Lawrence Krauss // © Arizona Board of Regents

Philosophy Versus Science: A Fight Where We All Lose

Forget the challenge of rendering a conciliation between science and religion, more pressing is the growing schism between science and philosophy.

It’s potentially a fight where, if one side wins, we all lose.

It might seem odd to think of two disciplines defined by a commitment to the rigorous application of reason and evidence, both sternly opposed to irrationality and dogma, at odds with each other. Yet, according to some, they are.

One pugilist who has put himself in the ring is Professor Lawrence Krauss, who recently knuckled in for an attack on philosophy in the wake of his rather philosophically-titled book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.

Following an unfavourable riposte in the New York Times by a philosopher of science – who objected to Krauss’s rather philosophically sloppy definition of “nothing” – Krauss launched his one-two punch against philosophy in a subsequent interview in The Atlantic.

In it, Krauss suggests (somewhat provocatively) that philosophers lash out defensively at scientists because they feel their imminent redundancy. This is all because philosophers are secretly jealous that “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”.

Krauss also suggests that when real practising philosophers have actually contributed something of substance, they weren’t actually doing philosophy, but some other discipline – typically either science or maths. “Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics,” he points out.

He finishes with that tried-and-true sucker punch that philosophy of science is utterly irrelevant to actual scientists. Or, as more adroitly put by Richard Feynman: “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

The thing is, Krauss, wonderful cosmologist and science populariser though he is, has in this case got things almost perfectly backwards.

He does point out that many of the disciplines we know and love started off as philosophy. Or “natural philosophy,” to be more precise. However, he then suggests that, like the Greek gods conquering their titanic forebears, the offspring disciplines consumed their parent. Or at least ate its heart out:

“Physics has encroached on philosophy,” says Krauss. “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.”

However, it’s actually the other way around. Where Krauss says physics encroaches on philosophy, in actual fact, physics feeds philosophy. Where he says formal logic is really mathematics, in actual fact mathematics is a branch of logic.

Scientists and mathematicians are really doing philosophy. It’s just that they’ve specialised in a particular branch, and they’re employing the carefully honed tools of their specific shard just for that particular job. So specialised, and so established is that toolkit, that they don’t consider them philosophers any more.

And neither do philosophers, who have let these specialists get on with what they’re so good at and moved on to other problems, or stepped back to take a meta ‘bird’s eye’ view of these other disciplines.

As a consequence, the success of ‘natural philosophers’ means that the topics of concern to modern day philosophers has shrunk. It’s a philosophy-of-the-gaps, if you will. Where there exist empirical questions that are best answered using the scientific method (developed by philosophers, I might add), philosophers let them answer them. But there are many areas where the evidence is desperately lacking. Or may never be forthcoming.

How is it that the firing of neurons in the brain gives rise to that particular piquant pungency of a spoonful of pickle? How can even an exhaustively complete descriptive picture of how things are determine for us how things should be? Why is there something instead of nothing1?

These are philosophical questions. There exists no empirical evidence on hand (or yet imaginable) that might be able to answer them. Yet, even if they come to be answered by science, that too would be a victory for philosophy. For philosophy built the tools that uncovered the truth.

Really, the main difference between philosophy and the sciences as practiced today is how many times they are willing to ask of something: why is it so? Science has its limits. So too does mathematics. The former is bound by the strictures of hypothesis testing in light of available and replicable empirical evidence. The latter is bound by a commitment to axioms of unknown veracity.

Either discipline will only ask “why” up until the point where they run headlong into their methodological boundaries.

Not so philosophy. Philosophy’s method is bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought. To the extent that something can be reckoned, philosophy can get there. As such, philosophy will never stop asking “why”.

So, why the stoush between philosophy and science?

Well, philosophers are partly to blame. Many philosophers spend their lives hammering away at Gordian knots of dubious practical merit. They tangle and wrangle with arguments of breathtaking sophistication tackling non-problems of their own concoction. It’s not quite angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it’s not far from.

Think of it as the cost of doing business of allowing people the freedom to follow their thinking wherever it might lead them. In order to let it occasionally lead them to a revelation of genuine merit, it needs to allow them to meander down conceptual dead ends.

Philosophers cop a lot of flak for this. That’s why they’re reluctant to articulate what they do to strangers at parties. Much of the world thinks little of folk being paid from the public purse to contemplate whether chairs exist2.

Philosophers can seem remote from the real world. Aloof, sitting in their ivory tower, swirling a snifter of port and fondling wax. And aloof many of them are.

To the extent that philosophers care about their relevance in the world, and to the extent that they wish to deflect or obviate criticisms from physicists like Krauss, they really ought to engage more directly with philosophical questions posed by real world issues and argue their relevance through action not through an appeal to history and long dead authorities.

But science is also to blame for the conflagration.

Scientists, like nature, abhor a vacuum (although quantum physicists and cosmologists like Krauss might suggest that misrepresents the quantum foam). When there’s a vacuum of folk tackling the big existential questions – good and evil, the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, etc – and when the philosophers are too busy debating the A Theory and the B Theory of time to bother speaking to the public, the scientists are prone to speak up.

However, in doing so, the scientists often step out of the bounds of their discipline and venture into philosophical territory. If anyone should be appalled by this, it should be philosophers. Because scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy.

Sam Harris’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for morality springs to mind, where he poo poos metaethics only to tread squarely in a metaethical dilemma. Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.

Or Krauss, who without a hint of irony, suggests that good philosophers are really just bad scientists, when in fact he’s a good scientist doing philosophy badly. His definition of “nothing” comes not from within science, but is a grope in the dark for a definition that conforms with his particular theoretical predilections. That’s not how one defines things in polite (philosophical) circles, as David Albert pointed out.

Can there yet be a conciliation?

The thing is, there already is. There is no conflict between philosophy and science, only between some philosophers and some scientists.

Both have the same goals and overlapping domains. They just employ different tools. The advances of one engorge the other.

Scientists like Krauss would do themselves a service by taking philosophy, and philosophers, more seriously. By engaging with them and letting them help him. Conversely, philosophers would do themselves a service by poking their head outside of the ivory tower from time to time and bringing their considerable conceptual toolkit to bear on the real world, and the scientists who study it.

With their powers combined, there isn’t a fight they cannot win.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Krauss attempts to answer precisely this question in his book, although he carefully defines nothing to be a kind of something, namely a product of fundamental laws. Hey, that might be what nothing is, but that’s a philosophical question isn’t it? And not an uncontroversial one.
  2. Of course chairs exist. But in the question of whether chairs exist, the interesting bit isn’t the “chairs” but the oft-overlooked “exist”. After all, there is no single defining factor that all chairs have in common and all non-chairs lack. There appear to be no necessary and sufficient conditions to be a chair. Fine. But what makes this philosophically bloody fascinating is that we can still effortlessly identify and use chairs. There is something chair-ish that is malleable but useful. Getting a handle on what that means can’t be a bad thing.
Your thoughts
  1. While Krauss being busy denying philosophy or God, he overlooks the absence of a straight line in the world around him. Has he ever found a straight line in nature? I can only find man-made straight lines! Scientists need straight lines in their work, in their instruments…but they forget that the first straight line is just a product of human mind, of human thinking or briefly a metaphysical product, and metaphysics is a branch of philosophy. Straight line comes from nothing and becomes something that scientists and many other people see and use everyday. The person who knows nothing about gravity but was able to create the first straight line must be a greatest but unknown philosopher of mankind in my opinion. I would call that person ‘god of science’.

  2. Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu

    In terms of ‘straight lines’ the straightest lines we know about? It is nothing manmade it is light. That occurs in nature the whole time, and while light is very, very slightly curved it is significantly straighter than anything humans could come up with.

    Further, who says scientists necessarily need straight lines? Where did you get that idea from?

  3. I am going to go over where I think the issue arises from.

    The dismissal of philosophy as a discipline isn’t actually informed by what philosophy is, but by the sheer nonsense that tend to fly under its banner.

    Scientists can declare things as being bluntly pseudo-science, stuff that sounds scientific but doesn’t actually meet the basic standards of scientific investigation. With philosophy that is much harder, because you aren’t dealing with the real, you are dealing with purely theoretical models.

    It isn’t really the ivory tower issue at heart here, but rather that because you don’t really have a way of declaring something psuedo-philosophy the good gets slapped with the bad.

    This I think is actually a problem with how we prioritise education. I think maybe we need to start teaching basic philosophy in primary schools – get the kids to recognise at the very least what makes a fallacy. Include a bit on cognitive science, because that can inform philosophy (for example, exploring the effects of bias on reasoning and what we recognise as evidence) and get kids to learn the virtue of doubting themselves.

    A solid grounding in philosophy I think could be at least as important as mathematics and science, and may reduce a lot of the hostility to the field as a whole by making it easier for people to separate out the bad stuff.

    That said:

    Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.

    Dawkins’ argument is based on the idea that religion’s role has been pretty negative with regards to psychological and cultural effects – that is pretty much the opposite to what you say it is. Whether you agree with him or not, raising an alarm is not a dismissal.

    1. Hi Bruce. Even speaking as a philosopher, I agree that there is an awful lot of nonsense that is peddled under the banner of philosophy. As I state in the post, I feel that’s the cost of doing business in philosophy; in order to prevent the nonsense, we might close off avenues of fruitful endeavour. After all, it’s hard to know what of today’s nonsense might turn out to be tomorrow’s revelation.

      As for education, I couldn’t agree more. No-one should leave secondary school without knowing how to read, write, do maths and spot a logical fallacy – among other things.

      Also, I don’t doubt the ills of religion, but it’s not as black and white as I feel Dawkins suggests it is. There’s a bigger argument to be had – one I’ve written about elsewhere – but abandoning religion as a false belief system means also abandoning a cultural institution that does some good. Far better to ditch the dodgy metaphysics and work to replace the cultural aspects with secular institutions, which is a positive programme rather than the largely negative programme of the atheists. But that’s something to discuss another time.

  4. It’s hard not to be frustrated by philosophers when they refuse to acknowledge that well-established physical theories render traditional definitions of “nothing” to be self-contradictory…and especially when they dismiss a physicist’s attempt to fill the resulting gap as “philosophically sloppy.” I would say ignoring the (theoretically and empirically well-supported) uncertainty principle is itself “philosophically sloppy,” especially when you concede that science itself is a variety of philosophy.

    In fact, “nothing” is a problematic concept even neglecting the counterintuitions of modern physics. Consider the question of whether “nothing” (by the classical definition) “exists”. “The ontology of nothing” sounds like nothing so much as a contradiction in terms but its validity is taken as self-evident by all of Krauss’ detractors.

    Despite the usual self-serving dichotomies served up by philosophers we see that — as so often in history — it’s the scientists who are actually more philosophically daring by pushing the boundaries of imagination and human understanding. Krauss wants philosophers to consider the possibility that our basic intuitions behind the concept of “nothing”, like our basic intuitions about the concepts of “time”, “motion”, and “heat”, are ultimately misleading with respect to the true structure of the world around us. The criticism from philosophers seems to be, essentially, “how dare you think such wicked thoughts?” — although of course they substitute phrases like “philosophically sloppy” for “wicked”. The meaning is the same — these are thoughts you are simply not allowed to think. If Kuhn were still around he might have pointed to this as another example of an irrational defense of a dying paradigm.

    1. Hi Dan. I should clarify that I have no problem with a scientist defining “nothing” in empirical terms and even reforming usage of the term on that basis. After all, they did so with space and time, with the scientific definitions trumping those of earlier philosophers such as Kant. Philosophers – at least, good ones – will take such definitions very seriously. Bertrand Russell did his PhD defending Kant’s notion of space and time, famously recanting after becoming more familiar with science.

      However, there is an issue when a scientist defines something and nudges it from the scientific to the metaphysical. Even a robust and empirically rewarding definition of space and time, for example, can raise curly philosophical questions. As can “nothing”. Particularly “nothing”.

      The problem with Krauss, as I see it, is that he has overstepped the limits of science to make a philosophical claim, namely that something can come from nothing. He does so by positing a definition of “nothing” that allows “something” to emerge from it. To the degree that these definitions are supported by empirical evidence, that’s fine. But he fails to adequately answer the question of where his “nothing” came from. This seems to me to be a very reasonable thing to ask. And it seems to me no-one, including Krauss, has an adequate answer.

      Thus Krauss appears to be venturing into philosophical terrain, yet he dodges a curly, and possibly unanswerable, philosophical question as a matter of convenience to reinforce his scientific claim. Far better to just give a nod to the philosophical issue, acknowledge he doesn’t have an answer – and neither does anyone else – and just push on within the bounds of science.

      Science may be a branch of philosophy, but not all science is philosophy. If one is to step outside the walled garden of the scientific method, one ought to acknowledge it and deign to work with the wild natives thereout.

      1. I have a degree of sympathy for the notion that Krauss may have overstepped the bounds of science with his definition of “nothing” as the vacuum. I agree that this sort of definition is problematic from a philosophical standpoint.

        However, I find the implications in this statement equally problematic:

        He does so by positing a definition of “nothing” that allows “something” to emerge from it.

        What, exactly can you say about how a true state of “nothing” might evolve? To complain that Krauss has defined his “nothing” as something that allows something to emerge from it is merely the flip side of a definition of nothing that explicitly forbids something from emerging from it. Which immediately raises the question of the basis for such an assumption.

        Effectively, this implied definition of nothing is “nothing” plus the law of causality and perhaps the law of conservation of energy. This seems to be little different from what Krauss has done, and it certainly isn’t the sort of “nothing” state that you seem to want to get at in your criticism.

        1. I see your point. Although I was really just trying to stress that Krauss was stepping into philosophical territory with his definition of “nothing.”

          Now, his definition might be very useful – it might even be the right one – but it is not the only definition in town, and it seems to me there is insufficient evidence to choose between the various definitions.

          Really, I have no problem with stipulative definitions, or pragmatic ones, or even axiomatic ones, but the definer ought to acknowledge that these are philosophical issues. That doesn’t stop them from running with their definition, but it does mean they can’t just offer their definition and call the philosophical questions solved.

          1. Yeah, I agree. As a physicist myself, I think we scientists are often treading into philosophical ground when we’re working on the cutting edge of what we know. Too many of my colleagues have a tendency to ignore this, which often leads to careless statements and turf wars.

    1. How are you going to get your light to go in a straight line, though? You need to find a region of space which is entirely free from gravitational fields, and such a thing doesn’t exist. Even “empty” space will contain virtual particles whose tiny gravitational fields affect the light’s path a tiny amount.

      So even the straight line of a ray of light can’t exist in the real universe, only in an idealised one. Spacetime is not perfectly flat, so light paths are not perfectly straight.

  5. Good essay, but…

    “…mathematics is a branch of logic.”

    I believe that the current consensus is that mathematics is not a branch of logic.

    There is a logic, perhaps classical, maybe Intuitionistic, to mathematics, the same way that there is a logic, not classical, to quantum phenomena. but not many folks post-Principia believe that mathematics is a branch of logic.

    Such is my understanding, anyway.

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