Philo-Explainer: Is Philosophy Dead?

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 8, 2010 in Philo-Explainer

Modeled after Slate’s Explainer column, Philo-Explainer offers brief answers to common philosophy questions. Also see Ask Philosophers and Ask a Philosopher.

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On the first page of The Grand Design, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking declares:

Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Is Hawking right? Is philosophy dead?

It’s an odd claim to find on page 1 of a book that contains so much philosophy. Hawking summarizes the history of philosophical thought about mind and epistemology, he discusses positions in philosophy of science such as realism and anti-realism, and then he spends several chapters laying out a new-ish philosophical position on the nature of science called “model-dependent realism.” If philosophy is dead, why is Hawking himself doing so much of it?

Not only is philosophy alive and well, with thousands of very smart philosophers publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals every year, it might also be fair to say that the mainstream of (analytic) philosophy is more scientific than ever.

Many philosophy professors are also trained scientists conducting their own experiments to test philosophical theories. Philosopher Thomas Metzinger helped found the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and has helped conduct experiments that separate our self-model from our bodies (in order to study consciousness). Joshua Greene is a philosopher and neuroscientist working on the borders of psychology and philosophy. Joshua Knobe, Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Prinz, Shaun Nichols, Edouard Machery, Stephen Stitch, and many other philosophers have conducted experiments aiming to learn about people’s folk intuitions about philosophical ideas. As for researchers in cognitive science, it is often hard to know whether to call them philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists – often, these researchers are probably all three.

Philosophers of biology and physics are working at the theoretical cutting edge of those fields, and their work is often indistinguishable (and interactive with) professors in biology or physics departments who work on those same problems.

A few examples only from the philosophy of biology: In the 1970s, philosophers Alexander Rosenberg, Mary B. Williams, Susan Mills, John Beatty, and Elliot Sober helped biologists overcome the apparent tautology involved in saying “the fittest will survive” (“fittest” was defined in terms of “survival”). Philosophers have also produced new results by carefully analyzing the mathematics of population genetics (Pigliucci & Kaplan, Making Sense of Evolution; Okasha, Evolution and the Levels of Selection), helped revive group selection theory in evolutionary biology (e.g., Sober and Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior), and clarified certain confusions in the biology literature (e.g., Orzack and Sober, Optimality and Adaptation). Philosopher David Hull helped biologists apply systematics to the study of phylogeny in the 60s and 70s. Philosophers such as Kenneth Waters, Lindley Darden, and many others have also contributed to conceptual progress in molecular biology.

Then there are scientists who, like Hawking, publish philosophical work – except that most of them are more rigorous and careful than Hawking when publishing philosophy. E.T. Jaynes was an important physicist, but his most lasting legacy will be his work in philosophy: specifically, in probability theory. Much of the debate in string theory (or M Theory), or in how we should interpret quantum mechanics, turns out to be philosophical and not scientific, because the empirical data cannot (yet) decide the issue. Hawking himself argues for M Theory on philosophical grounds in The Grand Design, because the scientific data have not yet arrived.

Third, it is worth remembering the subject matter of philosophy. We use to philosophize our way to theories about astronomy, chemistry, physics, and psychology. But once our tools and methods were developed enough, these fields were handed (mostly) over to science. So it should not surprise us that, for example, philosophers have little to contribute to chemistry. They are still working on other problems, like philosophy of language, epistemology, and value theory.

So not only is it untrue that philosophy is no longer contributing to physics, it’s also the case that even if it was true, philosophy would be far from dead, because it is (obviously!) working on other problems than physics and the other sciences.

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick Barrowman November 8, 2010 at 5:10 am

It is curious that Hawking — and many others recently — are so strident in declaring that philosophy is dead, even as they themselves embark on philosophical expeditions. The urgency of their self-contradictory pronouncements suggests to me that perhaps this more than just sloppy thinking.

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Robert Oerter November 8, 2010 at 5:36 am

Sounds like Hawking hasn’t been keeping up with philosophy. I’m continually impressed with how much physics philosophers know. And (nearly) every time I read something in philosophy and say to myself, “Wait, that’s not right!” it turns out that I’m the one who’s misinformed, rather than the philosopher.

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Patrick November 8, 2010 at 5:38 am

Quick! Man the academic barricades and defend the boundaries of our profession! Launch the first salvo: Twenty thousand blog posts and articles that all contain this sentence: “It’s an odd claim to find on page 1 of a book that contains so much philosophy.”

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Tony Hoffman November 8, 2010 at 6:05 am

I’d defend Hawking’s position that the way that philosophy is taught and largely understood is by reading the treatises of dead philosophers, and that this model has outlived its usefulness.

I took an introduction to philosophy class as an under grad, and I couldn’t get any traction on the course as so much of what we were reading was obviously irrelevant. It seemed equivalent to taking a theology course; sure, it would help us become acquainted with the ideas and thoughts of theologians, but isn’t there a better use of our short time here?

I think there is some actionable truth to the old adage that the study of philosophy is the study of failed ideas, and that the way that philosophy is popularly understood serves as a barrier to the study of, you know, philosophy. This site is a perfect testament to what Hawking may be trying to say; that the popular conception of philosophy is indeed dead, but New Philosophy (what some call New Atheism) is alive, and vibrantly so.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 8, 2010 at 6:43 am

Tony Hoffman,

I agree with the part about reading dead philosophers. Philosophy courses spend way too much time reading Plato through Locke.

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Andy November 8, 2010 at 6:48 am

This seems to me as though it’s missing Hawking’s point – though coming a lot closer than most people have gotten.

Now, of course philosophy isn’t “dead” – that’s obviously just an overly dramatic statement made to sell books. However, Hawking’s point seemed to be that nobody really looks to philosophy to solve problems anymore , which is mostly true. Philosophy has become irrelevant in the lives of most people.

Also, yeah, there are many good philosophers who keep up with scientific discoveries. Though, there are also many eminent philosophers who don’t – take, for instance, much of the literature on dualism.

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Reginald Selkirk November 8, 2010 at 6:56 am

Sophistry is certainly alive and well. Perhaps if philosophers would expend more effort on differentiating themselves from sophists like Craig and Plantinga, the whole field of philosophy wouldn’t be blamed.

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Bradm November 8, 2010 at 6:56 am

” Philosophy courses spend way too much time reading Plato through Locke.”

I’d love to hear you elaborate on this.

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enic November 8, 2010 at 6:56 am

It’s like saying: Nietzsche said God is dead and he talks about theology all the time! What an odd claim…

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Patrick November 8, 2010 at 7:00 am

I suppose I should leave a constructive comment instead of just dropping a snarky one about how snarky academic types get when someone insults their intellectual turf, particularly when that someone is doing so from a position of strength.

I see the value of philosophy as largely existing in its ability to immunize us from really crappy philosophy. There’s a lot of that out there, and someone needs to cut through it. The best philosophy I’ve read tends to be material that, after reading it, seems really obvious… but before I read it I hadn’t thought of it on my own. But almost invariably this happens when someone explains the problems with popular, theological, or historical philosophy.

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Tony Hoffman November 8, 2010 at 7:04 am

It’s like saying: Nietzsche said God is dead and he talks about theology all the time! What an odd claim…  

Enic, I’m not sure what you mean — can you elaborate.

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demiurge November 8, 2010 at 7:05 am

Please enlighten me. What has been the top three findings/conclusions/insights that philosophers have made in the last 20 years? What has been their impact on society?

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Gavin Kirby November 8, 2010 at 7:25 am

Perhaps there’s an alternative way of interpreting Hawking’s statement, to the effect that all philosophy that doesn’t in some sense relate to science (think Plantinga or Aquinas style philosophy, or what Andy above refers to as “much of the literature on dualism”) is on life support, and has nothing further to contribute to any academic discussion of importance. As the purview of the sciences has expanded, there have been fewer and fewer (arguably now zero) purely philosophical problems, so one could argue on this basis that philosophy as a standalone discipline is dead (i.e. what has died is not philosophy per se, but merely a certain conception of it, that of the philosopher as a rationalist sage who dispenses a priori truths channeled from the world of the Forms).

Of course, I’m using science in a broad, expansionist way, including mathematics and the social sciences (think ethics) etc. On a more science based conception of philosophy, a philosophy that really takes to heart everything that we’ve learned over the past century or so (Snow’s famous complaint about the academic humanities was that they largely ignored everything that human civilisation had learned since the Bronze Age) the role of the philosopher isn’t that of the sage, but of the helpful critic who analyses the concepts and methods that scientists employ and helps the scientist resolve thorny foundational problems (e.g. how to decide between competing theories when the evidence is insufficient).

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Hermes November 8, 2010 at 7:39 am

[partial repost from an earlier News thread]

The same question was raised by a member of the audience at the The Poetry of Science [link jumps to the specific point in the lecture] discussion that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins.

Summary: Both deGrasse Tyson and Dawkins aren’t too impressed with armchair deductions about the physical sciences, and have seen few contributions from philosophers on that subject. While philosophy used to be indistinguishable from the physical sciences, it no longer is.

So, is philosophy dead? No. A philosopher must not ignore the physical sciences when dealing with issues that the physical sciences excel at. Philosophy has moved from being a co-equal driver of the physical sciences to a client of the physical sciences, and that is a good thing.

To some this might seem objectionable or even an extraordinary assertion, yet it is no different from other specialties. If the practice that excelled at a specific investigation or process was not scientific, and a philosopher wanted to engage the topic of that practice, then dismissing part of the practice or ignoring it entirely both seem to be unwarranted rejections if not a sign of the philosopher’s arrogant and unprofessional not invented here attitude.

How far would a philosopher get when discussing political activities if not only the people in politics but the results of their efforts are ignored entirely? It might work well for a children’s story about an unreal land, but it will hardly feed back and inform people outside that story and it will teach little to the children as well.

Now, if the philosopher isn’t dealing with an existing practice such as the physical sciences, then the philosopher is both less restricted and less informed.

So, taking the best available evidence from whatever source is not an obligation anyone can ignore. Ideally, there is a feedback loop between different practices, and not an immoral demand that one practice or set of assertions or facts take presidence over any other or that subjects or facts be strategically ignored.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 8, 2010 at 7:57 am

Bradm,

Just real quickly: If you’re interested in the history of thought, then fine, study Plato through Locke at length. But almost nobody thinks anybody before about Hume or even later was right about much of anything (except religionists, who already trust some ancient prophetic texts more seriously than modern, rigorous science), especially since modern science has made a huge number of philosophical positions irrelevant.

If you want to do philosophy to answer questions, you’re going to profit very little in studying what Plato thought, except as it helps you understand current terminology that appears in philosophical debate.

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Chris November 8, 2010 at 8:16 am

Y’all ain’t got nothing on Plato’s Forms. They’re real ya know

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Cody November 8, 2010 at 9:29 am

Hey Luke, totally random…but just wanted to let you know there’s a debate tonight at U of Minnesota Duluth titled: “Can we good without God?”

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=135197036531676

Just thought you might be interested since MN is your old stomping ground.

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Bradm November 8, 2010 at 9:32 am

Luke,

I don’t see how you get from “they weren’t right” to “too much time is spent studying them in the classroom.” While finding the truth is important, it isn’t enough in philosophy. There is huge pedagogical value in studying past arguments – where they went right and where they went wrong.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 8, 2010 at 10:22 am

Bradm,

Yes, but only a little. The argument I’m making is exactly the same as the argument that practicing physicists shouldn’t spend endless years studying Aristotle and Galileo. There is value to be had in learning from them, but really, you need to be spending your time learning current physics if your goal is to contribute to human knowledge.

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Martin November 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I encounter this all the time: “Philosophy is dead!”

I just tell people that they can’t get away from philosophy, and in making a statement like that they have, indeed, engaged in philosophy.

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Kip November 8, 2010 at 12:42 pm

I don’t see how “philosophy” could be dead, because I think science requires philosophical foundations in order to operate. Science is continually revising models of the universe, but the very process of creating models is a philosophical pursuit: it is using reason, logic, and rational (& value) judgements such as Occam’s Razor to come up with a unified “story” to make sense of the data we have. If a scientist is not also a good philosopher, then their “story” will not be good. Likewise, if a philosopher doesn’t know the real–world data they are trying to describe, then their “story” might be solid, but it’s probably not describing the real world.

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JS Allen November 8, 2010 at 4:16 pm

I don’t see how “philosophy” could be dead, because I think science requires philosophical foundations in order to operate.

After Feyerabend, the consensus philosophical foundation of science is no longer open to question. It must be taken on faith. There is no longer room for philosophy.

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mopey November 8, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I attended “The Great Debate” at ASU (see http://origins.asu.edu/greatdebate.php) this past Saturday.

There was quite a bit of friction on this very subject. Krauss ragged on philosophy to no end. Even Sam Harris said he wanted “to side-step any philosophical questions” by saying simply that “values are completely reducible to facts”. He said he did this to dispense with the old questions from Hume, et al.

Patricia Churchland defended Hume but said that Harris’ claims were compatible, and she argued so by making distinctions among different systems of logic. Steven Pinker spoke about Plato a fair amount, but he also said that he thinks that the euthyphro is a “knock down argument”. Simon Blackburn got quite defensive about philosophy’s role, and even got Sam Harris to acknowledge some important contributions. Sam Harris said that “the line between science any philosophy is not all that clear, if there even is one”. I don’t know quite what to make of that, I hadn’t heard Harris make that statement before.

The video should be released shortly, it is worth watching

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Luke Muehlhauser November 8, 2010 at 8:05 pm

mopey,

Cool! I hope to see the video soon.

Fixed link:
http://origins.asu.edu/greatdebate.php

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pyridine November 8, 2010 at 9:15 pm

I think what Hawkin is trying is say is not that philosophical inquiry will end, or that philosophical questions will become unimportant. Rather, he probably feels that scientists will (and indeed have been) address important philosophical questions directly without consulting philosophers. In other words, philosophy will be practiced by non-philosophers. Hawkin probably was confident enough about his mathematics that he felt compelled to make statements with profound philosophical implications, while bypassing traditional philosophy. I am sure that Hawkin is aware of his naivete in philosophy but a physicist at his level, I think, can indulge himself in believing that no philosophy can teach him anything new about the fundamental reality of the universe. That doesn’t mean that no philosopher can challenge him in cosmology. As pointed out by this blog post, philosophers can be very well-versed in physics but the point is that the issue will be discussed and judged using the language of physics and mathematics rather than philosophy. His theory will stand or fall by the standard set by physicists. Philosophers will have to deal with the consequence of his theory but what professional philosophers have to say about it will have no impact on its validity.

If you are charitable enough about what I wrote, you can interpret this positively. This means that, at least in the domain of the nature world, philosophy will be “dead” in the sense that it will integrate itself into science. Philosophy will be so central to science that scientists will need better training in epistemology and analytical logic than the current affairs. Philosophers in turn will trade some reverence for Kant or the long list of individual philosophers’ work to gain expertise in quantitative reasoning and experimental techniques. I think this interpretation is consistent with the sentiment expressed in this blog post – philosophy will play an active role in science, to the extent that it will loose its traditional identity (note it only applies only to philosophers who want to solve scientific questions). This should be a very good thing. As a matter of fact, this is a return to the days where science and philosophy was not separated.

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Hermes November 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Pyridine, I’d generally agree if only you didn’t mangle Stephen Hawking‘s last name so much. ;-P

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pyridine November 8, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Hermes: I am very embarrassed by it. Why doesn’t wordpress allow editing….

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Luke Muehlhauser November 8, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Okay I tried another ‘edit comments’ plugin for wordpress. Can you edit comments now?

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rvkevin November 8, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Perhaps a Richard Feynman quote is in order: (concerning Maxwell’s equations) “Today, we understand better that what counts are the equations themselves and not the model used to get them. We may only question whether the equations are true or false. This is answered by doing experiments.”

Also, this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VMu14mBXAs

In short, if philosophers want to contribute to the physical sciences, they must be informed by experiment and conduct experiment. In other words, philosophers must do science to make contributions to the physical sciences. Discoveries are no longer at the edge of the armrest…

Luke if this is here, I was unable to edit it out.

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MarkD November 8, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Just finished The Grand Design and learned a few new things despite the breeziness of the read (e.g., the widespread acceptance of multiverse-style models).

The statement is couched in a context of physical origins and cosmology where scientific theory and empiricism have had particular impact. Areas of intellectual pursuit where philosophy does have impact and will remain relevant include the normative sciences, both traditionally bracketed, and in the broader arena of social and government policy formation. I’m doubtful that Hawking/Mlodinow would declare everything other than scientific thinking dead in those arenas, though they might be hopeful that more science might help firm up the social, evolutionary, and neurological bases for how our decision making actually works.

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mojo.rhythmm November 9, 2010 at 12:26 am

Luke and Tony,

I agree with you both. I listened to a 50 lecture series from the Teaching Company called ‘Great Ideas in Philosophy’ with the hopes that it would, you know, teach me the greatest ideas of philosophy. It only taught me what positions to reject. German Idealism f0r example.

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 5:05 am

We may only question whether the equations are true or false.

And… we may question what is “true” and “false”. Science can’t even get started without a philosophical foundation. Most scientists probably just assume a bunch a things. For instance, they assume that “values” are not “facts”, and you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 9, 2010 at 9:29 am

Damn. None of the edit comments plugins work…

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rvkevin November 9, 2010 at 10:49 am

“And… we may question what is “true” and “false”. Science can’t even get started without a philosophical foundation.”

OK, show me where this has led to modern contributions in the physical sciences.

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JS Allen November 9, 2010 at 12:10 pm

To rkevin’s comment about Feynman, this post by Lubos Motl is very much on topic.

In the comments section of that post, James Gallagher jumps immediately into the mode that rkevin is talking about, sticks with it over several days, and the result is an absolute riot.

Of course, Feynman is talking about physics here, and even Feynman once made the point that something like QM could be understood only mathematically, while he can “understand” f=ma more directly. And when you get into things like biology, it’s just silly to act as if the models have the same mathematical precision as QM.

Finally, Lubos also talked about the supposed disconnect between philosophy and science here. The point is, theoretical physicists are world-class philosophers, but no longer considered part of the philosophical establishment. So it’s perfectly OK to say “philosophy is dead” for purposes of physics — it’s really just a semantics game. As for fields like neurobiology, the philosophers are still informing and driving some very interesting experiments, much like theoretical physicists drive the agenda for experimental physicists.

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pyridine November 9, 2010 at 1:51 pm

To rkevin’s comment about Feynman, this post by Lubos Motl is very much on topic.In the comments section of that post, James Gallagher jumps immediately into the mode that rkevin is talking about, sticks with it over several days, and the result is an absolute riot.
Of course, Feynman is talking about physics here, and even Feynman once made the point that something like QM could be understood only mathematically, while he can “understand” f=ma more directly.And when you get into things like biology, it’s just silly to act as if the models have the same mathematical precision as QM.Finally, Lubos also talked about the supposed disconnect between philosophy and science here.The point is, theoretical physicists are world-class philosophers, but no longer considered part of the philosophical establishment.So it’s perfectly OK to say “philosophy is dead” for purposes of physics — it’s really just a semantics game.As for fields like neurobiology, the philosophers are still informing and driving some very interesting experiments, much like theoretical physicists drive the agenda for experimental physicists.  

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pyridine November 9, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Sorry about the previous entry. Hit “enter” too soon”.

JS Allen said that “As for fields like neurobiology, the philosophers are still informing and driving some very interesting experiments, much like theoretical physicists drive the agenda for experimental physicists. ” I beg to differ. That is delusional. Name me some papers published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron, Science or Nature with an author affiliated with a philosophy department, or a philosophical paper cited by a scientific paper published in one of those journals. I insist that the statement “philosophers are still informing and driving some very interesting experiments” must be evaluated by a objective criterion. “Interesting” is subjective. Anything can be interesting. What matters is importance. “Some” is also subjective. In my experience “some” is so close to zero that Philosophy drives the agenda of neuroscience as much as English Literature drives the agenda of neuroscience.

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Robert Oerter November 9, 2010 at 2:06 pm

I think philosophers can still, from the edge of their armchairs, influence science – even well-developed fields like physics. The classic example is Ernst Mach, whose ideas influenced Einstein in developing General Relativity. Even in current times, this sort of influence continues. Lee Smolin – an extraordinarily accomplished theoretical physicist by anyone’s account other than Lubos Motl’s – writes about being influenced by Feyerabend (see The Trouble With Physics).

There has been a lot of philosophical work with respect to the foundations and interpretation of quantum mechanics. I can’t say for sure that the philosophers have influenced the physicists on this score, but I would be very surprised if they haven’t. I’m sure I’m not the only physicist who read and benefited from philosopher David Z. Albert’s book Quantum Mechanics and Experience.

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JS Allen November 9, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I insist that the statement “philosophers are still informing and driving some very interesting experiments” must be evaluated by a objective criterion. “Interesting” is subjective.

How can you insist that a word like “interesting”, which you admit is subjective, “must be evaluated by an objective criterion”? What a bizarre thing to demand.

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pyridine November 9, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Allen: For philosophy to be relevant to neuroscience, experiments informed by philosophy must be interesting enough to be worthy of printing in a journal that neuroscientists read. For example, I’ve read papers published in Philosophical Psychology. What is the impact factor? I just checked (eigenfactor.org) and I was shocked. I didn’t know that such a low number was even possible. If you pick up any leading neuroscience journal, it becomes crystal clear that the agenda is set by, if anything, molecular biology. Philosophy is not even in the ball park.

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mojo.rhythm November 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I’m inclined to agree with the general consensus of the commentors here that philosophy can supplement the investigatory methods and principles of science very well.

Philosophy is a useful method for distinguishing good science from bad science, which is a necessary and sufficient condition for the scientific method to even function properly.

Armchair philosophy has the uncanny knack of raising peculiar questions and kookeries which always in due course are open to scientific inquiry. For instance, we would not have the Annus Mirabilis papers if prior to 1905, Einstein was not already a well-read amateur philosopher; his curiosity not already spurned by the readings of Kant, Mach, Poincaré and so forth.

Since I am a metaphysical naturalist, I don’t really think that there is an inseparable gap between armchair philosophy and experimental science. It is a fuzzy continuum with all different shades of grey. I place first priority with the methods of science because, well, It Works Bitches! Nonetheless, armchair philosophy does and always will have a place and a niche in society.

After all, how can we answer the important questions about life without first, you know, thinking about them?

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Kip November 9, 2010 at 5:33 pm

How can you insist that a word like “interesting”, which you admit is subjective, “must be evaluated by an objective criterion”? What a bizarre thing to demand.

Hahah.

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JS Allen November 9, 2010 at 8:14 pm

pyridine, I don’t think have ever checked eigenfactor.org for permission to find something “interesting”. I don’t know anyone else who does, either.

From the trackback post on your blog, I think I know what you’re saying, though. You seem to be a vision researcher, which is something I know a bit about. In your blog post, you say:

The problem is a scientific one but it does involve philosophy. As a scientist I feel very tentative and uncertain working on this problem because we are not used to think about consciousness. We don’t have a framework nor a set of vocabulary to think about consciousness with. The careless gung-ho attitude expressed by my biologist coworkers makes me very nervous. I do hope that a philosopher can throw me a book and set me straight. I really do. But it is very clear that such help is not forthcoming from philosophers

In other words, you seem to be think that you will need some philosophy, but you can’t rely on a “philosopher” to do it for you.

Personally, I think you would benefit greatly from reading Robert Schwartz’s “Perception”. It should be about $15 on Kindle. It tracks the history of the Philosophy of Perception, starting at Aristotle, and ending some time after Pat Churchland. It focuses primarily on vision, so it should appeal to you. After reading it, you should be convinced of a few things:

1) Your chosen field of study owes a great debt of gratitude to the philosophers of perception who hashed out many of the fundamental issues in the past. The fact that you do not need to start from scratch is due largely to scientific experiments that came out of these philosophical debates.

2) The philosophical debates in the past were primarily based on empirical evidence, and drove new experiments to test out theories. If you read through the important papers in the field, you’ll be surprised at just how “scientific” they were. The philosophy of perception did not arise from “endless arguments and counterarguments” divorced from phenomena:

The endless number of arguments and counterarguments simply cannot be related to any real phenomena.

3) Philosophy of Perception was never static. Scientific experiments have always been instrumental in reinventing and reformulating philosophy. So you’re not saying anything dramatic when you say:

I don’t think scientists will solve blindsight any time soon but when it does, it will reinvent and reformulate philosophy out of necessity.

4) Most philosophers don’t find vision very “interesting” anymore. Most of the difficult debates have been won, and philosophers have moved on to more “interesting” challenges. Philosopher Paul Churchland has published articles about neuroscience in Journal of Neuroscience, Nature, and other top publications; but probably hasn’t published on the topic since the late 80s or early 90s.

Related to all of the points above, I have previously recommended this discussion between Eliezer Yudkowsky and Jaron Lanier. Jaron is both a philosopher and accomplished vision researcher, but in this interview he is pretty dismissive of the idea that we would need major philosophical work to do vision research. He repeatedly argues that vision is an engineering problem. I suspect you will agree with much of what he says.

IMO, the “interesting” research these days is not in the perception level of vision and spatial recognition, but instead at the higher cognitive levels, and especially in things like “moral” judgments. Philosophers are interested in these things, brain research continues to provide fresh new insights, and things continue to be pretty dynamic.

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rvkevin November 9, 2010 at 8:37 pm

JS,
How do you define philosopher? Are the majority of or all scientists philosophers?

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JS Allen November 9, 2010 at 10:27 pm

How do you define philosopher?Are the majority of or all scientists philosophers?

I don’t think that most scientists are philosophers. The vast majority of scientists are operating on philosophical foundations that they can, and should, take for granted.

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JOJO JACOB January 26, 2012 at 8:49 am

I think what Hawking is trying to convey that “arm-chair” philosophy is not going to answer big questions like why is there something rather than nothing etc. Philosophical Linguistic puzzles have never any fundamental questions.

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JOJO JACOB January 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

I think what Hawking is trying to convey that “arm-chair” philosophy is not going to answer big questions like why is there something rather than nothing etc. Philosophical Linguistic puzzles have never solved any fundamental questions.

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