Krauss Defines Philosophy Down

Previously on this blog, I was really teed off by Laurence Krauss contemptuous comments about philosophy at the American Atheists National Conventions (and I agreed with one of the big critiques of his book).  It looks like he’s been catching flack for the anti-philosophy comments, and he’s written an essay in Scientific American to clarify his position.  I’m excerpting below the parts I found most relevant, but you guys should check out the whole piece.

[In physics], I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field. Even in several areas associated with what one can rightfully call the philosophy of science I have found the reflections of physicists to be more useful. For example, on the nature of science and the scientific method, I have found the insights offered by scientists who have chosen to write concretely about their experience and reflections, from Jacob Bronowski, to Richard Feynman, to Francis Crick, to Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, and Sir James Jeans, to have provided me with a better practical guide than the work of even the most significant philosophical writers of whom I am aware, such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. I admit that this could primarily reflect of my own philosophical limitations, but I suspect this experience is more common than not among my scientific colleagues.

…So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.

In between the two paragraphs I quoted, where I stuck an ellipses, Krauss expands on two places he sees physicists and philosophers coming into conflict: the measurement problem in quantum physics and the precise definition of nothing in “How did the universe come from nothing?”  Which I guess is all I needed to know we still don’t see eye-to-eye.

The examples he gives really don’t seem like the most interesting or urgent points where physics and philosophy overlap.  Here are a couple questions that I’m more interested in:

  • When do scientists have a responsibility to conceal what they learn?  Should Einstein and Oppenheimer have lied to politicians about the possibility of building an atomic bomb?
  • How do we decide what physical augments and modifications are acceptable?  Is it possible to push ourselves out of the category of ‘human?’  Do we care?  Is there anything special about homo sapiens sapiens that would cause us to value continuity with our biological past more than we value continuity with homo erectus?

Krauss is correct that philosophy touches on how we weight and categorize data, but it also has a lot to do with what the data moves us to do once we’ve finished evaluating it.  And those are the questions that tend to get a lot fuzzier than the conflicting hypotheses we can settle with beautiful proofs (or computer programs that iterate over the entire space of possible inputs, which get the job done, but leave a lot of us feeling a little dirty somehow).

If you’re a science geek (and Krauss is a lot cooler than me on that score) it’s easy to get frustrated by the bigger error bars you need to throw on your philosophical opinions.  But that doesn’t excuse us from having to grub around for answers.  We can’t circumscribe philosophical inquiry to the areas where we’re already good at  getting results, because we’re still going to have to act based on answers we turn up in the shakier-feeling parts of our exploration of the world.

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  • I suspect Mr. Krauss would be very unhappy with Plato and Hume, and their contributions to the so-called “philosophy of science”.

  • ReadsTooMuch

    Leah, thanks for turning this in a really promising direction, namely, what are the interesting problems at the joints of physics and philosophy? Although Dr. Krauss seems to have ditched some of the most brilliant minds in the history of the world (Plato through Descartes) in favor of Profs. Dennett, Churchland, and Singer, it seems that especially in theoretical physics, it is not clear whether the assumptions we’ve been making about the nature of reality, arising from Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Kant, and so on, are really the right assumptions. Why or how does math, which is about idealities, successfully describe real material bodies and systems? What is motion? How can we make sense of causation, especially in terms of action at a distance? (Can anybody explain what a force is? How about quantum entanglement? Not how it works, what it is.) Is there a difference between ‘something’ as a given thing or set of things that could be studied and ‘something’ as a category?
    So while I think you’re right to point to ethical questions, I would also add some deeply theoretical questions. Having read Dr. Krauss’ article, though not yet his book, I fear he forgets that a single person can do both physics and philosophy, but that person is then responsible for doing both well — meaning on their own terms, more or less, recognizing that physics, insofar as it is physics, cannot decide about the concepts of nothing and something that allow it to do its math and experiments in the first place. Maybe such territorialism strikes the physicist as refusing to engage with the questions she is trying to raise, and maybe it often is precisely that. But fruitful questions recognize the boundaries between levels of assumption, rather than confusing them.

    • Ray

      A couple comments

      1) Modern physics does not require action at a distance. Forces are not transmitted instantaneously but carried by fields which only carry information at sub-luminal velocities. (This was shown regarding E&M by Maxwell and regarding gravity by Einstein.) Quantum measurement also only produces action at a distance in some interpretations of quantum mechanics (e.g. Copenhagen.) the Many Worlds Interpretation is entirely local, and even in the Copenhagen interpretation, you can’t use quantum entanglement to send information faster than the speed of light.

      That said, the idea that you can only move objects by touching them is just an intuition that we get by generalizing from experience. There’s nothing contradictory about it being wrong.

      2)How do you know that math is about “idealities?” What is an ideality anyway? After all, math started out being about counting solid physical objects, designing buildings, and astronomy. Those things don’t sound like idealities to me.

      3) As far as the rest of your imponderables go: some seem to stem from the mistaken impression that linguistics studies more fundamental components of our universe than physics. The rest seems to come from overextending a perfectly good principle of reasoning — it’s good to be able to explain what you know in terms of as few basic facts as possible. However, trying to explain anything in terms of no basic facts at all is a fools errand. If you take as a brute fact modern physical theory, or indeed any physical theory that can be described using the language of information theory and which allows for a Turing-complete set of transformations of that information, the possibilities of math, language, and life all follow.

      • Anonymous

        The locality of classical information in MWI is fine, but quantum information is non-local… at least according to authors from BNL that I’ve read. At the very least, the matter is debatable (since there is a debate actually happening right now in the literature). Of course, you could smuggle in tons of hidden information in the form of labels

        Secondly, the inability for us to intentionally send information faster than the speed of light does not imply that information does not travel faster than the speed of light. While many physicists believe that it doesn’t, they’ve also demonstrated that if it does, it must be many times faster than the speed of light.

        Of course, that Nature letter is great, because it says plainly, “According to quantum theory, quantum correlations violating Bell inequalities simply happen, somehow from outside space-time, in the sense that there is no space-time explanation for their occurrence: there is no event here that somehow influences another distant event there.”

        And thus, they shift non-local phenomena off to something outside space-time… which allows for quantum information to travel ‘faster than the speed of light’ or be non-local in the arena where our waves live.

  • Ray


    How we decide ethical questions is a matter of psychology. How we should decide may be a philosophical question, but I have some doubts. It has certainly been traditionally thought so, but then again I can’t say I would trust a philosopher to make ethical decisions for me any more than I would trust a physicist. (This is how I would parse the claim that “should” questions are philosophical questions. To say something is a philosophic question means that I would trust a philosopher’s opinion over my own, as a I would trust a biologist to answer a biological question better than I can. Trusting someone else’s answer to a “should” question, by virtue of their authority, means obeying their commands.) In practice, the people who we defer to on “should” questions are politicians, not philosophers. It’s not an ideal, but at least it beats bloody dynastic struggle (which appears to be the alternative to democracy.)

    • Emily

      Wait, “a matter of psychology”? Does that mean you would defer to psychologists in answering ethical questions?

      • Ray

        I think you’re misinterpreting me.

        I would defer to psychologists to determine what’s going on in my head when I’m making an ethical decision (i.e the descriptive “how DO we make ethical decisions?”) I don’t take orders from psychologists (this is the only way I can parse deferring the normative “how SHOULD we make ethical decisions?” question.) My point is that any claim to privileged knowledge regarding the answers to “should” questions, is implicitly a power grab (Or explicitly as in the case of Plato’s philosopher kings.)

      • Alex

        _How_ we decide is a matter of psychology.

        • Alex

          Ray beat me to it. Now that I think about it, there are some moral questions that I would defer to psychologists in answering. If I knew I had a certain moral failing and I was unable to alter my behavior, then a psychologist would likely be much more capable of helping me than a philosopher. Obviously this is a different kind of problem than philosophers usually tackle but I think that it is just as important if not more. I think its definitely more relevant to the non-philosopher.

    • Anonymous

      Why “should” you trust someone else’s answer and then obey their command if they simply work in the area that possesses a question (possibly non-exclusively)? I’m pretty sure the politicians have said that we shouldn’t.

  • deiseach

    I have to admit, I liked this bit of the article:

    “Of course as a young person I read the classical philosophers, ranging from Plato to Descartes, but as an adult I have gained insights into the implications of brain functioning and developments in evolutionary psychology for understanding human behavior from colleagues such as Dan Dennett and Pat Churchland. ”

    Yes, yes, Descartes is all very well when you’re cutting your teeth in the nursery and learning your ABCs, but when you’re a full-grown man you want something meaty to sink your teeth into, something from the likes of Dennett.

    (Excuse me while I roll around on the floor a while).

    Okay, as far as I can make out, Professor Kraus says “nothing” is also “something”, that is, ‘nothing’ has an existence and can be measured. So if I look at my open hand here and I say I have “nothing” in it, I don’t mean that there’s not anything there at all, I mean that there’s a negative something that I could measure if I had the tools.

    I think.

    Well, he did say that the physics he’s dealing with was counter-intuitive.

    I think I agree with David Albert; if you’re arguing that the vacuum state does not contain material particles, but it does contain energies or fields of force or entities out of which things may arise or states of underlying structure or mathematical constructs or potentialities, that ain’t nuttin’, that’s sumthin’.

    “Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

    Cute, Larry, but dealing with nature as if it’s just one big pile of things to be labelled and sorted means you want the rest of us to leave you alone to re-arrange your very big and important butterfly collection, and meanwhile the problem of how can we create a just society is something for the ladies to discuss over their teacups. To quote a Philip Larkin poem:

    By Philip Larkin 1922–1985 Philip Larkin
    What are days for?
    Days are where we live.
    They come, they wake us
    Time and time over.
    They are to be happy in:
    Where can we live but days?

    Ah, solving that question
    Brings the priest and the doctor
    In their long coats
    Running over the fields.”

    According to Larry, leave the trivial things like “What the hell am I doing with my life and why shouldn’t I rob banks and mug kids for their pocket money?” to the theologians and the philosophers, and leave him and the other scientists to get on with the really important stuff like dusting the rocks in the geology exhibit.

    • “Cute, Larry, but dealing with nature as if it’s just one big pile of things to be labelled and sorted means you want the rest of us to leave you alone to re-arrange your very big and important butterfly collection, and meanwhile the problem of how can we create a just society is something for the ladies to discuss over their teacups.”
      I don’t know how deliberate your gendering is here, but it’s interesting. Do you think that Krauss is producing a male-female binary, which is aligned (as gender binaries so often are) with an important-unimportant binary? (And hard-soft binary, too, I’d bet.) I don’t see that in the extract, and I haven’t read that in the article, and it would be historically really odd to put politics in the female side of the binary, but I can actually see someone like Krauss doing it, and it would be worth examining, iff that’s something he’s doing after all.

  • deiseach

    Could have boiled that long comment of mine down to this: Kraus is explaining how things come to be out of ‘nothing’ but he is not explaining why there is a nothing with the capacity to generate something.

    That’s the distinction the philosophers are trying to make and the one he’s not getting.

    • @b

      I think he gets that bit, he just rejects it because he see the new why question (“why was there a quantum vaccuum”) is no more practical to ask philosophers than the why questions raised by earlier sciences; “why was there a Big Bang”, “why is this an expanding universe”, “why is this an eternal steady-state universe”…

      History is suggesting to Krauss that when the topic is Creation, then instead of deploying philosophers to work up elegant theories we’re now better off just waiting for the sciences to discover the next ugly fact.

  • TR

    I also agreed with the NYTimes article. I read an interview with Krauss here –

    And I couldn’t figure out what the heck he was saying. Can something come from nothing? Is that nothing really nothing, or not really nothing?

    The NYTimes article points out that physicists now think that overlapping “fields” can align to produce particles, or align differently to make them disappear. Krauss is freaking out because he thinks philosophers have moved the goalposts, because one hundred years ago an absence of particles counted as nothing, but now it doesn’t. I’d say science has moved the goalposts; what looked like nothing isn’t nothing anymore – there are these fields.

    Also, I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph, Leah.

    • @b

      Wait a sec. The sciences are telling us that at the beginning of our Big Bang (when space-time began) what existed was a state of ‘nothing’ (a quantum vaccuum, they’re capable of creating particles).

      Are you saying our universe was historically in a state of pure nothing?

      I don’t see how that claim can be reasonably promoted from pure speculation.

  • Anonymous

    As far as the physical universe is concerned, mathematics and experiment, the tools of theoretical and experimental physics appear to be the only effective ways to address questions of principle.

    Krauss is a classic “shut up and calculate” empiricism-only guy. That’s kinda sad, considering he admitted the time-dependence of observability in his RDF talk at AAI.

  • Can the physical and the metaphysical overlap? I think your examples, Leah, are simply ethical questions brought on by the advent of certain triumphs in science or engineering. There is not an overlap at all.

    Should Einstein and Oppenheimer have lied to politicians about the possibility of building an atomic bomb?

    Not lied. They should have said nothing. Or, if asked directly, they should have said, “I won’t answer.” Not saying that’s an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.

  • This is a great post, Leah. Since reading Krauss’s article, I’ve been wondering a lot about how people view the role/purpose of philosophy (and especially it’s relation to science). While you hint at it briefly in this post, I was wondering if you’ve ever written about it more explicitly elsewhere. I’d be really intrigued to see your thoughts on the matter.

  • Joe

    “I have been forced to re-examine my own attitudes towards various ethical issues, from the treatment of animals to euthanasia, by the cogent and thoughtful writing of Peter Singer.” Peter Singer has probably the most providentially ironic names in the history of the world. He should be singing the philosophy of Peter but choose a much more sinister philosophy

  • What strikes me as most ironic and hilarious about this entire conversation is that it is itself philosophical. By asking, reasoning about, and answering the question, “Does philosophy have anything useful to say about the world?”, we are doing epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy. We might be doing it well or poorly, but it is philosophy.

    So I then find interesting that Krauss seems to base his answer on a question of personal experience–which texts did he personally find most useful–which is both subjective and pragmatic (in the sense of goal-oriented; did it produce something useful). I’m not entirely sure that that isn’t something we always do, and that Krauss isn’t just more obvious about it. (Note: “I’m not entirely sure” isn’t, for me, a figure of speech: take it at a literal level.) But nonetheless it seems like neither an objective nor an empirical claim. It isn’t science, it’s bad analytical philosophy, and it’s strangely handicapping for pragmatics.

    • Ray

      I’ve got to say this “aren’t we doing philosophy?” argument leaves me rather cold. Sure you can define philosophy so broadly as to include any criticism of it — how very convenient. But, in giving an abstract definition like that, it isn’t at all clear that you’re defining it in such a way that it tracks with who claims to be a “scientist” and who claims to be a “philosopher.” If you’re going to define philosophy abstractly and not by way of the subject matter and methods unique to those with philosophical as opposed to scientific training, you have left open the question: “does philosophical training (in the concrete sense) actually make you better at philosophy (in the abstract sense)?”

      It’s certainly not obvious that philosophers even give more consistent answers on traditionally philosophical questions than scientists do, let alone that they give correct answers. (I’ll grant you that philosophers know more about the history of philosophy than scientists, and there probably is more agreement among philosophers that philosophy is valuable — although my guess is that even that falls short of a consensus position.)

      None of this is to say that philosophers don’t do any useful work. But, it seems to me that a lot of philosophy is really psychology, linguistics, or some other social science, and while the philosophical approach can sometimes lead to some very good insights, it can also lead to mistaken apprehensions, such as the idea that the subject matter of psychology is a more “fundamental” part of our universe than the subject matter of physics (This is vague enough that it can be redefined as not quite wrong, but intuitionally speaking, it’s just a hop skip and a jump away from telekinesis, ESP etc., i.e. acting like the rules of psychology have a wider domain of applicability than the rules of physics.)

      As far as the rest of your criticism of Krauss goes. “I’ve never found philosophical texts very useful” is most definitely an empirical claim. It’s not that precisely defined, but you can definitely measure it (It’s the sort of thing that social scientists tend to measure by self reporting, or by revealed preference, but I don’t doubt that you could pick it up on a brain scan too, if that seemed more “scientific.”) You can also empirically test philosophical literature against specific criteria for success, such as “do philosophers agree with one another?” and “do the areas where philosophers agree with one another against scientists lead to correct predictions?” (This last one seems a bit tricky to do for philosophical claims, but that seems more a problem with philosophy, specifically, than with the measurability of the success criterion. You’d have no problem finding correct predictions in science. — the return of halley’s comet, the feasibility of the atomic bomb project and the solid state transistor, gravitational lensing during solar eclipses etc. )” I guess you can say these aren’t valid criteria for success in philosophy, but then I’d have to ask, what is the criterion of success you are using to declare Krauss a bad philosopher, and how would you convince a skeptic that Krauss really fails according to that criterion?

      • I didn’t address your comment above because it seemed like many others were doing so, but I guess I’ll make this clear now: I think that defining a biology as the field of inquiry in which you’d defer to a biologist rather circular, since you’d then have a hard time defining who a biologist was. You could, of course, point to an institutional position, but this is hardly complete (since not all biologists may be part of a university, and not everyone who is called a biologist by a university may actually be one). I would instead define by methods and subjects, as you suggest in the above comment. This question is one of epistemology, so that fits. And our method, presumably, is logical/reasoned, so that fits. Now does this get “convenient,” in that critiques of philosophy are subsumed under philosophy? Yes, it does. I don’t care for that result either, because in this case I side with philosophy (against Krauss), but I don’t always. The most recent post on my own blog is actually about this, if you care to click through. Don’t feel that you have to, though.
        Whether I care for that result is irrelevant, though. It’s still a philosophical question, and I’m not sure how one could answer it (credibly) if one didn’t at least acknowledge that what one was doing was philosophy.
        Does this make philosophers any better equipped to address this question? Probably to their own satisfaction; whether to our own satisfaction depends likely on whether we understand what they’re saying (not always terribly likely, and whether this is a bragging point or a problem for the field is up for grabs) and whether you think they’re using enough empirical data for the question (which many would say they weren’t, though that seems to me largely a matter of taste more than anything, since rationalism should work). But this is a problem that the institutional departments of philosophy need to address; it isn’t so much a problem with philosophy as a field of inquiry (though, of course, these aren’t always so nicely distinguishable in practice).
        To be honest, though, I don’t recognise as philosophy a lot of things you say about it, and you’re certainly right to predict that I’d say those aren’t valid criteria for success in philosophy (especially not consensus). I don’t pretend to have the answer about what does count for valid criteria; philosophy is not my discipline. And I acknowledge that not clearly knowing the valid criteria is a problem. But this isn’t enough to shut philosophy out of the conversation (you can’t because, again, the conversation is a philosophical one; you could shut out philosophers, but I don’t think you should). It means that there’s more work to be done (or that the work is done and I personally don’t know about it yet).

      • Re-reading your comment, though, I do see somewhere I may have gone astray. I don’t budge on my understanding of philosophy–subjects and methods, not academic institutions–but perhaps Krauss, when using the word philosophy, means academic institutions. OK. If he means that, then I still think he’s entirely wrong, but for different reasons. I now begin to suspect he doesn’t entirely understand philosophy, which is fair because he hasn’t been trained in it (and I wouldn’t claim to fully understand it, either), but in that case he maybe ought to be a bit more humble about it. This isn’t to say that he ought always to defer to the philosophers (which isn’t how that discipline structures authority anyway), but he should at least not dismiss the importance of the entire field, and he should concede that maybe they do have useful things to say about science, but those things might not be useful to him as a scientist and are instead useful to other people (policy makers, readers of popular or academic science, and of course philosophers).

  • Is the title of this post a stealth Ender’s Game reference?