Category Archives: Science

Another philosopher of science doesn’t understand science

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.

Papineau writes:

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.


Science is a product of science!

The latest issue of Free Enquiry magazine contains several articles about philosophy and science, including an article by Susan Haack, a philosopher of science who “defends scientific inquiry from the moderate viewpoint”, rejecting cynical views that dismiss science as a mere social construction, but also rejecting “scientism”.

While Susan Haack talks quite a bit of sense about science, she promotes a view that is common among philosophers of science but which I see as fundamentally wrong. That is the idea that science and the scientific method depend on philosophical principles that cannot be justified by science, but instead need to be justified by philosophy.

In the Free Enquiry piece she writes:

… It isn’t true that science can explain everything. The achievements of science certainly deserve our respect and admiration. But, like all human enterprises science is fallible and incomplete, and there are limits to the scope of even the most advanced and sophisticated future science imaginable.

We should distinguish between two claims here. First, can science “explain everything”? Probably not, there are many things that humans can never know, and our understanding will always be limited and fallible. The second claim, though, is that where science is limited in scope, other “ways of knowing”, such as philosophy, can arrive at reliable knowledge. It is this second claim, not the first, that scientism denies.

(It’s also worth pointing out that advocates of scientism intend a broad definition of science that includes rational analysis as much as empirical data, and thus encompasses modes of enquiry that others might regard as outside science.)

Haack continues:

Evolutionary psychology, for example, might tell us a good deal about the origin of the moral sentiments or the survival value of altruism; but it couldn’t tell us whether or, if so, why these sentiments, or this disposition to help others, could constitute the basis of ethics. Cognitive science might tell us a good deal about people’s tendency to notice and remember positive evidence and to overlook or forget the negative; but it couldn’t tell us what makes evidence positive or negative, or what makes it stronger, what weaker. Neuroscience might tell us a good deal about what goes on in the brain when someone forms a new belief or gives up an old one; but it couldn’t tell us what believing something involves, or what makes a belief the belief that 7+5=12 rather than the belief that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Francis Bacon, or what evidence warrants a change of belief.

I would say that all of the above questions are properly within the scope of science. Haack gives no argument for why they aren’t. But the focus of this post is a more general point about science itself:

More generally, none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world, or how the world must be, and how we must be, if science is to be even possible.

This is the claim that science rests on the foundations of philosophy. Haack makes this more explicit:

And the rising tide of scientistic philosophy not only threatens to leave the very science to which it appeals adrift with no rational anchoring; it also spells shipwreck for philosophy itself.

Thus, Haack claims, science is rationally anchored in, and justified by, philosophy, without which it is “adrift”. This account is popular among philosophers of science.

I consider it to be fundamentally wrong. Scientists don’t look to philosophers to justify their subject, they consider that science is justified because it works. And by “works” we mean that it leads to predictions of eclipses that come true, it leads to medicines that can cure people, it leads to accounts of reality that demonstrably contain understanding of the world. This is best demonstrated by technology. Computers work, iPhones work, aircraft fly, MRI scanners work.

Science can use its most esoteric theories to predict the existence of gravitational waves emitted by colliding neutron stars or black holes — both exotic concepts far beyond the world of everyday experience — and then build hugely complex machines of impressive technological mastery to detect such waves, and then use them to observe exactly what was predicted, complete with the characteristic in-spiral pattern.

Further the methods of science are not the product of philosophy but are themselves the product of science. By that, I mean that the methods of science are the product of experimentation, trying out different approaches and seeing what works best.

Science doesn’t reject divining tea leaves, for example, owing to instructions from philosophers, it rejects divining tea leaves because it doesn’t work. The realisation of human biases, and of the placebo effect, and the consequent move to double blinding in medical trials was again not the result of philosophical analysis, but was arrived at by assessing evidence. For the most part scientists are unaware of much of philosophy, and usually don’t look to it for guidance as to how to proceed.

But, the philosopher might reply, science rests on many assumptions about how the world works and about the nature of evidence, and it is philosophers who examine those assumptions. To an extent that is true, philosophers do indeed examine and write about such assumptions; but the justification for adopting them comes, not from philosophy, but again from the fact that science works.

If science necessarily adopts assumptions A, B and C, and then science built on such assumptions works in the real world (“works” in the above sense), then that demonstrates that assumptions A, B and C are real-world true. In other words, A, B and C are no longer assumptions but have now been tested and validated by the fact that adopting them works.

(If one wants to retort that, while science assumes A, B and C, it doesn’t actually test them because it could instead adopt P, Q and R, without any resulting change to observations, then this would mean that A, B and C were not necessary assumptions, and thus that they are not key underpinnings of science.)

Thus Haack’s claim that, without philosophy, science would be “adrift with no rational anchoring” is misconceived. Science is not founded on “rational anchoring”, that is, reasoning from key axioms that can be known a priori (and nor is it founded on axioms that can only be taken on faith). Indeed, it can’t be, because philosophy has no way of arriving at a priori knowledge.

Instead, science is an iteration between a whole web of ideas and models, and the comparison of that web of ideas to the real world that we experience empirically through our senses. Science is not anchored in philosophy, it is instead anchored in the empirical world and justified by the fact that it works; that is, by the fact that the ensemble web explains the real world, enables us to make good predictions about the real world, and enables us to develop technology that works.

To Susan Haack’s suggestion that: “none of the sciences could tell us whether, and if so, why, science has a legitimate claim to give us knowledge of the world”, the reply is that it demonstrably works, and that since it does, that shows that it has a legitimate claim on knowledge (since that’s what “knowledge of the world” ultimately means).

This reply is commonly given by scientists, and indeed by some philosophers of science. The reply that “it works” is a scientific reply, since the maxim of adopting what works (in terms of leading to explanatory and predictive power) is the underlying ethos of science. Adopt what works; test it; adapt it to make it work better; test it again.

And it is a good thing that science is not anchored in philosophy, since philosophy itself has no way of justifying its tenets. Contra Haack, the problem would be if science did depend on philosophy, rather than justifying itself by a boot-strap iteration with empirical reality. Because we’d then have no way of establishing whether it had any more validity than other “ways of knowing”.

One can see why some philosophers of science are fond of the idea that philosophy provides the underpinning and intellectual anchoring of science. This would give them a raison d’etre and allow them to claim some of the glory from the overwhelming success of science.

Philosophy of science is of course, when done well, a valuable commentary about science. I certainly don’t want to dismiss all of philosophy of science (indeed, this post could itself be regarded as philosophy of science). Some commentary by the best philosophers is very insightful. But philosophy is not necessary to science, since on the whole scientists are better than philosophers at deducing which methods do and do not work in finding out about the real world; after all they have by far the best track record of so doing.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”.

1. The freedom of religion is a fundamental right of paramount importance

Agreed. Score +1. Sessions rightly points to constitutional protections deriving from the Founding Fathers. In his Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote perhaps the best one-line statement of religious liberty, that: “… all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

Note all three of “diminish, enlarge or affect”.

2. The free exercise of religion includes the right to act or to abstain from action in accordance with one’s religious beliefs

Wrong. Score 0. Religious freedom is a form of free speech and does not grant extra privileges when it comes to actions. If the law requires a non-religious person to “act or abstain from action” then it must demand the same of a religious person. Anything else would violate Jefferson’s maxim that “opinion in matters of religion … shall in no wise … enlarge … their civil capacities”.

If you think that requiring an act or abstention from a religious person would be too burdensome to their conscience then nor should you require it from a non-religious person. That is the deep principle of equality under the law that distinguishes a properly secular state from a theocracy in which the religious grant themselves additional privileges.

3. Freedom of religion extends to persons and organizations

Yes, ok. Score +1. People do not lose their rights simply because they group together and exercise them with like-minded citizens. The problem with the Hobby Lobby ruling was not that it allowed a corporation to have a religious identity, but that it granted extra privileges as a result, just as Sessions wants in the above (2). Continue reading

Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading

Fundamental ontology: what is the universe actually made of?

In his classic “Feynman lectures on physics”, Richard Feynman starts by saying:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

Of course atoms are not the basic unit, they are composed of nuclei surrounded by electrons. The nuclei are then composed of protons and neutrons (and short-lived virtual particles such as pions), and the protons and neutrons are themselves composed of quarks and gluons.

But what is the ultimate level? What, when one goes down to the most fundamental level, are things made of? While there are lots of opinions there is no accepted answer, and mulling it over for myself I realised that none of the options are attractive in the sense of aligning with intuition about what “physical stuff” would be made of. Here are some of the possibilities: Continue reading

The Second Law of Thermodynamics made easy

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is one of the few scientific laws that has attained a status in wider culture, even featuring in rock tracks by Muse. Famously, C.P. Snow cited an understanding of the 2nd Law as something that every educated person should have.

The 2nd Law is often stated in technical language that makes its meaning hard to understand, but the basic principles are actually readily grasped. I was recently challenged to explain the 2nd Law at the level of a bright 13-year-old, and so here is my attempt. Continue reading

On Stephen Law on Scientism

scientism It’s good to see philosophers taking scientism seriously, and not just using the term as a bogey word. Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry are editing a forthcoming volume on scientism (Total Science, University of Chicago Press) and some of the essays are appearing on the internet.

I’ll discuss here the draft chapter by Stephen Law (Heythrop College, University of London) who writes, discussing the proper scope of science: Continue reading