Skip to content

Attacks on philosophy by scientists

Something that I never really fully understand is why academics feel the need to denigrate other academic disciplines. Just because one happens to think something is so worthwhile that they devoted their lives to it doesn’t thereby mean that everything else is crap. But that seems to be the attitude of many scientists and advocates of science towards philosophy. Do a Google search for “philosophy is useless” if you disbelieve me.

I know, I think, why some people seem to think that all that matters is science. I too think science is pretty damned important. But once you stop knowing about things, and start arguing about things you cannot know by science, you are doing philosophy, and so it is a little, dare I say, hypocritical, to argue, philosophically, that philosophy is crap. Not to mention self-contradictory.

Scientists sometimes think that any attempt to be philosophical about science is otiose. Feynman once remarked, although I can’t find the reference, that philosophy of science is about as useful to science as ornithology is to birds. This might very well be true (although in times when the birds are under threat, ornithology can be of very great benefit indeed), but the value of a study is not the things one can sell from it. It is surely true that philosophers like Popper and Hempel and Carnap tried to constrain and prescribe science, and that project failed. But the philosophy of science is about understanding how science is done when it works. Surely that’s not for nothing. How is this just “entertainment“? Is philosophy of science something scientists should ignore and deride?

Recently, Mark Perakh, a physicist, posted on Panda’s Thumb another attack upon Michael Ruse, the philosopher and historian of science, because Ruse asked this question:

If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

In the context of the US Constitution and legal precedent, this is a sensible question to ask. It doesn’t make much sense outside that sort of context, because in most other educational jurisdictions, what gets taught is decided by educators, not the courts, and, for example, in mine (Australia) religion is regarded as something that should only be taught comparatively or in religious education classes that are voluntary (and even those are hardly widely accepted). So is Ruse leading up to some horrible accommodationist error? No, he merely asks that question. Taking a view he calls “independence” – that science and religious claims are independent of each other – he says

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want science removed from schools. I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution. The independence position does not raise this issue, because it argues that science has no implications either way about religious claims. You cannot argue for the independence position because of that, but it is a point in its favor.

Now I think that science, being a human activity that engages many of the same questions traditionally approached through theology, yes, and philosophy, is not entirely independent of religious questions. I have said many times that if a religion makes contrary-to-fact claims, so much the worse for that religion. So I do not agree with Ruse’s position here. But I cannot think that he is merely being stupid or just the sort of entertainment one might get from watching a demented drunk dance, which is the tenor of Perakh’s comment.

Ruse, is being a philosopher when he asks questions that scientists think are dumb. Philosophers often ask questions that scientists, and other firm believers in a set of shared views, think are too stupid to even challenge, because, well, that’s what philosophy has always done. And what history teaches us is that philosophy, in asking those questions, often points up some weaknesses in the “common sense” views, leading to interesting conceptual developments.

Perakh thinks that philosophy of science has done nothing to help science. And yet, scientists like him constantly do philosophy of science. One of the most influential philosophers upon science, its practice and debates, was a physicist named Percy Bridgman. Bridgman’s “operationalism” was a philosophical attempt to leave philosophical aspects of science such as truth claims to one side. It affected everything from physics to taxonomy. Einstein was no philosophical slouch either (and he did not feel the need to denigrate philosophy: like many of his contemporaries, he had a good humanist education), nor modern physicists like Max Tegmark. So it seems that, from the perspective of a physicist, the only philosophers of science who should be mocked and denigrated are those who do not say things that the physicist writing agrees with. In short, do philosophy so long as it concludes what I think is true…

What upsets many of these “critics” (I scare quote this because real criticism involves reasoning, not merely the restatement of prejudicial beliefs) is that some philosophers, like Ruse, do not assert that the sole method and mode of rationality is to deride, exclude or a priori reject religious credibility. Ruse, an avowed atheist, does not attack religion at every turn, and instead seems to think that religious views have a social role and place even if he disagrees with them. This is not enough for the absolutists. One must not only disagree, one must strive mightily to eliminate. The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.

The way to achieve this Utopian vision is, of course, to mock and deride any person, profession or technique that does not arrive at the preferred conclusion which we all knew, really, was true before we began. Philosophy, which must take seriously views that we dispute (so long as they are not factually false; only a few metaphysicians might accept that one could hold those views reasonably, and then only for the purposes of argument), is stupid. Useless. A waste of time and brains. Blah, blah, blah.

Can you say “special pleading“, children? I knew you could. Can you say “fallacy of affirming the consequent“? Can you say “circular reasoning“? A bit of philosophical training might have helped Perakh a bit, before he dismissed an entire profession for the simple reason that it is not what he, personally, likes.

I do not think Ruse’s claim that science is inherently metaphorical works as a general statement (I fail to see, for example, how mathematical models and their interpretations are metaphors), but a lot of it is, and the failure of people like Perakh to see this is one of the reasons why philosophy of science is of service to science. We do the garbage clearance, when we do our job well. Perakh’s snide comment is garbage. One of the ironies of this little set-to is that it is a theological philosopher who rightly takes Perakh’s exclusivism to task. The post is entitled “Mark Perakh and the Ironies of Philosophy and Science”, so there’s meta-irony as well.

As to Ruse’s actual question, my view is this (and it is a philosophical view, like Perakh’s): If the claim is made that some scientifically investigable object does not exist, like the Yangtse River Dolphin, then that assertion is science and can be taught in a science class in America. If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it’s fracking philosophy! and philosophy should not be taught in science class.

That we have no scientific reason to think there is a God, well, yes, that’s the point. Is science all one should rely upon in belief formation? That’s another philosophical question (which I, unlike Ruse, tend to think the answer to is “yes”, but not entirely).

Now Ruse seems to have a wider definition of science than I do, and that, too, should be discussed in a philosophical situation (what counts as science? Is it everything some archetypical physicist believes is true? Should Sheldon from Big Bang Theory be our arbiter of reasonableness?), but so does Perakh. Where Ruse seems to think that any belief set that is strictly derived from scientific ideas is science (I do not, for that would include Mary Baker Eddy’s idiocy), Perakh is a scientific hegemonist. Science (the physicist’s science) rules all and nothing else is worthy. Ruse is too inclusive, while Perakh is too restrictive and at the same time imperialistic. Ruse wants the League of Nations, while Perakh wants … what? The Napoleonic Empire? And the whole point here is that this is a philosophical debate we’re having, even if Perakh doesn’t think it is.

Forgive me if I am a bit testy. I have spent decades listening to scientists, even as they make philosophical arguments, tell me how useless philosophy of science is. It’s a reflex action instilled into undergraduate science students that they uncritically seem to disgorge upon the slightest stimulus for the rest of their lives. Of course not all, or even most, scientists do this (most don’t care, but there are a large number of philosophically educated and interested scientists out there. In fact, they drive the philosophy of science, in my opinion). But just like being poked by a younger brother in the same place often can lead to an outburst eventually, I am provoked. Mum, he started it!

85 Comments

  1. Insightful post, and one that needed to be written. It would be difficult, I think, for anyone to come to philosophy of science via an interest in science and not feel some discomfort at the uninformed hostilities.

    In my experience, when people of scientific background reject philosophy, the whole notion of “philosophy” that they are talking about is a bit of an ambiguous mess. Reading their arguments, what they seem to oppose are specific schools or strains of philosophy rather than the totality of the thing, whatever it is. I mean, it’s not surprising that scientists would outright reject positions that lead to strong constructionism, when science relies on there being facts and data at the bottom of it all; but I doubt they would have the same reservations about, say, Carnap’s dismissal of Heidegger, or Sokal’s attack on postmodernist cultural studies.

    I would suspect there are interesting reasons, worth investigation, behind why philosophy is so often perceived by non-philosophers as one big lump. Invariably, people who think they reject philosophy are really just rejecting specific positions, and making philosophical points in doing so.

    In the attack on Ruse that you linked, I think Perakh failed to distinguish between “what Michael Ruse believes is a good idea” and “what Michael Ruse believes is a question worth answering” – one that we need to answer, in fact, if we want to ensure that our exclusion of intelligent-design claptrap from schools is a coherent thing to do. To add further to the confusion, Perakh thinks it’s not a question worth answering, when what he’s really doing is offering an answer while arguing that legitimizing creationism is a bad idea.

    But that’s the challenge for philosophers of science, isn’t it? There are serious ethical reasons with concrete policy consequences to grapple with creationism or climate change denial, and we need to establish a picture of science that is socio-historically aware but doesn’t descend into an anything-goes cesspool where we no longer have an explanation of why science works when it does.

    As for philosophy’s usefulness to scientists – “garbage clearance” is a good way of putting it, I think.

  2. You are deeply involved with philosophy, and because of that you do not see it from the same perspective as scientists. I might comment on my own blog later tonight, saying some of what I see to be a problem with philosophy as seen by science.

    On the matter of Ruse, it is simply false to say that science implies that God does not exist. That’s a conclusion that many scientists might personally reach, but it isn’t an implication of science.

    On the NOMA question (also from Ruse), I think there’s some talking past each other there. Scientists tend to be pragmatists. And, from a pragmatic viewpoint, science and religion do overlap quite seriously in practice. Ruse appears to have been adopting something of a stance, whereby one claims that there could be an ideal world where science and religion do not overlap. The general problem with accommodationism, is that accommodation needs to be a two way street, and there isn’t a lot of accommodation coming from the religious side.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      As MKR has noted, some people do say that science proves there is no God. Victor Stenger has a book with that very claim. Dawkins expresses the same idea. Various others also say this, and what is worse, they expect this to be taught as science.

      Ruse effectively makes the very point you (and I) do: the claim there is no God is not science. But a lot of what passes for science (the philosophical kind) does make such claims.

      As to the ideal world, I would love to see it also. I doubt he thinks it will ever arrive – I don’t get the impression he’s a millenarian – but I am sure he thinks that we can rduce the conflict. I have an “elbow room” theory of the relations between science and religion, and sociologically I doubt they will ever stop elbowing each other, but certainly we can set out some rules for the playground they both share.

      There is a lot of accommodation coming from both sides. Scientists often make accommodative moves, and so too do theologians. Anyone who thinks one or the other side hasn’t been doing that doesn’t know, or rejects as somehow impure, the literature. Of course, if your source of information is tabloid journalism (including under that rubric a lot of blogging), then of course you can sustain a martyr’s narrative (in either direction) because that is what tabloid journalism is for.

      I’ll stick with my personal experience of the people and the literature, though.

      • Brian Brian

        ‘Victor Stenger has a book with that very claim. ‘
        I’ll have to read the book (God the failed hypothesis) again. It’s been a while. But I thought Stenger made the lesser claim that the bog-standard Abrahamic God who intervenes in the universe, etc, should leave certain evidence for all to see. As that evidence doesn’t appear, or what is proferred doesn’t past fairly normal evidentiary standards, we can say that that God and similars don’t exist provissionally. Of course, when evidence comes along then we change the outcome. No mention of proof. Unless we’re using the word proof differently.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        Stenger’s target is the god of philosophy (i.e., of traditional Thomist philosophy).

      • some people do say that science proves there is no God.

        Hum… I’d say this is they take as a starting point what religious people define as “god”. Granted these very definitions, a quite reasonable conclusion is theirs. Of course, when I read your comment, I understand that philosophical definitions of “god” are broader than the restricted definition as assumed by a strictly religious point of view. So this lead us to the following question: “should we test the scientific definition of god, or make philosophy statements about its philosophical definition, or make philosophy statements of its scientific definition (probably what we are going to do now :)?”

        (–note that I doubt we can test the philosophical definition with science, unless both scientific and philosophical are identical but in this case the subject has already been dealt with, so the actual question is “do science and philosophy definitions of “god” just partly overlap or are they completely identical?).

        Last, I definitely avoided the philosophical view that truth might be that scientific conclusions about “god” are just false, because it could be that dirty trick “god” played…

      • Brian Brian

        Well, OK. I see your point. But isn’t the prime mover argument a non-starter since Newton?

      • Brian Brian

        John, I know Stenger isn’t really on topic. But would you say he’s a scientists attacking a philosphical argument or a philosopher using his scientific background (physics) to attack philosophical positions like Thomist philosophy?

        Now that you’ve reminded me of his arguments against Prime mover/first cause Thomist like arguments, I think he’s well equipped to do so. Prime mover has been a non-starter since Newton. First Cause was probably a non-starter since Hume, but definitely since Quantum Mechanics. Infinities can be instantiated since Cantor. And so on. Although I really do need to reread his book, because my spasmodic recall is of a chapter where he states that God, as understood by the common man (who is this common man?) should leave traces, but doesn’t. Perhaps Stenger fires his arguments at many gods?

        Anyway, Stenger is an adjunct professor in Philosophy, for whatever that’s worth. [ I did send him an email to let him know that Hume did say in his Treatise there could be uncaused events, as he’d written in one of his books that Hume hadn’t said that. Apparently the source of his error was William Lane Craig. So I’m not sure how well read in philosophy he is. Probably a lot better read than I but it felt good to let someone more esteemed and lettered know of an error in their work. :)] So he seems to be a philosopher, not just a scientist.

        http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/VWeb/Home.html

      • In The God Delusion, Dawkins doesn’t really say that science proves there is no God. More like it casts extreme doubt on that ever-shifting concept.

  3. MKR MKR

    The general problem with accommodationism, is that accommodation needs to be a two way street, and there isn’t a lot of accommodation coming from the religious side. (Neil Rickert)

    Really? I would say that the accommodation has come solely from the religious side. Indeed, I would say that it should only come from that side because it can only do so. The practice of science cannot without corrupting itself be accommodated to religion or to any other source of beliefs. (I don’t mean to suggest that you meant anything to the contrary.) But the beliefs propounded within this or that religion certainly can and do change in response to scientific findings. And that is as it should be.

    I suppose that everything depends on what you understand by the two “sides.” If by the religious side you mean not all practices of religion but only the more reactionary ones, then it is fair to say that no accommodation has come from that side or is likely ever to do so. But that, I think, is an unduly narrow understanding of religion. And if by the scientific side you mean not simply the practice of science itself but also, say, the atheist conclusions that some, such as Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins, claim to be themselves scientific, then perhaps that side needs to do some “accommodating”—but only in the sense of doing philosophy better.

  4. Adam Adam

    I think that many attacks against “philosophy” are attacks against philosophy as a profession rather than philosophy as an activity. Often attacks against philosophy emerge when the arguments/assertions in question are so far removed from everyday experience that a layman cannot understand them. In this case, the question is whether there is any societal value to supporting and respecting expertise in philosophy, or is it just a self-indulgent hobby (or addiction)?

    I suspect that there is value in philosophical expertise, but its value is not as readily apparent as the value of scientific expertise, which provides tools/technologies to the laymen.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Basically that is the argument that is made against any technical profession. It is even made against science…

      I love it when botanists and molecular biologists, in particular, have a go at philosophers for using jargon.

      • To be fair, though, the problem with the philosophical jargon that tends to be problematic – the sort that wins the dubious awards for bad writing – is the lack of consensus about what the terminology signifies. (Not true for all philosophy, I know, and far more of an issue with the style we think of as being in the “continental” bucket rather than the analytic one.) Scientists get away with technical jargon as a consequence of standardization.

        In some branches of philosophy we speak in -isms with definitions that are largely agreed upon, but in others – particularly those that have a reputation for being indefinite, airy-fairy, and/or unclear – this isn’t the case. Opacity doesn’t come from a specialized vocabulary so much as it comes from vagueness. And as Adam seems to be saying, science has the advantage of giving us the sense that the notion of expertise isn’t entirely socially derived, since there are physical laws in play.

      • The most recent attack on philosophy as a profession that I’ve personally come across (I don’t come across many, not moving in that circle) is the following. It’s an example of the old “some philosophy is bad therefore all philosophy is bad” argument.

        http://thelousylinguist.blogspot.com/2010/11/death-of-philosophy.html (Note: The blog, which I read regularly, has a wierd bug whereby the post is duplicated above the comments.)

  5. Divalent Divalent

    “In the context of the US Constitution and legal precedent, this is a sensible question to ask.”

    Absolutely not. The question revealed his ignorance about the law. In a nutshell (which doesn’t address some important subtleties):
    – unproven and religious = impermissible to teach in public school
    – proven and compatible with a religion = permissible to teach
    – proven and incompatible with a religion = permissible to teach
    – unproven and not religious = permissible to teach (at least not impermissible with respect to “separation of church and state”; This is why the DI and the ICR tried mightily to obscure the religious connection, because being unproven garbage is not sufficient, alone, to make it constitutionally impermissible to teach).

    What’s impermissible about teaching creationism is not merely that it implies God, because if it was nonetheless correct, then the religious aspects of it are irrelevant. If the Hindu creation story turned out to be correct, it would be permissible to teach, despite directly contradicting the religious beliefs of the majority of Americans.

    • Quite apart from the difficulties of terms like “proven” and “unproven” (philosophically and legally) is the question of what counts as “religious”. After all, ID eschews religious arguments. Their arguments in favor of ID are “unproven” but not overtly religious and, under your simplistic categories, it is arguably okay to teach under the 1st Amendment. The other side of that coin is: IF, as some scientists claim, science is a “worldview” AND that worldview rules out the existence of god(s), how can we say it is NOT “religious”? And, if it is religious, can we say it is “proven” that there are no god(s)?

      The actual constitutional analysis is (fortunately) not so simplistic and the fact that a few scientists make statements about science that would seemingly make it a religion is not enough grounds for the courts to rule it is such. But Ruse’s question is hardly insensible.

    • Divalent,

      Ruse’s question was whether US public school science courses may teach that there is no God, as a matter of science. This bears on two further questions: (1) Whether atheism can be considered a scientific fact, and (2) how such a fact would jibe with the First Amendment injunction against state-sponsored dismissal of a religious doctrine.

      I think it is far from evident that the first question is settled (Even Dawkins relies largely upon philosophical argument, like the Ultimate 747, not hard data.) But Ruse’s point is that even if it were indisputably empirical that God does not exist, it is still nonetheless a religious question whether or not God exists, on which US public institutions are constitutionally bound to remain silent.

      This may not be a desirable problem, but we can’t just wave it away.

  6. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    “What upsets many of these “critics” (I scare quote this because real criticism involves reasoning, not merely the restatement of prejudicial beliefs) is that some philosophers, like Ruse, do not assert that the sole method and mode of rationality is to deride, exclude or a priori reject religious credibility. Ruse, an avowed atheist, does not attack religion at every turn, and instead seems to think that religious views have a social role and place even if he disagrees with them. This is not enough for the absolutists. One must not only disagree, one must strive mightily to eliminate. The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.”

    I quite like this rant and think philosophy is indispensable to scientists – we would all be served by having it and history of science as part of the standard curriculum. I however think the quoted section above is off base – why is not ok for atheist to “believe as they will and play a role in society” – just like any religious person is able? Why should arguing against religion forbidden or at least not to be engaged in?

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I did not say that it shouldn’t be.

  7. William Grey William Grey

    “… philosophy should not be taught in science class”, you say. Well that’s a philosophical view. But don’t you think that if you set up restrictions on topics to be addressed, those restrictions need to be made clear to the class? It seems to me, then, that a bit of philosophy has then been included in the science class — though not enough to be dignified as formal instruction in philosophy. Epistemologically privileging science to the extent of denying the legitimacy of other ways of explaining experience is “scientism”, as I understand it. Peter Medawar coined the neat phrase “poetism” for the privileging of narrative discourse to the exclusion of other modes of understanding, such as science.
    There are some nice reflections on this topic by Massimo Pigliucci: The Future of Philosophy of Science.
    The site rationallyspeaking.org has a nice slogan: “Truth springs from argument amongst friends”.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I was overly curt. I should have said that one should not teach a particular philosophical conclusion or doctrine in a science class as if it were science/factual. Any more than, say, teaching a particular interpretation of Wordsworth in a history class, or a dress style in cookery.

      I love “poetism”. It is a nice counterweight to attacks on faux scientism… Real scientism is as inappropriate as ever, though.

  8. ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

    restrictions on topics to be addressed…denying the legitimacy of other ways of explaining experience
    I think the critical term is “legitimacy”. Science’s legitimacy is in its own realm – whether or not there are experiences to be explained outside the realm of science is a question that could be discussed in science class, but the realm of science is pretty clear. Personally, I would not maintain exclusivity of science to “explain experience”.

  9. Many good points here. However, Ruse could have avoided annoying someone like Perakh by making his point more clearly. Half of the critics of Ruse’s post are saying (like Perakh, and Rosenhouse), “Duh, obviously science is constitutional, because atheism isn’t a claim of science/evolution!” A careful, sympathetic reading of Ruse (and some vague recollection of his work over the years) would have told them — this is exactly the point Ruse was making!

    Ruse is criticizing the people, basically the more extreme wing of the New Atheists, who say that atheism *is* a claim of science/evolution. *If* one takes this position, says Ruse, *then* you’ve got a constitutional dilemma on your hands. Obviously, if you don’t, you don’t — although Ruse uses this as an argument for a fairly strong version of science/religion independence which is more than he needs to argue for here, and which is part of what annoys pretty much all New Atheists, even the more moderate ones.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      The inability of some to deal with hypothetical arguments, especially when the individuals concerned are well educated, is more their fault than the fault of those who use such arguments, Nick. Scientists ought to be as able to spot a conditional as any lawyer.

  10. Susan Silberstein Susan Silberstein

    [Looks around for Pharangulistas with pointy sticks and burning torches]

    Yes.

  11. John, perhaps you could put together a general audience book about the philosophy of science. You could make various controversies readable and interesting. And you might make some money at it.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      I doubt it. I am reliably informed that scientists are not interested in the philosophy of science (and besides, there are some very good texts already out there).

      • TheOtherJim TheOtherJim

        No group is interested in scrutinized. That does not mean it should not happen.

      • TheOtherJim TheOtherJim

        Umm… should read

        No group is interested in being scrutinized. That does not mean it should not happen.

      • Well, I’m I didn’t say write it for scientists but for a general audience. After all, I’d never suggest that a philosopher of science should write with scientists in mind; that would never fly at the Philosopher’s Guild.:)

  12. Bjarni Bjarni

    Any hypothesis that makes a positive assertion (such as “God exists” or “A teapot orbits Jupiter”) has a very small prior (prior to evidence) probability since the number of true positive assertions is very small compared to all possible positive assertions. The complementary negative assertion (“God does not exist”, “A teapot does not orbit Jupiter”) is therefore very likely to be true (1 – P(positive assertion)) prior to the evidence. If science is the process of shifting the prior probability of a hypothesis up or down by thinking of and making observations that strongly affect that probability then one can argue that the lack of such observations that shift the god hypothesis significantly up from the no-evidence probability is a scientific argument in favor of the complementary hypothesis. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      God is not, for most religious believers, a hypothesis at all, and so your whole argument rests on a false assumption. It is a hypothesis for you, but not for them.

      • Bjarni Bjarni

        I also used the term positive assertion and I think religious people would be hard pressed to argue that “God exists” isn’t one. So the probabilistic argument still applies and I’d still call it science (a matter of definition). But I was mostly arguing against Ruse’s claim (which you seem slightly sympathetic to) that it’s sensible to ask, if “God exists” is a religious claim, why “God does not exist” isn’t also a religious claim.

      • Badger3k Badger3k

        Seriously whacked – hypotheses are not dependent on personal opinion, but on evidence. If these believers have the evidence that can verify or falsify the hypothesis, then they need to put it forward. The claim that God (whatever that happens to mean for each individual believer) exists is a hypothesis whether they want to believe it or not. For too long we (as a society) have accepted unproven and unevidenced hypotheses simply because of the number of people who accept something. Science has changed some beliefs (flat earth, young earth, etc) through bucking the consensus and looking for (and at) evidence. It’s simply time for the God Question to be brought to the front of the queue.

        If I make a claim, such as ghosts exist, I am making the hypothesis whether I believe it to be one or not. Reality is not based on opinion.

  13. I think many object to philosophising because it produces endless piles of words that ultimately go nowhere. Schoolmen, and so on.

    Plus, as Adam said (and you failed to engage with): “many attacks against “philosophy” are attacks against philosophy as a profession” – people often have no great objections to philosophy, or indeed to basket weaving, they just resent too much money being spent on them to no apparent purpose.

    • I think many object to philosophising because it produces endless piles of words that ultimately go nowhere. Schoolmen, and so on.

      A really, really bad cliché and false as well. The scholastics (Schoolmen) in the High Middle Ages in their endless piles of words laid the foundations for the emergence of modern science in Europe in the Early Modern Period.

    • Clem Stanyon Clem Stanyon

      “they just resent too much money being spent on them to no apparent purpose.”

      Being a ‘real’ scientist – practicing PhD, Molecular Biologist – I feel the urge to comment on this one: since Richard Nixon made it the goal of science to find a cure for cancer, oh so many years ago, I think the jury can take a vote: what has ‘real’ science actually achieved in terms of putting a man on the moon? We have a bit of a better understanding of the material processes by which cancer and a host of other diseases develop, to be sure, but we are nowhere near a predictive model, if such is even possible (now, there’s an interesting subject on which to philosophise). So, what is the apparent purpose of science, apart from keeping scientists actively employed (versus productively)? That and edu-ma-cating people?

      Point is: economic rationalists (those who justify everything by the $$ value of it) are no better than the least amongst the scientists at predicting what might be of value in the future. Anyone who resents money being spent on useless activities should better look to the military spending of most first-world governments before they start criticising education sytems that spare money on disciplines that have, as their final product, whole populations of people who prefer to use their brains to their brawn to solve difficult questions.

  14. Brian Brian

    This reminds me of my days as a regular at Richard Dawkins website. There was a guy, very smart, a mathematician, who would just call all philosophy ‘psychobabbles’. I’m am the worst advocate philosophy could have due to limited ability to clearly state an argument and not get distracted (and ignornance of course), that when I tried to explain why I thought philosophy had value using examples I could think of, the guy basically had the evidence he desired served up to him. I just don’t get it. I find some philosophy not interesting, like some science (species concepts 😉 ) or some (most) literature. Big deal. Doesn’t mean it’s of no import.
    On the other hand, when I tried briefly to study philosophy and got into a quarrel with the online tutor, who rejected some pretty well supported science and was a total dick, I came to the conclusion that not all philosophers think much of science and I should immediately quit studying philosophy. So it’s not just scientists who diss other fields.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Every profession has dicks. Including science. I spent the afternoon with a friend who teaches anatomy; he tells me that there are scientists who think that anatomy is not biology (but, not surprisingly, molecular genetics is).

      • Brian Brian

        Did they say what part of science houses anatomy? Quantum physics?

    • Most of Dawkins’ popular books are actually philosophical works, fairly poor quality philosophy but philosophy never the less.

      • Brian Brian

        It’s for that reason he’s popular. If he wrote a tract of high philosophy, there’d be no market. He’s not interested in philosophers who have abstract gods that are probably logically coherent. He’s interested in the mass marketed gods that make no sense at all. At least that’s how I take it.

  15. Bob O'H Bob O'H

    On the Ruse end of the argument, I think part of the problem is that people aren’t quoting this paragraph, only the one which follows it:

    So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this. Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science? (emphasis added)

    If a creationist missed out the part I emphasised, they would be accused of quote-mining.

  16. I just read a posting by John Wilkins where I agree with everything he said!

    The end of the world must be nigh.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Larry, see your doctor. I think you must be unwell.

  17. El Cid El Cid

    In my opinion, and thus many will disregard it as just an opinion, many scientists conflate philosophy will little more than an opinion, which is oddly enough the type of dismissive that thing many creationists say about scientist’s “opinions”. Proper science has some fairly clear rules about what qualifies as supporting evidence. Its fundamental strength is that this highlights the path of disagreement. That makes it possible to have a “scientific” opinion. Unbeknown to many scientists, philosophy likewise is evidence based making it possible to have a philosphical opinion, but the chain of evidence can be unfamiliar scientists. So rather than address the chain of evidence, or philosophical argument, many a scientist seems to react in the “that’s just your opinion” mode. But that’s just my opinion.

  18. Argh Argh

    “Ruse, an avowed atheist, does not attack religion at every turn, and instead seems to think that religious views have a social role and place even if he disagrees with them.”

    Literally everyone believes that religion currently has a social role. Some think it shouldn’t.

    “The old Enlightenment principle of the right of every person to believe as they will and play a role in society, under which it became possible to be a public atheist at all, is now to be abandoned.”

    Never has anyone advocated that regardless of belief every role should be open to everyone. There is a role for everyone, and if you don’t want the role society properly reserves for those who believe that Elvis is still alive and demands you sit in Church 25 hours every weekend waiting for him to reveal himself (or whatever you believe), change your beliefs.

    “If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it’s fracking philosophy!”

    So, the problem is that people (scientists) criticizing a specialty (philosophy) have critiques that only work if they take for granted conclusions from outside their specialty (philosophy)? Philosophers would do well to consult with specialists (linguists and psychologists) when defending a “god” that exists only in their own minds. People in the real world use that word to refer to something that is investigable and has been refuted. At the very least people use the word to mean “a physically powerful unchanging immaterial intelligence” and “that which was necessary to begin the universe, it being impossible for it to have arisen out of nothing”.

    Next thing you know philosophers will be redefining “flat” to mean “barely round” to defend the delicate sensibilities of the flat-earthers. Perhaps there is a quota of third-world believers that must be met before liberals obfuscate on their behalf, I’m really not familiar with that side of the process.

  19. Clem Stanyon Clem Stanyon

    LOL – I am SO glad you manged to work Sheldon and BBT into this otherwise very pithy post; some neurons in my head have awoken from a very long sleep. They are not happy about it, but they don’t have the vote…

    For the record, the years I spent in your company, mulling over the question of pre-cellular Evolution, were amongst the best in my intellectual life.

  20. AK AK

    I’ve considered writing a post on this subject, but so far haven’t had the time. However, here’s my take for what it’s worth:

    Science assumes the non-existence of a willful intervening God because if such an entity exists the scientific method fails to work. (The same can be said for psychic powers.) The outcome of any experiment can only lead to further refinement of the paradigm if we assume (as the overall paradigm does) a system of consistent, predictable, natural laws. Random variation in outcome can be dealt with (IMO this is essentially what quantum mechanics does), but willfully created patterns of variation cannot.

    This being said, it’s hardly surprising that scientists, or perhaps I should call them science fan(atic)s, reject any question of this basic assumption. It’s outside the paradigm, and thus a threat to their careers and mental stability. Thus they also reject a field such as philosophy which explicitly gives credence to such outside-the-paradigm hypotheses.

    These are, of course much the same population who reject what Kuhn called “revolutionary” science, for exactly the same reason. Still, I suppose there is some difference in scale, or perhaps degree.

    Inductively, we could claim that science has been “proven” by the vast array of predictive conclusions it’s provided our society, ranging from basic thermodynamics (which explained and helped to refine the designs of steam and internal combustion engines) to quantum mechanics (ditto transistors and consequent modern electronics) to nuclear physics (nuclear power and weapons anybody?).

    If the argument were phrased in Bayesian terms it (the argument) could perhaps be classed as science (certainly meta-science), although in religious terms it would probably be more the “science” of theo-psychology than anything else. We should also note that even in such inductive terms science cannot prove the non-existence of divine (or psychic) intervention, but only place limits on its probable rate of occurrence. IMO a quick and dirty study of how scientific researchers treat unexpected results, especially when they aren’t duplicatable, would end up placing a pretty high upper limit on such interventions. (And a more careful one would probably end up with an even higher limit.)

    • Science assumes the non-existence of a willful intervening God because if such an entity exists the scientific method fails to work.

      There are many ways to define science. I prefer to think of science as a way of knowing that involves rationality, evidence, and healthy skepticism. This way of knowing can be applied to anything, including the possible existence of supernatural beings.

      In general, philosophers are the leading experts in scientific thinking and most scientist should take some introductory courses in logic and critical thinking in order to improve their approach to gaining true knowledge. As we can see from the scientific literature, there are huge numbers of scientists who need help in this area.

      Science as a way of knowing does NOT rely on any assumptions about the existence of God. That’s a fallacy and it illustrates my point (and John’s) about the naive way scientists think about science. If God exists then science, as a way of knowing, will find him eventually.

      This brings us to the point that Michael Ruse is making. If we concentrate on teaching science correctly then what we are really teaching is critical thinking. That process will always lead to conflict with religious beliefs since we are asking our students to apply evidence, rationality, and skepticism to everything – including the idea that there are supernatural beings that should be worshiped. We may not specifically address this conflict between science and religion in class but the only way to avoid the implication is to make up some crazy story about how science is not allowed to ask certain questions.

      Some of us believe that the scientific way of knowing can be used to attack any question. We reject, for example, the distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism that Ruse and others support. What Ruse is saying is that, given our position, the correct teaching of science by our definition is anti-religious. If that’s true, then American courts may step in to prevent that sort of science from being taught in the public schools. In other words, Americans need to teach science Ruse’s way in order to avoid legal challenges.

      Other countries can teach science correctly. 🙂

      • I prefer to think of science as a way of knowing that involves rationality, evidence, and healthy skepticism.

        So, anyone who claims to being doing those things is a “scientist”? There are no mechanisms to check and correct those claims? In which case, ID is “science” and should be taught in science classes (even outside the US, with our peculiar constitutional framework).

        If there are mechanisms to check such claims, such as peer review, where are the reviewed scientific papers on the existence or nonexistence of god(s)?

        You can’t have it both ways, Larry. If “science” is anything that you want to say it is, then it is anything that anyone else says it is. If science isn’t just anyone’s personal definition, but requires a mechanism to validate it as “science,” show where your personal opinion of what science is has been validated!

        In fact, the issue of whether or not god(s) exist is not a scientific question for the simple empiric fact that the scientific community does not treat it as such.

        Some of us believe that the scientific way of knowing can be used to attack any question.

        Yes, that is your personal philosophy, Larry … but the fact that you happen to be a scientist does not make your philosophy “science.” But it does mean you missed John’s point entirely!

      • AK AK

        Science as a way of knowing does NOT rely on any assumptions about the existence of God. That’s a fallacy and it illustrates my point (and John’s) about the naive way scientists think about science. If God exists then science, as a way of knowing, will find him eventually.

        I’m not going to get into any did/did not arguments here. Science as a formal method assumes (as I said above) a consistent and predictable system of natural laws, which in turn tacitly assumes the absence of divine intervention. Such is my take, and when I have time sometime I may actually work up a post with appropriate references. Science is not going to find God, however He exists, without either modifying its overarching paradigm (which does assume the non-existence of a willful, intervening God), or making some limiting assumptions WRT theo-psychology that would probably (IMO) be abhorrent to almost every actual believer in God.

      • TB TB

        “Science as a formal method assumes (as I said above) a consistent and predictable system of natural laws, which in turn tacitly assumes the absence of divine intervention.”

        But not necessarily the absence of the devine. For instance, one could say “God exists, but if so we assume that he chooses not to interfere with our study of a consistent and predictable system of natural laws.”
        One could also say “God does not exist and etc.”
        From a practical point, all those get you to about the same place in terms of being able to do science. But I don’t see how either of my variations can be considered scientific and therefore be taught in public school science class in the U.S.
        Yours works without going too far in either direction, but also allows for anyone to assume the other two.

  21. Iain Iain

    The fallacy of Ruse’s position is this. Any question about the existence or non-existence of “God” is a religious question because it is about “God”. But most science is completely unrelated to such questions. I do not need to even contemplate the existence of a supernatural being to ask what chemical reaction occurs when I combine two chemicals. I do not even need to contemplate the existence of a supernatural being to investigate the behaviour of human ancestors 2 million years ago which evolved into modern humans. It is just not a question. So science is not religious in any way at all unless religious people say it is so, and then it is so only because they are religious not because of the nature of science.

    • Bob O'H Bob O'H

      You haven’t even understood Ruse’s position. He’s starting with the assumption that science and religion are in conflict. He doesn’t believe that himself, but (apparently) some other people do, so he’s trying to draw out the logical conclusion from that position.

  22. Isn’t science a subset of philosophy? I feel like “science” is to “philosophy” as “human” is to “animal”–the latter technically includes the former, but the former is so remarkable (whether objectively or subjectively) that we often implicitly exclude it when we mention the latter.

  23. Andrew Andrew

    I grew up with two older mentors who were both well versed in Heidegger and Nietzsche. I had the exact opposite experience than this author. All I heard for decades from all those philosophers (and still hear from them today) was derision of science/scientism (e.g. Heidegger’ Question Concerning Technology) and so called “reductive” thinking (to which I counter that theirs is “inflationary thinking” [the real negative connotation is that either is unjustified]). Don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE philosophy and see a need for it- I was in that camp exclusively for years, but eventually also grew to love the experimental empirical verification process and consistency that philosophy lacks. Science/technology works because there is objective consistency in the world, but there are philosophical schools that undermine this fact and that, I think, is what these particular scientists dispute. I agree that Perakh went over the line, but it’s true that philosophers are too unwilling to recognize scientific facts that undermine so much philosophical work of the past (consider neuroscience alone).

    As for the god issue, the author here is unfairly conflating a deistic teleological god ( aphilosopher’s god) with more specific verifiable theistic gods to make his case. Reread his post with that in mind and the problem goes away. Science CAN say some things about gods that make testable claims, but can’t about gods that don’t. This has been repeated ad nauseum by the new atheists.

  24. Richard Harter Richard Harter

    It is an interesting essay, but one that, IMHO, is futile. The
    players are on the stage moving through their predestined roles,
    mouthing their pre-appointed lines. Complaining about the play
    achieves nothing – the play will go on.

    Why are intelligent and well respected scientists so ready to make
    such condescending and superficial remarks? The answer is simple
    enough.

    Most scientists are charmingly naive both about philosophy and about
    their own ill-formed philosophic conceptions. For that matter they
    commonly are quite naive in their understanding of the cultural role
    of science and in their understanding of how science as an institution
    actually works. However many, particularly physicists, are quite
    unaware of this and are happy to lecture the world from within the
    hubris of their insularity.

    Scientists are not special in this regard. Most people are similarly
    naive. They are too busy living their lives, following their dreams,
    rehearsing their cultural roles, and just surviving to actually
    understand what is going on around them and reason about it
    dispassionately. Most people are just as happy to lecture the world
    from within the hubris of their insularity.

    Scientists are special though, because they are assumed to be
    brilliant and actually must use their minds when engaged in their
    specialty. The difficulty is that when they step outside their
    specialty they are no longer protected by the invisible constraints
    that protect them from sloppy thinking.

    Forgive me Lord, for I have ranted.

    • ckc (not kc) ckc (not kc)

      …what is this term “outside”?

    • Mike Hanson-Haubrich Mike Hanson-Haubrich

      Scientists are not special in this regard. Most people are similarly naive. They are too busy living their lives, following their dreams, rehearsing their cultural roles, and just surviving to actually understand what is going on around them and reason about it dispassionately. Most people are just as happy to lecture the world from within the hubris of their insularity.

      As an observer and not as a professional practitioner of either science or philosophy, I am of the opinion that science without philosophy would be merely an exercise in data gathering and ultimately useless. How can one make sense of data without the systematic framework provided by philosophy? Would “hypothesis testing” even be an exercise without philosophy? Even my question is a null rhetorical question, because “hypothesis” and “null hypothesis” are defined by the philosophy of science.

      I agree, young Mr. Harter, that we often aren’t aware of how philosophy affects our lives and our decisions. I also think that a rudimentary training in philosophical thought would greatly assist us in making decisions.

  25. Richard Harter Richard Harter

    “Young” Mr. Harter is highly amused at being addressed as “young Mr. Harter”.

    It is a bit misleading to talk about science without philosophy. Are we talking about philosophy as an active presence or merely about a substrate of assumptions and intellectual technology that underlay the practices of the cultural institution called science? Most of the time it is the latter, which is one of the reasons that scientists are often disinterested in philosophy.

    There are two time when philosophy is live within science. One is when there are genuine philosophic issues to be resolved, e.g., the establishment of the notion of physical law, subtle questions about the nature of space and time, and the legitimacy of statistical techniques. The other is when scientists reach the end of their active years and ponder about what they have been doing for the last forty years and what does it all mean.

    • jeff jeff

      “there are genuine philosophic issues to be resolved, e.g., the establishment of the notion of physical law”

      I have often mused that if there is a God, he might be a meticulous accountant. There are many conservation laws in physics that, it seems, cannot be violated. Perhaps they extend to the subjective as well. In one Star Trek Next Generation episode, Picard rescues a primitive Irish culture, and puts them in his cargo bay. One of the main rustic characters, over a drink of synthahol, says to Worf: “Every moment’o pleasure must be purchased with a moment’o pain.” The characters niece then shows up and bitches at him, and he says to Worf, “Do ya remember that moment’o pain I was tellin’ ya about?”

  26. Wes Wes

    In the context of the US Constitution and legal precedent, this is a sensible question to ask.

    I disagree. For a couple reasons:

    1.) If teaching that science proves there’s no god passes the Lemon Test, then it can be taught. There is no law against teaching things which touch on religious topics so long as they satisfy the three prongs of the test required to prove it has a clear secular purpose. (This is why the Christian right wingers keep trying–and failing–to argue that putting Ten Commandment monuments in schools and courtrooms serves a secular purpose. If they were right, it would be allowed. Problem is, they’re wrong.) If it could be scientifically proven that Jesus is our savior, and this was relevant to what is taught in science class for secular reasons, then it could be taught in science class.

    2.) The fact that “God exists” is a religious sentence does not entail that “God does not exist” is also a religious sentence. “Water has a memory” is a homeopathic sentence, but it doesn’t follow from this that “Water does not have a memory” is a homeopathic sentence. In fact, it’s a sentence that denies homeopathy entirely. Presuming that it can be scientifically proven that God does not exist (I’m not claiming that there exists such a proof–just speaking hypothetically), then “God does not exist” would be a scientific sentence (and a denial of a religious sentence), while “God exists” would remain a religious sentence (and a denial of a scientific sentence).

    Ruse has asked this question over and over in the past. I’ve seen several people rebut his argument, but I haven’t seen him engaging very seriously with the (in my opinion, legitimate) objections to the presumptions the question makes about constitutional law and the nature of religious claims. So at the end of the article, when Ruse says this:

    I should add that when I raised this worry with Eugenie Scott, her response was that I am just plain “dumb.” But while that may indeed be so, I am not sure that it is an argument. And I would like to see an argument, either from those who subscribe to the conflict thesis or from anyone else.

    All I can say is this: Dr. Ruse, People have offered such arguments. Over and over and over. I’ve seen several such counterarguments. And just like a creationist, you just simply ignored them and repeated your argument over and over and over while whining that people are mean to you. Maybe Eugenie Scott called you “dumb” because she was getting irritated by the fact that you keep doing this.

    • Wes,

      As John wrote above, this argument just affirms the consequent. *If* we decide in advance that saying “God does not exist” is not a religious claim, then it stands a good chance of passing the first prong of the Lemon test. That’s a big if, and as you note it relies on a hypothetical no one is ready to defend (proof of God’s non-existence). Not even Stenger uses the P word.

      And then there are two further prongs of the Lemon test. I don’t see how even total scientific certainty of God’s non-existence gets by those two, but then if we had total scientific certainty we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation, because theism would be moribund.

      (You can read this as my saying there’s no such thing as total scientific certainty if you like, but that’s another topic).

      • Argh Argh

        “*If* we decide in advance that saying “God does not exist” is not a religious claim, then it stands a good chance of passing the first prong of the Lemon test.”

        No. The first prong of the Lemon test entirely ignores a claim’s status under all religions. It is the other prongs that engage that aspect. Even if it is a religious claim, so long as it is a secular claim it passes the first prong of the test. For example, it is a religious claim that mankind was not on the earth until after fish, but as this is also a secular, scientific claim, it passes the first prong of the Lemon test.

        “…if we had total scientific certainty we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation, because theism would be moribund.”

        Total nonsense. Many scientific facts are commonly denied. In particular, the most popular gods are the scientifically (not philosophically) disproved ones, i.e. those which create an objective morality, those which wrote the bible, those which are required for the universe to have begun, etc.

      • Argh,

        You’re right that a claim can be simultaneously religious and secular, and still pass the first prong of the Lemon Test. My point to Wes was that the easiest way to ensure passage is to deem a claim secular *in advance,* which of course makes its “secular purpose” a no-brainer.

        Wes argued that *if* there was scientific proof that “Jesus was our savior,” there would be a secular purpose to teaching it in science class. Maybe that’s true (I have my doubts), but at any rate it’s not the situation we find ourselves in. Meanwhile, is there a secular purpose to teaching atheism? I don’t see one, since all of science’s methods can be satisfied without a presumption of atheism (agnosticism is sufficient, and numerous forms of theism are compatible with science on a pragmatic level.) The only purpose I see to teaching atheism is evangelical.

        But let me concede that the first prong is not where the tough sledding is. Prong #2 and #3 are what make promoting atheism unconstitutional in US public schools. Atheism may not be a “religion,” but it is a stance on religion, which is to say it is not religiously neutral, and as such its promotion violates the establishment clause–even if it’s true. Even if it’s unassailably true. That’s the bargain we made with the First Amendment, for good reason.

      • Argh Argh

        “Wes argued that *if* there was scientific proof that “Jesus was our savior,” there would be a secular purpose to teaching it in science class. “

        He did no such thing. Wes argued that if there was scientific proof “and this was relevant to what is taught in science class for secular reasons, then it could be taught in science class.” Note the word “and”. In other words, if there was a secular purpose to teaching it in science class there would be a secular purpose to teaching it in science class, in which case it would pass the first prong of the Lemon test. Tautological? Somewhat. Wrong such that you refuted it? Not at all.

        “Meanwhile, is there a secular purpose to teaching atheism?”

        Clearly, since religion is on balance more obscurantist than enlightening at present. Even if true, religion’s compatibility with science would not mean the state has no reason to promote the alternative just as abstinence’s compatibility with sexual health does not mean the state has no reason to promote the alternative. Regardless, this would violate the second prong of the Lemon test and be unconstitutional.

        However, at issue here is not whether (agnostic) atheism as such can or cannot be directly promoted in public schools. It is the ironic situation in which a philosopher, Ruse, revealed his misunderstanding of the law, and scientists who applied their critical thinking to better understand the issue are being called out as unqualified to philosophize about it.

        The gods that people actually believe in are generally disproved. All of the scientific facts disproving them may be taught in science class and all of the philosophical facts disproving them may be taught in philosophy class.

      • Tautological? Somewhat.

        As I said, affirming the consequent.

        Remember what we were originally discussing: whether it was “sensible” of Ruse to ask if teaching atheism in science class broached establishment clause constraints. It goes without saying that if it does it does, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. But that doesn’t engage the actual question: Does it?

        [The issue] is the ironic situation in which a philosopher, Ruse, revealed his misunderstanding of the law, and scientists who applied their critical thinking to better understand the issue are being called out as unqualified to philosophize about it.

        Where is this revelation? Nowhere in this thread. Wes refers generically to refutations of Ruse, but cites none of them. What is the argument? It certainly isn’t encapsulated in Wes’ analogy to homeopathy, which is a complete non-sequitur, since it operates outside the logic of the establishment clause. First Amendment case law has been consistently clear that negating religion is just as “religious” in this context as affirming it. At issue in each case is the right of the state to condone or endorse religious views. This does not mean that atheism is “a religion” in the strict sense, but it bears on the question of religious freedom as though it were. The only constitutional position is neutrality. No comment.

        Your analogy of atheism to contraception and theism to abstinence is an interesting one. If I’m not mistaken, both are discussed in public health classes in the US in some detail. If either one were promoted at the exclusion of another there would be a bit of an outcry since, again, this would constitute a religious stance on the part of the state.

        The gods that people actually believe in are generally disproved. All of the scientific facts disproving them may be taught in science class and all of the philosophical facts disproving them may be taught in philosophy class.

        This would naturally explain why there are no scientists or science teachers who believe in these gods. Game over?

      • My mistake: Only 58% of high school principals describe their sex ed programs as comprehensive, according to a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation poll. (Though with Obama eliminating Title V from the budget this number should go up dramatically.) That’s not to say there is no outcry about this, as there should be. But I shouldn’t have implied that contraception was more universally taught. I don’t really follow this issue as well as I should, and my ideas about what goes on in sex education today can even be called naive.

  27. I commented near the top of Perakh’s post about how philosopher of science David Buller has shown the philosophical issues/problems/preconceptions that lie behind Pop Ev Psych as just one of the values that philosophers of science bring to science. Steven Toulmin is another invaluable philosopher of science.

    That said, many scientists are either ignorant of or defensive about even some basic philosophical concepts. Take PZ Myers and Vic Stenger claiming they have disproved god, which is, of course, logically impossible.

  28. Jaimw Headden Jaimw Headden

    This is why I like you, John. Philosophy on philosophy … fun stuff.

  29. couchmar couchmar

    I don’t understand why some scientists think philosophy of science is not important. Here is Einstein’s view.….……

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

    —Letter to Robert A. Thorton, Physics Professor at University of Puerto Rico (7 December 1944) [EA-674, Einstein Archive, Hebrew University, Jerusalem].

    If more information is wanted see the entry on Einstein’s Philosophy of Science at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    • jeff jeff

      “the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

      Ah, but what is truth? Pontius Pilates famous question. What is true to me are things that I experience, and/or things that I read, or think, or hear about. Sometimes they are in agreement, and sometimes they are not. Yes there is faith in many things including science, but in the end, is there someone who can decide other than me?

  30. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    It’s no good. I held off commenting as I am not deeply into philosophy nor a working scientist, however…

    I’m in full agreement with the idea that Philosophy is useful when it teaches people critical thinking. But on the other hand the quote from Keith Parsons (University of Houston) also rings true – “There’s so little empirical grounding and constraint in philosophy.”

  31. bob koepp bob koepp

    Larry Laudan, who knows a bit about scientific methodology, has always claimed that scientific theories don’t just have to confront empirical problems — the historical development of the sciences also involves very interesting conceptual problems (vis viva, anyone?). These simply cannot be resolved by observation and/or experiment. Clear, careful, hard thinking, and not just of the formal variety, is needed.

  32. abb3w abb3w

    A minor point: I’m unable to trace the Feynman ornithology quote back any earlier than its attribution to him in the 1998 Science askew: a light-hearted look at the scientific world; the 1998 Causality and explanation places it on Steven Weinberg’s 1987 testimony to congress, when he attributed it anonymously. (It appears a variant on a quote on aesthetics that may be from Barnett Newman, Nicolas Calas, or back further still.) I suspect, like the frequent “definition of insanity” quote misattributed variously to Einstein, Twain, and Franklin that it is a random witticism that attempts to gain a varnish of prestige by claiming a more respected source than the actual – not that Weinberg isn’t respectable, but he lacks the cultural cachet of Feynman.

  33. abb3w abb3w

    As a more substantive point…

    As to Ruse’s actual question, my view is this (and it is a philosophical view, like Perakh’s): If the claim is made that some scientifically investigable object does not exist, like the Yangtse River Dolphin, then that assertion is science and can be taught in a science class in America. If a scientist claims that science asserts the non-existence of an object that is, by definition, not investigable, like a deity outside time and space, then that is not science, no matter who makes the claim. The argument that a lack of evidence for God leads us to conclude there is no God is not science; it’s fracking philosophy! and philosophy should not be taught in science class.

    I would subtly disagree with this.

    First, I would note that this subtly but significantly misstates the actual argument; it is more exactly phrased that a lack of evidence for God leads us to provisionally infer there probably is no God. Science does not draw final conclusions, nor conclusions that are attributed absolute certainty; all inferences are subject to re-examinination in the light of new evidence (or new suggested descriptions).

    Second, the use of the philosophical principle of parsimony is in fact part of science, both as empirically observed anthropological practice and as abstract philosophical discipline. In so far as parsimony is a legitimate tool of science, the argument is indeed science. The dividing line to philosophy is at the question of why the principle of parsimony is considered valid to use, to what extent it is considered valid, and perhaps what the exact formulation of the principle as used might be. (Those inclined to moderately abstruse math can track down doi:10.1109/18.825807 for a rigorous derivation as an inference from more basic assumptions.) Each of these questions is clearly philosophical.

    However, I would generally agree with your further claim that “what counts as science” is within the scope of philosophy – I’d term it one of semantics, in particular. There also seems to be more than one way of counting; at minimum, science as a philosophical discipline, science as a collection of anthropological practices, and science as the resultant body of knowledge.

    For myself, I would consider the domain of science philosophically lying after the abstract question of language is settled (which I would consider the realm of mathematics), addressing the questions of the “is” nature of the universe we experience, but not entering into the questions of “ought”. (In a Hume-esque distinction, I would consider the latter to be the demesne of engineering, rather than science.) In contrast, science as an anthropological practice is concerned with what body of human antics are associated with the term “science”. In that sense, there may be a question of whether addressing God via Parsimony is anthropologically legitimate, simply because so many scientists consider application of that tool to that question to be taboo.

    Of course, I’m merely an amateur lacking formal qualifications.

  34. Brian Brian

    “In that sense, there may be a question of whether addressing God via Parsimony is anthropologically legitimate, simply because so many scientists consider application of that tool to that question to be taboo.”

    Do they have any good reasons? Or is it just PC prejudice causing them to arbitrarily cast off a valid tool?

  35. Louis van Ryneveld Louis van Ryneveld

    Dear Dr Wilkins

    I assume you are the same John Wilkins who wrote the article published in Panda’s Thumb about scientists who have nasty things to say about philosophers.

    I must admit that I have also – as an outsider – said that philosophy is nonsense, even though I secretly knew that this was an unreasonable position to take. I have here in my study a little book on aspects of philosophy for the general, untrained-in-philosophy public that really made me think hard and deep about things. Reading Lucretius was also a marvellously enriching experience.

    On the other hand, though, there have been philosophers who had the effrontery to tell scientists what their findings might be and what they might not be. On South African radio there is a Sunday programme on science and the natural world. One Sunday a letter was discussed that had been sent in by a person who identified himself as a retired philosophy professor at an English-language university. Obviously he wanted people to think this might have been the University of Cape Town or the University of the Witwatersrand (our two top universities) or even Rhodes University, but fact is that the universities established in Black homelands in apartheid days were also English-language institutions and on the whole they were no great shakes. Anyhow, this professor then loftily informed the members of the radio panel how and why they were completely wrong in trying to uphold the theory of evolution. You can imagine the kind of irritation that such an attitude on the part of a non-scientist causes among scientific people. One of the panellists, a professor in geochemistry, firmly put him in his place.

    More recently in 2010 a philosophy professor published a series of letters in the press in which he tried to run down the Darwin Year lectures on evolution offered by Free State University in Bloemfontein (more or less in the centre of South Africa). I have known this chap fairly well since school days; he is a very intelligent fellow and not too modest about the fact. He is the author of a book of about 800 pages entitled “Philosophy – Discipline of the Disciplines.” The title by itself is enough to raise one’s hackles.

    Anyway, Prof DFM (Danie) Strauss threw all kinds of philosophical terminology into his first letter, obviously to impress and confuse readers. Two scientists published letters refuting his efforts, one of them being a well-known South African paleontologist; for the rest some non-scientists wrote letters pointing out weaknesses in his argumentation. I was one of them and I suspect that Strauss will not greet me again if we should run into each other.

    He told me in a private e mail that he had actually read Stephen Jay Gould’s books and some others, which of course is commendable; however, for the rest he has NO post-graduate research experience in the biological sciences and he showed religious bias in one or two of his letters, making it quite clear that at heart he was afraid that his grade 4 Sunday School teacher could be right in saying that he would spend eternity in hell if he ever expressed any doubt about the literal veracity of Genesis (at least as far as the multitude of living species is concerned).

    He practised standard creationist tactics by carefully scrutinizing books by Gould and others and then quoting snippets in which the author seemed to be doubting his own theories (e.g. the famous one in which Gould says a secret of paleontologists is that there are no transitional fossils). In one case he quoted words by Richard Leakey directly from some creationist site – this was clear enough in that he even misspelled Leakey’s surname, a mistake often made by creationists.

    Later on, when reports on Hawking’s latest book appeared in the press, Strauss had the temerity to try to correct one of the world’s foremost physicists on his interpretation of physics.

    Although I am not a scientist myself (I have a bachelor’s degree in science, but that was mainly mathematical, and also two master’s degrees in Latin literature), I count several scientists among my friends. The general opinion among them is that few people have such inflated opinions about their own brilliance as Strauss. You may well imagine that in their thinking their chagrin taints philosophers and philosophy in general, although quite unfairly.

    As you pointed out in your article, some academics feel they have a duty to run down all other disciplines. For example, I know a physicist who disdains serious discussion with anyone who doesn’t have a PhD in physics, chemistry or mathematics. Pity, but there it is.

    And thanks for your articles on the philosophy of science which I have spotted on TalkOrigins and elsewhere; interesting and informative reading.

    Best wishes

    Louis van Ryneveld
    Darling
    Western Cape Province
    South Africa

    (Near the City of Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa)

  36. Bruce S. Springsteen Bruce S. Springsteen

    Another guy’s “take,” humbly submitted:

    I don’t think philosophy is useless. I just think the scope of its aspirations has been gradually reduced by the brute effectiveness of empirical exploration and physical description, methodically pursued — ie: Science.

    Philosophy is a well-developed and indispensably convenient program for exploring the structure of the conceptual and cultural products of human cognition, of the doings of our curious cortices in relation to one another and their intellectual environment. But when it tries to situate itself as the only or always best way to examine that class of phenomena, or launches into realms of pure abstraction untethered by experiment and experience, or tries to generalize, in an extravagant leap, from explaining the way we *think* to describing the way the universe and reality *are*, it stumbles and becomes stupid and distracting. The dogged, candid and even naive simplicity of science beats philosophy all to hell in that broader respect, as many scientists are correct to note (perhaps because reality itself is, in a sense, naive and under no obligation to honor our intellect and language).

    Philosophy certainly undergirds and makes possible our science, but only in the sense that science is done by human minds, using the kinds of shorthand and analogy that limited minds must use, in patterns that philosophy can help describe and organize. Since science is done with the mind, it’s important to have ways of helping the mind reflect and check on itself, and philosophy has done good work in that. “Philosophy of science” is useful in this way, and only this way — in describing the limits, peculiarities and pitfalls of our discourse, and alerting us to how those habits and constraints can confuse our inquiry — but not by setting arbitrary limits on inquiry based on philosophical dogma. That amount of influence should satisfy philosophers. Enough is enough for the wise.

    As I see it, the real issue and source of conflict here is not the overreaching presumption of science (aka “scientism”), but the presumptuous overreaching of philosophy (which I’ll call “philosophism,” just to return the favor). Philosophy tries to exert prior restraint on what things science can do, and science keeps impolitely marching forward and doing them anyway, just as it did (and still does) when warned by religion that it should not get too uppity (a favorite gambit of His Holiness the pope). The proof of these questions, of what approach can achieve what, is in the pudding, not in the philosophy journals or holy books.

    As with religion long since, philosophy is having a bit of discomfort getting its purview pruned, with the kinds of peevish protests being launched at the pruners that we have similarly heard from curtailed clerics, who don’t like having any part of their “magisterium” poached. Happily, we don’t have to decide any of these boundary questions in advance. All “sides” will go forward pursuing their preferred notions and methods, and time will tell what is what. I, for one, know which horse I’m betting on, if we find we are forced to declare a “winner” in the long run. The question is finally not theoretical, but empirical.

  37. Enjoyed the article and many of the followup comments. Good discussion, and I feel too humbled to add more than one small point.

    I perceive that the philosophical approach and yes also some aspects of philosophy as a body of ideas, do interact positively and in both directions with science.

    I see real progress in some branches of philosophy as a result of scientific findings, and real progress in science in some areas as a result of philosophical thinking. I don’t want to get into nit-picking the details of examples, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to do so anyway. It’s just a very strong impression I get from people who are much more expert than me in a wide range of fields both philosophical and scientific.

    I often read accounts by scientists of their essentially philosophical approach that helped them take a new perspective or refine their thinking when considering how to formulate or test a new theory. I often read accounts by philosophers of how scientific discoveries helped them refine their ideas or come up with new ones as well.

    Just a general impression from a layman who likes to read in both of these “realms”.

  38. Rik Smoody Rik Smoody

    Which of myriad gods do or don’t exist, all the questions of that sort, have not risen to the level of best hypothesis, and thus do not belong in science.

    Of the trans-finite number of possible hypotheses, almost all should simply be ignored.

    This does not prohibit someone from investigating an unlikely hypothesis. Wake us up when you find something.

  39. Scarwalker Scarwalker

    LMFAO. What merit is there in asking endless question? What merit is there in giving every single academic that exists 100% support? Why do you not ask “where did the concept of god come from”? Why is the human invented concept of god different than the human created concept of Superman? Did Superman create the universe? If that is an obviously answered question, why, when asked of god are your criteria different than for the Superman question? Why is asking questions while providing no answers so relevant again? Why is every question assumed by you to be of equal value? Why does the word “corporeal” disappear when you talk about what is real? Why not educate that we are all a hologram? How do you decide what is educationally relevant, besides the fact you wasted your time elevating the infinite stupid questions of philosophy to the realm of personal grandiosity because you studied it in school? Why would a PhD of nonsense be any different than a PhD of philosophy? Why is actual existence diminished by you monkey brained, linguistic shortcomings to the point that magic and science are equal? Why are you exempt from being an idiot who wasted time learning ancient brilliance like “the soul is more important than the body”? Why do you give credence to nonsense over sense? Why is the corporeal nonexistent when you start asking your stupid questions? What criteria do you use to judge your own grasp of “real”? Why is Thor not real? Why does everything you say come from a human framework? Why would the universe be fundamentally different if your monkey mind decided it was? Why would the Sun change itself to fit your musing? Why would the Earth flatten to meet the philosophy of men?
    NO questions are stupid?? Really?
    LMFAO!!!!
    Why is philosophy both useless and useful?
    When it deals in magic it is useless.
    Why are we not the dream of a slumbering god named Rick?
    Why are we a dream of a slumbering god named Rick?
    Why is Rick the god real?
    Why is Rick the god not real?
    What a fracking waste of time. Philosophy may have helped science, but it also helped magic, which doesn’t actually exist, except in the endless questions of philosophers?
    Why do you call these salient point attacks? Why should academics be immune to attacks? Why is an attack bad? Why is an attack wrong? Why is an attack undesirable? Why is an attack not a moose? Why is an attack identical to a moose?
    Anyone with free time to be a turd can be a philosopher.
    Can the same be said about a nuclear physicist?
    I asked questions endlessly, so, can you give me a PhD in Philosophy?
    How is this different that what you do?

Comments are closed.