Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Philosophy Rules

I wanted to link this particular editorial from the IoP's monthly magazine, but it's not up on the web yet. So I'll give you a synopsis. The editorial is "Critical Point: Philosophy rules" by Robert P. Crease, in the August 2011 edition of Physics World.
"Philosophy is dead." So say the venerable physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on the first page of their recent bestselling book, The Grand Design.
Physicists declaring philosophy to be lifeless is nothing new.... Why do physicists so often, and confidently, condemn a field that is not their own? Where are their instincts to be inquisitive, resist overstepping what they know, withhold judgment until certain and accompany claims with error bars?...
For philosophers, the world includes more than physical matter. As the Harvard University philosopher Steven Shapin writes in his book, Never Pure, "Plants photosynthesize, plant biochemists are experts in knowing how plants photosynthesize, [while] reflective and informed students of science are experts in knowing how plant biochemists know how plants photosynthesize." In other words, the world studied by science researchers includes not just objects, but also connections between scientists and objects.
Human beings, after all, engage with the world in different ways.... [S]cientists are not like plants whose product is knowledge.... Human beings... interpret both the world and themselves....
Hawking's theoretical stance as an observer of fundamental structures, too, is only one way for humans to engage with the world, and not the default setting either....
The lifeworld is the domain to which philosophers bring their torch of discovery. They study similarities and differences between various modes of being in the world.... To study this is not to undermine or critique these activities, but to understand and help cultivate them.
The critical point, Crease argues, is that philosophers do not attempt to "adopt a 'view from nowhere'," but instead, "when philosophers think about science, they struggle to be self-aware of that horizon and how it affects human self-interpretation." Philosophers approach the same questions in a different way. "Philosophy has moved on and remained current since the time of Plato's Academy in Athens, despite physicists' assertions to the contrary," Crease points out. And we scientists would be well advised to realize how similar our own assertions sound to those of the anti-evolution establishment. We know that the science of evolution has itself evolved since Darwin's initial postulations; why do we not afford the same courtesy to philosophy?
On the first page of his book Subtle is the Lord..., the physicist Abraham Pais reports a discussion with Einstein in which the latter asked Pais if he "really believed that the Moon exists only if I look at it." One could hardly think of a deeper, more challenging question about the concept "to exist." Yet Pais smoothly characterizes the conversation as "not particularly metaphysical." Discussing the meaning of reality is ok, evidently, so long as it is done in an amateur way.


  1. That is a very nice post. But I think some distinctions might be helpful. My impression is that some areas of philosophy are defunct while others continue to be essential. And I would divide them along psychological/cosmological lines, where the former continue to be of great significance (epistemology, philosophy of religion, aesthetics, ethics), while the latter have been rendered defunct (ontology, metaphysics in general).

    My philosopher of the week, Don Cupitt has a nice passage on Platonism and the quest for an "ultimate reality", for instance:

    "It will be obvious that I reject outright this whole train of argument, starting with the appearance/reality distinction. After Darwin we were certain eventually to recognize that there is for us only one world, this world, the human lifeworld, that is, the world of our communicative and historical life, the world our language gives us. Any move to downgrade our world to the status of 'mere appearance' and to urge us to seek a 'more real' world elsewhere, is not the first step towards salvation. It is the fall: it alienates us from the only world and the only life we'll ever have"

  2. Hey, Burk - unfortunately, I don't have the full editorial in front of me at the moment, but I know Crease touched on what you mention. He lists several reasons why philosophy can generally be misunderstood, and one of those reasons was the degree of specialization: just as, in science, there are highly specific subfields which are hard to place inside the larger picture, in philosophy there is a degree of specialization that (instead of rendering philosophy defunct) prevents the "horizon" from being seen. Not having degrees in forestry, we can't see for the trees... as the saying goes.


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