Monday, October 29, 2012

From the naturalism workshop, part III

And we have now arrived at the commentary on the final day of the workshop on “Moving Naturalism forward,” organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. It was my tun to do an introductory presentation on the relationship between science and philosophy, and on the idea of scientism. (Part I of this commentary is here, part II here.)

I began by pointing out that it doesn’t help anyone if we play semantic games with terms like “science” and “philosophy.”  In particular, “science” cannot be taken to be simply whatever deals with facts, just like “philosophy” isn’t whatever deals with thinking. So for instance, facts about the planets in the solar system are scientific facts, but the observation that I live in Manhattan near the Queensborough Bridge is just a fact, science has nothing to do with it. Similarly, John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice, to pick an arbitrary example, is real philosophy, while Ron Hubbard’s nonsense about Dianetics isn’t, even though he thought of it as such.

So science becomes a particular type of structured social activity, characterized by empirically driven hypothesis testing about the way the world works, peer review, technical journals, and so on. And philosophy is about deploying logic and general tools of reasoning and argument to reflect on a broad range of subject matters (epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, etc.) and to reflect on other disciplines (“philosophies of”).

Another important thing to get straight: philosophy is not in the business of advancing science. We’ve got science for that, and it works very well. Some philosophy is “continuous” with science, but most is not. Also, philosophy makes progress by exploring logical space, not by making empirical discoveries.

I then brought up the Bad Boy of physics, Richard Feynman, who famously said: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” True enough (except when it comes to ornithologists helping out avoiding the extinction of some bird species), but surely that does not imply that ornithology is thereby useless.

Next, I moved to a discussion of scientism. I suggested that in the strong sense this is the view that only scientific claims, or only questions that can be addressed by science, are meaningful. In a weaker sense, it is the view that the methods of the natural sciences can and should be applied to any subject matter. I think the first one is indefensible, and that the second one needs to be qualified and circumscribed. For instance, there are plenty of areas where science has little or nothing interesting to say: mathematics, logic, aesthetics, ethics, literature, just to name a few.

It is, of course, true that a number of philosophers have said, and continue to say, bizarro things about science, or even about philosophy itself (Thomas Nagel and Jerry Fodor come to mind as recent examples). But a pretty good number of scientists are on record has having said bizarro things about philosophy, or even about science itself (Lawrence Krauss, and more recently Freeman Dyson).

What I suggested as a way forward is that we should work toward re-establishing the classical notion of scientia, which means knowledge in the broader sense, including contributions from science, philosophy, math, and logic. There is also an even broader concept of understanding, which is relevant to human affairs. And I think that understanding requires not only scientia, but also other human activities such as art, music, literature, and the broader humanities. As you can see, I was trying to be very ecumenical...

In the end, I submitted that skirmishes between scientists and philosophers are not just badly informed and somewhat silly, they are anti-intellectual, and do not help the common cause of moving society toward a more rational and compassionate state than it finds itself in now.

The discussion that followed was very interesting. Alex Rosenberg did stress that philosophers interested in science need to pay close attention to what goes on in the lab, to which both Sean Carroll and Janna Levin responded that there are very good examples of important conceptual contributions made by philosophers to physics, particularly in the area of interpretations of quantum mechanics. Rosenberg also pointed out that some philosophers — for instance Samir Okasha — have contributed to biology, for instance in the area of debates about levels of selection.

We then talked about the issue of division of intellectual labor, with Dennett stressing the ability (and dangers!) of philosophers to take a bird’s eye view of things that is often unavailable to scientists. This, I commented, is because scientists are justifiably busy with writing grant proposals, doing lab work, and interacting tightly with graduate students. That was my own experience as a practicing evolutionary biologist. As a philosopher, I rarely write grant proposals, I don’t have to run a lab or do field work, and my interactions with graduate students are often in the form of visits to coffee houses and wine bars. All of which affords me the “luxury” (really, it’s my job) to read, think and write more broadly now than what I could do when I was a practicing scientist.

Along similar lines, Sean Carroll remarked — again going back to actual examples from physics — that scientists concern themselves primarily with how to figure things out, postponing the broader question of what those things mean. That’s another area where good philosophy can be helpful. Rebecca Goldstein added that philosophy is hard to do well, and that scientists should be more respectful and less dismissive of what philosophers do. Janna Levin observed that much of the fracas in this area is caused by a few prominent, senior (quasi-senile?) scientists and philosophers, but that in reality most scientists have a healthy degree of respect for philosophy.

At this point Coyne asked a reasonable question: we have talked about contributions that philosophers have made to science, what about the other way around? Several people offered the examples of Einstein, Bell and Feynman (ironically, the same guy of the philosophy-as-ornithology comment mentioned above), the latter for instance on the concept of natural law.

That was it, folks. What did I take from the experience? At the least the following points:

* On naturalism in general: we agreed that there are different shades of philosophical naturalism, and that reasonable people may disagree about the degree of, say, reductionism or determinism that the view entails.

* On determinism: given that even the physicists aren’t sure, yet, whether quantum mechanics is best interpreted deterministically or not (not to mention of the interpretation of any more fundamental theory), the question is open.

* On reductionism: Rosenberg’s extreme reductionism-nihilism was clearly, well, extreme within this group. Most participants agreed that one can, indeed should, still talk about morality and responsibility in meaningful terms.

* On emergence: there was, predictably, disagreement here, even among the physicists. Carroll seemed the most sympathetic to the concept, repeatedly talking, for instance, about the emergence of the Second Law of thermodynamics from statistical mechanics. Even Weinberg agreed that there are emergent phenomena in a robust sense of the term, but of course he preferred a “weak” concept of emergence, according to which the reductionist can write a promissory note that “in principle” things could be explained by a fundamental law. It was unclear what such principle may be, or even why that fundamental law couldn’t itself be considered emergent from something else (the “it’s turtles all the way down” problem).

* On meaning: following Goldstein, most of us agreed that there is meaning in human life, which comes out of the sense that we matter in society and to our fellow human beings. Flanagan’s concept of “eudaimonics” was, I think, most helpful here.

* On free will and moral responsibility: the debate between incompatibilists (Coyne, Rosenberg) and compatibilists (most of the rest, led of course by Dennett) continued. But we agreed that “free will” is far too loaded a concept, with Flanagan’s suggestion that we go back to the ancient Greeks’ categories of voluntary and involuntary action being particularly useful, I think. Even Coyne agreed that there is a Dennett-like sense in which we can think of morally competent vs morally incompetent agents (say, a normal person and one with a brain tumor affecting his behavior), thereby rescuing a societally and legally relevant concept of morality and responsibility.

* Relationship between science and philosophy: people seemed in broad agreement with my presentation (again, including Jerry), from which it follows that science and philosophy are partially continuous and partially independent disciplines, the first one focused on the systematic study of empirical data about the world, the second more concerned with conceptual clarification and meta-analysis (“philosophy of”). We also agreed that there are indeed good examples of philosophers of science playing a constructive role in science, and vice versa of scientists who have contributed to philosophy of science (take that, Krauss and Hawking!).

This, added to the positive effect of meeting one’s intellectual adversaries in person, sharing meals and talking over a beer or a glass of wine, has definitely made a stupendous success of the workshop as a whole. Stay tuned for the full video version on YouTube... 

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