Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

24 June 2011

Friday


Leonard Susskind (born 1940) is the Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University.

Leonard Susskind (born 1940) is the Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University.

A few days ago in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy I discussed the superfluous ad hominem attacks that many scientists, especially physicists and cosmologists, seem to reserve for philosophers.

I have made my way further through Leonard Susskind’s The Black Hole War, which has given me much food for thought. Just for purposes of demonstration, here’s another typical Susskind aside on philosophy:

“Physicists want facts, equations and data — not philosophy and evolutionary pop pyschology.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, p. 255

Not surprisingly, Susskind indulges in both philosophy and evolutionary pop psychology, and does this so neatly and concisely that one cannot but suspect the Freudian Verneinung at work.

Susskind’s book in particular made me aware of the standard format in which scientists admit to their philosophical point of view. It runs something like this: “All philosophy is bunk, but I read _________ some years ago and thought that it had some value.” You can fill in the blank in the preceding sentence with Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn or Bertrand Russell or any other philosopher who has had a profound effect on contemporary scientific practice.

Here is Susskind’s version of this standard philosophical disclaimer:

“Shortly before the Santa Barbara conference, I had read Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Generally, like most physicists, I am not very interested when philosophers opine about how science works, but Kuhn’s ideas seemed right on target; they managed to put into focus my own fuzzy thoughts about the way physics had advanced in the past and, more to the point, how I hoped it was progressing in 1993.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, p. 263

It is regrettable that Susskind didn’t keep this clarifying role of philosophy in mind when he was writing this book, or he might have also chosen to give some focus to his fuzzy conception of intuition and use some term other than “grok” for intuitive knowledge.

In any case, this passage shows how instead of saying, “I am a Popperian” or “I am a Kuhnian” one gets to eat one’s philosophical cake and throw it away too by acknowledging an influence without admitting that one has been influenced by philosophy. One makes no overt identification with a philosophical theory, movement, or school, but one nevertheless makes one’s sympathies known. It’s sort of like Derrida’s “writing under erasure.”

By such a disclaimer the scientist also retains complete deniability, which is consistent with the hypothetico-disposable attitude to philosophy that I discussed in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy: scientists need to feel free to take on or put off any theory (philosophical or otherwise) as this theory proves fruitful or counter-productive for observation and experiment.

This much explains the mechanism of the denial of philosophy in contemporary science, and therefore constitutes something of a science of science, but it does not yet explain the motivation for the denial of philosophy. I am still working on this. I have several ideas, but none that I as yet consider definitive.

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