19 June 2011
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…”
“…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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