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On birds, and ornithologists, and mutual respect

Last updated on 4 Oct 2017

Some time back I had dinner with Pete Richerson, a well known ornithologist and biological theorist. He told me and the rest of the table an anecdote about hooded crows. It seems that in order to capture one to band, the ornithologists must sneak in the dead of night to set their traps, and if they make any noise, they have to go elsewhere as the birds will immediately leave. After many months, Pete’s team finally caught one, and banded it, and took it out of the sack they held it in to photograph it. The birds looked hard at each of those in the room and thereafter whenever one of them was in the field, even if they were in the midst of a crowd of tourists, they would be attacked by that bird. Moreover, all the other birds in the flock learned which individuals were being targeted, and they would also attack them. In the end, Pete’s team had to replace the students in the capture attempts.

There is no doubt that Pete respected hooded crows. They are wicked smart. In the attacking, I think there is a sense of respect by the birds, too. They respected what the ornithologists could do, and took action. It seems that a similar sense of “respect” is being given these days by a different bird.

Late last year I had a snarky post against a claim made by Mark Perakh, a well-known physicist and rationalist who shares several lists I read and with whom I have interacted, that the sole justification for the philosophy of science was its entertainment value. He was responding to Michael Ruse’s work on trying to make sense of the relation between science and religion. Perakh said

I dare to claim that the sole value of philosophy of science is its entertaining ability. I doubt that all the multiple opuses debating various aspects of the philosophy of science have ever produced even a minute amount of anything that could be helpful for a scientist, be he/she physicist, biologist, geologist, you name it. It can, though, be harmful, as the case of Ruse seems to illustrate.

Perakh is clearly not being novel about this. A comment ascribed (but nowhere to be found in any of his written words) to Feynman is

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds

I have blogged about this before [see here and here]; in fact I think the quote is due to Weinberg, and in any case is a reworking of a comment by Barnett Newman in 1952:

In a session with the philosopher Susanne Langer, Newman attacks professional aestheticians, saying: “I feel that even if aesthetics is established as a science, it doesn’t affect me as an artist. I’ve done quite a bit of work in ornithology; I have never met an ornithologist who ever thought that ornithology was for the birds.” He would later hone this remark into the famous quip, “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” [Thanks to reader MKR for spotting that]

What gets my gander is that Perakh, or more recently Lawrence Krauss, Hawking and Molodinow, and a steady stream of physicists, seem to think that while their own discipline is noble, authoritative and has extensive conceptual ramifications (that we should really call philosophical), my discipline is just “entertainment value”. In a rejoinder to me and others just posted, Perakh tries hard to back down from this, but it’s pretty clear that he, and his entire field, has a set against philosophy. Why is this?

It cannot be because they think philosophical issues and debates are unnecessary. Physicists since time immemorial (i.e., before 1900) have written philosophical tomes, both under the rubric of philosophy and under the rubric of physics. Give theoretical physicists ten minutes, and they will end up discussing philosophical questions. The problem is, they don’t want to discuss it philosophically: they want there to be a single correct answer (their own, of course). What irks them about philosophy, and in particular philosophy of science, is that we give initial credence to answers they don’t like. Not answers they have shown to be false, mind you, just answers they don’t think are true.

Consider Ruse’s argument that we should think about whether creationism should be treated educationally on a par with science (given the special conditions of American educational democracy and the Wall of Separation). Ruse ends up concluding well enough that the science is science and no religious view should be taught as science, but this is not enough for the physicists. He must also declare that science shows that religion and science are incompatible (a priori; another philosophical question), and that belief in Gods is irrational unless one happens to be a physicist like Paul Davies or Einstein who can use the term “God” to mean something else. Does anyone but me see the question begging in this?

So why do physicists among all scientists seem to fear philosophy of science so much they must attack it outright and deny it any intellectual standing? Why do they think philosophy is empty and physics has answered all the philosophical questions that matter (another philosophical question)? Reflect on Richerson’s hooded crows. Crows do not hate being studied – they simply have no idea they are being studied. They respond to ornithologists as if they were predators or competitors for resources. Scientists often respond to philosophers as if they were trying to compete for something, possibly scientific authority, which they think should be theirs alone.

Now some philosophy is silly. There is no doubt about that. Some of it isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Of course, some science is likewise silly, and worth less than the cost of printing it too. Also art, politics, etc. One might even make an inductive projection (a philosophical concept) that all human activities consist of mostly silly things (or, as science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once noted in defense of his genre, “90% of everything is crap”). A recent paper on medical research noted that most research cannot be replicated and suffers from bad statistics. So it is not a critique of philosophy that there are postmodern philosophers. Nor is it a critique of the authority of science that there is bad science (another philosophical argument). But if philosophers of science in the Dark Ages (before around 1970) tried to tell scientists what to do, it doesn’t follow that either we are trying to rein the horses, or that we are trying to do that now. That isn’t what we do. We don’t need to advocate for science, although I would expect that any serious philosopher of science takes the content of science to be exemplary knowledge most or at least some of the time. As Locke wrote, philosophy’s duty is to clear the undergrowth for science, not to do it.

If one wants to wear both the mantle of rationality and the authority of knowledge, however, one cannot make simple assertions without considering all sides of the debate, which is what Ruse is doing. You can’t just say “Science tells us this so it is true” when it is an open question whether or not science actually does tell us that (a philosophical question). Authority in rational debates comes from giving argument and not merely making assertions. And that means that the arguments must be permitted to be made without simply calling anyone who considers them “irrational:. They are the very opposite of irrational. What is irrational is the a priori assumption that a view is false without considering arguments for and against.

I note that Perakh does a little bit of smelly fish dragging by saying that he has been called names before by the ID crowd. The implicit argument here is that IDevotees called him names, philosophers called him names, so philosophers must be like IDevotees in other respects. The number and range of fallacies involved in that little bit of rhetoric are extensive. And this raises what I think is the point about this whole schemozzle. Sophistry.

It’s yet another philosophical point. Sorry about this, but it seems that philosophy keeps creeping into our discussion. Since Plato wrote The Sophist and Aristotle followed it up with his On Rhetoric and Posterior Analytics, we have made a distinction between reasoned argument and the use of rhetorical tricks to gain assent. If somebody asserts that science has disproven religion but blocks any further discussion of what it is to disprove a hypothesis – the meat and drink of the philosophy of science – one has to suspect what is going on is sophistry not reasoning. The fact that many of those who do this in the name of science do it under the title of “rationality” (another term for reason) is itself a rhetorical trick.

Perhaps philosophy of science has contributed nothing to the doing of science. It’s a possible claim, although I think it is empirically and historically false. Suppose it were true. Does that mean we can dismiss philosophy as “empty” (Hawking and Mlodinow) or “noise” (Krauss) or “entertainment” (Perakh)? Suppose I say that philosophy is how the important, nontrivial questions are resolved, and that physics, for all its practical value, is just something that people do for “diversion”? Is that warranted without further discussion? Of course not, and it would be massively disrespectful of a venerable field of interest and investigation.

There is something going on here, but it isn’t the vapidity of philosophy, or scientists would not try, constantly and persistently, to make philosophical claims. It looks, for all the world, like the physicists don’t want anyone to actually test their arguments and ideas. They look like they want the authority, but without much in the way of accountability, of philosophy. So all we philosophers (and fellow travellers like the occasional historian of science) are asking for is a bit of respect. We’ve earned it. We have studied not only the content of our target sciences, but the history and sociology of those sciences. We have learned three distinct fields to some degree of competence, in order to make our arguments. You might think we are trying to supplant you but by and large we aren’t, you know. In fact, if anything it is scientists who keep moving into the philosophy of science (and at least one of those, Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist turned philosopher, has attacked this know-nothingness of the physicists).

A friend of mine is Kristian Camilleri, a philosopher of physics, and he recently argued in a talk I attended that there was once a time when physicists thought it their professional duty to discuss philosophy with the philosophers (Einstein, Bohr and others being exemplary cases), but that after the war, and with the professionalisation of philosophy this receded. I don’t know to what extent this is a reaction to the strictures of Popper (something we philosophers of science have had a few words to say about also), or whether this is simply a matter of territorial expansion and pissing around the perimeter. But surely the justification for the philosophy of science is no more about what contribution it makes to the practice of science any more than the justification for ornithology (and indeed any science, including physics) is the contribution it makes to what it studies.

A philosopher of science, demanding respect in a civil fashion.

I think they call this “flipping the bird.”


  1. I have to say, speaking as a non-philosopher, it always irks me to hear scientists complaining about philosophers of science. They sound a bit like theatre directors complaining about critics. The big difference, though, is that, while there is no right or wrong way to direct a play, there are right and wrong ways to do science. The philosopher’s job, it seem to me, is to point this out.

    • Well I am the academic grandchild of someone who wrote:

      It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, ‘objectivity’, ‘truth’, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes. [Paul K. Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), 27-8.]

  2. If the ornithological analogy was correct, teaching a physicist philosophy should be like teaching it a parrot proper reasoning.

  3. The crow tale has an instructive sequel: basically, the researchers took to wearing George W. Bush masks during trapping. Applied to philosophy/physics, I think this means John has to pretend he’s an administrator if he wants to discuss philosphy with physicists.

  4. Kniffler Kniffler

    I think the physicist looks at physics, and sees an outcrop of natural philosophy that has generated vast amounts of knowledge, and put men on the moon, etc. etc., then looks at philosophy (of science), and sees an outcrop of natural philosophy that has generated no knowledge, and still has similar arguments it’s been having for centuries, with any updates to them informed by advances in… physics!

    Maybe this is birds complaining that ornithologists don’t make impressive nests?

  5. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Steps back from the debate and metaphorically looks on through squinty eyes.

    It seems to me that some people do not respect the contribution of philosophy of science. This could be because:
    1) Philosophy is really neat but has poor PR
    2) Philosophy is no longer valued as much as it used to be
    3) Everybody else outside Philosophy is wrong
    4) Philosophy claims much but fails to deliver.

    I’m sure there are other reasons and combinations of reasons to mull over. Now I think philosophy of science has much to recommend it, but it is tainted with the failure of other parts of philosophy to come to anything like a consensus (about anything really).

    Complaining about critics and claiming that all deep thought is an example of philosophy just seem… self defeating. Perhaps you need to re-brand and re-launch philosophy of science?

  6. Philosophy, what is it good for? A question I’ve been thinking about for awhile, mostly in the context of something called object-oriented ontology. Here’s the answer I came up with:

    The scope of metaphysics thus DOES range over all the disciplines, as Harman asserted. And a general theory of objects is critical to this endeavor. But we need to augment that theory with a conception of patterns over objects and relations that are so consistent and widespread as to constitute Realms of Being.

    It is the job of the metaphysician to identify those Realms. To do this the metaphysician must needs consult with in the many specialized disciplines, not to critique nor to reconstruct, but learn. What must the metaphysician learn? Whatever is necessary to get the job done.

    That will have to be negotiated, negotiated among metaphysicians and specialists, and among metaphysicians themselves. I see no way of setting guidelines before the fact. The only thing to do is to wade in and get muddy with details.

    Alas, that probably doesn’t mean much without the preceding argumentation, and that’s a bit of a slog, and a murky one at that. BTW, for what it’s worth, that slog was undertaken in part under the influence of that academic grandpa of yours.

  7. So why do physicists among all scientists seem to fear philosophy of science so much they must attack it outright and deny it any intellectual standing?

    I seriously doubt that physicists fear it at all.

    • They fear the doing of it, or else why attack?

      • Bullies, by the way, fear their likes and compensate on someone weaker instead.

      • Because they sincerely believe they are right, and that advocating other views is wrong and undermines truth. I’m not saying they’re right in their beliefs, I’m just offering it as a possible answer to the question.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    I was surprised to discover from reading Mark Perhak’s post that physics has demonstrated as a matter of fact that my former next door neighbour does not exist (an electronic composer with a strong interest in certain aspects of musicology).

    I look forward to reading the paper on the science behind this phenomena.

  9. Friar Broccoli Friar Broccoli

    I think implications of Feynman’s comment:
    “Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”

    can easily be turned on its head. In fact ornithology does help birds: Since we are dominate on our planet, our desire to protect things we find attractive is really important to birds. Ornithologists are key to explaining to politicians and society at large how birds can best be protected.

    Seems to me the exact same argument can be made about philosophers of science and science.

  10. Jeb Jeb

    “how birds can best be protected.”

    Or how they are to be understood.

    Its difficult to do from the outside as arguments like this seem clearly designed for internal in-group consumption.

    Sitting on the outside you can grasp the emotional intensity, note the repetition, see the frantic and energetic flag waving but the signals are utterly meaningless and make little sense as you lack the specific local cultural context and detail which allows these cultural games to work effectively and be perceived as memorable and meaningful.

  11. PGS PGS

    Etienne Gilson: “Philosophy always buries its undertakers” (1949).
    (This quote came up several times in discussions of Hawking’s recent book.)

    • It’s a nice passage in context too:

      The so-called death of philosophy being regularly attended by its revival, some new dogmatism should now be at hand. In short, the first law to be inferred from philosophical experience is: Philosophy always buries its undertakers.

      Against this law, the ready objection is that, this time at least, the pitcher went once too often to the well. It is in the very nature of objections against philosophy to be unphilosophical; but philosophy itself is bound to answer in a careful and thoughtful way even arbitrary objectors. [The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p246]

      I demur. It is time to be harsh and tub-thumping. Well, I will be, even if other more thoughtful people will not. 🙂

      • That inspires my to an epic non-sequitur: “Funeral by funeral philosophy advances!”

        • One more quote-fusion:

          Being in the habit of burying their undertakers, I finally undrestand the inordinate fondness of zombies by philosophers.

      • Jeb Jeb

        I sometimes suspect after reading academic debates that the ancient philosophical system of the Aelosts may be correct, or at least the rhetorical style, techniques and the tub and funnel technology of their “oratorical machines” still somewhat popular.

        Personally I think you need a plug or cork rather than a tub to take the wind out of these sails.

  12. Well, you know, traditionally philosohpy has tried to make sense of the whole shebang. That’s a job that still needs being done and philosophers ought to hop to it. ‘Cause we surely don’t want to leave it to John Brockman’s stable of Third Culture flacks or to New Yorker flacks.

  13. John S. Wilkins:
    They fear the doing of it, or else why attack?

    Why are you interpreting as an attack, rather than as an open expression of opinion (and perhaps of contempt)?

  14. L.W. Dickel L.W. Dickel

    And then Jesus came upon his disciples and said, “Brethren, regarding the rumor that I am to be a human sacrifice for the sins of humankind. May I asketh, who in the goddamn hell came up with that Neanderthal bullshit!!!!!? What are we, living in the fucking Stone Age!!? Blood sacrifice!!!!!? Art thou all fucking insane!!!?

    Listen, brethren, as I tell you something of utmost importance. Stop with the blood sacrifice bullshit. It’s a ridiculous, disgusting, sickening, vile, wicked, evil, irrational bunch of Cro-Magnon donkey shit. And it makes us all look like a bunch of ignorant, deranged lunatics. For fucks sake, stop it!”–Jesus Christ, the Thinking Man’s Gospel.

  15. An attempt at a reason:

    Physicists adhere to the strict rule of experimental evidence. Experimental evidence is both the final referee on debates, and a critical feedback, without which all physics is mere mathematical speculation.

    Hence, Physicists would naturally be very suspicious towards any domain of inquiry which does not follow the same principle. If the physicist is trained to accept only truth which is experimentally refutable, and discards all else as gibberish, he is bound to be very suspicious towards the tougher disciplines of Humanities and Social Sciences in which experimental evidence is hard to come by, and even harder to incorporate.

    • Einstein did not adhere to that strict rule. He’s supposed to have said: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

      Apart from that, philosophers of science can tell you about facts being theory laden, falsificationism being naive, etc.

      But why do you think – or do you – that philosophers of science does not regard empirical evidence as relevant? They are often probably more concerned about it than a scientist running away on his hobby-horse.

      • I agree, but what are the facts that a philosopher of science regard?
        These are “facts” not about the simply-measurable physical world, but about history and sociology, about belief systems. As such, they are much harder to quantize and evaluate.

  16. Sam C Sam C

    Richard Carter, FCD:
    I have to say, speaking as a non-philosopher, it always irks me to hear scientists complaining about philosophers of science. They sound a bit like theatre directors complaining about critics.

    That’s probably an apt analogy. An understandable reaction to negative criticism is an irritated: “if you know so much about how these things should be done, how come you haven’t ever done anything? Come back and criticise me when you’ve shown you can do better!”.

    Put in another way: regardless of the quality of the philosophy or the quality of the science being expounded, there’s the anthropological/sociological issue that “respect” has to be earned to establish the speaker’s position in the pecking order and gain the “right” to criticise.

    The big difference, though, is that, while there is no right or wrong way to direct a play, there are right and wrong ways to do science. The philosopher’s job, it seem to me, is to point this out.

    But isn’t that the job of scientists in the peer group?

    There’s also the “incompetent but unaware” effect (the Dunning-Kruger effect. Even technically able people reliably under-estimate their incompetence in or ignorance of other fields. So I suspect philosophers typically under-estimate their ignorance of science, and scientists under-estimate their ignorance of philosophy, at least in the view of their “opponents”.

    And in this bun-fight, the crucial sociological/anthropological aspects (that might clarify the issue) are ignored by both sides as neither has that knowledge!

  17. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    Most biologists would state that evolution via random mutation and natural selection (you can throw in drift too if you like) is sufficient to explain the appearance of humans and the human brain and the brain is sufficient to explain consciousness/mind. Lately a few philosophers have stated that sure it is sufficient (we will discount those philosophers who don’t think its sufficient), but it is not necessary and assistance from gods is still possible – which, of course, is true. The problem I have is that without a mechanism for how gods do this ( insert mutations into DNA for instance) or how gods do anything as supposed non-physical minds, it is just empty words (mystery?, outside science?). It adds nothing to the conversation except to give succor to theists. Am I missing something?

  18. Jim Thomerson Jim Thomerson

    In regard to the hooded crow story, I have always thought if you were going to hassle an animal to weigh and measure it and mark it, that you should give the animal something in return. Maybe give the crow a piece of a Slim Jim. The trick would be to find the balance between the crow not being mad at you, and not hassling you for more food.

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