A Fly in the Ointment

11 November 2014


Wittgenstein - cartoon

Wittgenstein was not himself a positivist, but his early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, had such a profound influence on early twentieth century philosophy that the philosophy that we now identify as logical positivism was born from reading groups that got together to study Wittgenstein’s Tractatus — what I have elsewhere called The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club — primarily the Vienna Circle.

Wittgenstein began his education as an engineer, and only later became interested in philosophy by way of the philosophy of mathematics then emerging from the work of Frege and Russell. It has been said that the early Wittgenstein approached philosophy like an engineer, setting out to drain the swamps of philosophy. A more familiar metaphor for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, though for the later rather than the earlier Wittgenstein, is that of philosophy as a kind of therapy:

“A philosopher is a man who has to cure many intellectual diseases in himself before he can arrive at the notions of common sense.”

Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 1944, p. 44e

Wittgenstein does not himself use the term “therapy” or “therapeutic,” but frequently recurs to the theme in other words:

“In philosophizing we may not terminate a disease of thought. It must run its natural course, and slow cure is all important. (That is why mathematicians are such bad philosophers.)”

Wittgenstein, Zettel, 382

The idea of philosophy as therapy is not entirely new. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I noted the medieval tradition of conceiving philosophers as “doctors of the soul”:

“During late antiquity philosophers were sometimes called ‘doctors of the soul.’ Later yet, Avicenna was a practicing physician in addition to being both a logician and a philosopher, and he stands at the head of a tradition of doctor-philosophers among the Arabs. All this has a superficial resemblance to the contemporary conception of philosophy as therapy, but in reality it is the antithesis of the modern conception of philosophy as a sickness in need of therapy, of scholarship as an illness, and of the philosopher as corrupt and corrupting.”

Variations on the Theme of Life, section 767

Every age must confront the ancient and perennial questions of philosophy anew, because each age has its own, peculiar therapeutic needs. It has become a commonplace of contemporary commentary, as least since the middle of the twentieth century, that the pace and busyness of our civilization today is driving us insane, and in so far as this is true, we are more in need of therapy than previous ages.

In my previous post, Philosophy for Industrial-Technological Civilization, I suggested, contrary to Quine, that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough; that we also need philosophy of technology and philosophy of engineering, and to unify these aspects of the STEM cycle within the big picture, we need a philosophy of big history. There is only one problem with my vision for the overarching philosophy demanded by the world of today: there is no demand for it. No one is interested in my vision or, for that matter, any other vision of philosophy for the twenty-first century.

Previously I wrote three posts on contemporary anti-philosophy:

Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy

Beyond Anti-Philosophy

The most prestigious scientists of our time seem at one in their insistence upon the irrelevance of philosophy. A post on the SelfAwarePatters blog, E.O. Wilson: Science, not philosophy, will explain the meaning of existence, brought my attention to E. O. Wilson’s recent statements belittling philosophy. SelfAwarePatters has also written about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “blanket dismissal of philosophy” in Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it.

It is almost painful to watch Wilson’s oversimplifications in the above linked “Big Think” piece, though I suspect his oversimplifications will have a wide and sympathetic audience. After implying the pointlessness of studying the history of philosophy and making the claim that philosophy mostly consists of “failed models of how the brain works,” Wilson then appeals to the “full story of humanity” (without mentioning big history, though the interdisciplinary concatenation he mentions is very much in the spirit of big history), and formulates a point of view almost precisely the same as that I heard several times at the 2014 IBHA conference: once we have this big picture view of history, we no longer need to ask what the meaning of life is, because we will know it.

The inescapable reflexivity of philosophical thought means that any principled rejection of philosophy is itself a philosophical claim; unprincipled rejections, that is to say, dismissal without reason or argument, have no more standing than any other unprincipled claim. So the scientists who dismiss philosophy and give reasons for doing so are doing philosophy. The unfortunate consequence is that they are doing philosophy poorly, much like someone who dismisses science but who pontificates on matters scientific, and does so poorly. We are well familiar with this, as pseudo-science has been given a megaphone by the internet and other forms of mass media. Scientists are aware of the problem posed by pseudo-science, but seem to be blissfully unaware of the problem of pseudo-philosophy.

There is a book by Louis Althusser, Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of Scientists, that I have cited previously (in Fashionable Anti-Philosophy) since the title is so evocative, in which Althusser says, “…in every scientist there sleeps a philosopher or, to put it another way, that every scientist is affected by an ideology or a scientific philosophy which we propose to call by the conventional name: the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists…” It is this spontaneous philosophy of scientists that we see in the anti-philosophical pronouncements of E. O. Wilson and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Not only eminent scientists, but also science popularizers share this attitude. Michio Kaku’s recent book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, is essentially a speculative work in the philosophy of mind. There is a pervasive yet implicit Kantianism running through Kaku’s book of which I am sure he is unaware, because, like most scientists today who write on philosophical topics, he has not bothered to study the philosophical literature. If one knows that one is arguing a neo-Kantian position on the transcendental aesthetic, in trying to come to terms with how the barrage of sensory data is somehow translated into an apparently smooth and unitary stream of consciousness, then one can simply consult the literature to learn where state of the argument over the transcendental aesthetic stands today, what the standard arguments are for and against contemporary Kantianism, but without this basic knowledge, one does little more than repeat what has already been said — better — by others, and long ago. Even Sam Harris, who has some background in philosophy, gives his exposition of determinism in a philosophical vacuum, as though the work of philosophers such as Robert Kane, Helen Steward, and Alfred R. Mele simply did not exist, or is beneath notice.

The anti-philosophy and pseudo-philosophy of prominent scientists is an instance of the spontaneous philosophy noted by Althusser. But this spontaneous expression of uninformed philosophical speculation does not come out of nowhere; it has a basis, albeit dimly understood, in the nature of science itself. What is the nature of science itself? I have an answer to this, but it is not an answer that will be welcome to most of those in science today: science is philosophy. That is to say, science is a particular branch of philosophy, that branch once called natural philosophy, and it is natural philosophy practiced in accordance with methodological naturalism. Science is a narrow slice of a far more comprehensive conception of the world.

Scientists are philosophers without realizing they are philosophers, and when then pronounce upon philosophical questions without reference to the philosophical tradition — which is much broader and pluralistic than any one, single branch of philosophy, such as natural philosophy — they do little more than to restate their presuppositions as principles. Given the preeminent role of science within industrial-technological civilization, this willful ignorance of philosophy, and of the position of science in relation to philosophy, is not only holding back both science and philosophy, it is holding back civilization.

The next stage of development of our civilization (not to mention the macro-evolution of our civilization into another kind of civilization) will not come about until science utterly abandons the positivistic assumptions that are today the unquestioned yet implicit presuppositions of scientific inquiry, and science extends the scientific method, and the sense of responsibility to empirical evidence, beyond the confines of any one branch of philosophy to the whole of philosophy. To paraphrase Plato, until philosophers theorize as scientists or those who are now called scientists and leading thinkers genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until science and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, civilization will have no rest from evils… nor, I think, will the human race.

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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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