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
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.
I think they call this “flipping the bird.”