December 24, 2005

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

How Much of Science is Philosophy?

There is an interesting post over at Parableman about the relationship between science and philosophy, in the context of the Intelligent Design debate. Jeremy claims that (1) ID is clearly not religious in nature, and (2) its philosophical nature is not a good reason to exclude it from science curriculum, because everything else in science is philosophical too. It's worth a read.

Personally I've been arguing for some time (not on this blog, in real life) that the vast majority of scientists don't have a sufficient grasp of the philosophical foundations of their fields to adequately pursue some of the deep questions they are coming up against. This is particularly true in physics. For instance, the physicists want to do cosmology now; they think they have a better grip of the problem than the philosophy department. Meanwhile, they literally don't know the meaning of the word. Brilliant minds like Steven Hawking go around talking about the "Big Bang Cosmology." A "cosmology" is, as the name implies, a theory of the cosmos, something like string theory. The Big Bang is not a theory of the cosmos, but an account of the origin of the cosmos. This is known as a "cosmogeny."

Now this is an issue of vocabulary, and I suppose they can use words however they want, provided they are consistent and understand one another, but then there are issue like so-called "quantum teleportation" and this very deep question of whether this process transports a particle from one location to another, or creates an entirely new particle at the new location: in short, the question of whether fundamental particles have what philosophers call "haeccity" or "thisness," and, if so, whether the two particles have the same haeccity. The problem of individuation is in many ways at the heart of metaphysics, and those desiring to give an answer to it should really pay attention to the last 3000 years of debate on the subject rather than starting over from scratch.

I believe that these issues show that the distinction between philosophy and science is ceasing to be useful, especially at the level of highly theoretical physics. This distinction was not drawn until the 19th century, but it has indeed served us well for the last hundred years. Science is usually viewed as being characterized by experiments and observations; philosophy simply by reasoning (although, for analytic philosophers and the British empiricists before them, this is still reasoning about the things we perceive in the phenomenal world around us). This division has never been that strict, as philosophy reaches over into essentially every academic discipline (we've got "a finger in every pie," as I like to say), but it has in some degree served us well, by allowing individuals to focus more intensely on fields like chemistry or biology that require very different knowledge and training than the mainstream of philosophy. However, today many realms of science are encroaching on issues that were traditionally the domain of philosophy and all too often recklessly ignoring millenia of thought on these issues. It is true, as Jeremy suggests, that much of science simply cannot be extricated from philosophy.

However, none of this means that the distinction between science and philosophy is quite so unreal as Jeremy claims. ID is not a claim about the workings of the physical world as such. It is a metaphysical claim about how those workings came to be, and an epistemological claim that we can know about that based on observation. Now a metaphysical claim about how the physical laws came to be is very different than a physical claim about it, such as Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang leaves the metaphysical question unanswered: it merely posits that the first moments of the universe looked a certain way. When physicists try to answer questions about what caused the Big Bang or what came before it, it is because they think that it had some physical, rather than metaphysical, origin. If the big bang began at the first instant of time, and there are no other physical universes like ours which could have spawned the creation of this universe, then physics has nothing to say about the origin of the Big Bang. If someone claims that God caused the Big Bang to occur, this is a metaphysical appeal, and has no place in physics.

Science makes important metaphysical assumptions, and scientists need to be aware of this, and they need to be able to think "outside the box," as it were, and ask occasionally whether a different set of metaphysical assumptions might be better able to explain the world. This requires scientists to have solid knowledge of metaphysics, and the available positions and the arguments for and against them. It does not, however, require that scientists become metaphysicians or otherwise collapse the boundary between science and philosophy. The position of ID, properly understood, is that there exists a sound teleological (design) argument for the existence of God. This is a meta-scientific observation: that is, it goes beyond science by examining the metaphysical consequences of what science has discovered, in much the same way that examinations of the impact of quantum mechanics for the issue of free will vs. determinism do. Neither of these debates need be taught in science classrooms, because science as such is agnostic about them. Note that this cuts both ways. As Alvin Plantinga once said:

[The idea that] human beings and other living creatures have come about by chance, rather than by God's design, is also not a proper part of empirical science. How could science show that God has not intentionally designed and created human beings and other creatures? How could it show that they have arisen merely by chance? That's not empirical science. That's metaphysics, or maybe theology. It's a theological add-on, not part of science itself. And, since it is a theological add-on, it shouldn't, of course, be taught in public schools.
Posted by Kenny at December 24, 2005 1:44 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:


Just a coupld of minor points-
1) You'd be quite pleased to know that many theoretical physicists (including Hawking) have something of a background in philosophy- Hawking quotes numerous philosophers, including Berkeley I believe, in his A Brief History of Time.
2) Cosmology currently has two acceptable definitions, one relating to philosophy and one relating to astrophysics. Even as far back as 1913, one of the definitions of cosmology was: "the branch of astronomy dealing with the origin and structure of the universe, including the evolution of its present observable structure, using the methods of observational astronomy as well as mathematical physics". I think you're stuck sharing your terminology, like it or not, and Hawking's statement is right for the terminology of physics, which isn't, as you note, the same terminology used in philosophy. If you're going to critique physicists' usage of the term, though, then you should understand why it came to be used this way. When astronomers and physicists were first investigating the origin of the universe, it was believed that it we could understand how the universe began, we would have, in effect, discovered the fundamental laws of physics and thus be able to explain all of the cosmos- hence the usage of the name cosmology. Unfortunately they haven't been as successful as they had hoped, and thus the division of the meaning of the term, but it didn't come from ignorance. It's not that they don't know or didn't know the meaning of the word, but the meaning of the word has changed. English, unlike Greek, is a living language and that happens.
3) Just on a technical note, numerous cosmological theories do have an answer to what caused the Big Bang- there's numerous types of multi-verse and repetitive universe theories that answer what caused the Big Bang. The proper phrase there would be that physicists don't have an answer for what began the cycle that includes the Big Bang.
4) I also think, too, that you should be careful to clarify where you're using and reading philosophical and scientific language- they're not identical as you note. For example, with the haeccity issue, for physicists it's not an issue because they have limited their definition of the particle to certain physically measurable criteria, which does not include haeccity. I know you don't like this division between physics and philosophy, but like it or not it's embedded in the terminology of the fields. For physicists, any two particles that have the same criteria are by definition the same particle, so far as they are concerned- quite frankly they don't care about "thisness" since they can't measure it. They're not trying to answer that question; they've relegated it outside of physics and said, under this definition of particle, we have teleported this particle to over here. They're not making a claim about "thisness", as you seem ot think, because their definition of matter specifically leaves that issue to you philosophers. I know you don't like this division between physics and philosophy, but it's embedded in the terminology and applying philosophical terminology to physics claims can change their content, as in this case where physicists are not making a claim about haeccity as you seem to think they are.
On a related note, you'd want to aruge that they should include some statement on "thisness" in their definition, which would involve arguing that the definition of matter has to include something inmeasurable.

Posted by: Lauren at December 24, 2005 2:40 PM

Regarding point 1: I didn't say that none of them had any philosophy background, I said that most of them had insufficient philosophy background.

Regarding point 2: Define "acceptable" :). I call this definition unacceptable because it is (a) ahistorical, (b) etymologically unfounded, and (c) misleading. But it's in wide use and is understood by people who do astrophysics, and that may be sufficient to make it "acceptable" on some reasonable definition.

Regarding point 3: that's what I said. I merely noted that insofar as they try to explain the Big Bang, it's because they think that it has a further physical cause. They do not attempt to assign any metaphysical or ontological source.

Regarding point 4: No, I don't really think that matter has haeccity, I was just giving an example. But I do think that this issue is pertinent to physics, because, as I understand the quantum teleportation phenomenon, if we take the initial and final particles to be identical then the particle (though not the information, since that's contained in the entangled particle to begin with?) moves faster than light, which they want to say is impossible. At least that's my understanding (I wouldn't be at all surprised if I was wrong). If this is the correct reading of the phenomenon, then the issue of whether matter has haeccity (and of individuation more generally) suddenly becomes an issue of theoretical physics, because it is relevant to the question of whether particles can be transported faster than light.

Posted by: Kenny at December 24, 2005 3:01 PM

Regarding point 4: What I'm trying to say is that the issue of haeccity isn't a big deal for physics, as you claim. You seem to think that physicists really care deeply about whether it's the same particle or not in some metaphysical sense, regarding the existence or nonexistence of haeccity. I'm saying, no, that's a bad example because physicists really don't care whether there's "thisness" to a particle; they've defined matter to not deal with this problem. They've limited their definition of matter to measurable qualities (in this case, since we're dealing with particles, all that's relevant is the quantum states) and because of that definition, so far as physicists are concerned, it's the same particle.
You seem to say that, no, physicists care whether that is or is not the same particle, but no, really they don't because if it's not the same particle, you'd have to redefine matter, and to do that you'd have to include something that is not measurable- something no physicist is going to go for. So as far as physicists are concerned, it is the same particle, and they're not trying to answer the philosophical questions that you seem to think they are, because your definition of matter addresses the issue of "thisness"- I'm mainly pointing out that physicists would disagree with your claim that this is an important issue in theoretical physics, and to make it an important issue, you'd be discussing changing the fundamental definition of matter to include something not measurable.
Additionally, relativity survives intact because no information is transmitted faster than the speed of light- I can explain more on that later if you'd like.

Posted by: Lauren at December 24, 2005 5:50 PM

Nice followup to my post. I agree with everything you say except for the part where you try to distance yourself from what I say but then just go on and say things I agree with. I'm not trying to say that there aren't clear cases of philosophy as opposed to science or that ID arguments are, strictly speaking, science. ID arguments are clearly philosophy and not what strictly speaking counts as science. It's just that much of what passes for science and gets taught as science is really the result of a philosophical argument, and much of science couldn't happen without metaphysical or epistemological suppositions. I think ID arguments and their conclusions are of the same kind as the suppositions that loosely get categorized as science by many people, including scientists.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at December 24, 2005 10:29 PM

Jeremy, you assert that "much of science is philosophy." I do recognize that in context your meaning seems to be that there is much confusion, even among scientists themselves, over what counts as science "strictly speaking" and what is really philosophy. You then seem to me to argue that these people equivocate on the term science in order to oppose ID while supporting all of this other stuff. So far, as you say, we agree.

Where I disagree with (my reading of) what you say is in the assertion that this means we should allow ID to be taught in science classrooms. I would say we should make the OPPOSITE correction, and make science classes more truly agnostic about philosophical issues. I think that modern science really needs only a handful of metaphysical and epistemological assumptions and these can be stated at the beginning of a course in such a way as to enable science to be done without bringing in all kinds of philosophy. For introductory classes on things like Newtonian mechanics or basic biology - the kinds of classes that get taught in the K-12 environment - we need to focus on science strictly speaking and try to minimize the number of metaphysical assumptions we make.

On the other hand, I think it is extremely important that people learn to ask these kinds of metaphysical questions as part of a balanced education. This may mean that it is appropriate for a science teacher to ASK the question, provided that it is understood that it is not part of science strictly speaking, and provided that he doesn't spend a great deal of time trying to answer it. This, of course, is at least to some degree what Dover and Georgia tried to do - and so perhaps it is all you were suggesting - but I think that in both cases it was poorly executed, and I'm also not sure it makes sense to include this sort of thing in mandatory science curriculum. However, we shouldn't be rigid about how schools divide up subject areas. The boundaries of academic disciplines are often fluid, and cross-disciplinary study is almost always a good thing.

In short, we do indeed agree on most of the points about this, but you seem to me to conclude that we should give up on the distinction between science and philosophy, whereas I conclude that we should instead try to be more clear about the distinction and keep metaphysics out of biology classrooms to such an extent as it is possible (and be clear that we are actually talking metaphysics when it is not possible). However, we are certainly in agreement on the most important point: the opponents of ID are usually inconsistent in their definition of science, applying a more rigorous standard to those views they disagree with, and this is a bad thing for science education.

Posted by: Kenny at December 24, 2005 10:57 PM

Occam's Razor The point is scientist don't NEED god to explain how life evolved. That doesn't exclude the existence of God but seems to invalidate parts of the Bible (at least their literal meaning)

Posted by: Pual at January 7, 2010 2:29 PM

Post a comment

Return to