05 / 06
birds birds birds

The Conflict Between Science and Philosophy

August 31, 2014     Time: 24:45
The Conflict Between Science and Philosophy


A noticeable dismissal of philosophy among popular scientists has been seen lately. Non-theist Massimo Pigliucci takes Neil deGrasse Tyson to task on this.

Transcript The Conflict Between Science and Philosophy


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, there has been a lot of talk about the revived TV Show Cosmos. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. A lot of people have noted, including this podcast, there is a pretty good anti-religious bias in this program from Neil deGrasse Tyson as well as the producers. But there is also a kind of anti-philosophical bias found in Cosmos. I wonder what that means. You've encountered this in some of the debates you've had.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it does seem that for quite a number of popularizers of contemporary science (and one thinks here of Lawrence Krauss or the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) there seems to be the conviction that science can proceed without any help or benefit from philosophy, and that philosophy is, in fact, engaged in just meaningless word games and therefore serves no useful purpose and has no intellectual contribution to make. So there is not only a kind of anti-religious bias exhibited by these persons, but an anti-philosophical bias as well. I think this is a bias that is most unfortunate and really cuts them off, I think frankly, from self-improvement that philosophical reflection on the data of science could bring.

Kevin Harris: DeGrasse Tyson is really taken to task by Massimo Pigliucci who is both a scientist and a philosopher.[1]

Dr. Craig: Pigliucci is one of the folks I debated. I had a debate with him at the University of Georgia several years ago.[2] This was while he was still in the process of earning his doctorate in philosophy. He was at that time a biologist. But now, having earned a second doctorate in philosophy, he is doing philosophy of science. As a result, he is rather offended, I think, by Neil deGrasse Tyson's dismissive and condescending attitude toward the work of philosophers of science. But he is no theist certainly.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Pigliucci is talking about some of Neil's

. . . latest disparaging remarks about philosophy as a guest on the Nerdist podcast, following a statement by one of the hosts, who said that he majored in philosophy. Neil’s comeback was: “That can really mess you up.” The host then added: “I always felt like maybe there was a little too much question asking in philosophy [of science]?”

Dr. Craig: [laughter] Don't ask questions!

Kevin Harris:

And here is the rest of the pertinent dialogue:

dGT: I agree.

interviewer: At a certain point it’s just futile.

dGT: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?

It goes on from there to just say all this does is distract us from science and from progress.

Dr. Craig: It is a very naive misconception of what philosophers do. The example he gives in this interview of a philosophical question is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” He says this is pointless. It just delays our progress in science. Well, Kevin, this is not at all the kind of question that philosophers engage in, especially philosophers of science. This example is from Buddhist thought to indicate the absurdity of a rational grasp of the world and promotes a mystical union with reality to transcend reason. This isn't something that philosophers work on. Philosophers of science work on the concepts that science works with and attempts to do conceptual analysis to elucidate concepts. There it is very important that we ask about meanings of words and concepts, otherwise we don't really know what we are talking about.

DeGrasse Tyson says this philosophical question asking “devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas.” That is a very naive bifurcation. Our ideas are concepts and these are expressed linguistically. So we need to define words in order to have a clear articulation of our ideas and our concepts. A great example of this would be the use of the word “nothing” by certain contemporary physicists when they talk about the origin of the universe from nothing.[3] It turns out that the word is used in a very ambiguous and equivocal way. There it is absolutely critical, if we are to understand the concept or the idea, that we understand how the words are being used. You can't divorce ideas or concepts from the words that we use to express them.

I noticed that deGrasse Tyson isn't against philosophy as such. He seems to have his sights more on those who do philosophy of science. He actually says here:

It’s not that there can’t be other philosophical subjects, there is religious philosophy, and ethical philosophy, and political philosophy, plenty of stuff for the philosophers to do, but the frontier of the physical sciences does not appear to be among them.

That is interesting. He apparently would not inauthenticate my work. I do philosophy of religion and metaphysics. He thinks that there is ample work for philosophers to do there. But for some reason he thinks that philosophy of science is an illicit enterprise. Of course, this raises Pigliucci's ire because he is a philosopher of science and thinks there is plenty for philosophy to do.

Kevin Harris: Neil expounds a little bit. He says,

Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution — this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers — but call me later and correct me if you think I’ve missed somebody here. But, philosophy has basically parted ways from the frontier of the physical sciences . . .

Dr. Craig: I couldn't disagree more with that. I would appeal to the very examples he uses. It is true that philosophers are not, by and large, practicing scientists. There are different things to do. But the frontiers of modern science, particularly relativity physics and quantum physics which he mentions here, are done at the extreme of science and are very often deep into metaphysical questions.

Just take relativity theory, for example. Einstein's original Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 was cast in terms of ordinary three-dimensional objects enduring through time. In 1908 a German mathematician named Hermann Minkowski said that the theory can be presented in a much different way – in a geometrical way – if we no longer think of objects as three-dimensional and enduring through time but rather if we think of objects as four-dimensional. Three of their dimensions are their spatial dimensions and their fourth dimension is the dimension of time. So Minkowski said that we will now look at the world in a totally different way – the world of space and time will fade away, and now this four-dimensional space-time reality will emerge. This was a breathtaking metaphysical vision of what reality is. This then became the adopted standard method of presenting relativity theory in physics textbooks. Today the average science student absorbs this sort of metaphysical worldview almost unconsciously as part of his science education. And yet it is deeply metaphysical. It is a metaphysical vision of the world to think of it as a four-dimensional space-time reality rather than as three-dimensional objects enduring through time. Here metaphysical and philosophical arguments are definitely relevant. In any case, it is clear that this is not pure empiricism. This is philosophy of physics that is shot through with metaphysics.

Quantum physics, it hardly needs to be said, is shot through with philosophical assumptions. There are at least ten different physical interpretations of the equations of quantum mechanics.[4] These are mathematically consistent and empirically equivalent. That is to say, you can't decide among them empirically. Yet they are as different as Heisenberg's uncertainty view to David Bohm's deterministic quantum mechanics to the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics according to which every time a quantum measurement is made the world splits in two and there are dual realities – twin realities – each corresponding to its respective measurement. These are clearly deeply metaphysical issues at the heart of contemporary science.

So I would say it is precisely at the frontiers of science that philosophy and metaphysics is most relevant.

Kevin Harris: Pigliucci really takes Neil to task here. He says,

. . . someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — [you] really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship. And I say this in all friendship, truly.

Dr. Craig: Wow. That is just damning, isn't it? Taking up anti-intellectual and illiterate positions about another field of scholarship. I think that is what is so offensive about remarks like those in Hawking and Mlodinow's book. They dismiss all of their colleagues at their university in another field of scholarship as beneath them and is engaged in meaningless activity rather than valid intellectual endeavor. That is so condescending especially coming from people who are, as Pigliucci says, virtually illiterate in this other discipline which they then condescend to criticize and dismiss.

Kevin Harris: He brings up a common objection to philosophy that he kind of implies that Neil holds. That is, philosophy makes no progress. There is no progress in philosophy. Bill, I have heard that too my whole life.

Dr. Craig: Sure. And what he points out here in response to that is progress in philosophy will be progress in our conceptual analysis of certain key ideas or in the nature of science. It is not going to be measured by scientific progress in the sense of empirical discovery. After all, we've got science for that, right? Rather, it is going to be a conceptual exploration about why science works, and the nature of science – does science get at reality or does it just give us useful pragmatic instruments for technology? In Hawking and Mlodinow's book, one of the ironies is that, after dissing philosophy, I would say the first third of that book is devoted to philosophical questions of realism versus anti-realism in science. That is to say, do scientific theories really tell us about the world or are they just instrumentalist in nature? Are they just practical models that enable us to use technology and make predictions? Surprisingly, in their book they come out in favor of the anti-realist position. They don't think that there is any more truth to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe than to six-day creationism. That is their illustration. These are just different ways of modeling reality and neither one can claim to be more objective and accurate than the other. That is a radical view of the philosophy of science that would require some justification. Pigliucci says that progress will consist in analyzing these key concepts that emerge in scientific theories and trying to understand how science works.

Kevin Harris:

Another popular myth is [similar to the one we just heard] that philosophy keeps dwelling on the same questions, the implication being that, again, it doesn’t settle anything and consequently cannot move on to something else.

Dr. Craig: I think that many of the questions of philosophy are perennial questions. But, as Piglucci says, really in science if you construe the questions broadly enough they also are perennial questions. Questions about how did the universe originate? How did life come to be? These are questions that are still being asked.

Kevin Harris: You can use the very same criticism against science.

Dr. Craig: Yes. It is not really any different. I guess what I would want to emphasize is, again, in order for science to advance it is vital that we explore the concepts that appear in these scientific theories. Here would be just one illustration that I have run into recently.[5] In preparing for the Sean Carroll debate, I began to read some of the literature on the emergence of space-time. The idea that space and time are not fundamental to reality but that these are emergent realities.

Well, that raises immediately the question, “What do you mean by emergence?” Normally we think of emergence as something that appears over the course of time. But if you apply that to space-time, that becomes incoherent because you cannot have time emerge as a reality over the course of time! You would have time as the framework within which time emerges, which is incoherent. So those physicists who want to talk about the emergence of classical space-time need to explain to us what do they mean by “emergence.” In another context sometimes people talk about emergence in terms of levels of reality; that there is a deeper level of reality that is more fundamental and then there are higher levels of reality that depend on those lower deeper levels of reality.

To give an illustration, take the property of being wet. Water has the property of being wet. But on a more fundamental level, water is H2O, right? Neither hydrogen nor oxygen have the property of being wet. Wetness doesn't exist on that more fundamental level. It is an emergent property that emerges on a higher level. Is that what you mean when you say that space-time emerges? That somehow at a deeper level reality is non-spatio-temporal and at a higher level space and time emerges? If that is the case, how is that possible, and what would that do for quantum cosmology? Then it wouldn't have anything to do about the origin of the universe because then you are just talking about different levels. You are not going back in time to a beginning, so emergence wouldn't be relevant to questions of origin.

When you read the work of scientists like Christopher Isham and philosophers of science like Jeremy Butterfield on this question, they admit they are not sure what they are talking about when they talk about emergence. They will say that these are questions that need to be answered and need to be addressed and we are not even sure what we mean by time in these theories. So there are philosophical questions that lie at the very heart of these theories of space-time and quantum mechanics that need to be settled before we even know what we are talking about.

Kevin Harris: Bill, a quick aside since you brought up Sean Carroll, in your dialogue with him[6], do you find him getting this balance between philosophy and science? Does he get it?

Dr. Craig: I think to a certain extent he does, at least certainly much more than these other gentlemen that we've talked about do. He is not like deGrasse Tyson. In fact, when you look at that debate and analyze the transcript carefully, most of the objections that he wants to raise are really philosophical objections. It was ironic that the cosmologist wanted to talk philosophy (like the causal principle, for example), and the philosopher was wanting to talk cosmology (the most recent scientific findings and papers, for example). So he is one who, I think, appreciates and understands the value of philosophy, but not being a philosopher himself he will very often make very quick moves philosophically without realizing it. A prime example would be his commitment to space-time realism and a tenseless theory of time. When you read his book he moves very quickly from the empirical validity or accuracy of relativity theory to a space-time interpretation – space-time realism and a tenseless theory of time. That is a philosophical move which he doesn't even seem to be aware of.

Kevin Harris: Piglucci continues here, “You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately.” In other words, he is discounting the whole notion of philosophy of science as encumbering and slowing down progress. Piglucci gives two answers to that. Do you want to go over those two?

Dr. Craig: He says, first of all, it is just a category mistake to think that philosophy is supposed to make scientific progress. You have got science to do that. He says, “The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works,” and to analyze the key concepts that are involved in science and to ask about the nature of science. Certainly there those are meaningful questions that philosophy does help and contribute to.[7]

The second response is that he invites deGrasse Tyson to simply begin to look at some of the published papers on “the conceptual and theoretical aspects of research” and to look at the contribution of philosophy to these. I have mentioned several of these already in this podcast that I have encountered personally in my own work in reading on relativity theory and quantum theory.

Kevin Harris: Another common refrain Piglucci says, and he hears it from Neil, is

. . . scientific progress cannot be achieved by “mere armchair speculation.” And yet we give a whole category of Nobels to theoretical physicists, who use the deductive power of mathematics . . . to do just that.

Dr. Craig: Yes, he says that mathematics would be a splendid example of something that is conducted in the armchair and yet arrives at significant results. I would want to add, though, to this something that he doesn't say, and that is that I think, again, this is a caricature of philosophy to think that it ignores empirical data and is just armchair philosophizing. On the contrary, philosophy of science as it is done today will take the best results of contemporary science and then will ask questions about the key concepts in those theories, about, for example, whether they are intended to be realistic models of the universe or just instrumentally useful. It will be very, very much in dialogue with empirical science. It is not conducted in isolation from empirical scientists by people in the armchair. Good philosophy of science will be done by people who are trained in the specific scientific discipline like biology, physics, chemistry, or whatever, as well as in philosophy.

Kevin Harris: Piglucci says,

Finally, Neil, please have some respect for your mother. I don’t mean your biological one (though that too, of course!), I am referring to the intellectual mother of all science, i.e., philosophy.

Dr. Craig: Right. And there is he talking about how modern science emerged from philosophy. Originally, science was called natural philosophy. That is the title of Newton's great work – Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). What Piglucci points out is that, as these different scientific disciplines become independent, then you begin to get areas of specialization for philosophy like philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of chemistry, and so forth where the empirical work and research can go on but then those who are interested in reflecting philosophically on that discipline can stand back and look at the discipline from sort of a meta-perspective, assimilate its most current findings and data, and then reflect on its key concepts and its implications and assumptions. That is a very important role for philosophy to have.

Kevin Harris: It is interesting that at the very end of this blog, Dr. Piglucci says,

I sent a preview of this essay to Neil, and a frank, civil email exchange has followed it over the past few days. However, I’m afraid neither one of us has really conceded an inch to the other’s position. . . .

As for a possible reply from Neil, I have, of course, invited him to submit one. Here is his reply, verbatim: “I generally reply to things if, and only if, they are writing about something that I judge to be untrue about me, or that they have misunderstood about what I have said. Neither is the case with you.”

Dr. Craig: Yes. And it is sad, I think, that he recognizes that he does have this condescending and dismissive attitude to philosophy, and despite Piglucci's best efforts to persuade him otherwise, he digs in his heels and persists in what Piglucci calls an intellectually irresponsible and illiterate rejection of scholarship in another field.[8]