Category Archives: Book Reviews

Science Unlimited, Part Three: Philosophy

This is the Third Part of a review of Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. See also Part 1, focusing on pseudoscience, and Part 2, focusing on the humanities.

Science started out as “natural philosophy” until Whewell coined the newer name “science”. As a scientist I have a PhD and am thus a “Doctor of Philosophy”. And yet many philosophers assert that today “philosophy” is an enterprise that is distinct from “science”.

The argument runs that philosophy is about exploration of concepts, and what can be deduced purely by thinking about concepts, whereas science is heavily empirical, rooted in observation of the world. Thus philosophy (exploration of concepts) and science (empirical observation) are fundamentally different beasts. And both are necessary for a proper understanding.

But, for this distinction to hold, a necessary corrollary is that science does not involve exploration of concepts, and concerns itself only with the accumulation of observation. Yet to me that is an utterly impoverished view of science, and one that is untenable. In order to advance understanding we need both the exploration of concepts and the guidance of empirical observation — either on its own won’t get far. Accumulating observations by itself is mere “stamp collecting” (to quote a derogatory remark that physicists aim at anyone not paying sufficient attention to explanations and understanding). As philosophers themselves know, all observation is “theory laden” in that one cannot even assimilate observational evidence without equal attention to what it means.

In essence, science is a continual process of revising and improving a “web of ideas” that contains our understanding of the world. We continually test the web by comparing its outputs to empirical data, looking for any mismatch, and then trying to figure out the best way of adjusting the web in order to eliminate the anomaly. It follows that attention to the internal coherence of the web of ideas, and exploring the implications of the ideas — and thus analysis of concepts — is a vital and basic part of the overall scientific enterprise.

The two halves of the whole are perhaps most clearly seen in physics, where practitioners are divided into “theoretical physicists”, who spend their lives exploring the implications of ideas and trying to scheme up better ones, and “observers” and “experimentalists” who concentrate on adding to the pile of empirical data that tests the concepts. Obviously this only works if the two halves are continually talking to each other, and so everyone sees themselves as part of the same overall enterprise, specialising in one “style” of science because division of labour allows the focused expertise necessary to make progress.

To me as a physicist, it makes little sense to read that some philosophers think that exploring ideas and concepts for their own sake is a philosophical activity that is “not science” and is clearly distinct from science. So why is it then defended by some philosophers? I suggest that the reason is sociological. Science nowadays is such a juggernaut that adjacent disciplines fear being trampled underfoot, and so jostle to establish a bailiwick of their own from which science is excluded. While understandable, such a path could lead to irrelevance.

Philosophy, with its role of asking certain types of question, is better thought of, not as distinct from science, but as a style of doing science, in the broadest sense of “science” as increasing our understanding of the world. Other “styles” of science, in addition to theoretical analysis, include accumulating observations, designing and performing experiments, and modelling a situation on a computer. The best approach is to combine and synthesize all of these styles. None of them would get us far on its own, and they best succeed in harmony with the others. Philosophy, therefore, is best done in close conjunction with adjacent disciplines, such as the sciences, and could condemn itself to pointless meanderings if it forgets that.

As expected, the authors in Science Unlimited have a spread of views on this issue. Maarten Boudry is closest to my own view, arguing against those of his colleagues who “still regard philosophy as independent from and conceptually prior to science”, and saying instead that: “much of philosophy is now tightly ensnared in the web of knowledge. Philosophy of mind shades into cognitive science, neurology, and linguistics. Epistemology is intertwined with cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology”, while declaring — correctly — that the sciences “often deal with conceptual issues that can be characterized as broadly `philosophical’ in nature”.

Stephen Law, however, is less sympathetic to this view, saying: “philosophical questions are, for the most part, conceptual rather than scientific or empirical”, and that: “in order to solve many classic philosophical problems, we’ll need to retire to the armchair, not to the lab”.

But, equally, theoretical physicists don’t work with laboratory equipment, taking measurements, they work with ideas and concepts. The internal coherence of concepts about the world is just as much a concern for scientists as for philosophers.

A current example is the black-hole information paradox, where the paradox is that current models of black holes suggest that “information” (which itself is a highly abstract concept, not a direct observable) is destroyed when material falls into a black hole. And yet, a basic principle of quantum mechanics (the best theory of matter, thought to apply everywhere) says that information can never be destroyed. Trying to resolve the inconsistency is currently exercising many of the world’s top theoretical physicists, partly because the solution might point the way to a model of “quantum gravity”, the long-sought unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity. Yet this activity is entirely conceptual, since observations and experiments pertaining directly to the issue are way beyond current capabilities. Physicists still regard the enquiry as “scientific”, even if some philosophers might want to declare it to be “metaphysics”.

Stephen Law’s own example is Galileo’s thought experiment of dropping balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The thought experiment demonstrates that balls of different weights must fall at the same speed, else one arrives at a contradiction. Law asks: “Is Galileo’s thought experiment an example of science, or of philosophy?” Since it “targets a scientific theory”, about how physical objects behave, “perhaps it belongs more properly to science”, but, Law continues, “the same armchair method employed by Galileo is also regularly employed by philosophers”.

And just as often by scientists. And so both science and philosophy are about concepts, and there is no clear demarcation between them. Such a view is also advocated by Mariam Thalos, who writes: “I propose to use the label science for all of what Aristotle would have called knowledge. Hence it applies to anything that accepts the authority of a coherent set of standards that aim at truth. […] Thus, philosophy is a science”.

In contrast, Massimo Pigliucci attempts to draw clear distinctions between philosophy and science, boldly declaring:

I would go as far as to challenge my scientistically inclined colleagues who contributed to this volume to show me a single instance of systematic observation or experiment (i.e., an example of science) throughout this collection of essays. The contributions Maarten and I collected here are so inherently philosophical in nature that they stand as a self-evidence refuation that science is our only path to knowledge and understanding.

Here, Pigliucci explicitly limits science to: “systematic observation or experiment”, overlooking the entire conceptual, theoretical and model-building side of science. Yes, if you limit science to only that aspect, then that impoverished and neutered hemi-science would be inadequate on its own. You do indeed need all the different styles, working in concert, to do the best science, and that includes the conceptual analysis characteristic of Boudry & Pigliucci’s book of essays.

Pigliucci replies that such a broad conception of science amounts to: “redefining science in a way that is coextensive with reason itself, which is not only historically and factually grossly inaccurate but ultimately meaningless”.

But I deny that it is meaningless, instead it points to a consilience that is a necessary part of seeking out knowledge. None of the “styles” succeeds on its own. One cannot define science as being limited to “systematic observation or experiment” while excluding the conceptual and model-building side of science that is needed to interpret the observations and experiments; such a science would not function.

Philosophers themselves agree with this, pointing to the inevitably “theory-laden” nature of even simple observations. The Quinean-web view of science — with a constant iteration between observation and experiment, on the one hand, and a “web of ideas” on the other — demands that science be just as much about the “web of ideas” as about the observation and experiment. Thus I would go as far as suggesting that Pigliucci’s attempted demarcation between philosophy and science is not consistent with the nature of science and not consistent with the best philosophical understanding of science.

Science Unlimited, Part Two: The Humanities

This is the Second Part of a review of “Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism”, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. Part 1, focusing on pseudoscience, is here.

The Claim of Scientism can be stated overly crudely as “science is the only way of answering questions”, which of course is guaranteed to raise hackles. But in the non-strawman version scientism does not assert that humanities can never contribute to knowledge, instead it asserts that ways of finding things out are fundamentally the same in all disciplines. Any differences in methods are then merely consequences of the types of evidence that are available, rather than reflecting an actual epistemological division into “different ways of knowing”. The prospect is not, therefore, of a hostile takeover of the humanities, but of a union or conscilience (to use a term that E. O. Wilson revived from Whewell).

In its least offensive statement, scientism states that science is pragmatic, and that it will use any type of evidence that it can get its hands on. Continue reading

Science Unlimited, Part One: Pseudoscience

Philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci have recently edited a volume of essays on the theme of scientism. The contributions to Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism range from sympathetic to scientism to highly critical.

I’m aiming to write a series of blog posts reviewing the book, organised by major themes, though knowing me the “reviewing” task is likely to play second fiddle to arguing in favour of scientism.

Of course the term “scientism” was invented as a pejorative and so has been used with a range of meanings, many of them strawmen, but from the chapters of the book emerges a fairly coherent account of a “scientism” that many would adopt and defend.

This brand of scientism is a thesis about epistemology, asserting that the ways by which we find things out form a coherent and unified whole, and rejecting the idea that knowledge is divided into distinct domains, each with a different “way of knowing”. The best knowledge and understanding is produced by combining and synthesizing different approaches and disciplines, asserting that they must mesh seamlessly. Continue reading

“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [ link; link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes: Continue reading

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. Continue reading

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”). Continue reading