Friday, May 23, 2014

Failing to defend philosophy for science students

Neil deGrasse Tyson advised ambitious science students to avoid the distractions of philosophy, and philospher Massimo Pigliucci responds:
Contra popular perception, philosophy makes progress, though it does so in a different sense from progress in science. You can think of philosophy as an exploration of conceptual, as opposed to empirical, space, concerning all sorts of questions ranging from ethics to politics, from epistemology to the nature of science. ...

Another popular myth is that philosophy keeps dwelling on the same questions, the implication being that, again, it doesn’t settle anything and consequently cannot move on to something else. ...

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately. ... I suggest you actually look up some technical papers in philosophy of science [12] to see how a number of philosophers, scientists and mathematicians actually do collaborate to elucidate the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research on everything from evolutionary theory and species concepts to interpretations of quantum mechanics and the structure of superstring theory. ...

A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. ...

Finally, Neil, please have some respect for your mother. I don’t mean your biological one (though that too, of course!), I am referring to the intellectual mother of all science, i.e., philosophy.
None of this addresses Tyson's point -- philosophy may be intellectually worthwhile, but modern philosophy classes are a distraction to budding scientists. Pigliucci offers no example of worthwhile philosophy, and most of those articles on quantum mechanics and string theory are crap.

The dominant philosophy of science for the last 50 years says that science in not the pursuit of truth. My FQXi essay says:
We are at the precipice of what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. The crucial defining features for such a change in view are what he called incommensurable and arational. That is, there must be no metrics for comparing the old view to the new one, and there must be no rational preference for the new view. As he described scientific revolutions, these shifts are largely cultural, as elite scientists switch to the new view and everyone follows like sheep.
A science student is better off not wasting his time being told that all the great advances in sciences were really just irrational fads.

As long as philosophers say stuff like that, they should be regarded as the enemies of science. A scientist would be better off studying theology.

I am not saying that all philosophy is worthless. I am just saying modern university philosophy of science classes are antagonistic to a career in science.

Tyson declined to respond, apparently because Pigliucci does not really rebut anything Tyson said.

Lubos Motl posted rants against recent papers by Gerard 't Hooft and Steven Weinberg that try to find more classical interpretations. These are two of our most distinguished theoretical physicists, and yet they have wandered off into the weeds of philosophical nonsense. Imagine how much worse the philosophy papers must be!

'tHooft has one of those very few Nobel prizes for theoretical physics, using the deductive power of mathematics. Pigliucci is wrong to say that there is a whole category of such prizes. They are very rare. Just look at last year's prize for the Higgs boson. The theory was done 50 years ago, and the mathematical deductions for the Standard Model a few years later. No prize for the Higgs was given then. They only gave a prize when there was a direct experimental result.

Pigliucci responds to a comment:
“if Pigliucci can’t point to anyone who’s done meaningful (in terms of expanding the boundaries of human knowledge) work in philosophy in the last hundred years, that is pretty strong evidence for saying “okay, philosophy is done, let’s move on to other things.””

Oh for crying out loud, you want names? Okay, here we go, just off the top of my head, in alphabetical order, and just in philosophy of science (notice how many were also scientists): David Albert, Alfred Ayer, Niels Bohr, Mario Bunge, Rudolf Carnap, Nancy Cartwright, Daniel Dennett, John Dewey, Pierre Duhem, John Dupré, Albert Einstein, Paul Feyerabend, Bas van Fraassen, Ronald Giere, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Ian Hacking, Werner Heisenberg, Carl Gustav Hempel, Philip Kitcher, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan, Helen Longino, Peter Medawar, Ernest Nagel, Otto Neurath, Roger Penrose, Henri Poincaré, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, Hilary Putnam, W.V. Quine, Frank P. Ramsey, Hans Reichenbach, Alex Rosenberg, Bertrand Russell, Wesley C. Salmon, Elliott Sober, Kim Sterelny. And these are only those I’ve read. And I bet Neil hasn’t read *any*.
Tyson has probably read Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Poincare. Ayer, Popper, and Russell said some worthwhile things, but they are mostly rejected by modern professors. The rest are mostly anti-knowledge. Pigliucci fails to name a specific work that might be useful for a science student to read.

Pigliucci recommends the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, where its special issue on T. Kuhn starts with an argument that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions "has a strong claim to be the most significant book in the philosophy of science in the twentieth century". That is the anti-science paradigm shift book.

1 comment:

  1. The scientific method provides no guidance of the means, and takes no pause for silly old 'morality' and philosophy. That's the problem, that's what scientists most certainly do need philosophy for: to remind them of the consequences of poor reasoning and hubris, to be the gadfly that reminds them to doubt the wisdom of the blind pursuit of knowledge without care of what will be done with that knowledge. Nosce te ipsum.

    I place no trust in men who pursue the ability to do a thing, without even greater concern if the thing should be done. Every human endeavor including science requires considered restraint. Roger, please stop telling people scientists don't need philosophy. Philosophy is inseparable from the laws you obey. It's in the politics you subscribe to. It's in the morality that defines you, And it's the framework of the lifestyle you choose for yourself to follow. If you don't have the ability to discern a good philosophy from a bad one, you certainly won't be able to tell when you are marching to the beat of a monster.

    Pick up a history book of the twentieth century for grief's sake, it's chock full of educated idiots (from some of the best schools and colleges) who thought up ways to kill millions of people by following something 'scientific' sounding. This is why we must learn about good AND bad things, especially in the realm of philosophy, it is so you can be informed of the shape of ideas and where they lead to.