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Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Kind of Knowledge Does Philosophy Discover?

Jerry Coyne and I have been thinking along the same lines. We've been reading a lot of books by philosophers and reading their articles and blogs. We're exploring the idea that philosophy and science are different ways of knowing, as the philosophers want us to believe. We've taken to heart the criticism from our philosopher friends that scientists have to understand more about philosophy.

Jerry and I (and many others) have reached the tentative conclusion that much of what passes for modern philosophy is a house of cards. It doesn't tell us anything. It doesn't produce knowledge, or truth.

It was a real eye-opener to hear Elliot Sober defend creationism by arguing that supernatural beings could have guided evolution by making undetectable changes in DNA [The Problem with Philosophy: Elliot Sober]. Sober is a highly respected philosopher. He doesn't believe in supernatural beings but his argument in defense of guided evolution was the subject of a lecture at the University of Chicago. Listen to the questions and discussion on the video and you'll see that a group of prominent philosophers actually take this sort of thing seriously.

Jerry and I are not the only scientists who wonder what the heck is going on in philosophy. As I pointed out a few days ago, this form of argument can just as easily be used to justify the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster who steals meatballs [The Flying Spaghetti Monster Steals Meatballs (What's the Purpose of Philosophy?)]. What's the point? The arguments and the logic don't tell us a thing about whether gods or the Flying Spaghetti Monster actually exist.

Most philosophers have convinced themselves that science has limits beyond which it cannot venture. Here's how Massimo Pigliucci describes it in Nonsense on Stilts (p. 178).
Methodological naturalism is at the core of science because it doesn't commit a scientist to atheism: it simply says that—since science cannot possibly investigate the supernatural—the supernatural, if it exists, cannot factor into scientific explanations of how the world works. This is not the same as saying that the supernatural doesn't exist it is simply, in a sense, to admit the limitations of science in being able to deal only with natural causes and empirical evidence. At the same time, it frees science from any close ties with religion and allows scientists to pursue their work independently of their private religious beliefs.
This is obviously wrong since we routinely apply the scientific way of knowing to questions about the supernatural. Does prayer work? Is their any evidence for life after death? Has a miracle happened? Do we have a soul? Is their any evidence that evolution has a purpose?

The scientific way of knowing is quite capable of discovering something that conflicts with or violates natural causes. So far, nothing has turned up but that doesn't mean we've never tried looking. There's absolutely no evidence of the supernatural so it's reasonable to conclude, tentatively, that the supernatural doesn't exist. We also conclude that the Flying Spaghetti Monster has a very low probability of existence. That's scientific.

After a decade of reading the literature on methodological naturalism I've come to the conclusion that philosophers are just making this stuff up. We usually assume that they created this bogus limitation in order to protect religion from science but now I'm beginning to realize that it also protects philosophy from science. It means that metaphysics—whatever that is—is outside of science but squarely in the magisterium of philosophy. It means that philosophy is another way of knowing because it covers something important that's forbidden to the scientific way of knowing—or so their argument goes.

Many philosophers are fiercely protective of their way of knowing and they have little regard for those scientists who argue that the scientific way of knowing is the only way that has actually demonstrated success. This is where the accusations of "scientism" come up.

Here's Massimo Pigliucci again (p. 235).
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.
Oh, how I wish there was an equally insulting term to characterize the intellectual arrogance of some philosophers!

The question before us is quite straightforward. Philosophers have been working on some important problems for centuries. I remember learning about them back when I was an undergraduate and "Blowin' in the Wind" was playing regularly on the radio. The big issues back then, and now, are Freedom vs Determinism, The Existence of God, Morality and Ethics, Mind and Body, and Epistemology.

Has philosophy, by itself, solved any of these problems? What kind of true knowledge has philosophy discovered? Can anyone give an example that will cause us to consider philosophy as another way of knowing?

The same discussion is going on over at Why Evolution Is True: Pigliucci decries scientism, argues that science needs philosophy, and that most of us are doing it wrong. They're not making much progress but perhaps that's just because the serious philosophers haven't yet weighed in.

Like Bob Dylan, I'm waiting for enlightenment.


Hodor said...

I think that our intellectual inheritance from the Enlightenment is the idea that "all ideas can be improved". I think of this as the theorem of reason. We use this theorem to improve our knowledge by first advancing ideas and then working to improve them by using the tools of reason. This is an inherently philosophical idea, I think, since it has no empirical element to it.

If we take this inherently philosophical idea and add the tool of empiricism, then we have science.

However, this theorem of reason also obtains in a number of other entirely pragmatic fields of study - mathematics and logic to name a couple - that completely lack the empirical element.

The question of the supernatural element is a bit more challenging - I'm not at all sure that the idea of "supernatural" is a coherent one. If it is, it seems inherent in the definition of the idea of the supernatural that empiricism cannot apply. One might reasonably ask then, what relevance the supernatural has. I do not have an answer for this question.

Mike D said...

You're right on the money, and that is precisely what Stephen Hawking meant in The Grand Design when he said, "philosophy is dead".

Sure, a knowledge of logic can help us identify fallacious arguments. But philosophy cannot, and frankly never has been able to, impart us with new knowledge.

Rob van der Vlugt said...

"Much of what passes for modern philosophy is a house of cards"...built on a table with no legs I'm afraid.

Michael M said...

In order to discuss what kind of knowledge philosophy produces, one must first define "knowledge", Larry. In my opinion, you have not done that, so you're criticism of philosophy as not producing "knowledge" come of as litle more than gainsaying.

Markus Karlsson said...

Questions aren't knowledge. Even good questions aren't knowledge. Even the method of asking good questions isn't knowledge.

It's the same as with maths. Just because you can construct objects of infinite (or more) dimensions doesn't mean that they suddenly exist.

What philosophers do may be complex and on the surface fascinating, but it speaks more of human curiosity than reality.

Anonymous said...

Philosophy makes no claims as to providing "knowledge". Philosophy is about method: ways to rationally discuss and assess issues and ideas such as ethics, logic, reality, knowledge, science, aesthetics.

NAL said...

"A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or ..."

Ayn Rand. Her philosophy is an excellent basis for revealing the illogic of theism.

Larry Moran said...

Feel free to offer up any definition of "knowledge" that will allow philosophy to be a valid way of knowing something that the scientifc way of knowing can't discover.

If you can't do it then I'll assume that the only thing philosophy is good for is avoiding important questions and quibbling about trivia.

Larry Moran said...

That's pretty much what I think. Philosophy is useless for learning wether the Flying Spaghetti Monster actually exist but very good at begging the question.

Robert Byers said...

The conclusions in contention in origin subjects don't need to reach out to philosophy.
Evolution and company claim to KNOW what happened and didn't happen about important origin events.
they claim this upon the investigation of nature.
Creationism says the investigation was flawed and maybe/probably biased.
Creationists are like Sherlock Holmes. We correct and think we can correct Scotland Yard investigators however well meaning and hard working.
Supernatural is not relevant as the natural world is being claimed to be the evidence against a creator or Genesis.
Thats all that needs to be addressed.

JimV said...

I have used "Philosophism" as the symmetrical insult to philosophers.

I disagree that math is non-empirical. I think our brains use the same trial-and-error process to do math as evolution uses to adapt populations of organism. We (I) don't yet know enough about how brains work to provide scientific evidence for that, but that is what I have observed for myself, most recently when I set myself the challenge to find an independent proof of Fermat's Prime Theorem.

That story is a bit long for this margin, but on a more practical level, math began with arithmetic which began with the empirical observation that if I have five goats and sell two of them I always have three goats left. Speaking of Fermat, the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (see Simon Singh's excellent book, "Fermat's Enigma") rested on a strictly empirical observation: that every (known) elliptical function has as its characteristic number the same number as some modular function, and vice-versa (assuming I have remembered the names of the two types of function correctly). That is, a Japanese mathematician noticed this pattern and conjectured that it probably was generally true long before it was proved, and had the pattern not been noticed, probably no one would have thought to try to prove it. There are many other such examples. Also dis-proofs by counter-example as well as many constructive proofs are due to noticing a particular mathematical entity (such as a number or set of numbers which has some property) empirically.

Michael M said...

Feel free to define "knowledge" and explain why philosophy doesn't produce it, Larry. Usually, that is how rational debates progress: the person make a claim defines their terms and justifies their position for those definitions.

Hodor said...

I would suggest that math is independent of goats - and of how our brains arrive at an understanding of it.

And by "empirical" I mean a measurement taken of a physical entity - and hence necessarily uncertain. I don't mean a value arrived at computationally.

andyboerger said...

In the post on Coyne's blog this links to, Coyne quotes Pigliucci;
"Science is a marvellous thing that has brought us computers, airplanes and modern medicine. But it has also brought us the atomic bomb, eugenics and biological warfare."
This is obviously true. So long as one accepts the meaning of the words 'brought us', there is no valid way to argue with the above sentence. But then Coyne rebuts it by writing,

"Here we see the denigration of science that invariably accompanies accusations of scientism. But the misuses of science are not the fault of the scientific process itself, but of humans making humanistic ethical judgments about what to do with the products of science, or about what questions should be pursued."
This is EXACTLY why questioning whether or not 'scientism' is a valid criticism is being discussed at all, and why so many people who aren't triumphal about science would answer in the affirmative regarding such.
It is this pat jiu-jitsu that science fans adopt -don't blame science! - that is so annoying. Look at the above sentence. Pigliucci is merely pointing out that science has 'brought us' these things, and they have the potential to do great harm. He is not 'denigrating' science; he is pointing out its potential for harm. Why do people like Coyne and Dawkins, who are ready to charge religion with responsibility for all, or nearly all, of the world's evils, become so uncomfortable with simple statements of fact such as the above? What purpose are they trying to achieve? Do they feel that science needs to be 'protected' by sheltering people from ever considering it as leading to harm and/or danger?

So long as this type of attitude prevails among so many of science's most vocal champions, not only will the question of 'scientism' arise in the course of discussions about science, but it will arise out of necessity.

Anonymous said...

He's letting you use ANY definition of knowledge you want and applying philosophy toward that, and your claim is that Larry is supposed to single out just one? Whereas Larry is open to ANY definition for knowledge to apply to his critique?


Anonymous said...


Rkt said...

Like Sherlock Holmes? A figment of some author's imagination? Surely not,Mr Byers.
With lines like that you could become my favourite anti-scientist. Apart from TTC, I mean.
At the risk of getting into some science, would you summarise which of the "important-origin-events" _you_ think are outside the scope of scientists to examine (as opposed to those which can be addressed and may, in time, be understood fully?). Too much research time is clearly being wasted. Don't be vague...

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

Michael M, you're not coming up with answers. If what you're doing here is what philosophy is good for (to persist in philosophizing), then philosophy is good for nothing more than doing philosophy. It has no practical application outside of the most mundane and trivial, almost intuitively obvious "truths". I think, therefore I am. Well doh!. Genious. Where has that got us? Did it cure a disease? Did it find my carkeys?

Mike in Barcelona said...

Sincere questions for philosophers from a naive scientist

What is wrong with defining the supernatural as that which does not exist, i.e. outside the natural world and only imaginary? After all, if we were to investigate some allegedly supernatural process or deity and find that it were real, wouldn't we just conclude that it was not supernatural after all and hence 'natural'? I'm excluding imaginary things that might exist only in our brains as thoughts/electrons clouds/synaptic patterns for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

Natural = real ; supernatural = unreal/imaginary. Where could this simplified view get us into trouble or lead us astray?

A related question: can't we reduce the process of applying reason, in its most basic sense, to distinguishing the real from the unreal?

Is there any point to wasting any time on anything claimed to be 'supernatural'? Doesn't methodological naturalism fail us in this sense?

D McWilliams said...

If philosophers answered questions then they would literally be arguing themselves out of a job.

Joe said...

Except of course that Science is essentially, just refined Empiricism... a philosophy.

All you have done Mr Moran is define away philosophy based on the rather arbitrary divisions of academia. What happens in a philosophy department is for the most part about the history of ideas. Does history make progress?

No. But philosophy does. Or you wouldn't have science.

I think the other commenter hit the nail on the head, you need to define what you mean by knowledge. You keep repeating 'ways of knowing' over and over, but I have yet to see you define knowledge. Careful now, if you do that... you'd be doing philosophy. We call that epistemology. Are you afraid to do philosophy? :)

Anonymous said...

Hypothesis construction and data interpretation are philosophy. Science only enters the picture in the first case when we actually test the hypothesis experimentally and in the second case when we continue to construct follow-up experiments to test the interpretation. Philosophy is like a first survey probe into the void of the unknown. It helps to pre-sort out bad ideas. In practice it may entertain a wider variety of questions are being worthy of discussion then many might find valid. Yet that is part of the point.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

"Sophistry" is not quite symmetrical, but covers much of the misuse of philosophy by religious apologists like William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

"Philosophy is like a first survey probe into the void of the unknown. It helps to pre-sort out bad ideas."

You definition of "science" is not universally accepted. And what bad ideas has philosophy discarded by pre-sorting?

andyboerger said...

Rumraket, maybe just a tad more of the basics, such as not ending a sentence with both a period AND an exclamation point, not misspelling 'genius' and not considering car keys as one word would help bolster your point, which seems to be that science is all that is necessary to lead a fulfilling life. How about science and syntax, at least?

Curious Wavefunction said...

I think the boundary between science and philosophy is rather artificial and imposed. Every time a scientist is speculating he or she is a philosopher. In a sense philosophy begins where science ends and it can eventually lead to more science.

John S. Wilkins said...

Since you happen to be at one of the leading centres of philosophy of science, maybe you could wander across campus and ask them?

Larry Moran said...

As you know, I've talked to them a great deal and attended their journal club. You also know that I've been to a few philosophy of science conferences.

I still don't understand what standards philosophers use to distinguish good philosophy from bad philosophy. Why don't you help me out by telling me what you think of Elliot Sober's talk. Is that an example of good philosophy?

Larry Moran said...

Except of course that Science is essentially, just refined Empiricism... a philosophy.

That's exactly the sort of thing that pisses me off about philosophers. It's a content free statement that does nothing to enlighten or help us understand the issue. Besides, I don't agree with those philosophers who say that empiricism is a requirement for science.

I think the other commenter hit the nail on the head, you need to define what you mean by knowledge. You keep repeating 'ways of knowing' over and over, but I have yet to see you define knowledge. Careful now, if you do that... you'd be doing philosophy. We call that epistemology. Are you afraid to do philosophy? :)

There are some things that we know, things like the idea that life evolved, our universe began with a big bang, humans need to co-operate in order to live successfully in societies, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there's no evidence for god(s).

These all seem to be the kinds of knowledge that come from the scientific way of knowing. It seems as though knowledge is some form of "truth" that's universally accepted by all thinking adults

What I want to know is whether there are other kinds of knowledge and whether there are other effective ways of acquiring knowledge. As you point out, philosophers think this is their baliwick but when you give them a chance to strut their stuff—as I'm doing here—they seem to be firing blanks.

Instead of actually answering my questions, they seem content to ... philosophize.

Larry Moran said...

I say that philosophy has brought us sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion.

Of course, I'm not denigrating philosophy when I say this, I'm simply pointing its potential for harm. If you're a philosopher you have no reason to be upset about statements like that. It's a simple fact.

Larry Moran said...

What the hell does that mean? If everyone who thinks is a philosopher then why aren't philosophy departments full of plumbers and poets?

There have to be some standards that distinguish good philosophers from bad ones. What are they?

And if philosophy really begins where science ends then there should be some record of achievements where philosophers have made a contribution to knowledge and understanding that scientists could not have made.

I'm not asking for all of them. One or two will do.

Michael M said...

Larry, if you want to discover if there are of other "ways of knowing", you should perhaps define what you mean by "knowing". It's actually really simple: if you want to discuss a subject and you are not sure that you and the other interlocutors mean the same thing when they use the same term, you should explicitly declare what you mean by the term. If you want to say that "science is the only 'way of knowing'" or that "philosophy is not a 'way of knowing'", you need to explain what you understand "science", "philosophy", and "knowing" to be, since you are the one making the assertion as to relationship amongst them. Otherwise, it is difficult to have meaningful exchange of idea, and it is hard to believe that you want to do so.

Michael M said...

With the amount of time that you spend saying "I don't understand" with respect to philosophy, one would think that you would have a made an effort to understand. However, despite the fact that you vlaim to have spent "decades" reading books, articles, and blogs about philosophy, the form and content of your arguments that philosophy is bunk have not changed over the past five years I have read this blog. In fact, your arguments do not differ in any substantive way from those thhat Alan Sokal made 16 years ago, and there is firm evidence that neither Sokal nor his supporters took the time to understand what postmodernists were saying and considered it prima facie absurd.

Larry Moran said...

How many times do plan on making comments without answering the questions?

Every time you post a comment you are simply confirming what many of us think about philosophy. It's nothing but hot air and whining about how nobody really understands you.

Martin Cothran said...

"What kind of true knowledge [sic] has philosophy discovered?"

Um, let's see: The Law of Identity, the Law of Excluded Middle, the Law of Non-Contradiction, the existence and distinction between univocal, equivocal, and analogous terms, the distinction between contradictory, contrary, subcontrary and subalternate statements, and the rules for logical validity...

And that's only a small sample of knowledge from one branch of philosophy; namely, logic.

Too bad these rules weren't applied more competently in this post.

Larry Moran said...

Spoken like a true philosopher. They seem to be experts at avoiding hard questions, even the ones where they are supposed to be the experts.

Michael M said...

You don't seem to understand what philosophers are or what they do. You seem to prefer to use "philosopher" as an insult rather than engage in a philosophical discussion.

You made the claim; you provide the definitions

invivoMark said...

There are two separate issues here. One concerns the validity of science as a way of knowing, the contributions of philosophy to the success of science (here defined as the ability of science to accurately predict reality), and the possibility of other, non-science ways of knowing. This issue is Pigliucci's central thesis.

The second issue is whether science ought to be valued. Discovering and using nuclear weapons is a strong piece of evidence on the opposition side of this issue, just as vaccines are strong evidence in favor. But this issue is separate from Pigliucci's main point. It has nothing to do with the first issue, and Pigliucci probably knows that.

The only reason Pigliucci could have for bringing up atomic bombs is to be intentionally deceptive, and give the reader the impression that science is deeply flawed philosophically. But that isn't what atomic bombs prove, and Coyne was right to call Pigliucci out on this dishonest tactic.

After all, Pigliucci's tactic has conned you into conflating the two issues entirely. Regardless of whether science is ultimately good or bad for humanity, science works as a way of knowing and it informs our philosophy and morality and other aspects of the human experience. Crying 'scientism' won't change that, and Pigliucci knows that. Since he can't argue against science logically, his piece relies almost entirely on appeals to emotion.

invivoMark said...

You're pretty much right. The exception would be if there were, say, two separate sets of physical laws, one which governed only the supernatural. Under this set of laws, a pink unicorn might be able to become invisible, while anything that isn't a pink unicorn can't turn invisible by the same method.

There is no way to prove that these unicorns don't exist, but we can construct and, at least in principle, test a hypothesis to demonstrate their existence.

Michael M said...

Nice personal attack, Larry.

I never said anything about my not being undesrtood in these comments; I did, however, say that if you want to be understood you need to tell us how you are using your terms. This is just simple interpersonal communication, which is what I thought you were trying to achieve with this blog.

steve oberski said...

Some mathematicians would disagree with you:

Logic is the science of formal principles of reasoning or correct inference. Historically, logic originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Logic was further developed and systematized by the Stoics and by the medieval scholastic philosophers. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, logic saw explosive growth, which has continued up to the present.

One may ask whether logic is part of philosophy or independent of it. According to Bochenski, this issue is nowhere explicitly raised in the writings of Aristotle. However, Aristotle did go to great pains to formulate the basic concepts of logic (terms, premises, syllogisms, etc.) in a neutral way, independent of any particular philosophical orientation. Thus Aristotle seems to have viewed logic not as part of philosophy but rather as a tool or instrument1 to be used by philosophers and scientists alike. This attitude about logic is in agreement with the modern view, according to which the predicate calculus (see 1.2 below) is a general method or framework not only for philosophical reasoning but also for reasoning about any subject matter whatsoever.

Logic is the science of correct reasoning. What then is reasoning? According to Aristotle, reasoning is any argument in which certain assumptions or premises are laid down and then something other than these necessarily follows. Thus logic is the science of necessary inference. However, when logic is applied to specific subject matter, it is important to note that not all logical inference constitutes a scientifically valid demonstration. This is because a piece of formally correct reasoning is not scientifically valid unless it is based on a true and primary starting point. Furthermore, any decisions about what is true and primary do not pertain to logic but rather to the specific subject matter under consideration. In this way we limit the scope of logic, maintaining a sharp distinction between logic and the other sciences. All reasoning, both scientific and non-scientific, must take place within the logical framework, but it is only a framework, nothing more. This is what is meant by saying that logic is a formal science.

andyboerger said...

LM, even for you that is a rather pathetic reply. Which means it extends to a sort of meta-pathetic territory. But anyway, I'm game. How exactly has philosophy brought us these things? If I like your explanation I might even ignore the fact that a.) in Pigliucchi's quote both positive and negative things were mentioned (what ARE you guys so sensitive about?) and b.) the nature of your reply can be paraphrased as, 'oh YEAH? You are TOO!'

Joe said...

Well, Empiricism, is simply the idea that one can gain knowledge through observation.

So, indeed quite large part of science is based on Empiricism. I'm not sure why you find that so objectionable. It's like you object to the idea that humans share a common ancestor with apes, because you think humans are more interesting to study.

Further, philosophy, despite your protestations addresses the definition of knowledge in a much more precise way than you have. To know something is to have a 'justified true belief' about that thing.

That is: It IS true, I BELIEVE it is true, and I have a REASON to believe it is true.

And thus we get to ways of knowing, which are simply ways coming to knowledge.

A child who likes marshmallows doesn't have to know how to count to know that two are more than one. If I threaten to take away a marshmallow the child will intuit a vague understanding of subtraction. Intuition is not a precise way of knowing something, but the more experience a person has the more they can bring expertise to bear on a new situation. In more modern phrasing: Pattern matching.

Once a child learns to count, the child can better deal with marshmallows. Symbolic representation allows a child to KNOW how many 'more' marshmallows she has at any one time. Logical deduction, mathematics and modelling.

Once a child learns enough about the adults around her, she can even KNOW ahead of time, whether an adult is likely to give her a marshmallow or take one away. Inductive logic. Using examples or samples to predict new outcomes.

Science uses all three of these 'ways of knowing'. The reason science kicks ass, is because over time humans have developed enough knowledge of how things work to make useful predictions about the world around them. You need a knowledge base (data and a theoretical framework) though, before science really comes into its own.

This is why observing the world, Empricism, was not considered very reliable, and math and deductive logic dominated early human philosophical endeavors.

I know there are lots of academic nonsense out there, publish or perish being the standard, but the fact you can 'know' something with your intuition, or even via an argument from authority, doesn't mean all ways of knowing are equal, or that you should rely on only one.

In fact science is successful because it systematically error checks all claims, all reasons to believe.

kevin said...

The biggest problem with your simplified model is that it begs the question about the existence of the supernatural. While it may seem prima facie irrational to you to believe in something that is supernatural, it doesn't seem to be on a par with believing in a contradiction, which is how your definition would set it up. That is, it would the existence of a real supernatural entity an impossibility based solely on the meanings of the terms, but it doesn't seem to be like believing in the round square, or an even prime number.

If you were going to define supernatural, it would be best to try and track the uses of people who believe in the supernatural, under the supposition that they are not being inconsistent in believing that there are real supernatural things.

As to your second question, yes, and it's typically called metaphysics. A branch of philosophy.

As to your third question, it depends on who's time is being spent on investigating the supernatural things, and what sort of supernatural things are being investigated. It's worthwhile (for a subset of people!) to investigate whether God exists because belief in God contributes to a lot of issues in society. It's nowhere near as worthwhile to investigate whether the FSM exists since people don't believe in the FSM, and nobody attempts to base policy on the teachings of Pastafarianism.

kevin said...

Ack, sorry, I misread your second question. I thought you were asking if we could use reason to determine whether or not something is real.

I don't think we can reduce reason to solely determining whether or not something is real. We often use reason to decide between hypothetical courses of action. But I don't quite get what you have in mind.

Martin Cothran said...


I'm sure there are mathematicians who see everything as mathematical just like there are scientists like Larry who seem to see everything as science. When you all you've got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

Furthermore, it seems rather anachronistic to say "Aristotle seems to have viewed logic not as part of philosophy but rather as a tool or instrument to be used by philosophers and scientists alike." This is not even a distinction Aristotle could have made, since "science" as we know it--as a method of inquiry employing methodological naturalism--did not even exist at the time, at least not as a discipline independent of philosophy. The most he could have done was to categorize it in the proper philosophical sub-discipline: natural philosophy.

And anyway it doesn't matter to the point. Whether logic in whatever form is used "as a tool or an instrument" in science as well as in philosophy is not in contention. What is in contention is whether philosophers have ever "discovered" "knowledge." Those are Larry's words, not mine. Philosophers--as philosophers--discovered the terms, principles, and rules of logic, NOT scientists.

I can't even see how that point can be contested.

kevin said...

I think it's pretty much a given that logic is part of philosophy, at least as an academic discipline. Though maybe Simpson is working with a different notion of philosophy than philosophy, as in, whatever is done by people who identify as philosophers.

kevin said...

"Has philosophy, by itself, solved any of these problems? What kind of true knowledge has philosophy discovered? Can anyone give an example that will cause us to consider philosophy as another way of knowing?"

I don't think of philosophy as another way of knowing. What distinguishes philosophy from science is concern with a different set of questions.

While there have been traditional questions, like you mention in your post, many people working in the discipline have been dissatisfied with the lack of progress on resolving "the big questions". Heck, I'm in the camp that thinks a lot of the big questions are poorly formed or unintelligible.

That said, philosophers produce all sorts of knowledge -- but it's not exactly knowledge directly about physical phenomena. Typically it's knowledge about arguments, constraints on theories etc. As far as examples, I think a lot of progress has been made in areas which blur the lines between philosophy and mathematics, or philosophy and linguistics.

Gottlob Frege, in his philosophical work, discovered/developed quite a few significant problems that a theory of the semantic value of names would have to solve. Similarly, Tarski's development of the notion of a metalanguage, and a system of formal semantics is something that was primarily motivated by philosophical investigation.

Could linguists or mathematicians have done either of these things? Sure. But the possibility here is pretty broad -- and the point is that people properly considered philosophers were instrumental in developing these notions.

More recent philosophical work that makes definite contributions to knowledge about language and the world includes Hannes Leitgeb's work on semantic dependence, Hartry Field's work on nominalizing mathematical language for sections of physics (showing that we could replace reference to platonistic entities with purely physical entities for parts of science), and Volker Halbach's work on the properties of axiomatic theories of truth.

kevin said...

"I say that philosophy has brought us sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion.

Of course, I'm not denigrating philosophy when I say this, I'm simply pointing its potential for harm. If you're a philosopher you have no reason to be upset about statements like that. It's a simple fact."

No challenge to that here. All you have to do is look at those clowns at Princeton who wrote that god awful natural law defence of traditional marriage.

On the flipside, philosophy has also brought us feminism, powerful arguments against natural law theory, computer science (Bertrand Russell -> Godel, Church and Turing!), antiracist activists, and activists like John Corvino on the homophobia front.

So it's not all bad.

andyboerger said...

invivoMike, why do you think that the 'only' reason Pigliucchi had for bringing up the dangerous/harmful things he did was to intentionally deceive? His point in doing so is rhetorical, and valid, as well as consistent with his argument - essentially, that when science is championed BY scientists as a beacon of truth for mankind that leaves all other enterprises in the dust and renders them useless, or at best second string players, one has points one can offer in disagreement. The hubris and arrogance of scientific triumphalism is what he sees as, in your word, 'flawed'.
I interpret his article as being more directed toward the opinions that certain people hold (most specifically, the authors he mentions) and the views that they espouse. Shortly after the passage I cited, he writes that science is "only one mode of human thinking", and adds, "our arsenal is vast, including the ability to critically reflect on what we do and why (philosophy) and to communicate our emotions and perspectives about the world to other human beings (art and literature)." I see his article as arguing for greater tolerance, inclusiveness and acceptance of different modes of human inquiry and discovery, and less arrogance and self congratulation.

Martin Cothran said...

"I say that philosophy has brought us sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion."

I am trying to plumb the depths of absurdity implicit in this statement. If this is the way we're going to reason about things (and I use the term "reason" here loosely), then why couldn't a philosopher attribute, say, the Holocaust, to science, since science and technology were used to accomplish it?

Of course, philosophers COULD make this argument, but they don't--largely because, unlike whatever school of thought lay behind this kind of statement (It would be an insult to a respectable discipline to say that it was science), they seem to have something approximating intellectual standards.

Larry Moran said...

It's possible to define "empiricism" as simply a reliance on evidence. I support that concept but I prefer to use the word "evidence" because it makes more sense. The scientific way of knowing requires evidence and it is unscientific to believe in something without evidence to support your belief.

The problem is that many philosophers of science think that experimentation is a requirement. They lump that under "empiricism." I disagree with that limitation.

The other problem is more general. In philosophy, "empiricism" refers to an entire theory of knowledge and comes loaded with tons of baggage. That makes it difficult for people like me to adopt the word without carefully studying all the various ramifications and implications. It's so much easier to just say that science requires evidence. You don't need the baggage and you certainly don't need to get into quibbling about the exact meaning of the term.

kevin said...

Because philosophers, traditionally have espoused sexist, racist, homophobic, and religious views? Not all of them, but they've definitely written defences of these things, and provide cover for people who hold such views.

It's not the whole story, but it's a legitimate criticism.

andyboerger said...

Kevin, are you saying that sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion could not exist without philosophy? Because Larry's usage of Pigliucchi's term 'brought us' would seem to indicate that. If those things existed before, or arose separately from, philosophy, then the argument doesn't go very far.

Could atomic weapons have been developed without using science? In the absence of the scientific method, could artists/philosophers/priests/poets, etc. have used a different method from within their own disciplines that would have somehow yielded atomic weapons? Or manmade climate change, for that matter? If such is not the case, then 'brought us' has far greater validity in Pigliucchi's statement than Larry's.

Larry Moran said...

andyboerger asks,

But anyway, I'm game. How exactly has philosophy brought us these things?

In exactly the same way that science has brought us eugenics and biological warfare. A statement that you said is "obviously true."

the nature of your reply can be paraphrased as, 'oh YEAH? You are TOO!'

I'm using a tried and true form of philosophical argument called reductio ad absurdum. Apparently it went over your head.

Think about it for a minute, Andy. Do you honestly believe that there's no reason for scientists to be upset when they're being blamed for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the evils of eugenics?

kevin said...

Larry doesn't say that philosophy was necessary for the development of the attitudes, only that it has brought us these attitudes. That is, these attitudes could have developed without philosophy, but people have promoted religion, sexism, racism and homophobia under the banner of philosophy.

Look at contemporary Catholics on issues regarding birth control and homosexuality -- philosophy is used as an academic cover for truly reprehensible views. Look at Plantinga's support for homophobic policies in the American Philosophical Association.

It's a legit complaint to say that philosophy, qua discipline, has inculcated and allowed for the defence of reprehensible attitudes on these matters. Science doesn't stand in the same relationship to the sorts of things that you mention -- while it was necessary, it hasn't advocated these things.

Seems pretty clear cut to me.

Mike Archbold said...

Without Aristotle there would have been no syllogism. Without syllogisms there wouldn't even be the simplest form of AI, which would have no way of forward chaining.

Martin Cothran said...


This is the worst kind of guilt by association argumentation, and, despite your protestations could be employed equally well in indicting science. I can find plenty of unsavory beliefs and actions in the scientific community over history. But that is completely irrelevant unless I can identify some necessary connection between science and these beliefs and actions.

I shouldn't even have to point this out in any rational discussion of these issues.

You clearly want to have your cake and eat it to: you say, on the one hand, that there is no such necessary connection, but they you say philosophy has actually encouraged these views.


And maybe you (and Larry) could summarize your studies of philosophers and their views. Have you actually canvassed philosophers throughout history in a way that you could justify your claim?

What percentage of philosophers were racists? What was the ratio of philosophers who were "homophobes"? And how were these numbers different from every other person of every other discipline in the society in which they lived?

Most philosophers had facial hair. Maybe facial hair contributes to these things.

That's it.

Maybe I should just acclimate myself to the lower level of rational discourse going on here, but I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't.

Perhaps its the philosopher in me.

Joe said...

Empiricism is more broad than science, this is true. George Berkeley, although an Empiricist, denied the existence of matter. That will probably make you grate your teeth, but the emphasis on observation was a huge break with the past. And quite profound given the level of knowledge. Consider that Einstein's view of matter/energy would appear insane to the the same people reading Berkeley. Even today, most people don't really understand his work.

I would agree that limiting science to 'experimentation' is wrongheaded. But I've read Nonsense on Stilts, and studied Philosophy of Science more generally, and I haven't found that as a focus of claim, rather the opposite, at least from the Philosophers of Science with any serious reputation.

I don't think you actually avoid the problem you are trying to with simply using the word 'evidence'. 'Empirical evidence' is probably better. The Bible for instance is 'evidence' in all sorts of disciplines . Even for me, an atheist, it represents an incredible resource of evidence for all sorts of things.

In terms of god, however, at best it is an argument from authority, a claim, about god's existence, at worst nothing more than a poorly justified belief.

Michael M said...

I wonder if Larry and Jerry realize that, in addition to holding a PhD in evolutionary biology, Pigliucci has a moderately active publication history in evolutionary biology primary research. While being a credentialed and published evolutionary biologist does not prevent Pigliucci from holding errouneous beliefs about the nature of science, dismissing him as a philosopher seems at best misleading, because he is well-versed in both evolutionary biology and the philosophy of science.

The Thought Criminal said...

we routinely apply the scientific way of knowing to questions about the supernatural. Does prayer work?

Passing by the question of what you mean by "prayer working"? Nevermind the far from unroblematical question of what you mean by "prayer", I will make a number of assumptions to respond

1. If you mean by this setting up a study to, say, find out if prayer is more effective in healing in a group of subjects, who are "prayed for" as compared with a control group who are "not prayed for", you've got some basic problems setting up the control group. How do you know that people in the control group aren't being prayed for by themselves or by others not involved with the study? How do you know, as Catholics believe, a saint might be praying for people in your study group because you're depriving them of an equal chance? Setting up your control poses insurmountable problems.

2. How do you know that the people doing the praying are all doing the same thing? How do you know that they are all "praying" in a way that would be efficacious? Maybe some people are better at it, as so many religious traditions belief. The assumption that a prayer is a prayer and that all "prayers" would be equally good at doing it is an insurmountable obstetrical for setting up a scientific study.

3. Skipping by the fact that different religious traditions have different ideas about what prayer is and how it is supposed to work, in order to really study prayer, you have to take seriously the proposition that someone is listening to those prayers and that is the entity effecting a possible cure. If you don't take that into account you are not really studying "prayer" as it is believed in by many people who claim that prayer is effective in some cases. That is, God gets to decide whether or not to effect a cure. And God's will isn't proposed to be limited by probabilities or natural processes. It could be that the number of people God chooses to cure is roughly equal to the number in the control group that God chooses to cure in your study. That doesn't mean that God might not choose to act differently in other circumstances. There is, also, the idea that you shall not put your God to a test. Maybe God chooses to foil your test for some reason because to teach you a lesson about setting up a lousy experimental design. It's not wise to fool around with an omnipotent being.

4. Statistical analysis and probability are designed to discern subtle patterns in the operation of the physical universe. There is no reason to expect them to be useful to discern supernatural agency.

5. Miracles of this kind are, by most definitions, rare. They are commonly considered the effect on a supernatural entity acting contrarily to the normal actions of the natural world. It's possible that this kinds of miracles are extremely rare and wouldn't show up in your study or even in very single study. If you wanted to study the effectiveness of going on the street and asking random strangers to give you ten million dollars, you might as every stranger you meet from now until you die thirty years later and in every case fail. That doesn't mean that it is impossible that if you asked a different stranger the first day that it wouldn't have worked. Failure isn't any proof that the act is impossible.

It's possible that God will answer a prayer in the expected way once every fifty-seven years. But, possibly, as my mother always says, God answers every prayer prayer but the answer is often, "no".

You either test a proposition as it is proposed or you're not studying that proposition at all.

The Thought Criminal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
steve oberski said...

This is isomorphic to arguing that if you leave milk out on your doorstep you won't piss off the little people and you won't be shanghaied under the hill to emerge 50 years later pretty much the same age.

Let's do a study on that.

But how do we know what the right type of milk is, what the approved doorstep styles are, maybe the little people only get a hankering for milk every 57 years and so on yadda yadda yadda.

What science does tell us is that to date there is not a single shred of evidence for a supernatural agency acting in any areas that have been investigated be it physics, biology, geology and so on so that we can tentatively assume with a high degree of confidence that such an entity does not exist.

The only reason that valuable resources are wasted on studies like the efficacy of prayer, voodoo, feng shui, and so on is to mitigate the harm that wackaloons like you cause by trying to inject your mythology into the public discourse.

The Thought Criminal said...

I didn't argue about milk out on my doorstep. I'm lactose intolerant.

In this we see the typical new atheist tactic of avoiding what was said by asserting it's the same as some extreme thing they can knock over. A straw man, in other words.

I was arguing about the specific problems of setting up a good experimental design to study the proposition to praying to God for healing is sometimes effective. I didn't propose that any particular outcome of that question is true, I only dealt with the difficulties of scientifically studying the question with a common form of experiment.

But you'd have to know something to know that and you don't so you can't argue with what I said.

So, tell me. They really, truly, don't teach basic logical discourse to the frosh in first semester Rhetoric anymore?

JimV said...

By empirical, I mean results obtained by observing the universe. My universe contains computations as well as goats. (Although in my case I first learned numbers by counting pebbles.) The Standard Model of Physics is a long way from logs rolling downhill, but there is a connection none the less.

As for uncertainty, there is plenty of it in mathematical research. Not every perceived pattern or conjecture turns out to be true. The first proposed proof which Andrew Wiles confidently presented for Fermat's Last Theorem was in fact not true.

There is a lot of similarity between mathematics and science in general, including the need for replication and peer review.

andyboerger said...

LM says, "In exactly the same way that science has brought us eugenics and biological warfare. A statement that you said is "obviously true."
Hardly. Philosophy, as a discipline, is not a sine qua non of any of those things.
If you are arguing that philosophy has been used to espouse ideas that led to the expression of those things, that is one thing. And it is true. But that is not the same as saying that without philosophy they could not have existed and been expressed otherwise. On the other hand, the annihilation of an entire city in a matter of seconds could NOT have come about absent science.
Further, I doubt that you have many groups that wish to spread homophobia or sexism going to philosophy departments to recruit students, offering them well paid jobs to argue on behalf of terrible views. But you WILL have someone from a weapons manufacturer telling someone who just came out of MIT with some of the best scientific training money can buy, "Most of our contracts are government related, so we can pay you thirty percent higher than most private firms. You'll be working on a team that builds delivery systems for some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." And lots of those students jump at the chance, clearly.

andyboerger said...

LM says: "Think about it for a minute, Andy. Do you honestly believe that there's no reason for scientists to be upset when they're being blamed for Hiroshima and Nagasaki and for the evils of eugenics?"

How is that even a point? If scientists wish to claim credit for the good things that science has provided mankind, they can't simply cherry pick that and throw everything else out. In a comment above, Rumracket writes, concerning philosophy, "did it cure a disease?" If that's your argument, you have to own both sides.
Or you don't. You can argue that science is nothing other than the pursuit of knowledge, and then you take no credit for medical breakthroughs and accept no blame for atom bombs. That's okay, even. But then what you CAN'T do, is be like Richard Dawkins et al, and blame religion for every bad thing anyone ever did in its name, ignore every good thing that any person has ever done, inspired by religion, all the while screeching apoplectically should anyone bring up eugenics or atom bombs. That's not fair, and it's not logical.

kevin said...

I don't think you're being properly charitable. "x has brought us y" does not typically mean that "x was necessary for y". It just means, on the least controversial level, that a practice has generated views of the following sort.

Also, I'm not arguing for a generalization -- that most philosophers have racist/sexist/bigoted views. My claim is that there are plenty of examples where philosophy has been invoked in defence of racism, sexism, homophobia and the like throughout its history. This should be largely uncontroversial.

My claim is merely an existential claim -- there have been, and currently are philosophers that use philosophy as cover for racism, sexism, homophobia or religion. Kant was notoriously racist and sexist -- just look at papers like "On The Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy". Also, looking more recently, there are many folks who use philosophy as a cover for sexist and homophobic views. All you have to do is look at the current crop of natural law theorists frequently cited by Catholics. Charming "philosophers" like Francis Beckwith, in his mess of a book "The Last Superstition" spout quite a fair bit of homophobic drivel as a consequence of natural law theory. Or William Lane Craig's defence of Tod Akin's unfortunate remarks.

To claim that philosophy has not brought us, at some times, sexist, racist, homophobic and religious views as products is hopelessly naive about the history, and current state of the discipline at large.

Martin Cothran said...


'Charming "philosophers" like Francis Beckwith, in his mess of a book "The Last Superstition" spout quite a fair bit of homophobic drivel as a consequence of natural law theory."'

You don't even have your basic facts right: "The Last Superstition" was not written by Francis Beckwith, but by Edward Feser. And Feser actually offered arguments for his position. You just use epithets like "homophobic," a cheap term of Politically Correct opprobrium.

If I join the ranks of the scientistic materialists, do I get to dispense with arguments altogether and just call people names too?

It would sure be easier than doing the hard work of actually engaging in reason, that's for sure.

Robert Byers said...

I didn't mean here important origin events are outside the scope of science.
I was saying researchers in these subjects do claim to KNOW the conclusions.
Creation week is outside the scope and the impact of the fall .
Only the remains of the universe can be investigated.
These remains , as a good option, can be mute on origins if the bible is true.
Nevertheless conclusions are made in biology and geology etc that are claimed to be on natures evidence and mans investigative abilities to discover and accurately analysis this evidence.
Thats the rub in the origin contentions.
Somebody doesn't have the evidence , or misunderstood it, or somebody misunderstands its there as claimed.
Somebody's really wrong here about the essence of evidence.
Never mind the conclusions.

andyboerger said...

Martin, you would need to read the thread I initiated above to understand where that comment comes from. It's still absurd, but it isn't absurdity dropped in by helicoptor.

Larry informs us that he used it as a reduction ad absurdum argument that, ahem, appears to have gone over my head.

Other than that, all I can say is that it's's......Larry.

Martin Cothran said...


'I don't think you're being properly charitable. "x has brought us y" does not typically mean that "x was necessary for y".'

You seem to be forgetting that you started out defending Larry's statement, "philosophy has brought us sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion."

Your response was "No challenge to that here."

But then, after agreeing with Larry in this universal claim, you go on to say that "philosophers" (not "philosophy") has brought these things about, a particular claim.

If you are merely making the particular claim, then why did you agree with Larry's universal statement?

And if you are making the particular claim--and implying that philosophers being racist etc. is somehow connected with their being philosophers and not something else (which you appear to be doing), then what is it in "philosophy" that encourages racism and these other things?

If, like Larry, you're going to make this charge, it seems to me you are obliged to at least say what it is about philosophy that lends itself to these things.

Martin Cothran said...


Yes, I see that. Missed it the first time through. I guess Kevin didn't see it either.

andyboerger said...

Kevin most certainly saw it, and participated in it. That is why he makes particular mention of how the words 'brought us' can be interpreted in more than one way. He and I argue our points from different interpretations of how Pigliucchi used the term, and I think both are valid.

Where I differ with Larry Moran, and perhaps Kevin as well to a lesser degree, is that I can't understand, and cannot accept, the knee-jerk crying of 'Foul!' any time anyone, such as Pigliucchi does in his article, makes the point that the history of science is not spotless, and that the scientific method can be, and has been, used in ways that do not benefit the greater good. Science, they argue, is exempt from criticisms of of how people choose to use it. This is especially disenginuos when it comes from 'new atheists' such as Coyne, Dawkins and Moran, who afford no such nuance when considering the track record of religion, which they invariable present as an unqualified 'bad thing'.

andyboerger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
andyboerger said...

and to add to my post above, the crying of 'Foul!' almost invariably DOES come from such 'new atheists'. I think that most intelligent people, so long as their perspective is not blinkered, either through scientific triumphalism or hatred of religion (often, a combination of both) are comfortable with the admission that science, AND religion, AND philosophy, etc. have both achievements to list with pride as well as episodes that are shameful. It's the nature of humans that this is so, and none of the forms of human inquiry listed above operate in some ivory tower above and outside of that, although some would have it so with regard to their own personal favorite. I sometimes wonder if some of the people who post here even recognize that their opinions and ideas (as well as the tone they employ in delivering them) are, charitably, somewhat removed from the mainstream.

The Thought Criminal said...

I say that philosophy has brought us sexism, racism, homophobia, and religion.

That would be unlike what the male gender of the human species in exactly what way? Or scientists?

Before getting underway,The earliest articulations of atheism on record come from philosophers.

While scientists in the 20th, 19th century and earlier were asserting that their sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. were had the status of scientific certainty there were philosophers and religious folk who were going in quite the opposite direction. I know, I've been reading and re-reading quite a few of them the past few weeks. Scientists, that is.

And look at all the good things that science has provided in weapons, weapons of mass destruction, environmental despoliation, torture, and,perhaps, most destructive of all, the undermining of the prerequisites of democracy. Only I'd be more charitable on that last one and attribute that mostly to pseudo-science and the, uh, PHILOSOPHY of materialism.

kevin said...

Congratulations on not reading more than one paragraph of my post!

kevin said...

Actually, not even that. One sentence. And you're claiming to be the rational one?

kevin said...

My bad on replacing Beckwith with Feser. I have not thought about the Last Superstition in a long time, and most of my familiarity comes from following the (aptly!) group blog What's Wrong With the World. That said, taking one minor error is extremely irrational grounds on which to dismiss my point.

To state it as clearly as possible: The Last Superstition argues for positions and views which are homophobic. That is, it argues for views which are contemptuous of LGBT individuals.

It is laughable that you bring up the fact that Feser argues for these positions as some kind of a defence against this charge. This is precisely my point! People claim that they have philosophically strong arguments for all sorts of odious views!

Homophobia is a description of various negative attitudes towards homosexuality. The fact of the matter is, philosophy has motivated, and defended attitudes which are contemptuous of homosexuality and the relationships of homosexual individuals. Whether it's a term used by people who profess to be "politically correct" is a nonsense dodge that allows you to be irrationally dismissive of my position.

Similarly, the insinuation that I, or Larry have dispensed with arguments altogether is equally asinine. I have provided an extremely basic argument, and clarified that I was intending to defend an existential generalization. Larry has pointed out that he was attempting to argue via a reductio.

Quite frankly Cothran, you're making an ass out of yourself, and you would do well to actually practice this reasoning that you profess to be engaged in.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

You may be interested in:
Interview with Laura Purdy

... the same characteristics that seem to me to distinguish my work from that of many other philosophers. One of those characteristics is my somewhat reckless willingness to let empirical facts and judgments play quite an important role in my arguments.

JimV said...

I have never studied syllogisms, yet I have successfully designed and implemented simple forms of AI. Random trials with criteria for success and failure are all that is needed. In a universe with physics such that that method could not work, evolution would be impossible, but also, I contend, our brains with their 100 billion synapses would not work either.

Fil Salustri said...

As I read it, Larry is saying that his claims apply "for all definitions of knowledge" (I put this in quotes to suggest universal quantification). In other words, I think he's suggesting that it doesn't matter what definition of knowledge is used. So I think his request in the comment above is reasonable.

Fil Salustri said...

Re Joe's examples of gaining knowledge.
It seems that there is now a definition of knowledge on the table: justified true belief. Fine.
The examples of different ways of knowing and marshmallows and all that seem to be all based on perception, which as far as I know is a necessary part of observation. So it seems to me that all those examples are based on empiricism.

Fil Salustri said...

It seems to me that both math and philosophy are grounded in the real. Math emerged from the need to count things and the benefits afforded by being able to operate on collections of things without actually having those things present. Philosophy started as the search for an explanation of reality (more broad than math). Since then both have developed branches that deal only and with entirely abstract entities.

The Thought Criminal said...

Ah, Laura Purdy, so many things that could be said. We, actually, agree on many things. Only where does she find the "empirical facts and judgements" that demonstrate that political equality, inherent rights, justice and the such are an aspect of the material universe in such a way that the typical methods of atheist debunkery won't deny them?

I'm entirely skeptical of materialism contains the ability to maintain democracy or a decent life for more than an elite. I'd need someone to tell me how materialism or "empirical" demonstration can support any of those with the requisite rigor to stand up to materialists' typical means of disposing of any idea they find inconvenient to them.

"Free thinkers". As I've noted before, I think "free thinkers" are the identifiable group of people who have been most diligent in telling me how I am to think. It is one of the more ironically named ideologies.

Mikkel Rumraket Rasmussen said...

@andyboerger, I thank you for your deep and penetrating analysis. I can totally see how my failure to live up to your standard of syntax provides a basis for thinking philosophy has given us something useful and can be used for something more than philosophizing.

By all means, if doing philosophy is giving you a fulfulling life, do it. I'm not telling people to stop philosophizing, especially not if they like it. But I'm asking what's it good for, outside of philosophy. Your answer, and Michael M's, is nothing. It is good for nothing other than your personal enjoyment for it's own sake. Thanks for making my point for me.

Joe said...

"So it seems to me that all those examples are based on empiricism."

Ultimately yes, but not always directly and prior to the Eurpean enlightenment, it wasn't so apparently so.

Deductive logic takes logical premises and follows them through to their logical result. You first need logical axioms, like identity and causation.

A is not B
A leads to B

So you can use deductive logic to discover new knowledge independently of any observation. There are many discoveries that are entirely based on mathematics and then later confirmed with observation. Thus, two different ways of knowing the same thing.

Martin Cothran said...


"Kevin most certainly saw it, and participated in it."

Okay. I get it. So he wasn't advocated what he said he was advocating and was not defending what he was defending and explicitly agreed with.

I'm just gettin' the hang of this atheist rationalism thing.

Mike Archbold said...

It sounds like you are talking about neural networks when you say "random trials of success and failure are all that is needed." That is fine so long as you are solving a problem of the sort of type that neural networks are good at. NNs do not do everything (as indeed no AI does at this point). Not sure of your following points...

I think that the blogger here is of the opinion that philosophy is a waste of time as it has not solved some of the unsolvable problems he lists. That does NOT, however, make philosophy useless. It is far from useless in AI. There simply would be no logic from which to build AI at all. No Deep Blue, no Watson, no nothing.... As far as metaphysics goes, a more sober term is ontology which gives us ideas about the structure and classification of reality. The usefulness of philosophy in AI for purposes of defining how we structure and utilize reality has long been minimized, and the result is that most AI approaches that aim for strong AI fail.

Mike Archbold (correspondence

Anonymous said...

Generally speaking, knowledge is parasitic on notions of truth, and as science is an ontologically neutral endeavour, science isn't in the business of generating true statements. So, under most models of knowledge, science doesn't generate knowledge. Accordingly, Moran needs to make clear what model of knowledge he's appealling to, such that it is a model which is independent of truth.

kevin said...

It's funny how you omit the words that follow that sentence Cothran. I'll copy them out for you:

"That is why he makes particular mention of how the words 'brought us' can be interpreted in more than one way."

In any case, I've been about as clear as humanly possible as to what I was committed to; having repeated my claim that I wasn't taking the statement as a universal at least 3 times now (1 2 and 3)

Seems like you're quite content to keep making an ass out of yourself rather than engage in the content of my posts. Which is fine by me. Best way to show everyone how rational you are is to just troll, right Cothran?

Anonymous said...

"It has no practical application outside of the most mundane and trivial, almost intuitively obvious "truths". I think, therefore I am. Well doh!. Genious. Where has that got us? Did it cure a disease? Did it find my carkeys? "

Practicality of applications is subjective, and regardless, since when does knowledge and philosophy have to produce anything applicable? If you somehow "knew" the meaning of life, or an answer to some ancient question, and you didn't use it for something practical, would this imply that what you possess isn't knowledge? I see that there is merit in trying to look for practical applications to philosophy, but since when is philosophy about practical applications? It's about ontology, metaphysics, epistemology, and solving/analyzing various fundamental problems/issues. Sometimes it's about discovering that there is no answer to the question asked, which results in the need to reformulate a new question. Even these moments of realizing that one is asking the wrong question (or an unanswerable one), in my opinion, are those that involve obtaining knowledge.

Curious Wavefunction said...

Democritus is credited as being the first one (or at least the most prominent one) to hypothesize about the existence of atoms. Democritus was a scientist as well as a philosopher. He was a scientist because he was making an empirically testable hypothesis about the composition of matter. He was a philosopher because there was much speculation involved in his hypothesis. That's why I think the boundary between science and philosophy is often imposed and artificial. For standards you will have to talk to a good philosopher :)

Martin Cothran said...


I think you should read my posts a little more carefully. I took full account of your stated position, and, in fact, pointed out the problem with it when I said, "You clearly want to have your cake and eat it to: you say, on the one hand, that there is no such necessary connection, but they you say philosophy has actually encouraged these views."

You said, "It's a legit complaint to say that philosophy, qua discipline, has inculcated and allowed for the defence of reprehensible attitudes on these matters."

But you never answered my question about what the role of philosophy per se is in things you list.

Will I ever see an answer?

mikmik said...

Morality, justice, proposing and illuminating new areas of exploration that haven't been considered before. Science does not provide these answers, and philosophy defines the boundaries these questions apply to.
There is tons of 'knowledge' that philosophizing produces, and that is 'what is important to look for' and 'what is morality and where does it come from, along with our ideas of justice, and social workings.
That's just off the top of my head. Philosophy has also taught me a new, more expansive way to understand exactly what knowledge is, and that is knowledge.
Give me a break.

mikmik said...

does science give the answers to 'what is knowledge' or the definition of it. How do we perceive the world. Is objective knowledge possible?
At the very least, philosophy discovers new ways and methods and considerations in asking questions, and what the questions and answers entail - what are the boundaries, biases, and considerations that are important in defining these things. If that isn't knowledge, then I don't know what is.
Knowledge is acquiring a new way of understanding things, and what critical thinking is by using empiricism AND logic.

I am a scientist, and I am shocked by the level of prejudice and narrowness that is displayed here, and elsewhere among scientists. Insulting and belittling philosophy and claiming it isn't relevant. You are hypocrites if you demand an explanation, or definition, of what knowledge is, yet you cannot provide an answer to this yourselves. Put up, or shut up.
Go right ahead and define what knowledge is by using empiricism, or without philosophic understanding of what we consider knowledge, or theories of knowledge.
Massimo nails it with scientism, and it's offshoot, naivety of the topics you proclaim to define yet cannot, and arrogance in writing off areas, like philosophy, as irrelevant and mere hobbies or pleasant diversions.

This thinking is starting to make me sick, it is tiring and provincial.
Science does not tell you how to win arguments, That's for sure. What does, huh? Is that covered in your precious and pretentious definition of knowledge?

mikmik said...

Good philosophers are relevant, logical, and produce new and interesting areas of exploration for understanding and defining the boundaries of what can be known.
I find it curious, Laurence, that you demand answers that display your ignorance of a topic, an explanation for something, that you feel perfectly happy in pointing out it's shortcomings. How can you pretend lack of knowledge of the thing you criticize?
You think philosophy is lame. I think your evaluations and 'insights' are lame.
Really, you should learn what logic is, and what knowledge is, and where do you think you can learn these?

mikmik said...

Hey Thought Criminal. What they teach to the Rhetoric 101es is SCHOPENHAUER'S 38 STRATAGEMS, OR 38 WAYS TO WIN AN ARGUMENT.
Have a look, and then you will realize what we are up against.

mikmik said...

Forgot this -

andyboerger said...

mikmik, I like what you write, and agree completely. Science is a methodology that humans have refined over time in order to arrive at answers at things we have questions to. It is iterative, and it most certainly does not operate in a vacuum. The most obvious example of this is technology, and how the two work together. For example, science was very much involved in the invention of the telescope and the microscope, and these two inventions have very much led to greater scientific understandings.
Science tends to operate in a right vs wrong framework that arrives at answers by testing, scrutinizing, etc. Scientists are mostly sensible people who realize that this is not the way to live all aspects of life, because it can lead one to make absolutist and judgmental claims, such as:
religion poisons everything
science is the only successful way of knowing that has ever been invented
in case our technology ever ends up destroying our world, we should be making plans to develop new technologies that enable us to live on other worlds, etc.
"Scientistic" people are people who do not really think outside the boundaries of science, or even believe there is value in doing so. They do not see the obvious absurdity in any of the three sentences above.
Larry is scientistic. It is why someone like you, and I, find it very difficult to communicate with him. I appreciate your efforts to do so, nonetheless.

Larry Moran said...

does science give the answers to 'what is knowledge' or the definition of it.

No. I'm not even sure there is a definitive answer that will satisfy everyone. That's why I asked the question in the title of this post.

However, I do think there are some things that definitely qualify as knowledge. Things like the fact that life on Earth evolved and the universe was created in a Big Bang.

Knowledge is acquiring a new way of understanding things ...

Is that the best you can do?

You are hypocrites if you demand an explanation, or definition, of what knowledge is, yet you cannot provide an answer to this yourselves. Put up, or shut up.

Oh dear. You claim to be a scientist yet you disparage question-asking. That's bizarre ... and stupid.

The Thought Criminal said...

I've come to the conclusion that one thing philosophy can, sometimes, do for you is help you know when you're making a bad argument or there's something wrong with your idea. It produces that knowledge. Which is hardly negligible since science relies on that knowledge and goes seriously off when it's not known or ignored. Maybe there's a good reason they should have kept the name "natural philosophy" instead of "science".

Schenck said...

M Cothran seems to have supplied precisely what Dr. Moran is asking for, in terms of ways of knowing that non-science has provided:
"The Law of Identity, the Law of Excluded Middle, the Law of Non-Contradiction, the existence and distinction between univocal, equivocal, and analogous terms, the distinction between contradictory, contrary, subcontrary and subalternate statements, and the rules for logical validity"

Of course, this turns on whether or not you consider logic to Philosophy (which I think most would) or a so-scientific-like-as-to-basically-be-science way of thinking. I suppose mathematics falls into the same category.

This actually, I think, begs the question, IF we identified some 'way of knowing' that works, wouldn't we just consider it to be basically science anyway?

Martin Cothran said...


That would be rather ironic, since, if you did, Larry's position on what science is and isn't would basically become unfalsifiable.

Anonymous said...

Good luck learning coming up with a scientific test to establish an ethical theory...

And yes lots of progress has been made in that field and many of the others, that you don't know of it doesn't mean it's not there. This comes off sounding as ignorant as someone saying "science-schmience, one day coffee's good for you the next it's bad, they never learn anything", such a statement only decries their lack of knowledge in the field. You come off sounding like a freshman who's only taken an introduction course, thinking that's all of it.

I suspect also the use of "supernatural" there has a more restricted meaning than usual... one refined to radical skepticism most likely. If one can make observations on a phenomena then by definition it would be in the realm of natural. Indeed we see so many psuedo-scientists try to come up with material explanations for ESP and the like of all you mentioned above, therein once explained, or attempted to be explained in those terms, it would no longer be technically "supernatural".

svenchen said...

Philosophy makes no progress whatsoever, just look at this crap:# The Enlightenment
# Socrates - Critical reasoning
# Aristotle - Formal logic
# William of Ockham - Ockham's razor
# Adam Smith - Modern economics
# Machiavelli - Political philosophy
# Francis Bacon - Scientific method
# David Hume - Empiricism
# Voltaire - Civil liberties, freedom of religion
# Montesquieu - Separation of powers
# John Locke - Liberalism, natural rights
# Thomas Hobbes - Social contract
# René Descartes - Analytic geometry
# Jeremy Bentham - Utilitarianism
# Karl Popper - Empirical falsification
# Godel, Frege, Boolos, Foundations computing theory
# Singer - Animal rights movement
# Rawls - Just democracies

Anonymous said...

The purely discursive methodology of philosophy (and its equivalents in literary, social or political theory) renders its discourse semantically meaningless. Imagine a tribe that does nothing with its 'language' but 'talk' amongst themselves. How would we know the tribal 'language' is meaningful (and not some form of music, for example)? Philosophers only use language to 'talk' amongst themselves. How can they demonstrate semantic consistency with the natural languages they claim to be using (like English or German)? If anyone is interested, I address these questions in my article 'Philosophy as a Private Language' ( and subsequent book, 'Why Philosophy Fails' ( Both may be read online.