Logic and philosophy

The Rev. Dr Stephen Ames completes the series on genes as the language of God:

Our theme is asking if genetics is the language of God. John Wilkins has discussed in what sense can we say that ‘genetics’ is a ‘language’. His main point is that it is an analogy but one that is not illuminating. It evokes the idea of intelligible patterns in the structure of genes and the way they interact with the organism and environment to eventually bring living things into existence. A drawback for John is that it gives too much away to proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). I am not a proponent of ID.

Recall how talk about this discussion of the idea of genes as the language of God came about. On 26 June 2000 at the White House Bill Clinton as the President of the United States pronounced the first survey of the human genome 90 per cent complete. ‘Today,’ said Clinton, ‘we are learning the language in which God created life.’ Standing beside him was Francis Collins the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in America and headed an international race against time and commercial interests to sequence the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome.

The question whether genetics is the language of God comes through the religious belief that God is the creator of the universe, who sustains the universe in existence. Evolutionary science provides our best scientific account of how live has evolved, which includes the many new forms of life that have thereby come into existence.

For those who believe the universe is created by God, this is the idea that God creates ex nihilo – not from any previously existing ‘stuff’ – and sustains it in existence. Evolution and particularly genetics is part of how life in all its forms has come into existence. From a theological standpoint this is part of how God has created the life producing universe in which we live. Hence Clinton’s words and Collin’s book The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, (New York, Free Press, 2006).

This already provokes many questions. For example, aren’t religion and science in fundamental conflict? See the trials of Galileo – “By stifling the truth that was there for all to see, the Church destroyed its credibility with science.” [David Griffith after playing the lead role in Brecht’s play Life of Galileo in 1994.] Secondly, why supposedly, would God use evolution to bring life into existence? Doesn’t the book of Genesis present God speaking ‘let there be light’ it is was so, and so on for the sun and moon and plants and animals. God speaks and it happens. Another question is, ‘if God created everything, what created God?’ I will say a little about those questions later. For the moment let’s keep with our theme.

Galileo has something relevant to say. In 1615 he was asked by the Grand Duchess Christina to explain how to reconcile his telescopic observations and Copernicus’ sun-centred view of the universe with the Bible’s teaching that the sun, moon moved around the earth. Galileo answered in terms of God being the author of ‘Two Books’: the book of Scripture written in human language, and the book of nature, which God created, written in the language of mathematics and geometry. Because God is the author of both Books they cannot be in fundamental contradiction, when both are read correctly. (Of course how to apply Galileo’s principle will take us into another set of questions.)

Following Galileo’s view, not just genetics but the whole universe (multiverse), with its many levels and forms of intelligibility, including mathematics, may also be thought of as the many ‘languages’ of God. Here ‘language’ is used to highlight an analogy between human language and other different forms of intelligibility needed to understand the natural universe.

A Christian theologian, Maximus the Confessor (b. 580CE), understood the universe to be created through the divine Logos (Word) and as a result all creatures are many different logoi (words). Maximus would probably enjoy an idea shared by Prof. Paul Davies’ and philosopher of science Susan Haack; that scientific theories are analogous to a vast crossword puzzle with the ‘words’ being different theories interlinking, and the ‘clues’ being the empirical data of sciences.

One of John’s concerns is that speaking about genetics as the ‘language of God’ gives aid to the proponents of ID as they attempt to argue to God from the search for intelligent causes operating in nature. I am not a proponent of ID because I think it is a version of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. By contrast it is quite possible to talk about the ‘fine tuning’ of the physical constants and laws of physics for the production of carbon based life, without presupposing or entailing a ‘Fine Tuner’.

Galileo is not doing this. He starts from the view that natural universe is like a book written by God (who created the universe), who as its ‘author’ has written it in the language of mathematics. This is a theology of nature. It seeks to interpret nature and mathematics in the light of a prior belief in God. It is not a natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God from using ordinary human reasoning about ordinary processes including all the natural processes that the natural sciences describe. This is what the ID movement is attempting to do. I think there are better alternatives. In any case, it is quite different from Galileo.

The idea of the ‘language of God’ or the ‘word of God’ meaning the language or word spoken by God is found in different religious traditions. For example for Hinduism Sanscrit is the language of the divine realm. In Islam Arabic is the language God chose to communicate the words of the Qur’an to the Prophet. In Judaism G-D gives speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush giving the divine name. Christianity believes that God has spoken in many different ways but now has spoken to us through his Son.

I have left some questions to be answered now. Let’s start with a very common question: if God created everything what created God? This is asked by Prof Dawkins and by Peter Adam and by students I meet. The answer is that if God created everything then any supposed ‘contender’ for the job of creating God has already been created by God. The atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss made this point in his book A Universe from Nothing, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York, Free Press, 2012,p.173) made the point that if God is the cause of all causes, then you can’t ask what created God. People offer strong reasons for not accepting the idea of God – lack of evidence, the problem of natural evil, irrelevance, among others. But asking what created God is not a reason for rejecting the idea of God.

A second question: Isn’t there a ‘warfare’ or an inherent conflict between science and religion? This is known as the ‘conflict thesis’. It goes back to John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict of Science and Religion (1875) and Andrew D. White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Historians of science since the 1960s have forced a profound rethink of this ‘conflict thesis’. Historical scholarship shows that deep theological commitments and motives underpinned the work of figures like Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Boyle who were the leading lights of the rise of early modern Science in Europe (16th–17th Century).

This brings us back to the Galileo Affair. It is very complex event set in the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church. When the Affair is used to promote the ‘conflict thesis’ a key point is the claim that Galileo showed us the truth about the solar system but the Church stifled this truth and destroyed its credibility with science. Galileo made stunning telescopic observations which certainly contradicted the old earth centred model of the heavens, with the sun and moon and planets circling the earth. However this didn’t prove the sun centred view of Copernicus. This is because all of Galileo’s telescopic observations could be explained by the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In his model the sun circled the earth while all the planets circled the sun. The Jesuit astronomers of the day reproduced all of Galileo’s observations but espoused Tycho’s model. Galileo also supported his view with an explanation of the tides, which predicted a 24 hour cycle, not the observed 12 hour cycle. Galileo was alerted to this discrepancy but thought it could be explained by the odd shapes and varying depths of the ocean floor. The Galileo Affair does not support the ‘conflict thesis’.

Another question was why would God create a universe for some purpose and then use evolution to bring life into existence? For a fuller answer see my paper ‘Why Would God Use Evolution?’ in, J. Arnould OP, ed., Darwin and Evolution Interfaith Perspectives, (Adelaide, ATF Press, 2010), 105–128. Here are the ‘bare bones’. For some readers it may be the first time you have encountered theological reasoning. Here I am starting with a traditional idea of God that God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, who freely creates the universe ex nihilo and sustains it in existence. (This will be a theology of nature not a natural theology.) I am working towards understanding what kind of universe we might expect such a God to create (should such a God exist), by reasoning largely from the idea of God.

I draw on the work of a theological ‘giant’ Thomas Aquinas from the 13th century (see his Summa Theologiae 1a,103.6; 1a, 105.5). Aquinas asked whether God would create a universe in which things had their own real powers or would God be the only power in the world? Would it be the fire that warmed you or God in the fire that warmed you? Aquinas’ view was that God is the primary cause, creating from nothing and (continually) sustaining in existence all the secondary causes we see operating in the world. For Aquinas, God is that than which there is none greater. Therefore we should prefer to say that God creates things, with real causal powers, rather than with no real powers. This is because it is a greater exercise of power, which creates things that are not only good in themselves but the cause of good in others.

For Aquinas, God creates things in such a way that things have the dignity of also being causes, rather than, so I would add, the indignity of also not being causes. In God’s creation there are no ‘wall flowers’ – everything has a part, everything is a ‘player’.

On similar reasoning I should say that God maximises these features of creation, rather than minimises them. I should therefore prefer to say that this God creates a life producing universe, which is better than only producing an inert universe, or a merely mechanically interactive universe. Therefore we should expect that things make other things and overall creation makes itself as much as possible as a life producing universe. Of course this is easily extended to a life producing universe that produces intelligent life. This understanding of God claims to express at least one thing that is of value to God as creator: creatures as co-creators and that God maximises the realisation of that value in a created universe.

Now let’s pause here and ask what this theoretical idea of the God created universe might look like in fact. Can theology take us that far? The answer is ‘no’. Here is why. On the idea of God we are working with, God freely creates the universe ex nihilo. Because it is freely created we cannot derive in detail what the creation will look like from the idea of God. We should expect it to be an intelligible universe and open to rational explanations because God is all knowing and all powerful. Because the universe is created ex nihilo it means there was no prior ‘stuff’ that God used, so we can’t figure out from the ‘stuff’ what the universe might look like since there was no ‘stuff’. How could we find out what this God created universe might look like in fact? We would have to go and look, use all our senses to gather data and use our reason to understand it in different ways.

If you think that our universe is created by such a God then this would be the way to find out what kind of universe it is. This could take at least three quite different forms. One is scientific, another is theological and the other poetic. For example Charles Darwin, naturalist extraordinaire, did go and look and after gathering lots of data and lots of hard thinking came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the evolution of life by natural selection. He showed we are living in life producing universe. Secondly, If we used the ideas drawn from Aquinas then we could say that God uses evolution because what is of value to God is creatures as co-creators, all the way from the simplest to the most complex creatures. Perhaps one or more of the exoplanets astronomers are finding will have the ‘signature’ of life. Thirdly, an example of a poet extraordinaire is Gerard Manley Hopkins (see for example his poems, God’s Grandeur, and, The Windhover).

Finally, we come back to the question about what the Bible says on God creating the world. Everyone quickly turns to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. (A helpful book is S. C. Barton, and D. Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009). The above discussion seems very different. There are three brief points to make.

Firstly, it is a question of how to understand the text. St. Augustine (354–450CE) in his On The Literal Meaning of Genesis interpreted Genesis as saying the earth received the causal power to bring forth plants and trees, not that plants and trees were specially created. The above account expands this idea.

Secondly, there are many other accounts of creation in the Bible. For example John’s Gospel (1:1–4) speaks about the divine Word through whom all things were created (this was mentioned above in the work of Maximus the Confessor.) The above discussion fits well within that account of creation.

Thirdly, Galileo’s ‘Two Books’ principle says that if we are confident of our scientific knowledge of some part of God’s creation we ought to allow that knowledge to inform biblical passages that are speaking about the same part of creation. Galileo’s principle calls all who accept it to seek the theological message that God give us through the biblical passage.

 

 

This will be my final post in this series. In the next, Stephen will respond, giving a theological account of the importance of language as a literal, not metaphorical, way of understanding the world for a theist.

For those who do believe in God, the issue is: Does God speak a language of natural causes? That is, if God creates things (depending upon the religion, either out of nothing or out of prior stuff), does he use a language of nature to do it? In Genesis 1, God says “Let there be..” and the heavens and the waters of the deep are separated, and many theologians have understood this to mean that God makes things into an order by simple commands. That is, there is a divine language.

But the metaphor of a language of physics (natural law) or a language of biology (DNA) suggests something different from creation. It suggests that in order to get a certain outcome in physics or biology, God must use the laws of physics or biology. This might be theologically problematic. How you sort that out as a believer is going to depend upon one of several options (some of which are considered heresies in orthodox Christian circles).

The view that God must use natural law assumes that God cannot intervene in natural processes, and this is widely rejected by theists. But there is another version: that God uses natural law but intervenes (as it were, in the boundary conditions) to give the right conditions for his desired outcomes. This was a view used by Darwin’s correspondent and defender, Asa Gray, who said that God channels variations on which natural selection acts, to be useful (that is, to serve up the mutations that selection needs to evolve a population in the “right” way). Let’s call this Interventionism.

Another view, is that every event that happens, from the decay of a single atom to global warming, occurs because God directly makes it happen. Laws and regularities in the natural world are just God being consistent. This is called Occasionalism. If one believes, as most theists do, that God causes some things to happen (either as miracles or as natural processes he wants to occur), then there is a spectrum from full-blown occasionalism to infrequent interventionism. Only if you think God created the laws of physics and thereafter never intervenes (perhaps because he has made the universe so that it must end up serving his Plan, which raises hairy questions about determinism), do you think that the “language” of the world must be some causal process like physics, or more locally, genetics.

So I would suggest that the theological issues are more complex than the metaphor of God using a language suggests. This is the latest version of God as a geometer/mathematician (a view found throughout the scientific era: e.g., Galileo, Descartes, Blake) using mathematics as his language of creation. Stephen will have something to say about this in the next, and final, post.

Genes are more commonly regarded as information than as a language, and in fact the informational metaphor underpins the language metaphor. In this post I will consider how genes came to be called information (that is, how the Dawkins view of genes as computer messages came to the fore), and what it can and cannot mean.

In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins compared DNA to computer programs (instructions for building organisms):

It is raining DNA outside. … [downy seeds from willow trees] The cotton wool is mostly made of cellulose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA, the genetic information. The DNA content must be a small proportion of the total, so why did I say that it was raining DNA rather than cellulose? The answer is that it is the DNA that matters… whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees… It is raining instructions out there, it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. [Chapter 5, p 111]

Floppy disks have been superseded by USB thumb drives, but the point is clear enough – DNA is information, not just a molecule. It’s not a metaphor.

However, many have tried to make this “plain truth” work, and failed. There are many reasons for this, but first let us look into the history of the idea that DNA is information.

As I noted in the first post of this series, the notion that inheritance is about information long precedes the discovery of DNA, let alone its structure and role in inheritance. But the idea that DNA is information goes back to the two discoverers of how DNA was structured, Francis Crick and James Watson. At first, back in 1952, the structure did not give the way DNA made proteins; it took some time to figure this out. In 1958, Crick published what came to be known as the “Central Dogma” of genetics:

Central Dogma Crick 1970 combined

[From Sandwalk’s excellent essay on the Central Dogma.] On the left Crick diagrammed all the possible ways sequence information could be passed on between DNA, RNA and proteins. DNA could copy itself, pass sequential information to RNA molecules or to proteins or all three; and the same was true for the other two types of molecules. In fact, Crick said, it only is passed on according to the right hand graph. Later, we discovered that some RNA sequences can be reverse transcribed into DNA, especially through the medium of what are now called retroviruses. Crick gave the following definition of the Central Dogma:

… once (sequential) information has passed into protein it cannot get out again.

It is very important to note that the “information” here is the linear sequence of the base pairs matching up to a linear sequence, first of RNA (tRNA), and then later of the proteins (through intermediary molecules of mRNA). Nothing beyond this is implied by the Central Dogma, and we can usefully call this “Crick information”, as Griffiths and Stotz do in their book. The passing of sequential or Crick information is thus a kind of templating from a sequence in the DNA to the [often edited] sequence in the RNA to the finished protein. It is not as “instructions” that Crick posited information. You lose nothing if you drop the word “information” in favour of “structure”, and I will argue there are good reasons for this.

When Crick was writing, information was all the rage. In 1948, the so-called Communications Theory of Information, made mathematical by Claude Shannon at IBM, was published, and many scientists thought this was a fruitful way to approach scientific problems. Inheritance seemed like a transmission of information, and so it was natural that Shannon’s scheme would be brought to bear. However, it was ultimately rather fruitless.

Another information idea, coincidentally published the next year by Norbert Wiener, is called Cybernetics. Here the information is about control of one thing by another, through signals. Cybernetic ideas about genes have been more fruitful, but in the end they turn out to be just analogies that are not terribly deep (in my opinion).

The code aspect of genes: what it is and isn’t

Code language is widely used when talking about how DNA causes proteins. Terms like editing, reading, transcribing, and expressing are all used in the technical literature. DNA is “expressed”, and “edited”; a gene is regarded as an “open reading frame”; DNA is “copied” or “replicated”. Such terms point up the leading property of DNA – it is both long lasting and its structure can be duplicated, not unlike a document. For this reason, some scientists refer to genetics as a “codical domain”.

But what is happening physically is that DNA molecules are split into two strands by helicases, and then either transcribed by polymerases, and RNA made from it, or that new DNA is made. The DNA and the RNA are just as physical as the proteins they produce. As Weiner noted in his book:

Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day. [p132]

Following Weiner here, DNA is a physical structure, and it is not “information” in the sense used by communications or computation theories. That sort of information is an abstract entity, a property of mathematics, not physics. Genes are not that kind of information. A mathematical model of genetics, especially population genetics which describes how genes change in populations, contains information about genes, but that’s a different kind of information too; it isn’t what those who say genes are information mean by it.

So the Crick information model – that genes are templates for the structure of RNA and through them of proteins – seems to be the only meaningful sense in which one can say genes are information.

Other types of information in genes

There are some other senses in which genes are supposed to have an informational aspect. They are the program sense, and the game theory sense.

Program/recipe: genetic control versus genetic involvement

The program or receipt metaphor has been used by many evolutionary biologists, including Ernst Mayr and Richard Dawkins. It is used in Dawkins’ quote above: genes are instructions. There can be no doubt that genes are involved, either directly or indirectly (say, by building molecules that have functions) in the development of living things. They are “first among equals”. But how can they be “instructions”?

Recall the mnemonic

G & E -> O

from the last post. In order for genes to be instructions, there would need to be a “computer” to “run” the instructions (or in the case of a recipe metaphor, a cook and kitchen to make the recipe). What could do this for genes? It would need to be not only the cellular machinery that expresses genes – ribosomes and so forth – but also the organism itself, which turns on and turns off genes, and the environment that provides the source material. So the mnemonic would have to become

G & O[<tE -> O[t]

or, the genes G, together with the state of the organism before now O[<t], together with the environment E, gives the organism now O[t]. While this is true enough, the metaphor no longer seems to hold up. Why not just say that genes and organisms and the environment gives the later organism? There is no temptation to talk about some abstract program, and ascribe to genomes powers they do not have.

Incidentally, while the Human Genome Project delivered the entire genome in 2000 (it’s been revised a bit since), we have yet to discover what sorts of effects most of the expressed genes actually have, and it will probably be another century before we finish that. And of course most of the genome is unused junk.

Game theory: genes as bookkeepers

There is one final metaphor that is possibly more than a metaphor that we should look at. It is yet another view that is found in Richard Dawkins’ work: genes are strategies in a game. Here the metaphor is backed up by extensive mathematics: a field known as “game theory”, developed to deal with Cold War threats and counter threats, turns out to be very useful to model how genetics changes in certain conditions (when the fitness of genes and their propensity to work together to against each other within a single population are known).

This was the basic underlying metaphor of The Selfish Gene: genes have interests, and behave (evolutionarily) like self-interested players of a game known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma. The details are not important here.

Game theory treats genes as “players” or agents. But genes have no strategies themselves; it is just that the mathematics of games can transfer to genetics. This often happens, that mathematics developed for one field get used in other fields. It doesn’t mean that the properties of that first field (where game players are rational and selfish) apply to the new field, only that the maths applies.

In fact, the game theory view has been called by Stephen J. Gould a “bookkeeping” view of evolution; you track the “wins” and “losses” of a given gene in a mathematical scorecard. In other words, selfish genes exist only in how you record the outcomes of the evolving population. It’s useful, but it doesn’t mean genes actually are strategies, nor that they have them.

Next I will discuss why genes are not a language.

Further information:

Molecular Biology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Biological information (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

A video on epigenetics:

I have been mulling over the philosophical works that were of most influence upon me when I was developing into the warped and twisted thing I am now. Add your own in the comments.:

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man. This book got me interested in philosophy and social issues. I was 16 when I read it.

David Oldroyd, Arch of Knowledge. This book gave me a historical approach to the philosophy of science that has never left me. Although badly typeset, it is rich with information and context of scientific philosophy. I wish it were reissued, properly set.

Antony Flew, An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Argument from Plato to Popper. This book grounded me in the traditions of western philosophy in a way nothing else did. Flew attends to the core arguments in their own words. This is a book to buy and reread, and I have gone through several copies giving them away to students and interested lay folk.

Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding. This was the first evolutionary epistemology I ever read, and to my mind Toulmin got most things pretty well right. It took me thirty years to find a copy of my own.

David Hull, Science as a Process. I did my masters on this book, and David became a mentor. I still think his conceptual inclusive fitness account of science is correct, although I now do not think he entirely got the history of systematics all that right.

In addition to these are the usual canon fodder: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicophilosophicus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty; Locke’s Essay; Hume (anything of Hume, really, but especially the Treatise); and a few deviants, like F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I read it as a lad of 14. I now disagree with almost everything it in apart from the joy of riding motorcycles).

What philosophical books warped you?

Comic2 724

Something that bugs the hell out of me, literally, is the misuse of English. Of course, I was trained as a subeditor in the days when such things mattered even to journalists, so I am a fossilised dinosaur in this respect. I even try to use adverbs correctly. One thing that literally makes my head explode, is the misuse by academics of the phrase “begs the question” to mean “raises a question”.

“Begging the question” is a colloquial translation of the Latin phrase petitio principii, which means to petition the premise of an argument in your conclusion. Whately defines it thus: [it] “takes place when one of the Premisses (whether true or false) is either plainly equivalent to the conclusion, or depends upon that for its own reception.” This is also called “circular reasoning” or “arguing in a vicious circle”.

However, even among the cognoscenti, it has come to mean “raises a question in a context”. For example, I hear commentators say that a particular fact “begs the question why”… and I give an involuntary shudder every time.

Linguistic usage, however, trumps rules of style. Unfortunately, how people use a language determines the meaning of a term or phrase, and if all but a few use it this way, then it has come to mean that. During the transition from the older use to the newer, curmudgeons like me can assert that the new use is an error, but once the tide has washed in, too late. Descriptivism overrules prescriptivism.

But now we need a phrase for the older meaning. It is a basic logical error, and “vicious circle” doesn’t quite capture the mistake. I would suggest that a lot of the work of the older phrase was done by the term “beg”, and that is what changed its overall connotations, leading to the drift in meaning of the phrase. So what is it to “beg” a question? It is to help yourself to something that is not earned (the premise in question). How about we go a little more forcefully, and call it “stealing” the question (like stealing a base in American baseball)? You don’t get there by hitting a ball but by sneaky activity in the background.

Henceforth, all you cognoscenti must call this “stealing the question”, and allow all those logical illiterates to continue to call raising a question “begging the question”. And we purists will continue to vomit a little each time.

Armstrong

I received this message via the Australasian Association of Philosophy:

The philosophical community will be saddened to learn that David Malet Armstrong died on the 13th of May after a long illness: two months shy of his 88th birthday. DMA or Armo, as he was affectionately known, is the most important philosopher that Australia has produced. Such has been his impact that he not only made major contributions to the philosophy of mind, epistemology and metaphysics, he also played a significant role in laying out the terrain and setting the agenda in those fields. As one reviewer put it when summing up Armstrong’s book What is a Law of Nature?, ‘all future work … starts here’.

The Australasian Association of Philosophy expresses its sadness at David Armstrong’s death, and offers its condolences to his wife Jenny and her children and his sister Suzanne.

The AAP, has placed a section on its website:
http://www.aap.org.au/blog?mode=PostView&bmi=1553520,
where people are welcome to visit and add their recollections of David.

Please let people know about the page.

I did not know him well, but I did meet him a few times…

NotDead

Coming soon as a movie to a philosophy department near you.

Lately there has been a slew of physicists making claims like this:

Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. [Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design 2011, p5]

My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning? [Neil deGrasse Tyson]

… physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can’t spell the word “philosophy,” aren’t justified in talking about these things, or haven’t thought deeply about them. … Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t. [Lawrence Krauss]

Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers. This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find. [Steve Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory, p167]

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there’s no excuse for it! In the same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can’t tell which is right.” [Richard P. Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p195]

Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. [Ascribed to Feynman, but probably from Weinberg]

What is all this? Physicists used to not only value philosophy but do it. Einstein is a case in point; his contributions to his Schillp volume in Library of Living Philosophers are straight-out philosophical discussions of his theories and their implication for epistemology. Heisenberg is another example. Schrödinger another. Sometime after the second world war, however, physicists shifted from philosophical reflections about physics to cant against philosophy.

We might see this as a shift in education. Physicists after the nuclear and quantum age had to specialise much earlier and do more math than before. The liberal education of older physicists was trimmed down so that philosophy had almost no place in their training.

Or we might see it as a case of the industrialisation of physics. As “big science” took root, physics became more technological and high cost, and the practical exigencies of running accelerators and colliders became important. Industrial activities are rarely reflective.

Or we might see it as the hegemony of American pragmatism, eschewing theoretical problems in favour of just getting the job done.

But I think that the main reason is what we might think of as disciplinary over-reach. The deeper physics gets to fundamental realities, the less inclined physicists are to think that anything is beyond their reach. Philosophical problems abound in physics, of course. Krauss’ claim that “something comes from nothing” turns out to be a standard reductionist account: so-called particles are nothing but quantum fields and energy. The causes of quantum fields are not addressed, so something still has to be (philosophically) accounted for. Likewise the often made claim that philosophy makes no progress is simply the result of not thinking that progress is anything but physics. Debates over metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics have definitely made progress. What the physicists want, however, are fixed and final answers. And the irony here is that they don’t seem to get there either. While we are sure enough about some (not all) of the properties of fundamental particles and fields, there are an indefinitely large number of possible theories about them (10500, at last count, and rising). What was that about progress, again?

Disciplines in academe tend to compete for a decreasing amount of funding and resources, both in terms of money and students, and physics is very big business. The notion that people might do work that is relevant to what they do who are not physicists is seriously objectionable to some physicists. An old joke (due to Asimov, I think) is that while physicists need instruments, mathematicians only need pencils, paper and erasers, and the philosophers don’t even need erasers. But this is a real caricature of philosophy. Three days ago, I attended a talk by a philosopher who started out by saying that he had been wrong on a philosophical claim and was now recanting, and this is not uncommon. Philosophy’s standards of error, however, are conceptual, not empirical (although even philosophers make empirical claims from time to time), and the criteria for error correction have to do with such things as conceptual coherence, consistency with premises (which might in fact be empirical or scientific), and the plausibility of the conclusion.

As to the quite silly claim by Hawking and Mlodinow that philosophy – especially of science and most especially of physics – hasn’t kept up with recent developments, take a browse through journals like Philosophy of Science, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Erkenntnis or Studies in History and Philosophy of Science and tell me that philosophy is not keeping up (and, what is more, relating it to history of these disciplines, something the physicists do not do very well themselves often). Yes, there is also a lot of philosophy in these journals – they are after all philosophical journals – but often the physics being discussed is very up to date, much more so than the physicists’ grasp of philosophy.

That being said, there are two reasons why physicists might dislike philosophy.

One is that for a very long time, up until the late 1960s, philosophers of science attempted not only to analyse the ways science came to know the world, and to discuss the implications of science, but to establish scientific method. Although some of these philosophers were themselves very au fait with modern science, mostly physics, they were rarely active physicists, and some of their strictures, in particular those of Karl Popper, were faintly absurd. Popper denied that science could use induction, for example, and that discovery was a matter of chance or taste or inspiration. This of course is quite contrary to the experience of many scientists who do their discovery the old fashioned way, by gathering data and generalising from that.

When some philosophers started to say things like “Science is as valid as creationism” (as Feyerabend did), this understandably got up scientists’ noses, although this particular comment occurred in a philosophical debate about authority. But in the 1970s, the so-called postmodernists became prominent, and eventually predominant, and some postmodernists took Kant too far and asserted that we create our own worlds.Scientists, who deal with a recalcitrant world (as Huxley said, nature whispers ‘yes’ but shouts ‘No!’), found this ridiculous.

But it isn’t even the postmodern challenge that soured philosophy for scientists. It is, instead, the worst cases of that kind of philosophy. The antiscience movement took root and began to attack the very idea of science for a variety of good and bad reasons. Some, such as Sokal and Bricmont, attacked it as “Fashionable Nonsense”. Of course, every discipline has good and bad examples, and one can get a totally skewed view of philosophy if you rely upon popularisations or self-appointed media stars. Let me tell you, philosophy looks very different within the discipline than it does in the media.

It seems to me that it is time to stop these silly pissing contests. Philosophy is philosophy and physics is physics, and each can equitably accommodate the other with a bit of good will and charity.