Monday, December 14, 2009

Specialist Views in General Philosophy of Science

The results of David Chalmers' philosophical survey are now out.

In an interesting comment on these results, Chalmers compares the view taken on various topics in the profession as a whole with that held by specialists in the relevant topic-area. In particular, Chalmers reports that in "general philosophy of science" (GPoS), specialists are less likely to favor scientific realism -- only 12% of philosophers as a whole lean toward or accept anti-realism, while 16% of the specialists in GPoS do -- and Humeanism about laws -- 41% of GPoS specialists are Humeans as against 25% of philosophers as a whole.

I find this striking. I wonder why the specialists should be more attracted than philosophers as a whole to a position that runs counter to pre-reflective common-sense. Chalmers suggests the following as reasons for such divergences in general (not particularly in this case): "(i) specialists making better-grounded judgments, (ii) selection effects in entering the speciality, (iii) specialists' judgments corrupted by an insider literature".

Maybe it works like this: published literature in a topic area will be more slanted towards "sexy" positions than to "common-sense" ones. Consequently, the readership within the sub-area will be somewhat biased against "common-sense". That's a bit like Chalmers' (iii).

What do other people think?

17 comments:

  1. Is there any sort of basic presumption that reflection would tend to reinforce rather than undermine pre-reflective common sense. Perhaps I've simply spent too much time around Paul Churchland, but it seems to me much more likely that reflection would undermine common sense and make the strengths of the less intuitive position more obvious. (Platonism in philosophers of mathematics vs. the general population may be another test-case here.)

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  2. One hopes that it is at least sometimes due to specialists making better-grounded judgments. I find it easier to believe small effects could be the result of that than large effects, though, since in most cases philosophers as a whole aren't that badly informed about a particular philosophical topic outside their field. So if there's a large difference, that's when I tend to suspect that the other factors must be involved.

    Of course, one issue is that the names for these positions and the meanings of the names are much fought over. There could in some cases be different poll results for specialists and non-specialists without any difference of opinion, if the specialist literature emphasizes an interpretation of what's involved in a given position different from what outsiders are likely to think it involves.

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  3. I believe it's a mixture of i) and iii), along the following lines. In the majority of cases, when one does the philosophy of x, s/he realises that commonsense intuitions about x are difficult to defend against what one may generally call skeptical doubt. Hence, s/he - following many others - will endorse the non-commonsensical view of x. However, I also think that the truly better-grounded judgments are those that go one step further, and question the 'first-order' educated philosophical conclusions, so to name them. An example: I am interested in the scientific realism debate, and reading and thinking about it, came to realise that it is really hard to defend it if one requires an absolutely compelling argument. But I also take this to mean that the true philosophical challenge is to defend realism . Hence, I guess I would say the truly philosophical attitude is that of those who, after having abandoned commonsense, try their best to go back to it (which of course may not be advisable and/or possible etc. in all cases)...

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  4. I am assuming that reflection will sometimes undermine common-sense, sometimes not. I didn't mean to give common-sense any intrinsic weight here; I was just interested in the fact that philosophers as a whole tended to be somewhat more in agreement with it than GPoSers. Philosophers as a whole might not go with realism BECAUSE common-sense would. They might have much more "reflective" reasons.

    My speculation was that if insiders read more anti-common-sense views than outsiders, the insiders may attach more credence to these views. This speculation would be refuted if in some topic areas insiders were on-side with common sense (though their literature contained a similar amount of "sexy" anti-common-sense material).

    That said, I like Aaron's point that the same term might have a more nuanced meaning in insider circles.

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  5. General philosophers of science are much more likely to be empiricists than philosophers in general: 56% vs. 35%; and much less likely to be rationalists: 8% vs. 28%. I suspect there is in general a correlation between being an empiricist, and being a scientific anti-realist and a Humean about laws. Not that empiricism requires those views, but they are traditionally associated with empiricism and motivated by empiricist concerns.

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  6. Realism is really the example I was thinking when I mentioned names being fought over; exactly the same view is frequently called realist by some and not by others. I wouldn't be surprised if there were some consistent patterns of variation in how "realism" is interpreted between fields, which might skew the results when you ask about that (for my own part, I call myself an anti-realist at least partly because realism is such a vague and slippery thing, so I prefer to try to use less ambiguous terms and concepts to make any distinction others might make with the real/not real division).

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  7. Chris Hitchcock rightly says that empiricism does not demand Humeanism about laws -- one could believe in abduction. So why do GPoSers buy into Humean laws?

    And why are they so into empiricism, I wonder. Here, I take it, they are with pre-reflective common-sense. The weighty arguments that tell in favour of rationalism -- Plato's slave boy, Descartes' chiliagon, Chomsky's poverty of stimulus -- are surprising and original. GPoSers have no stake in pooh-poohing these arguments, do they? It must be a hangover from the roots of the discipline in the Vienna Circle.

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  8. Many philosophers of science have had some scientific training. Scientists tend to be overwhelmingly empiricist. So early influences might have predisposed these philosophers of science towards empiricism.

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  9. I chalk it up to the long-lasting influence of logical empiricism/logical positivism (as Mohan suggests) but also to a die-hard tendency to conflate epistemological and metaphysical issues (Guys, presumably, Hume was no "Humean" about laws).

    Btw, given the generalized hatred for Lewis among PhiSci-ers, isn't it amusing to see how many of them end up agreeing with him on that one?

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  10. Without wanting to reopen the whole "metaphysics vs. phil science" can of worms, it's interesting that metaphysicians are split 72:19 for the non-Humean view of laws. If you look at the demographics by subject area, 234 of 931 declared metaphysics as an AOS. So you might think there's a significant distortion of the general stats by the strong representation of metaphysics in the sample. And of course, you can then run the whole "insider literature" etc stuff on the metaphysics crowd.

    (BTW, I declared as a Humean---and of course the counterpart to Gabrielle's last comment is that given Lewis's views, and the alleged dominance of this in contemporary metaphyz, it's interesting how strongly the metaphyz people are *against* him on this one.)

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  11. What I found striking was that only FIVE universities located on the European continent have been asked to participate. Ever heard of the Bologna treaty?

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  12. Explanation is easy.

    The thing is, philosophers of science have a closer understanding of the nature of science. The see, clearer than the rest of philosophers, how science is driven by culture, personal idiosyncrasies, and so on. We've just seen a good example of this with the Email Gate controversy. In any case, long before that, Thomas Kung described how paradigm shifts change "the world," at pains to explicate the relative nature of scientific truths. I suppose the difference here is that phil science people have actually read Tom, unlike the rest of philosophers, who just include him on lists of influence.

    Compare the survey results for theism. Phil religion people are much more likely to be theists. Why? Because they have actually read Dick Swinburne's work, where he demonstrates that it is 97% probable that Christian belief is warranted (if true), on Bayes' Theorem. Yet the rest of philosophers, who know nothing on these topics, are atheists.

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  13. Correction: There should be a "(sic)" after the sentence beginning with "The see." I'm not talking about the pope, guys.

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  14. Surely your reference to Swinburne's "demonstration" is some sort of joke, notedscholar?

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  15. I would never lie to you Aaron:
    http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=1329

    Cheers,
    NS

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  16. As the review you link to notes, notedscholar, Swinburne is forced to make many assumptions about prior probabilities in order to derive the ultimate results he does. I find Swinburne's estimates of these prior probabilities implausible (indeed, in some cases absurd). Why do you assume that atheist philosophers in general are simply unfamiliar with Swinburne's arguments, rather than thinking, like me, that his presuppositions are too suspicious for his results to have any credibility?

    A further complication is that in the argument you mention, Swinburne relies on a certain reading of the historical evidence concerning Jesus, and those actually familiar with historical scholarship about Jesus know that it is stunningly unreliable. I admit it isn't just the Christians who have engaged in frequent outright fraud and astonishing shoddiness, but that just makes it even harder to sort through the B.S., and certainly a majority of the misrepresentation and fraud has come from the Christian side. Not that I'm accusing Swinburne personally; rather, the problem is that Christian interpreters tend to trust other Christian interpreters, and it doesn't help even to cite usually reliable and trustworthy sources if they are in turn trusting less reliable or trustworthy sources (perhaps without realizing it).

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  17. And, of course, it is equally silly to say that a deeper knowledge of science than that of the average man makes one realise that 'scientific truth' has a 'relative nature'. Does anyone (still) really believe, notedscholar, that it is sufficient to read Kuhn [Kung?] to understand what science is like? I am also unclear as to why empiricism-oriented philosophers of science should naturally embrace antirealism. Perhaps this was true for logical positivists, but nowadays this sounds much like the claim (which I also disagree with) that naturalism should lead to an antimetaphysical stance.

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