Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dusting off my knees

Science is a philosophy.

That, of course, is not all that it is; it is in many ways much less than that.  But let's start there.  Philosophy does not spring from science, any more than all human knowledge does.  Science is a type of knowledge, and a body of knowledge, and a philosophy.  All of those in part; and in this case, to be sure, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.  Some of the parts, in fact, are greater than the whole that is "science."

I start this because of a post at Thought Criminal in which Neil DeGrasse Tyson, rather like Carl Sagain before him, displays the limits of his understanding.  Ignorance is not criminal, unless you parade it as knowledge, or a replacement for knowledge.  I got wordy over there, and had to bring the discussion over here.

That post led me to the "original" post, and the comments there.  I didn't think much of the commenter there (somite, @toxicpath) who admonished philosophers to mind their place and show due deference to scientists.  But it took me a moment to realize that even the commuters who ably countered somites rather sophomoric points were themselves still tugging their forelock before the altar of science.

And that bugged me.

Science does not have access to, nor establish the grounds for, what is "true."  Another commenter there said science is concerned with what "exists," never for a moment considering what the word "exists" means in that sentence, or how it could be applied to a stone, a cat, and an individual, with very different purpose each time (while all the time purportedly never changing the meaning of the word).  DeGrasse Tyson himself said in the interview:  "All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas."  Which is just a little bit silly.  But the silliness inheres in the attempt to not do what one must do when discussing abstract concepts: engage in philosophy.

Because we simply cannot escape philosophy; and the idea that science is somehow an objective discussion of what is true (or what "exists") is itself a philosophical position.

And a damned untenable one.  But almost every comment at that post (well, perhaps now I'm being unfair; I made no attempt to read 50 of them, no to mention 240 or so) defers to the validity of science as a standard of truth, a kind of deference that is simply "faith-based" (in the Hebrews 11 version of "the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen").  I daresay if you dropped Kuhn into that argument there would first be a half-dozen responses about how Kuhn is widely misinterpreted, followed by a half-dozen more that Kuhn is simply wrong, all because science is, at its heart, about "truth!"

I don't mind the scientists being that ignorant (in that they join religious fundamentalists, for whom a little knowledge is also a dangerous thing), but I do mind when the apologists for philosophy start from the premise that science must be acknowledged as co-equal, if not supreme.

Sorry, but philosophy was here first; and as Hume pointed out, all science can really tell us is analytical statements which are variations on: "This stone is heavy."  Science can lead to products like the computer I type on, or even the vaccines that keep me healthy and the medicines I take to stay healthy; but such work on such matters is done by technicians, by engineers.  Theorists like Tyson or Hawkings work in a rarified atmosphere where engineers aren't supposed to tread; much like the once rarified air of the theologians, v. the priests who dealt with birth, death, disease, and despair among the "messy" lives of real people.

The Greeks understood this.  They even had a name for it.  "Techne," they called it.  It was the knowledge that made buildings like the Parthenon stand, even to this day, without mortar or cement.  It was useful, "techne."  But it wasn't as important as "sophia."  We don't remember the builders of the Parthenon, except among Classics scholars perhaps.  We all know who Plato was; and Socrates.  And Tyson forgets that the logic he prizes so highly in science (but clearly doesn't practice nearly so well) was the product of Aristotle; and refined by philosophers through the ages, including the greatest logician since Aristotle, and friend to Einstein at Princeton:  Kurt Godel (sorry, can't do the umlaut here).

I doubt if Tyson read Godel's Theorem he would understand it.  Does that mean we should dismiss it?

Science can tell us the stone is heavy; engineering can tell us some interesting things we can do with that knowledge.  When you reduce it to the fundamentals, that is really all science is capable of.  It cannot tell us to use the antibiotics we discovered in the 1940's (not yet 100 years ago!) wisely; which is why we face a risk of anti-biotic resistant diseases.  It cannot tell us to use vaccines wisely; and so we face a return of polio, whooping cough, and no doubt German measles.  Science can create these things; but it cannot teach us anything about wisdom.

And in just those two examples, I can ask:  without wisdom, what good is the knowledge given to us by science?

DeGrasse Tyson recently pointed out that the dinosaurs couldn't see the asteroid coming that wiped them out, but we can see climate change coming and have no excuse for not responding to it.  We caused it, after all.  But science made that destruction possible.  True, science can, arguably, also make the cure possible:  but can science make us implement it?  In the simplest terms of Mr. Godel's incompleteness theorem, there are questions science can raise ("What do we do now?") that can only be answered in areas completely outside science.  Science has power; but it does not have the power to make us other than human.  Wisdom is also human; and wisdom also deals with what exists, which is to say, human beings and our existence.  Science explains the material world to us.

It doesn't help us much to understand how we should then live in it.

I was equally bemused by comments at the post arguing there are whole fields of knowledge, as well as philosophical terms, which should be discarded.  Theology, of course, must go; because:  positivism, basically.  "Dualism" should also be expunged; but I ask, very practically, what you replace it with.  Does the writer of that comment even understand how different the conception of the human was before Augustine?  Harold Bloom argues it changed again (or for the first time, perhaps; I don't quite agree with Bloom, when you get down to it) with Shakespeare.  I think it changed again with Wordsworth, who following on Locke taught us that the child is father to the man, an idea we all now identify with Freud and, while no one is a Freudian anymore, try imagining that your childhood didn't lay the foundation for your adulthood, or that you don't do things due to "unconscious" promptings; or that "brain" and "mind" are not two different concepts, indeed, two distinctly different realms.*

Expunge "dualism"?  Go ahead; try it.  Good luck to you chasing down all the metaphors, assumptions, presumptions, and embedded concepts that are as natural to you as your own fingernails.  Indeed, try to think of "you" as being, as the Hebrews did, in your fingers as much as your "guts," in your ears as much as your toes, and that your brain is not separate from the rest of you, that you are not encased in a skull and staring out through two eyes.  Go ahead, try to imagine it is not so, that if you are as paralyzed as the man in "The Butterfly and the Diving Bell," you are still you in your now functionless toes, not "you" locked in the cell of yourself up in that matter atop your neck.

Go ahead; reimagine that, and like Augustine and Wordsworth, make it stick this time for all Western civilization.  Please, I'm asking:  make it so.

I'd love to see the results; because right now, they are literally unimaginable.  Perhaps it can be done; but you can't do it by just expunging words from your vocabulary, or claiming certain ideas "foolishness."

But go ahead; it would amuse me to see you try.

*That would be an interesting question to put to Tyson: what does science have to say about being human?  Anthropology, sociology, psychology; these are not the "hard" sciences that physics and cosmology are.  And can the former provide an adequate answer to the question?  Does Tyson speak to his beloved in terms of anthropology and psychology, or in those vague "ideas" of "love"?  What is love?  Does it exist for science?  How, then, can we say it exists at all?  Away with it!


  1. After I wrote that post I did a bit more digging and found out about a really dirty and interesting cat fight that began when the Columbia philosopher (and Rockefeller U PhD in theoretical physics) David Albert wasn't so impressed with NDT's fellow celebrity scientist-religion antagonist Larry Krauss's A Universe from Nothing. Like a lot of us Albert wasn't too impressed that Krauss's "nothing" was far from "nothing" and Krauss (as every other theoretical physicist) failed to say where his something-"nothing" came from. He called the book, among other things "pale, small, silly and nerdy" . Krauss had a tantrum about that in The Atlantic


    and generally making a fool of himself (Dawkins did to, for he compared Krauss's book with On the Origin of Species).

    Well, it would seem that, as well as other fall out Albert was invited to debate with Krauss, a couple of other physicists and someone else on this topic at Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History. Only, and here's the kicker, Neil DT was in charge of it and he disinvited Albert, coming up with some ridiculous excuse about a change of format and topic, though, as Albert pointed out, neither of those changed. He said he suspected that Krauss refused to show if Albert wasn't dropped and, as a one celebrity sci-guy to another, Tyson disinvited him. Which is a lot more plausible than Tyson's excuse.

    Pigliucci had interesting things to say in an article dealing with Krauss's Atlantic diatribe as well.


    I don't have the time to write it up, if you feel inclined I'd love to read your take on it. You might want to see what Peter Woit had to say about it


    And even Jerry Coyne (who I think I've only ever recommended to show how deranged he is)


    Alas, it's planting time and I have no time for writing up this cat fight. I have to say, Tyson and Krauss and Dawkins are pretty sleazy operators for heroes of rationalism.

  2. Thanks! Reading!

    And this post is not "better" than yours. I like to think of them as a palimpsest: complimentary views of the same subject.

    I merely wanted to tag on.

  3. I forgot, from the end of Pigliucci's article above, from Lee Smolin (and it couldn't be more relevant to your post)

    “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 historical 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.” (Albert Einstein)

  4. And, at first blush and the first link, the comments present the usual round 'n' round that one would probably get at any academic gathering of philosophers: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    I've found valuable thinking (be it Aristotle, Aquinas, Derrida, or Hemingway, Dillard, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or even Berry) stands by itself and explanations of it are sometimes helpful, but there are lots of critiques which are mere sniping meant to establish the critics intellectual street creed.

    More and more I care less and less about street creed. If you have nothing to add, go away. Especially if you just want to carp. Enough of straining at gnats and swallowing camels!

    That said, I still think if I wandered into the discussion, or the original post, and stated assertively that "Science is a philosophy," it would put the fox among the hens so badly the squawking would never die down.

    I'll read the rest later and see if I can manage a better response to Krauss's position (which seems as intellectually bereft as anything on atheism by Dawkins).

  5. N.B. There is a long sub-discussion in the notes about dualism, which neither establishes nor disestablishes it from our Western thinking, but does prove how intractable it is.

    Unless you take the implicit position of the critic of dualism, that only what which is empirically knowable is valid. Which leaves out all the reasons we live in civilization, for a start; and so is itself a form of dualism (valid/invalid).

    So it goes....

  6. As for the discussion of "nothing" which started that contretemps, all I can add right now is Lear's response to Cordelia: "Nothing? Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again."

  7. It's my blog, I'll clog up the comments: I do like the idea that Dawkins is so dim and out of touch he thinks Krauss's book will finally dispel the "proof of God" from design (the absent watchmaker) and of creation ex nihilo.

    When the people who still cling to either idea aren't going to care what Krauss or Dawkins have to say, and are a minority of the thinking Christians who will pay attention to what Dawkins or Krauss have to say.

    And be completely unperturbed by it. Honestly, the man sees the entire world as a mirror reflecting his intellectual visage. It's pitiful.

  8. Coyne, from his blog post about Albert's review of Krauss' book:

    "For religion rests on beliefs that are assumed to be true, and if you erode those beliefs you erode religion—and with it many of its inimical effects."

    Wrong. Completely, wholly, wrong. An insult to Aquinas, Augustine, even Wittgenstein. I would direct Coyne to William James for a response on point, but honestly: that's just as ignorant as saying the universe came absolutely from nothing.

    Nothing will come of nothing; and ignorance is a kind of nothing, from which nothing comes.

    Here's the link: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/david-albert-pans-lawrence-krausss-new-book/

  9. My blog has never been in danger of clogging since I decided to moderate comments. It was only ever in danger of clogging with hate comments before, most of them from a washed up pop music scribbler. I can't even get quality hecklers.

  10. Best neologism from a suspected typo: "Street creed"

  11. Probably an autocorrect, in fact.

    My phone and my computer both conspire against me.

  12. I hate spell-check. Leaving things the way I typed them shows me to be a bad speller. Changing them to words I didn't intend makes me look like an idiot.