Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

19 June 2011

Sunday


A few days ago in The Truth is Out There I twice made reference to anti-philosophy among scientists. I wrote, for example, the following:

“While Ferris frequently invokes the kind of anti-philosophy that I have become accustomed to encountering in the writings of scientists, he also cites philosophers has diverse as Hegel and Wittgenstein…”

And…

“…despite the fashionable anti-philosophy of many scientists, that often leads them to say unkind things about purely philosophical inquiry, I see the enterprises of science and philosophy as parallel undertakings…”

What do I mean by the “anti-philosophy” of many scientists? Usually, and unfortunately, it simply takes the form of ad hominem abuse of philosophers while cribbing ideas that the scientists don’t understand, and often don’t even realize that they are cribbing. I will give two examples. Here is Leonard Susskind:

“…many physicists throughout the second half of the twentieth century considered the pursuit of such a unifying theory to be worthless, fit only for crackpots and philosophers.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, 2009

And here is Stephen Hawking:

“We have known for twenty-five years that Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that time must have had a beginning in a singularity fifteen billion years ago. But the philosophers have not yet caught up with the idea.”

Stephen W. Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, 1994

It would be relatively easy to multiply quotes of this character; they are regrettably common, and one must wonder why, because philosophers do not even register on the radar of the popular mind. Why should we find denunciations of philosophers and philosophy in popularizations of science by eminent physicists? I have a hard time imagining that either Susskind or Hawking would make comments like these about, say, novelists or biologists.

I have chosen the quotes from Susskind and Hawking strategically, since each represents a different side of a long-running scientific controversy, a controversy that is related in Susskind’s book cited above. Though these two physicists found themselves on opposite sides of a scientific controversy, they apparently have common ground in their use of philosophers as straw men.

I am listening to Susskind’s book now, and while I enjoy it, I can feel the limitations that arise from anti-philosophy. What happens when you reject Western civilization’s storehouse of carefully thought out ideas? You end up citing science fiction authors to make your point, as Susskind employs Heinlein’s “grok” in the opening pages of his book. There is a vast philosophical literature on intuitive knowledge and understanding, but Susskind prefers to neglect this and employs “grok” instead. No doubt he believes this to be clearer.

There is a sense in which the Susskind reference to Heinlein is appropriate, since I recall that Heinlein himself was anti-philosophical. When I was a child I read a great many science fiction novels, a great quantity in fact, and Heinlein was among my favorites, but I can remember even then, thirty years ago and before I discovered philosophy, I wondered why Heinlein had bothered to malign philosophy. In fact, it was just this attitude, garnered from many diverse sources, that eventually made me sufficiently curious that I began to read philosophy myself. I discovered something else, something unexpected, when I began to read philosophy: I found that I was thinking for myself, and that I felt no particular obligation to follow the thoughts of others unless they gave me good reason to do so.

It has become a commonplace in contemporary intellectual discourse to note (and to bemoan the fact) that intelligent and educated people see no stigma attached to saying that they know nothing of mathematics. Even here we can cite Heinlein again: “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.” Well, it also seems to be true that many scientists not only attach no stigma to ignorance of philosophy, but many of them take a perverse pride in their science being “uncontaminated” by philosophy, not realizing that this ignorance means that they make elementary philosophical errors based on elementary philosophical presuppositions and never seem to notice or be the least bit troubled by it.

The problem is not that scientists make philosophical errors and philosophical assumptions; the problem is that they fail to acknowledge that they do so. Mathematicians make a particular effort to make their assumptions explicit. This is called axiomatization. But philosophical assumptions lie even deeper than mathematical assumptions, and are therefore all the more difficult to make explicit. An effort is required. But without the effort, we literally don’t know what we’re doing.

Louis Althusser wrote a book about the spontaneous philosophy of scientists, and I have always thought that this was a particularly apt phrase. Scientists come up with a theory on the spot, as it were, and such theories are as easily discarded. It is easy to see how this serves scientific practice. Too careful and studied a reliance on a research program dictated by a philosophical theory would probably quickly turn sterile. This does not, however, excuse either ignorance or ad hominem attacks.

Scientists are instinctive phenomenologists, in so far as they share with Husserl a desire to formulate their knowledge utterly free from presuppositions, and, at very least, free from philosophical presuppositions. But this ideal of presuppositionless knowledge is a philosophical undertaking, so that it becomes a problematic enterprise for scientists. The alternative to making one’s presuppositions explicit is to leave them implicit, and when we add anti-philosophy to implicit presuppositions we have a situation in which it becomes unacceptable to acknowledge a presupposition even if, in the back of one’s mind one begins to be dimly conscious of the fact that there is more going on in scientific experiment and theory than pure observation. Thus the scientist who denies the role of philosophy in knowledge is put in a position antithetical to that of the mathematician, being committed, as he is, to denying and obscuring his presuppositions. Thus there is a sense in which fashionable anti-philosophy is a rejection of the very idea of rigorous axiomatic thinking.

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6 Responses to “Fashionable Anti-Philosophy”

  1. Eduardo Medina said

    This is such a pertinent post!

    In recent experience, I have encountered this so called “skeptics” circus, just to find out the dangerously and short sighted scientificism from which they proclaim a so called scientific search for the true, ridiculously free from any philosophical construction, as if that aspiration isn’t a philosophical construction itself.

    But as scientific knowledge (or should I say: popular simplistic faith in science) becomes the new religion of the masses, a middle-ages dogmatism became ironically the skeptics’ ideal of protecting “the true”.

    Have you got to read: “Choosing Reality” by B. Alan Wallace? He has some seriously sharp comments about the issue you’re addressing here.

    Badiou’s “Manifesto for Philosophy” is one I’m sure you’re familiar with.

    Best wishes and thanks for this post.

    Your friend: Eduardo.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Eduardo,

      Thanks much for reading this. I’m glad you found it to be of value. I have since further expounded on the theme, and I have notes for yet another post developing these ideas.

      As you note, the scientific quest itself, in whatever form it takes is a philosophical construction; the alternatives, then, are to pretend that this is not the case, obscuring the foundations of one’s own knowledge and eventually rendering progress in knowledge impossible, or acknowledging the philosophical foundations of research programs and engaging with them at face value. Sometimes it takes a crisis or a revolution to precipitate this recognition — I am thinking of the crisis in the foundations of mathematics and the crisis in classical physics that resulted in General Relativity.

      I will need to follow up on the references you provide.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  2. D.M. said

    Great article. I have a similar, but slightly different impression about these things…

    There are exceptions, but people involved in natural sciences often consider themselves more than competent to discuss, nonchalantly and without any humbleness, all things philosophical, economical, socio-political etc. When things get slightly complicated and over their heads, only then they tend to dismiss those discipliness accusing them of introducing pretentious convoluted jargon for the sake of masking their simplistic nature.

    Taking a strictly anti-philosophical stance can be taken as a compliment here because putting down someone with an PhD in Literature is probably redundand from a psysicist’s point of view. To me, it seems like scientists feel threatened by philosophers as philosophy too has a reputation of being fairly intellectually demanding. It’s all about who has the bigger brains, really.

    The general consensus is that physics has a direct effect on the real world (when dealing with theoretical physics like here, Heinlein and those of his ilk come for the rescue with their vivid promises of various applications of this theory; not to mention the digestability of such literature and the street cred you get among the geek crowd when making references to it, though “grok” is hardly a reference anymore) while philosophy is something which seemingly just “floats about” never leaving the paper so it’s fairly easy to put it down in a materialistic world obsessed with technologic advancement.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear D. M.,

      Thank you so much for your perspective on this. If you are right about this retrenchment in the face of complexity and jargon, this is of course exactly what scientists themselves are accused of in the popular press.

      Perhaps it is a manifestation of human nature generally speaking, and nothing specific to the disagreements between philosophers and scientists, that people will seek, and moreover will demand, simplicity even when simplification is misleading and results in the distortion of the subject matter.

      As for philosophy just “floating about,” I don’t doubt that a great many people hold this view, though I myself am more inclined to a view that I have quoted several times from Keynes:

      “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

      Thanks for reading thoughtfully, and I hope that you’ll stick around for my continuing engagement with this theme.

      Very Respectfully Yours,

      Nick

  3. larry svart said

    Well, once again (see my more basic post to your Feb. 18, 2004 comment re Indian/Pakistani territorial fantasies and the more general issues involved) I find it impossible not to remark about your ruminations. Herein on this subject, you may be aware that only a few weeks ago a philosopher blogged on HP to castigate Neil de Grasse Tyson for claiming that there was no application of that field to modern physics, in a demonstrably type-case put-down of the entire field’s relevance. Neil is absurdly off-base, of course, and his arrogance is, as usual for all such exhibitions, cause and proof of his ignorance.

    There are several major factors responsible for the dismissal of philosophy by scientists (in general), among which are the overwhelming tendency of the great proportion to have little actual knowledge of the history of their own fields, over-specialization, narrow training, the immense difficulties involved in mastering quite technical aspects of philosophy, popular disdain/dismissal of philosophy (typical anti-intellectualism, esp. in the US), …and the list goes on and on. Then there are the pretty much universal inclinations to imagine that any subject one is not well-informed about must not be important. And so forth.

    There are also some meta-issues involved as well, including our individual capacities for learning everything and anything not immediately obvious or of direct utility to one’s own work. And here I would also need to emphasize how the complexity of reality results in the shut-down of all perceptions beyond extremely small “cones of awareness” in general. It has been also pointed out that practitioners in this or that field of knowledge usually are too preoccupied with their nitty-gritty to be sensitive even to aspects of it which are deficient precisely because of inattention to meta-issues like whether the concepts they assume are measured well by one metric actually are best for that purpose.

    For example, the discipline of economics, which is notoriously non- and even profoundly anti-scientific, not to mention anti-logical, in its prevailing forms, could have decades ago taken seriously many of the most trenchant criticisms of its fixation upon GDP, had it absorbed the lesson of Georgescu-Roegen’s mathematical proof that this focus upon flows and through-puts (and therefore infinite growth) was exactly wrong because what is actually relevant are states, not flows. Talk about “fallacies of misplaced concreteness’!!

    There are all sorts of weird consequences from such virtually anti-philosophical feelings among scientists. Among mathematicians, for instance, historians and philosophers of the field have often noted that practitioners generally claim to be non-platonists, even as their actual practices prove exactly the opposite.

    Maybe the most basic fact is that most of the time all of us are pretty much unconscious while imagining that we are fully awake and alert, and since we are habituated to this low-grade sentience, how are we to know that we don’t know what we are doing, really? Seems to me that anytime we have some inkling that we don’t know what we’re doing (or thinking), it scares the beegeezus out of us, and at such a deep unconscious level that we may have no more than a vague sense of unease. No wonder everybody pooh-poohs philosophy, even total mass quantities of philosophers. Nobody wants to disappear into that black hole that threatens are tidy little lives. All the big issues, all the dubious assumptions, the quick and dirty heuristics, and so forth. A miasma of uncertainty and darkness all around. There is phrase that describes all that hooting at philosophy: whistling past the cemetery.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Svart,

      Thank you for your extensive comment.

      I’m not familiar with Neil de Grasse Tyson’s dismissal of philosophy, but thanks for the reference.

      About human beings being largely habituated to a “low-grade sentience,” this is theme of literature that emerges in widely separated works. In Borges’ short story, “Funes, the Memorious” (about which I have written in The Limitations of Human Consciousness), Funes says, “…previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been — like any Christian — blind, deafmute, somnambulistic, memoryless.” And in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” when Emily Webb returns after death to revisit her 12th birthday, she finds it painful to witness the half-conscious way that people seem to go about ordinary life.

      I think that this low-grade sentience has important implications for understanding free will, which many contemporary thinkers (like Sam Harris) are once again finding ways to reject. In a condition of low-grade sentience, we follow our instincts and the forms imposed upon us by the culture in which we live. It is only when we “wake up” from this low-grade sentience that we truly have free will; for those who remain forever in the condition of low-grade sentience, it would probably be accurate to say that they do no possess free will, in so far as their lives are almost entirely determined by extrinsic forces.

      As for your observation that, “…anytime we have some inkling that we don’t know what we’re doing (or thinking), it scares the beegeezus out of us,” there is a wonderful quote from H. P. Lovecraft that addresses this, from the first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

      “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

      So, yes, we’re whistling past the cemetery, And Voltaire would have said that this is a good thing, because we would scarcely be able to get on with the ordinary business of life if we didn’t.

      But for some of us, the pervasive low-grade consciousness isn’t enough, and we feel suffocated if we can’t come up for a gulp of pure air, even it stings our lungs each time we gasp of mouthful.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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