Maybe I’m having a philosopher-bashing week. After disagreeing with Susan Haack’s account of science I then came across an article in the TLS by David Papineau, philosopher of science at King’s College London. He does a good job of persuading me that many philosophers of science don’t know much about science. After all, their “day job” is not studying science itself, but rather studying and responding to the writings of other philosophers of science.
No doubt some of the differences between philosophy and science stem from the different methods of investigation that they employ. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.
I wonder, has he ever been to a scientific conference? “When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be.” Err, yes they are! This is entirely normal. Scientists who do that are called “theorists”; and yes, they do indeed stand up at conferences and talk only about theoretical concepts and models. Such people are a major part of science. Universities have whole departments of, for example, “theoretical physics”.
How could Papineau have such a gross misconception? I suspect it comes from trying to see philosophy and science as distinct disciplines. The philosopher knows that philosophy is largely about concepts, and also knows that science is about empirical data. So the philosopher then leaps to the suggestion that science is only about empirical data, and not about theorising and concepts. After all, if science were about both empirical data and theories and concepts, then philosophy would not look so distinct and exalted in comparison.
Yet the “not about concepts” claim makes no sense since science is just as much about theories and models as about data. Without theories science would have only raw, un-interpreted streams of sensory data. In actuality, science is an iteration between theories and models, on the one hand, and empirical data on the other. Both are as important, with the real virtue of science being the iterative interaction of the two.
Papineau displays further his lack of understanding of science:
Scientific theories can themselves be infected by paradox. The quantum wave packet must collapse, but this violates physical law. Altruism can’t possibly evolve, but it does. Here again philosophical methods are called for.
Not so. There is no physical law that prohibits wave-function collapse (which is not the same as saying we have a good understanding of it). And the theory of reciprocal altruism gives a satisfactory account of the evolution of altruism, even in unrelated animals (kin selection explains it readily for close relatives). In neither case have the advances in understanding been driven by philosophers.
But Papineau continues:
We need to figure out where our thinking is leading us astray, to winnow through our theoretical presuppositions and locate the flaws. It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing.
Ah yes, the conceit that only philosophers can do thinking, whereas scientists are not so good at it. This, one presumes, follows from the suggestion that science is merely about data, whereas philosophers deal with the concepts? Again, this is about as wrong as it is possible to get.
The theory of evolution; the theories of special relativity and general relativity; the theory of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory; the standard model of particle physics; the Big Bang model of cosmology; the theories of statistical mechanics and of thermodynamics — these are all the products of science, and are demonstrably highly successful in giving understanding of phenomena in the world, in making predictions about those phenomena, and in enabling us to manipulate the world around us and to develop highly sophisticated technology.
What have philosophers got that is even remotely comparable in terms of demonstrated success? But Papineau wants to suggest that it’s the scientists who are “not very good” at theorising and thinking!
When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.
He really doesn’t know very much about theoretical physicists, or about scientists in general, does he! He then claims it a “great scandal” that:
Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, [physicists] told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business.
This is just wrong. It’s not that there are “glaring inconsistencies” — quantum mechanics is consistent and works well in accounting for the data — it’s that the interpretation of it is unclear.
“Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory.
No it wasn’t. Generations of undergraduates have been told about the difficulties of interpretation. Papineau doesn’t realise the degree of whimsy in phrases such as “shut up and calculate”; it is not intended literally! In fact there is no subject that physicists have deliberated and discussed more over the last 100 years than the interpretation of quantum mechanics!
So, after touting the alleged superiority of philosophers when it comes to thinking, how does he then explain away the blatant fact that science has been vastly more successful and makes vastly more progress than philosophy?
He concludes that philosophy is simply harder!
The difficulty of philosophy doesn’t stem from its peculiar subject matter or the inadequacy of its methods, but simply from the fact that it takes on the hard questions.
I beg to differ. I don’t see the questions of philosophy as any harder. Instead the lack of progress is fully down to its methods, and the principal culprit is in seeing philosophy as distinct from science, rather than as a part of science. By regarding itself as separate from science, philosophy divorces itself from empirical data, and so from information about the real world. Humans are simply not intelligent enough to get far by thinking alone, without any prompts from nature. Scientists aren’t, and philosophers certainly aren’t.
Papineau finishes by giving one example of what he sees as actual progress in philosophy:
The deficiencies of established views are exposed . . . The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism.
But no actual deficiencies of emotivism have been exposed; it may be out of fashion in the philosophical world, but that really is just fashion. Is this really Papineau’s example of progress? It’s as likely that it’s a retrograde step.
Emotivism — the idea that morality is a matter of value judgements, pretty much akin to aesthetic judgements, and amounting to emotional approval or disapproval of certain acts — is a widely held opinion within science. Indeed it is the only account of morals that is consistent with the fact that humans are evolved animals. If philosophers move away from that position, and wander off to explore other conceptual possibilities that don’t relate to how humans actually are, they will be condemning themselves to further irrelevance.