Where do things stand?

On Science, Philosophy and Nothingness

It seems that PZ Myers and I are in almost total agreement. Almost. In his response to my post on the non-conflict between philosophy and science, he takes exception with my claim that scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy:

After stating that scientists are philosophers and that science is a branch of philosophy, we’re now told that scientists do philosophy poorly. So is he saying that scientists must do science poorly?

This is really just an unfortunate case of equivocation, and one that can be rather unexcitingly dissolved fairly quickly. When I say that scientists are doing philosophy, they’re doing their own sub-discipline of philosophy, one committed to the strictures of the scientific method. I also state that mathematics is philosophy too, but scientists aren’t mathematicians. Or metaphysicians. Or ethicists. Etc etc.

Philosophy can mean either some philosophical sub-discipline, including science, maths etc – let’s call that philosophy1. Philosophy can also mean that stuff philosophers do these days, which is generally relegated to stuff that sits outside what scientists and mathematicians do – let’s call that philosophy2. Just because someone does their bit of philosophy1 well doesn’t mean they do philosophy2 well.

When scientists step outside their walled garden and make claims that fall outside the remit of science, they are doing something other than science. When they make claims that cannot be substantiated by empirical evidence, or have some prescriptive/ethical implication, they are no longer doing science. Often what they’re doing is philosophy2.

And that’s OK. Heck, everyone should do philosophy2 from time to time. And certainly one aspect of the practice of science requires that scientists stop doing science for a moment and instead have a conversation with an ethics committee.

The thing is, if someone is doing philosophy2 – i.e. not just a sub-discipline of philosophy, but wild, unbounded, pants-off philosophy – then they ought to acknowledge that they’re doing so, and play by the rules. There are rules, even if some are dictated more by courtesy than any particular methodology. And most philosophers2 are only more than happy to engage with someone who wants to seriously treat a deep philosophical2 concept… like ‘nothing.’

The problem with Krauss was he stepped over the boundary from his philosophy1 discipline to the wider field of philosophy2 while maintaining that he was still doing philosophy1, and even suggesting that philosophy2 was pointless. That’s just not terribly helpful, for Krauss or anyone else.

It seems like Krauss has some very substantive things to say, things that will interest many philosophers – particularly the many philosophers whose primary concern is the “physical nature of reality” (although what that means is a philosophical2 question). When it comes to those philosophers who ignore science, or are uninterested in questions concerning the “physical nature of reality”, well that’s their prerogative, but as I stated in my post, they’re probably hammering away at non-problems of dubious merit. Myers appears to agree.

Ultimately, there’s very little separating the position of someone like Myers and myself. I’m a philosopher very much interested in the “physical nature of reality”, and I take science very seriously. It informs much of what I do. Likewise, scientists like Myers appreciate that philosophy can be of some use, and even do some philosophy of their own at times.

Dawkins does too. I should add that Dawkins’ Extended Phenotype can be seen as more philosophy of biology than strict biology. And it’s a fine piece of philosophy2, not just philosophy1.

As I stated, there is really no conflict between science and philosophy. Just disagreement between some scientists and some philosophers. But what they agree on typically far outshines what they disagree on.

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