Monday, September 03, 2012

Does Philosophy Generate Knowledge?

I began this discussion a few days ago by questioning the purpose of some common philosophical arguments. The example I selected concerned the claim that evolution is unguided. A prominent philosopher, Elliott Sober, tells us that even though there’s no evidence that evolution is guided it is still possible to imagine a supernatural being who could control evolution by tweaking molecules at the level of quantum mechanics. If this being was clever enough, and wanted to leave no trace of his activity, then one could imagine a situation where evolution was guided without anyone realizing it. Thus, theistic evolutionists need not despair because the scientific way of knowing can’t legitimately say that evolution is unguided.

I used the analogy of The Flying Spaghetti Monster Steals Meatballs to poke fun at this spurious way of reasoning.

My next post addressed a common problem these days; namely, the frustration shown by many philosophers over the success of the scientific way of knowing [What Kind of Knowledge Does Philosophy Discover?]. I mentioned a book by Massimo Pigliucci where he says,
The examples above are instances of scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult. The term scientism encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful questions we wish to pose ...

... I think a major reason for the prevalence of a scientistic attitude among scientists is the equally widespread ignorance of, even contempt for, philosophy.
The implication here is that there are other ways of answering meaningful questions. Ways that are different from the scientific way of knowing. It seemed reasonable to ask what these other ways of knowing are, and what kind of knowledge they have produced. Pigliucci isn't the only philosopher to make this point.

This prompted a response from philosopher John Wilkins [Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else]. I responded with John Wilkins Defends Philosophy: A Bit of History and John Wilkins Defends Philosophy: Begging the Question.

Now comes John’s latest contribution: Does philosophy generate knowledge?. There are many threads in that post so I’ll try and simplify by dealing with the main ones separately. Let’s begin with whether philosophy is another way of knowing and whether it can produce knowledge.

John writes,
I am not, I repeat not, arguing for there being "different ways of knowledge" here, although that is an interesting topic in its own right. Larry’s constant repetition of this claim is a red herring. I am not trying to produce knowledge, nor, to my best awareness, have I ever done so, except accidentally and then as a historian of ideas, not as a philosopher. Philosophy does not produce knowledge; that is the job of science. Philosophy examines ways knowledge is claimed to be produced, and the implications of what that knowledge might be for other views we hold. For example, we do not show that free will exists or not. If there is a neurobiological cause of all our actions, then that is the scientific result, and there’s an end to it (until some other science is done that refutes or refines that claim). What the philosopher does with that is try to figure out what, of our prior views on free will, must be abandoned in the light of these results, and what can be retained or revised. It might turn out that, for example, freedom of the will is simply a legal concept, and so we do not need to base it upon causal indeterminacy (my view, by the way). That is not knowledge. That is an argument from knowledge.

I do not know any nonreligious philosophers who argue that religion produces knowledge of a different kind. There may very well be some; not much would surprise me about people’s positions whether they are philosophers or not. But it is hardly the default view in analytic or even in continental philosophy.
This is pretty much what I was thinking when I started this discussion. I’m glad John sees it this way.

But there still seems to be a bit of a problem. Lots of well-respected philosophers are theists and they don’t see it the same way John does. They really do think that "scientism" is wrong and that they are in possession of another way of knowing that produces knowledge.

There also seem to be a number of atheist philosophers who don’t necessarily agree with John. I quoted Massimo Pigliucci above as an example. He also uses "scientism" as an insult and he seems to think that it is arrogant to believe that the scientific way of knowing can answer all meaningful questions. Some of these question can only be answered by philosophy, according to Pigliucci. This seems to me to be a claim for another way of knowing and it conflicts with what John is saying when he says, "Philosophy does not produce knowledge; that is the job of science."

I don’t see why John's statement doesn't qualify as "scientism" but I'm sure John will set me straight when he deals with what Pigliucci is saying.


  1. Again, I don't see any contradiction between saying that science is the arbiter of what our world is like and that there are some other kinds of knowledge that are not scientific. Surely math and logic generate knowledge but I would find it hard to call them science because they have a very different approach to generating it.

  2. The examples above are instances of scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult. The term scientism encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful questions we wish to pose ...

    I'd call that promissory materialism, as, I believe, Popper did. Scientism is more Bertrand Russle's notoriously saying that: "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." Which, as I think has been pointed out here before, isn't a statement that is susceptible to scientific demonstration and so can't be known to be true on its own terms.

    Of course, right before he said that he said: "While it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood." So, his statement that falls out of the real of "truth and falsehood" is a philosophical statement in support of scientism.

    Given the rest of the post it's rather ironic that the most famous atheist in the English speaking people during the 20th century turned to philosophy after he gave up mathematics and logic. He pretty much put about 65% (a guesstimate) of what comes out of atheists today, into their mouths.

    You might like to read what else he had to say on The Theory of Knowledge, in 1926, keeping in mind a lot of what he believed was about to be shattered by modern physics and Godel putting an end to his efforts in his previous career. It was before the real bitterness set in.

    1. "Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know." Which, as I think has been pointed out here before, isn't a statement that is susceptible to scientific demonstration and so can't be known to be true on its own terms.

      Why can't science survey mankind's alternate proposed methods of attaining knowledge, check whether each one's products are mutually consistent (for example, details given of the afterlife by revelation), and if not then proceed to scientifically conclude that mankind has no viable way to produce knowledge other than science?

      Also, for results concerning topics that have since been subsumed into the scientifically accessible domain, have the alternative methods been validated or discredited?

      Or what about the Randi Challenge: haven't we demonstrated (rather than assumed a prior) the inability of alternate methods, such as clairvoyance, to accurately produce knowledge?

      I just don't grok your criticism; Bertrand Russell's notorious saying seems well demonstrated to me. And even if it wasn't, who cares whether a meta-statement about science is scientifically demonstrable? (Does the fact that the bible endorses itself satisfy us?) We don't pick the internally-consistent world view needing the fewest axioms; in practice we pick the world view which is the best reconcilable with proto-scientific axioms that everybody (religious or otherwise) already take for granted.

    2. You think the Randi challenge is an example of how science works? Jeesh. The Randi challenge has demonstrated exactly two things, 1. Randi knows how to rope in the dupes who don't know much about science and 2. Anyone who mistakes Randi and what he does as having anything to with science doesn't know much about science.

      Unless someone here wants to assert that James Randi is a figure of science. How about that for the public understanding of science, Larry Moran?

      Bertrand Russell was practicing PHILOSOPHY when he made that statement. After 1930 it's pretty much all he did while being the most famous religion-basher in English. Well, after the notorious Joseph McCabe died, at least. I'm writing about him. And the statement is nonsense. History can produce knowledge that is far more absolute than Bertrand Russell managed to in his masterwork. And, no matter what some will assert, history is not science. Newspaper reporting can produce facts that are absolutely known to be true. That Bertrand Russell wrote his autobiography and said what he said in it is known within an absolute range that science seldom, if ever, does and you don't know that through science.

  3. Does Philosophy Generate Knowledge?


    Does science provide moral guidance? Can it tell us why the horrific events described in the Old Testament are wrong?

    Richard Dawkins, although he is an uncompromising advocate of evolution, has written that he would not want to live in a society organized on evolutionary lines. Is that a scientific inference?

    These questions are not about knowledge, certainly not in the scientific sense, but they are hardly irrelevant to our lives as human beings. If science cannot help answer them then where else should we look if not philosophy?

  4. I'm pretty busy now, Larry. I shall reply. You knew that...

  5. Larry, let me ask some questions as an attempt to understand your meaning more clearly so that I don't mischaracterize it. I don't really know if I agree with you or not about science being the only way of knowing something, because I know you have a rather broad definition of science. Some of the questions are similar, so please feel free to answer only the ones that you think necessary.
    1. Your definition of science is a means toward knowledge of what is true; i.e. science is the means, knowledge is the result (and it means 'information about the truth), and 'truth' is, simply, the way things are. Yes?
    2. How do you categorize language? Certainly we can't know truths without language, or at least not very many. Not ones like how much the universe weighs, what a Higgs Boson is, how natural selection works. Is language a tool of knowing and science a means of knowing? How are they different? Do you consider language a sort of 'junior partner' in the acquisition of knowledge?
    3. Do animals use science? For example, how about beavers when they build dams? They decide where to build, at which point to start building, how much mud is necessary, etc. They coordinate tasks. If not science, why not?
    4. Related, some animals 'know' more than we do about certain things. For example, some flying animals, such as dragonflies and diving birds, are capable of doing things in the air that aerospace engineers cannot mimic. Are these animals using a science that is beyond ours? If not, how do you characterize what they are doing?
    5. When an art teacher instructs students as to how to achieve certain effects, is that science?
    6. What about practice? With practice, people can become better at things, which they then 'know' how to do. A pianist might practice many years, and then know how to play even very difficult pieces. Were all those hours spent practicing science?

    1. 1. Yes.
      2. Language is how we communicate. It has as much to do with producing knowledge as eating and defecating. In other words, we're not going to get much knowledge without them.
      3. It's been a long time since I've had a philosophical conversation with a beaver so I don't know how much of what they do is instinct and how much is the application of intelligence.
      4. I didn't know that some animals are smarter than engineers. It's not surprising.
      5. No.
      6. No.

    2. Thank you. Your answers indicate that you don't really have a clear enough definition of what 'science' is to ever win this argument you say you have been carrying on for twenty years. You don't seem to distinguish much between what it is as a discipline, and how it is merely an extension/refinement of what humans have ALWAYS done (and even share with other animals), or how science can not operate in its own separate box, but needs things like language, instruction, practice, etc. to achieve anything. In other words, you seem to be separating it from its environment in a way that doesn't take into account what it needs to work in concert with in order to be successful. I think you're working with a sort of 'hothouse' definition of science.

    3. You may as well argue that

      the internal combustion engine is the only part of an automobile that accounts for its movement.

      manufacturers of tires, windshields, exhaust systems, etc. are just defending their turf when they argue for the necessity of such superfluous things.

    4. @andyboerger

      Feel free to offer a superior definition of "science." Your attitude suggests that you must have one. Why are you keeping it a secret?

    5. You are so predictable, Larry.

      One does not have to offer an alternative definition to criticize yours.

    6. Wait, so when an art-historian/anthropologist/materials-scientist tries to determine what technique Turner used, that would be science (broadly construed), but when an art teacher does the same it is not?

      That doesn't seem consistent. Surely the art teacher engages in a cycle of experiment and observation, then (for communication) attempts to distil results into general rules (with refinement if the students application of those rules finds flaw in them), which seems like a valid empirical (potentially even systematic) persuit of knowledge to me. (Similarly, the art student assessing whose expertise to accept is not unlike us conceding to scientists regarding other fields. The pianist I'm less confident about, since much of that effort is applied to hindbrain wiring rather than discovery per se.)

      andyboerger's mention of animals does beg for an interesting question to be addressed: whether the evolution of instinct is a second valid method of knowing? It too does tend to converge on beliefs which work.

      Perhaps this debate really does need us to think harder about the definition of knowledge, which is admittedly an area of philosopher's experience.

    7. @Larry,
      Michael is absolutely right, in that I don't have to offer an alternative. I am merely attempting, rather successfully I feel, to demonstrate that your own definition is shaky at best, and, perhaps, self-aggrandizing. It is not lost on your readers how you put science up on a pedestal from which to deride other disciplines. Notice how you use my comment above to take a gratuitous potshot at aerospace engineers. You must be just so pleased that you're a scientist! I mean, here you are, and you just HAPPEN to be engaged in the only profession in the world that has any demonstrable value! You rock!
      So, given that someone speaks triumphantly about their own discipline, and dismissively of others, with a tone of arrogance and self congratulation, it is human nature that some readers would think, 'well, I guess this guy must really HAVE something. Otherwise, where does all that cockiness COME from?"
      My point, such as it is, is to disabuse such readers of any such misgivings. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
      Thank you. I am honored and flattered that my comments gave you some things to think about.

    8. @andyboerger,

      My intention is to explore some difficult concepts. I have proposed a definition of science as a way of knowing. I have repeatedly said that this way of knowing is not confined to physics, biology, chemistry, and geology. I have said on many occasions that all kinds of people use the scientific way of knowing, including philosophers.

      After reading my blog for months, you now accuse me of putting "science" up on a pedestal and speaking triumphantly about my own disipline in these posts.

      You seem to be grossly deficient in reading comprehension skills so I'm not going to bother with you sgain.

      You also seem to lack a sense of humor and I don't like people like that.

    9. that's fine, Larry. No need to 'bother' with me. I hardly think I am the only one that sees triumphalism and put downs in your style of 'exploration' so no doubt you will have others to decide to bother with or not in the future.
      Or you could learn something about how you communicate, but the former seems much easier for you.

  6. Rereading and thinking about "The Courtiers Reply", something I try to do before talking about something so I'll have some chance of telling the truth about it, maybe if PZ Myers had read more philosophy he'd understand that you actually need to know what you're talking about before you can have any chance of doing that. Telling the truth, that is.

    Perhaps Richard Darwkins - for whose ignorance of theology Myers was providing an illogical defense for speaking out of ignorance - if he'd read more philosophy he'd have never invented the equally illogical concept of memes, which he's had to step back from continually, since 1976.

    Though, maybe he takes comfort in having the support of Daniel Dennett in his memology, though he's the minor member of the original atheist four horsemen, and, as has been mentioned here recently, a professional philosopher.

    And, speaking of Dennett, the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Meyer's thinking would seem to have become a habit among atheists, applied to other areas. My experience of arguing here the past month, it would seem that Meyers' Reply covers the writing of Charles Darwin for atheists, as well. I'd guess more of those I've argued with online have read Dennett in lieu of Darwin.

    And if you want to apply it to philosophy as well, I'll point out that, uh, William of Ockham created his famous razor while doing philosophy. He was a philosopher as well as a Franciscan priest. Though since just about all atheists online seem to have gotten what they know of the razor from Carl Sagan's scribbling instead of a reading of William of Ockham. I've often thought that maybe if they'd read it from someone with more practice at subtle thought, the kind of thinking that reading philosophy can get you used to, they might know what Occams razor is and what it is proposed to be able to do and, as importantly, what it can't do.

    And then there is Lucretius, whose rather simplistic materialism was all the rage among the non-believing last year, after Greenblat wrote that book so people wouldn't have to read Lucretius' long poem. I've read Lucretius, I haven't read Greenblat so I can't say anything about his book. Greenblat's, that is.

    It is extremely strange to have someone making arguments claiming knowledge as the exclusive virtue of science even as they are also promoting Meyers' support of speaking from ignorance in his Courtier's Reply. Meyer is a science teacher, after all.

    1. Did you hear that "swooosh" sound?

      It was the sound of a point going over your head.

    2. Who is this Meyers guy you keep droning on about ?

    3. It was the sound of a point going over your head.

      Oh, you mean that people have to know what they're talking about before they can discuss something or they don't know what they're talking about?

      On the PZary Ingulgence

    4. Who is this Meyers guy

      Actually, I'm more upset to see I left a t off of Greenblatt, who is a real scholar who doesn't promote argument out of ignorance as a respectable intellectual practice. Not to mention the other intellectual fallacies that The Courtier's Reply is riddled with.

    5. I was hoping you would explain the droning part.

    6. Yes, I freely admit that I have never understood a single word that you have written.

    7. I freely admit that I have never understood a single word that you have written.

      How did you answer "yes" to my question, then?

      You're not my intended audience. You can lead a bore to knowledge but you can't make him think.

  7. Does Philosophy Generate Knowledge?

    Depends on your definition of "knowledge" doesn't it? Philosophy can provide a self-consistent ethical framework for example, ethics being one of the four cornerstones of philosophy (the others are logic, epistemology, metaphysics). Is awareness of such an ethical framework "knowledge"? Wilkins could clarify his definition of knowledge, but I suspect he's talking about empirical observations of the physical world, and that as such there wouldn't be a lot of philosophical disagreement that this is what science, and not philosophy, provides.

    1. I'm not aware of the fact that philosophy has exclusive domain over providing a self-consistent ethical framework. Nor am I aware of any such framework.

      Perhaps you can point me to a webpage that outlines this self-consistent ethical framework so I can see if it corresponds to a universal truth (i.e. knowledge)?

      It looks to me like all societies have ethical frameworks that are mostly illogical, inconsistent, and irrational. Perhaps that's because I'm a scientist who deals with reality and not fairy tales. Perhaps it's also because I've been watching too many political conventions recently.

    2. You could always take a class if you're really interested. As you might expect, there are a variety of perspectives and accompanying analysis. UofT offers PHL275H1 Introduction to Ethics "An introduction to central issues in ethics or moral philosophy, such as the objectivity of values, the nature of moral judgements, rights and duties, the virtues, and consequentialism." I don't believe they claim exclusivity, so there may we be other sources including possibly online courses or webpages. Most societies have scientific frameworks that are mostly illogical, inconsistent and irrational, so it is unsurprising that this would also be true of the ethics of such societies.

      Or, are you asserting the impossibility of knowledge of ethics?

    3. I took some philosophy classes at UofT. The main thing I took away was that philosophers really had no clue what was true or not. And ethics always seems to be a post hoc justification of current societal norms.

    4. anonymous says,

      You could always take a class if you're really interested. As you might expect,

      Been there. Done that. Read the books.

      I'm not aware of any "self-consistent ethical framework" that philosophy can provide. This is my second request that you back up that claim.

      Or, are you asserting the impossibility of knowledge of ethics?

      Yes, that's my working hypothesis. I'm not aware of any universal truth (= knowledge) that's come out of the study of ethics. I'm aware of claims of knowledge, such as the moral argument of Francis Collins, but as far as I know that claim is not widely accepted by nonbelievers.

    5. It sounds like you might like utilitarianism. Wikipedia has a reasonable primer.

      Why did you ask for a philosopher in bioethics to review complicated issues in medical privacy: "Do you have experts on your research team (physicians , philosophers, scientists) who have drawn up a list of alleles that pass the "clinically relevant" threshold?" (The Ethics of Genome Analysis)? What's the point if this person is making it all up without any actual knowledge of ethics or more broadly, if there is no such thing as knowledge of ethics?

    6. I may have misunderstood you. Philosophers are experts in dealing with day-to-day ethical issues. In general, they are able to sort out the difference between real ethical problems and problems that just look like they're ethical. They are able to highlight inconsistencies in ethical reasoning. That's one of the important contributions of philosphy as John Wilkins points out.

      What they haven't been able to do is reach a consensus on the source of ethics and whether there are moral laws. The is probably because so many distingiushed philosophers are religious. When you said that philosophers have a self-consistent ethical framework and that this was a form of "knowledge" I assumed that you were referring to the big picture view of ethics.

      Perhaps you could help me understand by giving me examples of a self-consistent ethical framework. I thought that the whole point of the trolley car thought experiments was to demonstrate that there's no such thing.

    7. Take utilitarianism as an example. This philosophy starts with a (putative) axiom: correct behavior maximizes human happiness. If you accept this axiom as true, then a framework can be constructed to be logically consistent with the axiom. Many such consequences have been worked out in great detail -- see for example the Wikipedia entry. Ethical knowledge in this case is the understanding of the logical consequences of accepting the axiom underpinning the philosophy. The source of ethics in this case is acceptance of the correctness of the axiom. There are no moral laws, just behavior that is either logically consistent, or inconsistent, with what logically follows from the axiom.

      Utilitarianism is just one example. There are other ethical frameworks that can be constructed upon different underlying axioms. Which framework is objectively "correct" depends upon your underlying assumptions.

      The ethical dependence upon underlying assumptions is not so different from for example, geometry, where the correctness of the mathematical framework depends upon the underlying assumption of whether shapes are constructed on the flat surface of a plane, or upon the curved surface of a sphere. It wouldn't make much sense to ask, "planar geometry or spherical geometry: which one is true?" One could assert that there was no such thing as "knowledge of geometry", but this wouldn't be consistent with either the usual understanding of "knowledge", or the complexities involved in understanding geometry.

    8. I understand.

      These are imaginary ethical frameworks. Also known more politely as hypothetical ethical frameworks.

      They only exist in the minds of philosophers.

      I don't think any of these imaginary ethical frameworks count as true knowledge. I don't think any of the theorems of geometry count as knowledge. However, I'm perfectly willing to admit that they might help us to acquire true knowledge about human behavior and the way the universe operates.

    9. It should be unsurprising that ideas exist in the mind, but you almost make it sound like a criticism. :)

  8. If a "meaningful" question is a "how" question versus a "why" question, I don't think any scientist would claim that all meaningful questions can be answered by a scientific way of knowing, only that the only meaningful answers to date have been produced by a scientific way of knowing.

    Any meaningful why question is really just a number of how questions being framed from an anthropocentric point of view.

  9. Larry, you said, “If this being was clever enough, and wanted to leave no trace of his activity, then one could imagine a situation where evolution was guided without anyone realizing it.” – Philosophically speaking, if one changed the assumption of “leave no trace of his activity” to an assumption of leaving traces, then it’s possible that the inescapable appearance of ‘design’ in nature - everything quantum to cosmic - are traces of his activity.

    Larry, your comments about the spaghetti monster are made to buttress your belief in evolution. Evolution seems to me to not be a process of deduction, which determines principles by tracing the course of events or activities sufficient to make predictions, because its events and activities are unguided and random, and therefore not predictable. I have two questions, 1) will the process of natural selection inevitably make things better, and 2) if so, how do you know?

    1. I am not Larry, but:

      The comments about the spaghetti monster are not to buttress anything but make the examples clearer. When people use the word "God" they have so many layers of misconceptions and beliefs, that they find it difficult to understand why the "philosophical" openness to that possibility look so nonsensical. This is why there is a need to change the imaginary being in question. So that the problem is clear cut with no emotional bullshit interfering with the thought process.

      As for your questions about evolution:
      1. No.
      2. Well, since in 1 I said no, seems like I do not need to answer this one.

      See ya.

  10. Any meaningful why question is really just a number of how questions being framed from an anthropocentric point of view.

    Really? Do you have a scientific-way-of-knowing reference that establishes the validity of this statement?

    1. No.

      I'm basing this on so called "why" questions, usually asked by creotards and IDiots, and they are invariably asked from the 1st person, god created the universe with me in mind, I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator*, point of view and if meaningful at all are really "how" questions surrounded by a thin veneer of dishonesty and ignorance.

      * Thanks to Christopher Hitchens.

  11. Larry Moran doesn't wish to bother with me anymore because according to him I lack reading comprehension skills. According to him,he doesn't put science up on a pedestal from which to deride other disciplines, particularly religion and philosophy. I guess he assumes that my 'few months' here (actually considerably less) produced no evidence to the contrary. I call bullshit.

    In the short time here, I've seen Larry claim -
    - science is the only way to know something. No matter what the discipline, insofar as any discoveries were made, they were scientific discoveries (or, at least, they came about through scientific methods).
    - If someone, specifically a psychologist, argues that the humanities arrive at their discoveries through a more holistic and complex understanding of human nature than such as provided by the scientific method, Larry disagrees, strongly. He thinks the writer doesn't really know what she's talking about, and that furthermore, should any of the humanities drift from doing science, they are incapable of making any meaningful discoveries. They are not something other than science, just bad science.
    - he claims that religion has nothing to offer by way of knowing, and seems to think it is a role of science to point that out. If philosophy fails to jump on this bandwagon with him, he accuses that discipline of being corrupted by 'theists' as well as others wishing to 'defend their turf'.
    And I could go on.

    If this is NOT arrogance, or rather if this is not the message that LM is trying to convey, then I suggest it is not my reading comprehension skills, but his own writing skills, that should be called into question.

    1. Do you have any good reason to believe that those claims you paraphrased are wrong?

  12. it is still possible to imagine a supernatural being who could control evolution by tweaking molecules at the level of quantum mechanics.

    That still assumes that reality is "caused" from the bottom up (reductionist), rather than being correlated with the "top" and vice versa. I wonder what is the scientific interpretation of cause and effect?