally engaged in the subject, than have no engaged in it at all, even if it means some of them will be cranks!

    And quite frankly you’re rantings about modal metaphysicians looking for a ‘first philosophy’ are a bit ridiculous, given that you are yourself engaged in philosophy, seemingly unaware. You’re position has merits, but also many problems. It seems that the more you talk, the more you sound like a positivist of some kind.

    It is this sort of arrogance that gets physicists into trouble philosophically. For example, if we grant for the moment that God is a necessary being, then it would follow by necessity that he existed. This is a much stronger evidence (if one could prove it), then any sort of empirical evidence which physics rests on. But you fail to see that!

    If you are going to restrict philosophy in such a way — which of course gives you an argumentative advantage — then it seems you must enter the realm of philosophy and do it on the philosopher’s turf. You can’t just makes asserts without argumentation. But I think if you tried, you’d find you’re position is much harder to defend than you realize.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03085635773537311030 Perry Willis

    Dear Jimmy,

    I have granted, for a moment, at your request, that god is a necessary being. The moment has passed. Now what?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15626227765058835891 Jimmy Licon


    Do actually expect me to respond to such sophistry? I am simply arguing that philosophy should be taken more seriously.

    I guess I assumed everyone was mature enough to follow my point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917263957356181206 PK

    I don’t think the biggest problem with science is that science is boring. The reason more people don’t find science interesting is that science is so hard! It takes a lot of training to be able to follow an article in a scientific journal. Since each of the sciences has so much to say and in ever-increasing detail, there’s work for philosophers to try to explain how the many domains of knowledge hang together.

    I agree with Edis about most continental philosophy being pompous obfuscation, and I’m glad he draws the distinction between that and more scientific, analytic philosophy. But Edis has problems with analytic philosophers who haven’t yet given up foundationalism. The foundationalist says everyone always has philosophical, including metaphysical assumptions, and that therefore there’s no escape from doing foundationalist philosophy if the goal is to have a fully worked-out view of the world. This is what Jimmy Licon says above. According to the stereotype, the positivist is the sort of empiricist who pretends to lack metaphysical assumptions, and to be an anti-foundationalist.

    One way to support anti-foundationalism is with pragmatism, or with methodological naturalism. I think this might be Edis’s view. (It’s certainly Daniel Dennett’s, for example.) The idea is just to do science until the empirical work dries up, and leave metaphysical speculation until later, if ever, and if we have a rainy day. The pragmatist is interested in results, and science gives us these results in the form of technology. Hence, there’s no reason to knock science so long as science works, no reason to delay progress by distracting scientists with questions about empiricist assumptions. Even if scientists do have metaphysical (and epistemological and ethical and political) assumptions, for pragmatic reasons there’s no need to talk about these assumptions if doing so halts technological progress. So long as we acquire more power over our circumstances, by means of the conjunction of empirical research into how nature works and engineers’ work on applications of this knowledge, the nagging philosopher who talks about deep assumptions is akin to the slave moralist who resents his master’s greater power and who drags him down with talk of Christian conscience. Instead of criticizing the fruits of pragmatism, which the foundationalist philosopher hypocritically enjoys in his daily life, the philosopher should focus his attacks on those who are even more deadest against progress, such as fundamentalist theists. As Edis says, analytic philosophy of religion is not nearly naturalistic and nontheistic enough.

    I’m sympathetic with this view, but I think there’s middle ground. Appreciation of empiricist assumptions needn’t hold back progress, and I don’t see why an intellectually honest scientist or lay user of the technological fruits of science wouldn’t be interested in learning about science’s philosophical starting point and about science’s intellectual consequences, such as the clash between scientific theories and many commonsense intuitions about how the world works. That’s where philosophers should come in. People should want to add whatever is necessary to science for the sake of developing an intellectually responsible, complete worldview.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15626227765058835891 Jimmy Licon


    The problem with your response is two-fold.

    (i) I am not a foundationalist. But I do realize that at some point the scientist has to make philosophical assumptions. Any view of the world has a starting point. This is inescapable. You can either define it away, or acknowledge it.

    (ii) My comments are completely consistent with positivism or pragmatism, since these are also philosophical assumptions. Something must be understood: when I say philosophical assumptions I do not mean that, if a belief is an assumption, then it is false. Hardly! I am simply arguing that the scientist, as well as the lay person, should acknowledge their presuppositions.

    Perhaps pragmatism, positivism or foundationalism is true. I really don’t know. But this is completely consistent with my earlier comments.

    One cannot escape philosophy. But one should hope that it is good philosophy!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03085635773537311030 Perry Willis

    Dear Jimmy,

    You call it sophistry and immature, I call it cutting to the heart of the matter. Good philosophy derives from good premises. Why is the premise that god is a necessary being a good premise? God certainly isn’t necessary in my life, so why should all the philosophy that follows from the premise be of any interest to me?

    Why is god necessary?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917263957356181206 PK

    I was using the word “foundationalism” in Edis’ sense (in his second last paragraph). A foundationalist thinks that knowledge needs to be based on necessary truths, the kind of truths that might arise from the analysis of concepts (armchair philosophy). You do seem to leave open the possibility of proving that God necessarily exists. An a priori theistic proof would provide a foundation for knowledge in the technical sense of “foundation” (as it was supposed to do for the account given by the arch-foundationalist, Descartes). Anyway, of course I don’t know whether you’re a foundationalist, since I’ve just read a handful of sentences that you wrote.

    I think you might have missed my point about pragmatism. Pragmatism may have philosophical assumptions, but its main assumption is that there’s no need to think about these assumptions unless doing so has important practical consequences. So pragmatism is the philosophical position that philosophers should be silent on academic, inconsequential topics. This is what Rorty says, that philosophers should change topics when a topic (such as the realism/antirealism debate) goes stale, since philosophical theories are just narratives. Putting down the debate about the correspondence theory of truth is like putting down a long and boring novel. Rorty’s kind of postmodern pragmatism isn’t at all to my liking, and you’re right that pragmatism/empiricism may count as “bad philosophy” if good philosophy is the kind that thoroughly examines every possible philosophical terrain, such as deep assumptions. I also think you’re right that some scientists may be arrogantly hostile to philosophy. I was trying to explain that hostility in terms of a preoccupation with the power gained by doing hard scientific work at the expense of examining deep philosophical assumptions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15626227765058835891 Jimmy Licon


    (a) I meant granting God exists for the sake of argument– nothing more. I was trying to make a conceptual point, that is all. I do not expect you to accept God from what I said.

    (b) I meant logically necessary, i.e. something equals itself, not necessary for your life. I don’t know what your life has to do with logical necessity.


    (a) I do not know why you equate foundationalism with necessary premises, since foundationalism (even strong foundationalism) as an epistemic theory has nothing to do with necessary truths as you said. Classical foundationalists would often times include sense experience in their list of foundational assumptions, which is hardly a necessary truth.

    (b) You said “Pragmatism may have philosophical assumptions..” This is my point. End of story. There are philosophical implications to any starting point.

    Could you choose to ignore them? Yes. Of course. Much like I choose to ignore those who take science as exhausting reality– scientism.

    Thank you Perry and PK for your input. This has been interesting. Keep thinking! ;)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02847288108613969496 4321lynx

    4321lynx said;

    Try this:

    “Philosophising is simply one way of being afraid, a cowardly pretense that does not get you anywhere.” — Ferdinand Celine

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15626227765058835891 Jimmy Licon

    “Philosophising is simply one way of being afraid, a cowardly pretense that does not get you anywhere.” — Ferdinand Celine

    The problem is that this quote ITSELF is philosophy.

    Philosophy is the critical and rational analysis of our fundamental assumptions and beliefs. The quote pertains to something fundamental. It is prime for philosophizing.

    You cannot escape, so stop trying.