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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

On the Krauss brouhaha re philosophers

This Atheist Examiner piece - with relevant links in case you don't know what I'm talking about - reports an apology from Lawrence Krauss for his incautious words about philosophers recently. Just as well, because I met Krauss briefly when I was in Melbourne and kind of liked the guy. I have yet to read his new book, A Universe From Nothing, however, and I'll be looking at it dispassionately.

I must admit that a lot of philosophy seems like pretty crazy stuff to me - as does most theology. But, once again, I'm not referring to, say, Peter Singer, or Daniel Dennett, or A.C. Grayling.

For any wild idea you care to imagine, you'll probably find a philosopher to take it up. That may not be a bad thing. Perhaps more importantly, for every piece of common sense, you'll find a philosopher to doubt it. But then again, I'm sometimes one of those who do the doubting. For example, I doubt (to say the least) that there are objective moral truths of the sort: "X-ing is morally wrong." I doubt lots of other things that are widely believed. I dispute the existence (and even intelligibility) of libertarian free will (though I also doubt that this is the folk conception of free will ... and it's not the philosophical meaning of "free will"). I dispute the existence of gods, which was an unthinkable position in the West only a few hundred years ago.  The sceptical doubts of philosophers have been of enormous value to our culture, and I'm glad to be in that tradition.

However, I do agree with Krauss that philosophers generally do best to follow the science where it leads. Scientific arguments are, of course, always open to criticism on the basis of the soundness of their logic. Still, we generally have to rely on what science reports back to us about the empirical facts of the universe, rather than thinking we can do better in our armchairs.


Myron said...

"Nowadays, for cosmologists and quantum theorists the nature of space-time, the scientific image as Sellars would have said, is up for grabs and in many a theorist's mind it is utterly different from the manifest image. Philosophers, I take it, must just follow the lead of natural science here, and natural science has so far produced no generally agreed-upon theory.
But if we follow the lead of natural science why do we not foreclose any appeal to metaphysics? Why not just hand over the inquiry to science? The answer is that there are a great number of notions that, following the lead of Gilbert Ryle and J. J. C. (Jack) Smart, we can call topic neutral notions. Instances are cause, class, property, relation, quality, kind, resemblance, quantity, number, substance, fact, truth, law of nature, power, and others. These notions are perfectly general, are very difficult to analyse and interconnect, and give rise to controversy, sometimes to bitter controversy, when we (and the 'we' here includes scientists as much as philosophers) try to discuss them. They are not exhausted by logic or mathematics. It is these sorts of notions, I suggest, that metaphysics strives to give a systematic account of."

(Armstrong, D. M. Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. p. 2-3)

GTChristie said...

No matter what someone might say about philosophy, they're doing philosophy when they say it.

Myron said...

"[T]he deference to empirical science displayed by the Logical Positivists is still a feature of much Anglo-American analytic philosophy, creating an intellectual climate inimical to the pursuit of speculative metaphysics. This hostility is paralleled in the popular writings of many scientists, who seem to think that any legitimate issues once embraced by metaphysics now belong exclusively to the province of empirical science—issues such as the nature of space and time, and the mind-body problem. Such writers are often blithely unaware of the uncritical metaphysical assumptions pervading their works and the philosophical naivety of many of their arguments. But it is ironic that the deference shown by many philosophers to the latest scientific theories is not reciprocated by the popularizing scientists, who do not conceal their contempt for philosophy in general as well as metaphysics in particular."

(Lowe, E. J. "Opposition to Metaphysics." In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, edited by Ted Honderich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. p. 559)

"The inescapability of metaphysics: ...One cannot get out of metaphysics. As soon as one admits that something exists—and one must do that—one has to admit that it has some nature or other. For to be is to be somehow or other. And as soon as one admits that it has some nature or other, either one has to hold that one knows what its nature is—in which case one endorses a particular metaphysical claim about the nature of reality—or one has to admit that one might be wrong about its nature, at least in the sense that one might have an incomplete picture of its nature—in which case one admits that there are various metaphysical possibilities, even if one can never know for sure which is correct.
The great flight from metaphysics culminated in verificationist positivism. But verificationist positivists do not escape from metaphysics. For even they grant that there are sense data. And if they go on to say that sense data are all that exist, they adopt a patently metaphysical position—one of the most amazing on record. They may instead say that sense data are all that we can know to exist, and admit that it is, after all, not actually meaningless or incoherent to suppose that other things may exist, things of which we have no conception, things, perhaps, of which we can have no conception. But if they admit this, they must be prepared to grant that in the case of sense data too, there may possibly be more to them than we know, or can know. Either sense data are mere contents with no hidden nature—and this is a form of radical metaphysical idealism—or they are not mere contents with no hidden natures and there is something more to them, in which case some other unknown and perhaps unknowable metaphysical possibility is realized. Either way, one is metaphysically committed. And yet the illusion persists—the illusion that one can be free of metaphysics."

(Strawson, Galen. Mental Reality. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. pp. 78-9)

Russell Blackford said...

Myron, what point are you trying to make?

Neil said...

It's worth pointing out that Krauss's original diatribe was a response to a philosopher demonstrating that he was wrong. One might draw a lesson about the value of philosophy, rather than its limits, from the affair.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I want to write something about this when I have the time. But I'm not sure I want to emphasize what scant legitimate justification there might be to criticize the discipline of philosophy, since Krauss shows no indication that he is aware of any. Krauss is wrong in a bad way, and saying, "well, philosophers really should be more in tune with science" is not even close to a justification for his behavior. He was criticized, and rightly. And his response, including his apology, is nowhere near what is called for.

Neil said...

It gets better: Albert now has highlighted some howlers in the *physics* in Krauss's work.

Jason Streitfeld said...

If you don't mind a little shameless self-promotion, unfortunately without the hope of monetary gain, here's my view on the brouhaha: Something From Nothing.

Verbose Stoic said...


"However, I do agree with Krauss that philosophers generally do best to follow the science where it leads. Scientific arguments are, of course, always open to criticism on the basis of the soundness of their logic. Still, we generally have to rely on what science reports back to us about the empirical facts of the universe, rather than thinking we can do better in our armchairs."

Well, it's not a good idea for philosophy to just follow science because often science has no clue where it's going. This is an excellent example, where Krauss is claiming to have something to say about the origins problem and ends up saying nothing because, ironically, he doesn't get what nothing is supposed to be IN that problem, and when that's pointed out he simply retreats to "Well, I don't care about philosophical nothing". Well, then, you don't care about the origins problem either.

There's no a priori conflict between science and philosophy, and yet they do come into conflict. I see philosophy as being primarily interested in concepts and science as being primarily interested in instances, and see all the problems as coming about when people conflate the two. Scientists get into trouble when they assume that the instances and the concepts are the same thing, and so that all they need to do is go and find all the qualities of an object in the empirical world and that, then, ends the discussion over what the concept is. This doesn't work because concepts have conceptual and instance properties, and you end up making all the instance properties conceptual ones if you go on that way. This leaves out interesting distinctions about concepts, and puts you in bad shape in dealing with new instances. For example, when Obi-Wan says of the Death Star "That's no moon", why ISN'T the Death Star a moon? That's a conceptual issue, not an empirical one.

On the other hand, philosophers get in trouble thinking that they can define all of the properties of objects in the world simply by deriving the conceptual ones, and then arguing that all instances must have those properties because all of those properties are conceptual and so required for all instances. This gets conceptual and instance properties confused and then makes predictions about objects that simply aren't the case.

Because concepts and instances of the concepts are obviously related, it will always be of use to the conceptual side to study the instances and always of use to the instance side to study the concepts. But they aren't the exact same thing, and forgetting that leads to most, I'd argue, of the disagreements between philosophy and science.