Tag Archives: Massimo Pigliucci

On explanations and causality within physics

I recently watched a video by philosophers Massimo Pigliucci (City University of New York) and Daniel Kaufman (Missouri State University) discussing differences in styles of explanation between the natural sciences and the social sciences. There’s a lot in the video that I agree with, but I want to dissent on one issue. That is, I don’t agree that causality is as central to explanations within physics as the video suggests, and thus the differences with the social sciences are less pronounced than suggested. (Though, having said that, I do agree that there is one very big difference in that biological entities exhibit purpose and intention, whereas physical entities do not.)

Pigliucci and Kaufman suggest that “explanations” within the physical sciences are typically in terms of causation, and thus are of the form of pointing to antecedent causal events that are sufficient to explain subsequent events. They also discuss “laws of physics” as being “widely generalisable causal relations”.

I would instead say that physical laws are often not about causes and are just descriptive. They would thus be “widely generalisable descriptive relations”. The meaning of “explanation” within physics is also much broader than just causal explanations. More generally, “explanations” are linkages between descriptions of different aspects of the system. All systems, simple or complex, can be (partially) described in different ways, and if we show how those descriptions link together then we “explain”. Continue reading

On understanding, intuition, and Searle’s Chinese Room

You’ve just bought the latest in personal-assistant robots. You say to it: “Please put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, then hoover the lounge, and then take the dog for a walk”. The robot is equipped with a microphone, speech-recognition software, and extensive programming on how to do tasks. It responds to your speech by doing exactly as requested, and ends up taking hold of the dog’s leash and setting off out of the house. All of this is well within current technological capability.

Did the robot understand the instructions?

Roughly half of people asked would answer, “yes of course it did, you’ve just said it did”, and be somewhat baffled by the question. The other half would reply along the lines of, “no, of course the robot did not understand, it was merely following a course determined by its programming and its sensory inputs; its microprocessor was simply shuffling symbols around, but it did not understand”.

Such people — let’s call them Searlites — have an intuition that “understanding” requires more than the “mere” mechanical processing of information, and thus they declare that a mere computer can’t actually “understand”.

The rest of us can’t see the problem. We — let’s call ourselves Dennettites — ask what is missing from the above robot such that it falls short of “understanding”. We point out that our own brains are doing the same sort of information processing in a material network, just to a vastly greater degree. We might suspect the Searlites of hankering after a “soul” or some other form of dualism.

The Searlites reject the charge, and maintain that they fully accept the principles of physical materialism, but then state that it is blatantly obvious that when the brain “understands” something it is doing more than “merely” shuffling symbols around in a computational device. Though they cannot say what. They thus regard the issue as a huge philosophical puzzle that needs to be resolved, and which may even point to the incompleteness of the materialist world-view. Continue reading

Basics of scientism: the web of knowledge

scientism A common criticism of science is that it must make foundational assumptions that have to be taken on faith. It is, the critic asserts, just one world view among other, equally “valid”, world views that are based on different starting assumptions. Thus, the critic declares, science adopts naturalism as an axiom of faith, whereas a religious view is more complete in that it also allows for supernaturalism.

This argument assumes a linear view of knowledge, in which one starts with basic assumptions and builds on them using reason and evidence. The fundamentals of logic, for example, are part of the basic assumptions, and these cannot be further justified, but are simply the starting points of the system.

Under scientism this view is wrong. Instead, all knowledge should be regarded as a web of inter-related ideas, that are adopted in order that the overall web best models the world that we experience through sense data.

Any part of this web of ideas can be examined and replaced, if replacing it improves the overall match to reality. Even basic axioms of maths and logic can be evaluated, and thus they are ultimately accepted for empirical reasons, namely that they model the real world.

This view of knowledge was promoted by the Vienna Circle philosophers such as Otto Neurath, who gave the metaphor of knowledge being a raft floating at sea, where any part of it may be replaced. As worded by Quine: Continue reading

The unity of maths and physics revisited

scientism A major part of scientism is the idea that maths and logic are not distinct from science, but rather that they arise from the same fundamental root — they are all attempts to find descriptions of the world around us. The axioms of maths and logic are thus equivalent to the laws of physics, being statements of deep regularities of how the world behaves that enable us to describe and model the world.

My article advocating that mathematics is a part of science was recently posted on Scientia Salon. This was followed by an article by Massimo Pigliucci which took the opposite line and criticised the return of “radical empiricism”.

In response I wrote about the roots of empiricism, defending the radical empiricism that Pigliucci rejects. That post was getting rather long, so I have hived off parts into this post where I return to the distinction between mathematics and science. This is essentially a third part to my above two posts, countering various criticisms made on Scientia Salon.

To summarise the above arguments in two sentences, my critics were saying: “Well no, mathematics is anything but studying physical objects. It is the study of abstract concepts”, whereas I was saying, “Yes, mathematics is the study of abstract concepts, abstract concepts that are about the behaviour of the physical world”.

I have argued that maths and logic and science are all part of the same ensemble, being ideas adopted to model the world. We do that modelling by looking for regularities in the way the world works, and we abstract those into concepts that we call “laws of physics” or “axioms of maths” or of logic. Thus axioms of maths and logic are just as much empirical statements about the behaviour of the world as laws of physics. In part one I discussed other possible origins of mathematical axioms, while in part two I discussed the fundamental basis of empirical enquiry.

That leaves several possible differences between maths and science, which I address here: Continue reading

The roots of empiricism: Hume’s fork, and the divide between knowledge “by observation” and “by reason”

Scientia Salon recently published my article advocating that mathematics is best regarded as a part of science. In reply to “scientism week”, Massimo Pigliucci wrote an article criticising “the return of radical empiricism”. The collision of “scientism week” with “anti-scientism week” generated a lot of energy and comments!

Massimo Pigliucci’s article is well worth reading, being a clear exposition of the relevant ideas. He traces the issues back to Hume’s famous fork, in which Hume declares that:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact and real existence.


The “relations of ideas” category is taken to include mathematics and logic, where knowledge is “discoverable by the mere operation of thought”, while the “matters of fact” category contains science, where knowledge derives from empirical data.

Kant rejected Hume’s empiricism and sought to establish the primacy of reason. He adopted the term “a priori” for knowledge that does not derive from experience, in contrast toa posteriori” knowledge which does. A related concept is that of “analytic” statements, which follow from the definitions of the terms, contrasting with “synthetic” statements that describe how the world is.

This notion of a fundamental epistemological divide holds today, and is at the heart of resistance to the idea that mathematics, logic and science are a unified whole.

In reading Pigliucci’s article I agree with much of what he says, but, to me, he seems to miss the main arguments for the essential unity of the different domains of knowledge. I will thus outline how I see the roots of empiricism, and then consider the supposed divide between knowledge “from reasoning” versus knowledge “from observation”. Continue reading

Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of New Atheism and scientism

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is a vocal critic of “New Atheism” and of scientism. He has recently written a paper in Midwest Studies in Philosophy analysing “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”. Parts are interesting and insightful, though unfortunately at times it strays into sneering, rather than disagreeing with and arguing against people. As a proponent of both “new” atheism and scientism I’m writing this response.

Pigliucci states that the defining characteristics of “New Atheism” (a term coined by the media, by the way, not by the “New Atheists” themselves) are, first, popularity (hurrah!), and, second, that: “the New Atheism approach to criticizing religion relies much more force-fully on science than on philosophy”. This is perceptive, and indeed some New Atheists have been scornful of philosophy.

Pigliucci remarks on the “scientistic turn” of the atheist movement, and offers:

Scientism here is defined as a totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

The second of these definitions is close to the mark, though I’d phrase it rather that all “human knowledge and understanding” is ultimately empirical, that there are no known demarkation lines where rules of evidence and reason stop applying, and that we can call this evidence- and reason-based exploration of empirical reality “science”. Thus to the extent that philosophy or any other discipline produces well-founded answers it is part of the same seamless ensemble of knowledge called “science”. Continue reading

Science can deal with the supernatural

Debate over scientism often consists of critics arguing that certain areas of knowledge are beyond the domain of science. The realm of morals is a common example, as are ‘why’ questions and the supernatural. Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci can be relied upon to play the role of critic, for example writing:

[Richard] Dawkins and [Jerry] Coyne … insist in applying science to the supernatural, which is simply another form of the same malady that strikes [Sam] Harris: scientism, the idea that science can do everything and provides us with all the answers that are worth having.

This claim, that science cannot deal with the supernatural, is widely accepted, even among scientists. For example, the website “Understanding Science” says in its introductory “What is science?” account:

Science cannot support or contradict the existence of supernatural entities. It deals only with natural phenomena and explanations.

The claim is particularly widespread in America, partly as a political tactic to avoid science appearing to contradict religion. By intentionally limiting science, the hope is to avoid a clash that might imperil support for science amongst a highly religiose populace. Any attempt by science to talk about the supernatural or gods is deemed ‘bad science’, and any attempt by religion to contradict factual scientific findings is labeled ‘bad religion’. Thus the American National Academy of Sciences declares:

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. It is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.

It also produces a religion-friendly booklet Science, Evolution, and Creationism that says:

Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science.

In contrast, biologist Jerry Coyne has argued several times that science can test the supernatural; physicist Sean Carroll tends to agree, as does philosopher Russell Blackford, while skeptic Michael Shermer disagrees, saying that “Science operates in the natural, not the supernatural”.

So how can intellectuals of similar world view (everyone named above is an atheist) reach opposite conclusions on this point? The answer is that ‘supernatural’ is an ill-defined, colloquial word, and thus the disagreements amount to different interpretations of what the claim “science can/cannot deal with the supernatural” amounts to. Continue reading