Saturday, September 01, 2012

John Wilkins Defends Philosophy: A Bit of History

There was a time, not so long ago, when science and philosophy coexisted in (relative) peace and harmony. This began to change when science came under increasing attack from religion and from others who simply denied the knowledge that had been produced by the scientific way of thinking. (The latter group included advocates of parapsychology. The modern versions include those who deny climate change and those who think vaccinations cause autism. These groups are not necessarily religious.)

The rise of anti-scientism provoked a response from scientists, just as you might expect. Scientists began to speak out against the irrational claims of these science deniers. The counter-attack necessarily covered many people with strong religious beliefs. Gradually, many scientists came to the realization that the main problem was not the specifics of evolution or whether ESP could be tested. The real battleground was a war between rationalism and superstition. This led to a number of scientists coming out in support of atheism and focusing their attention on the flaws in religious thinking (i.e. superstition).

Now, you would think that philosophy would be a natural ally in this fight since the most important feature of philosophy is its ability to distinguish logical arguments from ones that are illogical. In other words, philosophy should be on the side of rationalism and not on the side of superstition.

It didn't work out that way. Unfortunately, many university philosophy departments were full of theists and those theistic philosophers did not sit still when their basic premises were being challenged. They began to see a connection between atheism and the scientific way of thinking and they decided that the best way to preserve their superstitious beliefs was to join the attack on scientists. That's why we've seen a ton of books from philosophers who try to refute The God Delusion by making a case against the scientific way of thinking. It's why we see so much criticism of scientism.

What we don't see is any serious attempt to demonstrate that God exists. The criticisms focus on the behavior of scientists, especially those who step outside of the traditional science disciplines and address issues that were once the exclusive domain of philosophy. Instead of actually debating those issues, the philosophers are much more interested in trying to prove that scientists should keep their mouths shut because they haven't studied enough philosophy to have a serious opinion on the existence of god(s).

It's all about defending turf. And it's astonishing that this comes from philosophers who should be smart enough to see why their logic is flawed.

The next thing that happened was truly shocking. A group of atheist philosophers joined their religious colleagues in attacking the scientific way of thinking. They developed an elaborate ruse1 to limit the magisterium of science to the "natural world" thus making it "illegal" for scientists to challenge anything that smacked of the supernatural. This was very clever, since it gathered in all the important questions under the umbrella of philosophy to the exclusion of science.

If a scientist got involved in the question of god's existence then they were no longer thinking like a scientist—they were in the realm of metaphysics. And in order to engage in metaphysical debates you pretty much had to be a card-carrying philosopher. In other words, if you don't know the difference between Plato and Aristotle then you have no business debating the existence of god(s). Pretty neat, eh? Atheist scientists can be safely ignored because they are stepping outside their area of expertise. They haven't studied enough philosophy.

I think the philosophers were a little surprised at what happened next. Instead of just rolling over and admitting that philosophy could provide all the answers, scientists starting challenging the premises that philosophers had been taking for granted over the past several hundred years. They started to ask embarrassing questions like, "What's the evidence that philosophy has produced knowledge?" or "What's the evidence that methodological naturalism is a limitation of science?"

Even more embarrassing, the atheist scientists are wondering how a discipline like philosophy can justify the presence in their midst of huge numbers of theists—many of whom seem to be highly respected in their field. How is superstition compatible with philosophy?

That's where we are right now. Philosophers are rightly upset by this development. They all seem to have believed that their status and authority would rapidly squelch the upstart scientists who dared to intrude on their territory. They seem to have believed that all they had to do was start talking about Hume and Kant, and other long-dead philosophers, and that would quickly send the scientists scurrying back into their labs.

Now they don't know what to do. Some of them just start shouting even louder that they are the authorities and whatever they say is right. That's not going to work. Some of them try using their well-honed rhetorical tricks to defend their turf. That's not going to work either. Those tricks are mostly question begging.

Most philosophers continue to avoid the questions that scientists (and others) are raising. There are a few exceptions. John Wilkins is one. He tries to address the problem in his latest post: Begging questions about philosophy, science and everything else. I'm going to try and answer him in the next few posts.


1. Pun intended.

[Photo Credit: The Divergence of Thought in Science & Philosophy: Could “Complexity” be New Common Ground?] (The answer, BTW, is no.)

33 comments :

  1. This began to change when science came under increasing attack from religion and from others who simply denied the knowledge that had been produced by the scientific way of thinking. (The latter group included advocates of parapsychology.

    I believe that we're looking at Mr. McCarthy here.

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  2. SLC, I'd think he's able to speak for himself. Odd way of putting it, though. Unless he wants to start on that again.

    This began to change when science came under increasing attack from religion and from others who simply denied the knowledge that had been produced by the scientific way of thinking.

    Exactly when is this time you're talking about? Because I've been doing lots of extra reading in this kind of stuff in English and German and if you mean after 1859, then it's pretty clear that the strife had more than a bit to do with proactive atheist attacks against religion. Though, it would be fair to say that no one was blameless. However, Galton, Huxley, Spencer, Haeckel, ... pretty much the first generation of Darwinists, perhaps excluding Wallace and Asa Grey, were the first to claim Darwinism for their side in an anti-religious crusade. As were others. I'm still convinced that a lot of the rejection of Mendel was due to his being a priest, as would be the rejection of Lemaitre a few decades later. You might want to look up The X-Club. Or you could read my post about Darwin and Haeckel's monism, including a rare view into the candid Darwin during Haeckel's visits to Down.

    http://zthoughtcriminal.blogspot.com/2012/08/darwin-and-haeckel-3_27.html

    You might want to read my post that links to J. R. Lucas's entertaining and illuminating article about the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, as well. I've been looking for a link to Wilberforce's review of OoS. I've never read it before. I want to see what Darwin said he'd found in the way of shortcomings for the 1st ed of OoS.

    It is rare to find a religious person who rejects all of science, there's a reason that the ID industry aspires to the status of science. It's rare to find an anti-religious sci-guy who isn't 115% opposed to religion, even religion that they know nothing about, even religion they've got to make up to fill in for what they don't know.

    I can't speak for anyone else but my experience is that most people when they're talking about religion talk about belief not the same kind of knowledge that science produces. Most people aren't fundamentalists.

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    1. "It is rare to find a religious person who rejects all of science, there's a reason that the ID industry aspires to the status of science. It's rare to find an anti-religious sci-guy who isn't 115% opposed to religion"
      Very nice quote, TTC. That has been my observation as well.

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    2. The Thought Criminal says,

      It's rare to find an anti-religious sci-guy who isn't 115% opposed to religion, even religion that they know nothing about, even religion they've got to make up to fill in for what they don't know.

      I don't know who your talking about but that's not surprising since, judging from your comments, you live on a different planet than I do.

      For the record, I don't believe in supernatural beings and I think it's silly to believe in god(s) without any evidence. This is not the same thing as opposing religion.

      I don't much care about the trappings that various religions construct once they've convinced themselves that god(s) exist. They're all superfluous and irrelevant as far as I'm concerned because the original premise is flawed. I have no intention of studying any of the religions just as I have no desire to study the intricacies of astrology or the formulation of homeopathic remedies.

      Read about The Courtier's Reply. The emperor has no clothes and that's the only thing that matters in this debate.

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    3. How's Mr. McCarthy's search for a publication in a peer reviewed journal reporting a 5 standard deviation PK effect coming along?

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    4. Sorry to pick a bit, but aren't all "anti-religious sci-guy(s)" by definition "opposed to religion"?

      I find your redundant comment a bit redundant.

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    5. Sorry to pick a bit, but aren't all "anti-religious sci-guy(s)" by definition "opposed to religion"?

      I suppose it depends on where you place the emphasis. I'm not one of those atheists who spends much time bashing religion or religious beliefs other than the basic one of believing in god(s).

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  3. If I were feeling unwell I would, like most other rational people, consult a doctor.

    If I wanted to know why the presence is inferred of large amounts of dark matter in and around galaxies I would ask an astrophysicist.

    If I wanted to know how human biology works at a molecular level I would ask a molecular biologist.

    In addition, if I wanted to know what, if any evidence there is for the Biblical claim of a global flood I would talk to a geologist.

    And, if I wanted to know what evidence there is for the existence and destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah I would look for an archeologist.

    On the other hand, if I wanted to read discussion about the rights of an individual in a free society or the moral arguments for and against abortion, I would not look to astrophysics or molecular biology or geology or archeology for answers. I would certainly listen to the views of a molecular biologist, say, on such matters but I would not regard them as having any special authority because of his or her expertise in their scientific discipline.

    I should also point out that if I read, say, of a French postmodernist intellectual criticizing the equation e=mc² as sexist for privileging the speed of light over all other velocities I would regard it as absurd on its face and treat it with the contempt it deserves.

    But all this circling of the wagons in preparation for some sort of turf war is silly. Yes, there are people on both sides who have gone around stomping on the most cherished beliefs of the other but aren't they a minority? At their best, shouldn't both disciplines be informing and inspiring each other rather than squabbling?

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    1. At their best, shouldn't both disciplines be informing and inspiring each other rather than squabbling?

      Yes, that's the ideal.

      It gets complicated because philosophers in the history and philosophy of science claim to have more knowledge about how science works than scientists themselves. Most scientists, including me, accepted this for a long period of time.

      Recently (since about 1980) there has been more and more conflict between what philosophers say about science and how scientists themselves perceive their job. Part of the problem comes from the debate over the compatibility of science and belief in god.

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    2. > if I wanted to read discussion about the rights of an individual in a free society or the moral arguments for and against abortion, I would not look to astrophysics or molecular biology ...

      Yes, there are indeed areas outside the purview of science.

      " There is no equality in nature; also there is no inequality in nature. Inequality, as much as equality, implies a standard of value. To read aristocracy into the anarchy of animals is just as sentimental as to read democracy into it. Both aristocracy and democracy are human ideals: the one saying that all men are valuable, the other that some men are more valuable. But nature does not say that cats are more valuable than mice; nature makes no remark on the subject. She does not even say that the cat is enviable or the mouse pitiable. We think the cat superior because we have (or most of us have) a particular philosophy to the effect that life is better than death. But if the mouse were a German pessimist mouse, he might not think that the cat had beaten him at all. He might think he had beaten the cat by getting to the grave first. Or he might feel that he had actually inflicted frightful punishment on the cat by keeping him alive. Just as a microbe might feel proud of spreading a pestilence, so the pessimistic mouse might exult to think that he was renewing in the cat the torture of conscious existence. It all depends on the philosophy of the mouse."

      Chesterton, "Orthodoxy"

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  4. Ian H Spedding puts it very nicely. I would like to add that I liked Wilkins characterization of philosophy.

    The goal of philosophy is to make people think and to deliver clarity where before there was just confusion. Sometimes clarity means showing that confusion is inevitable, but I never thought, and most philosophers do not think, that philosophy delivers scientific knowledge. Instead they hope for insight, understanding, clarity and charity towards the ideas of others.

    Philosophy often characterizes itself as conceptual analysis. In doing so they often make useful contributions to science. Larry, I don't see why you find that objectionable.

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    1. I don't find John's words that objectionable. What I find objectionable is those philosophers who denigrate scientists for thinking like scientists. They are quick to accuse us of "scientism," a word they mean as an insult. They never take the time to tell us why scientism is wrong. Even when I ask them politely. (Okay, so maybe I haven't been all that polite recently but I certainly started out that way fifteen years ago.)

      The worst problems come from theistic philosophers but they are closely followed by accommodationists who desperately want to defend religion as a valid way of knowing. That's when you get statements like this from Massimo Pigliucci,

      I think a major reason for the prevalence of a scientistic attitude among scientists is the equally widespread ignorance of, even contempt for, philosophy.

      That's not helpful. If it's wrong to think that the scientific way of knowing is the only one that works then simply telling us to read up on philosophy is no way to win an argument.

      As for contempt, that isn't the dominant attitude among scientists but some of things we see in philosophy these days do not inspire confidence.

      There are more and more of my colleagues who are wondering why philosophy was been on such a high pedestal for so long. They are puzzled. So am I.

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  5. I suspect Larry delivered his previous post with an eye to triggering my reaction. I knew that when I wrote, so we are engaged in our usual quadrille. I look forward to his answers; it should make for a fun discussion and some fine philosophical debate. However, I must object to one comment Larry has made here: that there are few philosophers dealing with scientific issues. In fact among my tribe (analytic philosophy) it is the norm. Thinkers such as Quine, Lewis, Donaldson, and the entire tradition of philosophy of science do this. You can only say there are a few if you gerrymander the population to include only those whose answers or approaches match some arbitrary metric or happen to agree with you (but I repeat myself).

    As Ian said, yes, there are postmodernists and fools, but even among the postmodern community the fools are outnumbered by the competent philosophers. Cheery pick any community and you can find fools. Even (gasp) science.

    So let us have at it. I like a good philosophical discussion from time to time.

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    1. Did you write te above post?

      It seems profoundly unhistorical (although I am willing to admit that I may not have the history of science straight). The prose portray an almost mythic struggle with science in the role of the beleaguered but steadfast hero defending Truth™ and Reality™. Altogether, the tone of the post seems to suggest that the author may not be well-versed in the history of science or the works of current popularizers of science who decry religion and philosophy

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    2. ha ha, Michael, Larry wrote that! Makes sense now, right? ;)

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    3. @Michael M,

      I'd really, really, like it if you could make a positive contribution to the debate instead of just taking potshots from the sidelines.

      If you don't like my version of the events then feel free to make any corrections where you think I got my facts wrong.

      I'm particularly interested in your version of how we got to the stage where philosophers and scientists are at war.

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    4. @John Wilkins,

      I don't recall saying that there aren't are few philosophers dealing with scientific issues. Of course, there are. They all use evidence to support their claims and, in that sense, their way of knowing is indistinguishable from what I call the scientific way of knowing.

      Recall that I do not restrict the scientific way of knowing to physicists, chemists, biologists, and geologists.

      However, most of the philosophers who attack scientists are not those kind of philosophers. Michael Ruse sure isn't and neither are the theistic philosophers.

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    5. Y'know, Larry, I'd really, really like it if you would actually present your posts as more of a debate and not just a whine-fest from a poor, downtrodden scientists. However, in order to actually have debate, you need to present a argument that is intelligible to those you want to have a debate with and, in order to present an intelligible argument, you need to define your terms.

      Up to this point, whenever I have asked you what you mean by a word you use, you have turned around and asked me to define it for you. That is simply not how honest debate works. Since you have made a claim about the relationship between science and philosphy and their respective relationships to knowledge, it is your responsibility to define what you mean by "philosophy", "science", and "knowledge". Until then, it is nigh unto impossible to have a meaningful discussion with you, because you have simply refuse to participate. In fact, you are pretty much engaging in the behavior that you accuse philosopher of engaging in: "philosophizing" and not actually addressing the topic.

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    6. One of the things we're trying to do here is to construct meaningful definitions of terms like "scientific way of knowing," "philosophy," and "knowledge."

      If you don't want to participate then just sit back and watch while the grown-ups try and sort it out.

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  6. It appears that 'history' is not only written by the victors, but can also by the victims. This one-sided, oh-we-poor-scientists version of events recalls the defense of their own behavior of the characters in Kurosawa's 'Rashomon'.

    Coming from someone as - seemingly by nature -pugnacious as Larry Moran (and I don't fault him for that - arguments are good), it is surprising to see this side of him emerge. We poor scientists sat around minding our own business and then all of a sudden those bad religious people, and then the philosophers, WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON OUR SIDE, started attacking us!

    As such a blinkered perspective can not possibly be the whole story, I look forward to seeing what sort of debate emerges from this thread, particularly John's perspective. I read his article, and I doubt that Larry will be surprised to learn that I agree with nearly every word. Although, I feel that he, as others have mentioned on his site, comes too close to painting all scientists with the same brush.

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    1. Why are you waiting for John to respond? You've already made up your mind that my version of events is wrong.

      Why not just tell me why it's so wrong?

      For the record, I'm not painting scientists as victims. I think we were stupid not to fight back sooner but that's not the same thing as being a victim. Besides, we are quite capable of holding our own in this fight.

      The other side is likely to become the victims, especially the theists and the accommodationists.

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    2. Larry,

      Your blog's comment section is not the place for your commenters to give you a short course in the history of science. The fact that you have to ask such basic questions implies that you probably shouldn't be considered an purveyor of the history of science any more that the Discovery Institute fellows should be considered purveyors of evolutionary biology. Remember: uninformed opinion are just as counterproductive an misinformed opinions.

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    3. "Why not just tell me why it's so wrong?"
      Because it must be 'wrong', as any parent could clearly see. When a parent asks, 'what happened, Jimmy?' and Jimmy answers,
      "I wasn't doing ANYTHING, but then Mike came in and changed the channel without asking me, and pushed me out of my chair. Then he tried to hit me, and accidently hit himself in the nose and broke it!"....the parent knows that isn't a clear/fair/accurate telling of the whole story.

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. "Even more embarrassing, the atheist scientists are wondering how a discipline like philosophy can justify the presence in their midst of huge numbers of theists—many of whom seem to be highly respected in their field. How is superstition compatible with philosophy?"

    I have been having some trouble finding the relevant data, but according to this survey of philosophy faculty from PhilPapers (n=931), around 78% of the polled philosophers are atheists or agnostics. As far as I know, this is about on par with the scientific community.* I'm not sure who or where these "huge numbers of theists" are.

    http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl?affil=Target+faculty&areas0=0&areas_max=1&grain=fine under "God: atheism or theism?"

    * I've seen the number that something like 95% of scientists in the NAS are atheists, but this number falls when you look at the general population of scientists, not just the elites.

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    1. I guess the quote is aimed at dispelling the notion that philosophers, in order to get their union cards, must be experts at using clarity of reason to overcome conditioned dogma - "the unexamined life is not worth living", and all that. Whereas scientists only need to produce results in a narrow field to get their union cards.

      Still, 78% is not bad. I wish my family and friends were that enlightened.

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    2. I would think that we could have a misperception out of the most noisy bullshitter, ahem, I mean, creationists (like mr ass-hole plantinga), are philosophers. Quite vociferous at how "misguided" those scientists are because they are arguing "philosophy" without a "proper degree."

      It does not help that an imbecile can get a PhD in philosophy at the university of waterloo by simply regurgitating and repackaging those old creationist arguments for the existence of "God" into a "thesis."

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  9. Looking at the diagram, I see "left brain" and "right brain."
    Might I suggest that these distinctions are most likely only significant in people whose corpus callosum has been cut? I don't know of any solid evidence to suggest otherwise.

    Perhaps the difficulties between professional scientists and people who think more or less scientifically with philosophers is partly about the philosophers' inability to clarify their thinking. The notion that knowledge is justified true belief about the world (both physical and social) has plenty of difficulties explaining "justified."

    But a notion of truth as that which corresponds to reality is at least coherent. The notion of knowledge as coherence doesn't work: Incompatible truths are "discovered" by this method. And trying to tighten the definition by adding logically necessity or limiting it to a priori arguments have also failed.

    Even worse, despite the much time spent philosophizing, it seems to me there is no coherent notion of what knowledge about art or morals would be.

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  10. How's Mr. McCarthy's search for a publication in a peer reviewed journal reporting a 5 standard deviation PK effect coming along? SLC

    Mr. McCarthy never said he was going to make such a search, Mr. McCarthy told SLC that he was busy writing his series blowing a hole in the mascot of his ideology to do chores assigned by SLC going off-topic in a different blog thread. He also referred SLC to a blog post by Dr. Dean Radin, whose CV probably dwarf's SLC's in both science and technology, in which he talked about several studies that matched SLC's first challenge before Mr. McCarthy noted the deceptive way in which it was challenged only to be modified by SLC to the form he gives now.

    You'll love my labor day post, SLC. Now renamed:

    Darwinism Against Economic Democracy: William Cobbett on Malthus

    http://zthoughtcriminal.blogspot.com/

    I find I'm getting less inhibited the more I look over my notes, find confirmatory evidence and think about it more. Oddly, I've found that confirmation in the primary source documents at every step of the way.

    Now, stop trying to change the subject because I'm not biting.

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  11. Has Dean Radin ever reported a 5 standard deviation for detection of PK in a peer reviewed journal? I would be willing to bet the ranch that neither he or Prof. Utts has done so and further, that there is no such publication in the peer reviewed literature.

    I am totally unimpressed with Dean Radin's CV. Linus Pauling had a CV against which Radin's pales into insignificance but he was just as raving bonkers about vitamin C as Radin is about ESP and PK.

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  12. Oh, but you forget, SLC, the Higgs results were based on a combined score of experiments comprising trillions of events.

    Maybe you should ask Dean Radin to explain what he said.

    http://deanradin.blogspot.com/2012/07/one-more-time.html

    You'll notice in the comments I was extremely skeptical about an assertion of undocumented proposed mental faculties. I'm quite old fashioned about evidence being present when it's supposed to be science.

    But that was before I was busy with exposing old Chuck.

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    1. And Mr. Mccarthy, again demonstrating his total ignorance of statistical inference, again spreads the black ink of the octopus, changing the subject and not answering the question. So I'll pose it again. Has either Dean Radin or Prof. Utts or anybody else reported a 5 standard deviation PK effect from either one experiment or the combination of a series of experiments? My prediction is that Mr. McCarthy will never answer the question but will, instead, change the subject. And Dean Radin, as per usual, doesn't provide a reference to these experiments so someone can critically evaluate them.

      By the way, as Prof. Singham has opined elsewhere on his blog, there is an unconscious bias in reporting experimental results. Thus, positive results are easily publishable but negative results are not. Thus, a positive experiment purporting to demonstrate ESP can find someplace to publish but 10 experiments that come up empty are never reported.

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  13. Moran you seem to be letting a few bad philosophers give the rest a bad name. There is gross over-generalization here.

    As an example of philosophers being on science's side, I recall an article diagramming how many of the recent cases dealing with creationism in the US were won (for science) due not to the testimony of scientists ...usually isolated in their esoteric fields, but to philosophy of science experts who could convey the key differences between it and creationism to the lay public.

    I feel like analogous isolation from other subjects, namely philosophy itself is reason for much of this post...hardly any theistic philosophers seem to seriously actually exist these days, and for good reason. Hell I'd even wager a guess that the percentages are lower than in the sciences. Unless you're including the likes of Chopra as a "philosopher"...

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