Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three things philosophy can do that science can't

A number of New Atheist scientists have begun calling the legitimacy and usefulness of philosophy into question. Most of these people have little clue of what philosophy is even for of course--in addition to thinking that science can be used meaningfully to answer non-scientific questions. Here are three things philosophy can do that science cant't:

 1. It can explain what philosophy can do that science can't. Which is another way of saying it can explain how philosophy and science are different. Which is another way of saying that it can tell us what science is and isn't. I have said before that where science fits into the total scheme of things is not a question for an expert in science (a scientist), but a question for the expert in the total scheme of things (a philosopher). Those who professionally deal with what is called "demarcation issue" (where to draw the line between science and non-science) are called philosophers of science. This is a whole specialty within academic philosophy. The question "What is science?" is not itself a scientific question. If there are those who think it is, then they need to explain how you answer it scientifically. Do you take science into a lab and heat it up to see what color it turns? Oh, and who do most scientists  invoke when they see a non-scientist intruder in their midst? Karl Popper, a philosopher. In other words, the very question of the relative value of science and philosophy is a philosophical question.

2. It can provide a justification for the assumptions and methodologies science takes for granted. Science employs assumptions about reality and methods of rational procedure that are not themselves amenable to scientific analysis. Scientists (except perhaps quantum physicists of the Copenhagen interpretation) assume cause and effect. Why? Do they have a scientific reason for assuming it? Of course not. Causation is, in fact, a metaphysical assumption. Questions about it are answered in the discipline of metaphysics, which is not the province of science (in fact the people who are now so enthusiastic about running down philosophy specifically repudiate metaphysics), but of philosophy. Induction, which (somewhat misleadingly) is identified most closely with science is a logical procedure which is actually a branch of logic, which, in turn, is a branch of philosophy. The analysis of scientific analysis is not scientific analysis, but philosophical analysis. If someone wrote a book on the nature and process of cause and effect or induction, it would not be a science book; it would be a philosophy book.

3. It can explain how the results of science should and shouldn't be used. In addition to being very useful in discovering things about the natural world, science is also very helpful in the development of technology. But when it comes to questions of how, when, and whether to use this technology, science is of little help, other than to help make these non-scientific decisions better informed. It takes science to make an atomic bomb. It takes philosophy to figure out whether to use it.

53 comments:

ZPenn said...

Is bringing up the atom bomb in reference to science sort of like bringing up Hitler in a political discussion?

Thomas said...

I suppose any discussion of political philosophy that can't either account for the phenomenon of Hitler or provide a moral framework in which to condemn Nazism would show the inadequacy of that political philosophy. Does that answer the question?

And there's been plenty of political philosophy (and political theology) that does so; Arent's Banality of Evil being a famous example of the former.

ZPenn said...

i was being facetious, but your point is valid regardless.

Lee said...

> "Those who professionally deal with what is called "demarcation issue" (where to draw the line between science and non-science) are called philosophers of science."

Interesting point. I guess they're not called "scientists of philosophy" for a reason.

ZPenn said...

The weird thing about the modern age though, is that the philosophers of science have pretty thoroughly defined science at this point. The definition is pretty clear, and it doesn't take a lot (or really any) knowledge of philosophy to determine what is and isn't science. So you can make a pretty good argument that philosophy was necessary to come up with the definition for science (I would hazard a guess that most of these philosophers were scientists), but now that it is well defined, there isn't a real need for philosophy to tell us what is and is not science.

ozarklatinist said...

The weird thing about the modern age though, is that science was necessary to give us our various gadgets and doodads, but we pretty much understand how all of those work now with little (or actually without any) scientific knowledge. There might have been need for science to come up with the GPS, but now that we have it we really don't need science anymore.

Singring said...

'There might have been need for science to come up with the GPS, but now that we have it we really don't need science anymore.'

I can't bring myself to believe that anyone can actually seriously say something as breathtakingly irresponsible and ignorant as this.

Surely you are joking?

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

Who's joking? Isn't the whole point of software application programs to enable people who are not technical experts to use certain powers of the computer?

Daniel said...

Singring,

I think you may be missing theozarklatinist’s point---

What I get from the post is “If it is ridiculous to argue that we no longer need science because we can engage in ‘practical’ technical activities with no scientific knowledge, it is equally ridiculous to argue that we no longer need philosophy because we can engage in ‘practical’ philosophizing without philosophic knowledge.”

I hope that makes things somewhat clearer.

Sincerely,
Daniel

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

The weird thing about the modern age though, is that the philosophers of science have pretty thoroughly defined science at this point. The definition is pretty clear, and it doesn't take a lot (or really any) knowledge of philosophy to determine what is and isn't science.

I'll have to totally disagree with you here. If you read philosophers of science, you will find exactly the opposite to be the case.

The demarcation issue is one of the most tortured and intractable problems in philosophy of science because no one can come up with a definition that is not either so lax as to allow in things that are clearly not science or so restrictive as to exclude things that clearly are.

Popper's falsifiability thesis, for example, the favorite of Darwinists, falls clearly in the latter category.

ZPenn said...

ozarklatinist:

Yeah, your analogy isn't too analogous. While you can use a GPS without science, you certainly can't make one. Here is a small and very incomplete list of things you need to make a GPS that you need scientists and engineers to figure out for you.

1. You need to get a satellite into orbit.

2. You need to make sure this orbit is the right orbit for what you need. Does this satellite need to be geosynchronous, or not? If not, what path across the sky should it take to optimize performance?

3. You need to program this satellite to collect, and send data, and potentially make calculations without any direct help from the ground.

4. You need to adjust for relativistic effects, because it turns out that pure classical mechanics will lead to serious problems with GPS satellites. This is not trivial.

5. You need to develop a GUI so that people without a scientific background can use the GPS with ease and make silly statements about how they can get along just fine without scientists.

The funny thing about knowing what is and isn't science, is that it's a lot easier. It takes no specialized scientific or philosophical training. It doesn't even require a post-secondary education. It is trivial to determine whether or not something is scientific.

ZPenn said...

Mr Cothran:

Please enlighten me. Tell me which things are ambiguously scientific? Give me a few examples. If you are right, I will gladly change my mind, but I see no great struggle in determining whether or not something is scientific.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

String theory.

ZPenn said...

I'm pretty sure string theory is unambiguously unscientific. Scientists are working on it, but its unfalsifiable nature clearly prevent it from being put through the hoops of the scientific method. Also, it makes predictions that we haven't seen evidence of yet, so it is a little bit suspicious. It's basically a bunch of pretty math at this point. A bunch of pretty math which raises some interesting philosophical discussions, but can't be classified as science.

Thomas said...

Natural history is not always falsifiable.

Martin Cothran said...

If string theory is not science, then what is it? And you called the people who work on it "scientists." Why?

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

And you said you thought it was "unambiguously unscientific." I have never seen string theory considered anything but science.

ozarklatinist said...

Zpenn,

"The funny thing about knowing what is and isn't science, is that it's a lot easier. It takes no specialized scientific or philosophical training."

How do you know that?

ZPenn said...

Thomas:
Natural history that isn't falsifiable isn't science.

Mr Cothran:

People that work on string theory are scientists because they are using "real science" to formulate string theory (not currently real science), and most of them have been working on real, falsifiable science for many years. I'm not aware of any scientists who just decided to become string theorists without doing anything else. String theory currently isn't science (mainly because we can't generate the high energies required to measure things that are on the order of magnitude of the plank length). If sometime in the future we can test string theory, it will be scientific. Currently it looks like almost any universe will fit into the parameters of string theory, which makes it a bit of a "heads I win, tails you lose" sort of theory. I don't even like it getting the term theory, I don't think it's earned it.

>>"I've never seen string theory considered anything but science">>

Where are you getting this? I've personally not heard anyone call string theory science. I've heard a lot of scientists talk about string theory, but I've never heard it called science. Of course, what I've heard hardly means anything. It either fits the definition of science, or it does not. In its current untestable fits with any universe formulation, it can not be science.

Ozarklatinist:

I have no specialized philosophical training. I know what is and is not science. I knew what was and was not science before I had received any real scientific training, before I had even attended a University. There exists a person who did not require specialized training to know what science was, therefore I know that it does not require specialized training to know what science is. QED

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

Would you also say the same about Multiverse theory?

ZPenn said...

Absolutely. We can't detect other universes. We can't test the proposition. It's unfalsifiable. Multiverses are wonderful science fiction for Star Trek or Dr Who, however for as long as we can't detect other universes, The propositions "We live in the only universe" and "We live in just one of many universes" are unscientific.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

So how would we classify the activity of the people who engage in research in this area? Under what discipline should we place it?

Also, do you know of any non-scientists who engage in research in these areas? If not, why do you think that is?

ZPenn said...

I'd classify it as applied mathematics/ theoretical physics. However, until these things are testable, they are relatively useless endeavors. And no, only scientists and mathematicians are working on these things. Why? Because they are applying current scientific knowledge to "what if" scenarios. Essetially, they are practicing philosophy with a lot more math.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

I'd classify it as applied mathematics/ theoretical physics ... they are applying current scientific knowledge to "what if" scenarios.

If string theory (or Multiverse theory) is applied mathematics or theoretical physics (as you maintain), and mathematics and theoretical physics are sciences (as they are commonly categorized), then string theory would be applied science.

And if string theory is applied science, and if the application of a science is science (which seems to be common sense), then why would string theory not be science?

ZPenn said...

Applied mathematics and theoretical physics are only scientific when they are subject to empirical evidence and falsification. They are not necessarily scientific. I could care less what common sense tells us about theoretical physics. There is a lot of theoretical physics that is science. There are pieces of theoretical physics (namely string theory) which are currently not science. An applied science is not necessarily scientific. You can use scientific knowledge in unknown scenarios (thought experiments) and until these are subject to real life tests, they are not scientific. When Einstein first came up with relativity, it wasn't yet tested. It was even controversial. The math was beautiful, and based on his assumptions, his conclusions appeared rational. It was not until his theory became testable, however, that his theories became scientific. The big difference between relativity and string theory and multiverse theory is that it did not take a long time to figure out many tests of relativity, and many tests were done. Currently we don't have nearly enough power to test string theory, and no clue whatsoever how to test for the existence of alternate universes. It may be that these remain untestable, and therefore unscientific for a very long time, if not forever.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

Applied mathematics and theoretical physics are only scientific when they are subject to empirical evidence and falsification.

So something can be part of physics, but not be science?

Thomas said...

Zpenn,

You are clearly conflating testability and falsifiability. If you mean testability, the historical aspect of science is out. But if you mean falsifiability, then you let in things you presumably don't want either. Much of phenomenology could be falsified by experience, but people don't usually consider phenomenology science.

ZPenn said...

Mr Cothran:

Sort of. I don't necessarily consider string theory to be a subset of physics. I tend to see string theory as applied physics, but outside of physics as long as it remains unscientific. It uses physics, but is not itself a part of physics.

Thomas:

I am trying to keep the two of these terms separate, but they share many characteristics, and in an informal discussion it is easy to accidentally conflate the two. Falsification is a necessary component of any claim being scientific, but it is certainly not the only thing necessary to make something scientific.

What are you referring to when you say "the historical aspect of science"? History isn't exactly a scientific discipline, so I'm guessing you aren't referring to this.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

I don't necessarily consider string theory to be a subset of physics. I tend to see string theory as applied physics, but outside of physics as long as it remains unscientific.

So a scientist, in the act of applying science, can be operating outside the domain of science?

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

Would you say that the general theory of relativity was not scientific before 1919, but was scientific after Eddington's experiment?

ozarklatinist said...

Zpenn,

"I have no specialized philosophical training. I know what is and is not science."

This is mere assertion. I asked how you knew.

ZPenn said...

Mr Cothran:

Yes, a scientist could potentially apply science to that which is outside of the domain of science.

In reference to relativity, it became science once its veracity could be empirically tested. It didn't exactly become certain the instant the results of Eddington's experiment though. No scientist in their right mind is going to tout the veracity of a claim based on a sole experiment, but since ways were being found to test it, and tests were being done, I would say that at this point it certainly qualified as science. It didn't take long for many experiments to cement relativity as accepted scientific knowledge.

ozarklatinist:

Go back and read what I wrote, and the question you asked me. You asked me how I (myself personally) knew this to be the case. I (myself, personally) accept my premises to be true, and the conclusion necessarily follows from them. If you want me to convince you, you'd have to read my mind. You didn't ask me, however, to prove to you that this knowledge needed no specialized training. You asked me how I (myself, personally) knew that it was true. I believe I have demonstrated this.

ozarklatinist said...

Zpenn,

Constructing a valid syllogism to prove a point is a fairly trivial task. I could just as easily construct one proving the opposite. It is the soundness of your syllogism that I question.

ZPenn said...

ozarklatinist:

Let me get this straight. You asked me a question regarding my personal belief in a conclusion. I then construct a valid line of reasoning using premises that I personally believe to be true. Because I personally believe these premises to be true, it follows necessarily that I believe the conclusion to be true. How does this not answer your question, "why do you believe X"? You didn't ask me "why should I believe X". You asked my, "Why do you believe X". I told you why I personally believe the truth of the proposition. Whether you think my premises are true is irrelevant, because you asked my why I, personally believed it.

I don't know how many other ways I can say it. Either you wanted to ask me a different question than you actually wanted to, or you are just playing dumb and trolling. The question that you asked me has been answered, and the answer was as complete as could be.

Out of curiosity though, since you think my argument is unsound, which of my premises do you question? Do you believe me to be lying? Do you think I...

1. Don't actually know what is and isn't science

2. Did not know the difference between the two until after receiving scientific training

3. That I am actually a student of philosophy

Just curious.

Also, I want to hold you to your trivial challenge. Construct a valid argument that proves:

ZPenn does not know that it does not require specialized scientific or philosophic training to know what is or is not science.

I have no doubt you can construct one, but whereas my argument about what I believed relies on premises whose veracity depends on my own knowledge, your argument will have to be based upon how you know what I don't know. I really like how you have a problem with why I believe what I believe. Do you think that I don't really believe it?

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

In reference to relativity, it became science once its veracity could be empirically tested.

Okay, so you said falsifiability was necessary, but not sufficient, and that there were other things that made something science. Is this the other thing you meant? That, in addition to being falsifiable, it must also be verified?

ZPenn said...

Well, clearly, if a claim is tested and the tests say that the claim was false it can't be scientific. So yes, it must be verified by these tests.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

So a theory is not scientific if it is falsifiable but unverified, but is only scientific when falsifiable but verified.

It would seem then that falsifiability is completely redundant in your definition. It literally makes no difference. All that matters is verifiability. Verifiability is both the necessary and sufficient condition. Falsifiability seems to play no role at all in determining whether a theory is scientific or not.

Would you agree?

ozarklatinist said...

Zpenn,

If I am not mistaken, my question was not why do you believe, but how do you know. You have asserted you know what is science and what isn't. My question is not why you believe you know that -- a psychological query which is of no significance, at least as far as this discussion goes -- but how you can be sure you really do know what is science and what isn't. Surely this premise is not self-evident.

Thomas said...

"Falsification is a necessary component of any claim being scientific, but it is certainly not the only thing necessary to make something scientific."

Then falsification alone cannot demarcate science from non-science. So what is the demarcation? You indicated that it was easy to grasp but your own discussion seems to be inconsistent. You certainly think you know the difference between science and non-science, but you haven't provided anyone with a good reason or even a consistent criterion.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

To follow up on Ozarklatinists's point, how do you know that the criterion for science is falsifiability or verification or whatever your criterion happens to be?

Are you defending a prescriptive definition or a descriptive one? Are you saying that science must be [fill in the blank], or that, in practical fact, that's what it is?

In other words, are you saying that science is what you say it is on the basis of an appeal to some metaphysical ideal of what science should be, or that science is simply what scientists do?

ozarklatinist said...

If only these scientists would read some Plato, they would realize how often discussions that begin with "I definitely know what X is" end in "Huh!?"

ZPenn said...

Thomas:

Falsification is not the only necessary piece of the puzzle, because I could easily make the claim "My Skin is green" and you could check to see whether this claim was true, and finding that it was false, I could continue claiming that my skin was green. This claim would always be falsifiable, but after it has been falsified, it can hardly be very scientific. A claim must be verified by empirical evidence. Any verifiable claim is a part of the subset "Falsifiable" so maybe verification is a better criterion. Falsifiability is just a nice jumping off point. If your claim isn't falsifiable, it can't be verified, and so it is straight out.

Ozarklatinist:

You may as well ask me how I know that I'm not insane then. At that level, I don't "Know" anything. I work on the assumption that I am sane, because working on the assumption that I am insane doesn't do me much good. I told you why I believe what I believe, if you want to know how I "know" anything, as in with absolute certainty, I don't "know" anything. I always assume that there is at least some possibility, no matter how remote, that I may be wrong.

Mr Cothran:
Science is what the human race has defined it to be. That definition has evolved over the years into what it is today. It's just a word, a word which describes a system and a methodology for studying the natural world. It's a system designed to eliminate bias, and to draw conclusions from empirical data. I have defined science to be the systematic study of the natural world by following the scientific method. You can find a general description of the scientific method in almost any middle school, high school, or undergraduate introductory textbook. If something is falsifiable, verified by empirical evidence, and follows the scientific method, it is science. If it is not these things, it is not science. That is the demarcation.

How do I know that this is the case? That is how I have defined science. If you choose to define science in some other way, then you may have a different set of things that you consider to be scientific. If I follow "my" definition of science, then I have no trouble determining what is or is not science.

I am not saying that science "must be" this, nor am I saying that in practical fact that is what it is. I am saying that this is how modern scientists appear to define it, and therefore that is how I have defined it. Working from this definition, it is simple to separate science from non-science.

I don't believe in "should be" in the sense that there is some universal ideal that anything should strive to be in really any aspect of life, so I guess I'd have to answer no to that one. Also, I can't define science as what scientists do, because there are many things that scientists do that are not scientific. For example, a scientist enjoying a glass of wine isn't necessarily "doing science".

Thomas said...

" If something is falsifiable, verified by empirical evidence, and follows the scientific method, it is science. If it is not these things, it is not science. That is the demarcation."

So mathematics is not a science?

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

Science is what the human race has defined it to be.

"Human race"? You say this as if it is a single coherent, consistent entity. Human beings, on the other hand, individual ones, have hardly given a consistent answer on this question. Should we just take a majority vote of human beings on this question? Is that the way we decide such things?

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

I have defined science to be the systematic study of the natural world by following the scientific method.

This begs the question of what the "scientific method" is. Is it what scientists, in fact, do? Or is it some prescriptive activity that has been handed down from Sinai?

You said, "It's a system designed to eliminate bias, and to draw conclusions from empirical data." This would seem to exclude hypothesis testing, which does not draw conclusions from empirical data, but uses empirical data to confirm hypotheses that can sometimes only be suggested by data.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

You can find a general description of the scientific method in almost any middle school, high school, or undergraduate introductory textbook.

So science is what textbooks say it is? Isn't this an appeal to authority? The reason we're having this discussion is because such definitions are insufficient to account for all cases of we deem science--or include things that are not really science.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

How do I know that this is the case? That is how I have defined science. If you choose to define science in some other way, then you may have a different set of things that you consider to be scientific. If I follow "my" definition of science, then I have no trouble determining what is or is not science.

So science is whatever ZPenn says it is? That may not be any trouble for you, but, like any subjective position, it can be a lot of trouble for other people.

And it seems to me that any position that holds that, say, none of the work that was done by the people working on confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson before the moment it was determined to have 5 sigma certainty was not science has some trouble. And your verification criterion says just that.

Martin Cothran said...

ZPenn,

If something is falsifiable, verified by empirical evidence, and follows the scientific method, it is science. If it is not these things, it is not science. That is the demarcation.

This seems to me the core problem of your definition: You say that science must be both falsifiable and verified. But if it is verified (proven to be true) then it can no longer be falsified. And if is falsifiable, it cannot yet be verified. It literally cannot be both.

It can be verified and unfalsifiable or falsifiable but not verified. Maybe you could give me an example of a scientific position that is both verified and falsifiable.

Maybe you could also explain how you can have a square circle.

ZPenn said...

Thomas:

Mathematics is beautiful. I love it, but no, it is not science. It is one of the greatest tools of science, and in some ways mathematics is more pure than science, because where science is the study of things with empirical evidence, truth in mathematics is an intrinsic necessity assuming the truth of its basic premises (axioms). However, as beautiful as it is, I agree with Feynman's assessment of mathematics in relation to physics (but I guess I'm a little biased on that one).

Mr Cothran:

When I say the human race, I guess I'm less referring to humanity as a single entity, and more referring to the consensus of scientists. Consensus does not determine scientific facts, empirical evidence does that, but consensus does determine how scientists define science itself.

Hypothesis testing does draw conclusions from empirical data. You form a hypothesis, gather data, if the data supports your hypothesis, you throw some more tests at it. If the data says that your hypothesis is wrong, you throw that hypothesis out. It is entirely dependent upon empirical tests. You seem to have an interesting perspective on the scientific method if you are accusing it of fostering confirmation bias. The whole purpose of the scientific method is to encourage scientists to find ways to prove the hypothesis wrong, and to poke as many holes in their hypotheses as possible. Only the theories which withstand scrutiny from thousands of tests and the prying eyes of just as many scientists can survive the process.

My point was not that it was true because a textbook says so (I've read some awful textbooks in my time), my point was that the agreed upon parameters of the scientific method are readily available for anyone to find.

My point was that the definition of any word, including science is subjective. There is no objective "science" entity that exists in the universe. Science is what mankind (scientists in particular) have defined it to be, and as I subscribe to this definition, I referred to it as "my" definition. I was careful to put that in quotes because It isn't that I on a whim decided to become the arbiter of science, but to emphasize that I have decided personally to define the word in the way that scientists in general have defined it.

In reference to the higgs- actually, I don't see a problem here. I didn't consider the existence of the higgs to be a scientific position to hold before the tests at the LHC had been completed, and I still don't hold it to be scientific today, because only one group of scientists doing a single set of experiments at a single lab have done it. The scientific method requires results to be repeatable. When many others have confirmed the higgs, I'll believe it to be solid science. At the moment, it's just our best guess, and is in no way something we should consider scientific knowledge. It is something I would personally bet on being true, but I certainly don't yet see it as science.

However, Just because the higgs particle is not yet science, that does not mean that the people working on the project were not engaging in science. They are working on the end of the first cycle of the scientific method. They have tested their hypothesis, and the data has confirmed their hypothesis. They are doing science, but science isn't done with their work. More test need to be done.

This verified/ falsifiable problem doesn't appear to be a problem for me. Once a claim is verified, it is still "falsifiable" in that we can still test its veracity. Just because we are confident in something being true does not mean that it is unfalsifiable. Any claim that can be tested empirically is falsifiable, because there is the potential that the data will tell us our claim is wrong.

I Can't square the circle. The axioms of geometry make it impossible.

ozarklatinist said...

Zpenn,

" I told you why I believe what I believe, if you want to know how I "know" anything, as in with absolute certainty, I don't "know" anything."

Thus, you do not know what is science and what is not; you merely believe you do. QED.

ZPenn said...

ozarklatinist:

Sure.


I'm pretty sure that's what I meant when I said "know" the first time. Usually when I say I know something, it means I believe it. I'm not entirely sure I believe knowing anything absolutely is possible. At the very least, there is no way to test for absolute knowledge.

I can't know that I am sane, I just work under the assumption that I am. I don't know that there is any knowledge that we can truly know without relying on certain base assumptions.

ozarklatinist said...

Sorry. In the future, when you say you know something, I will assume you mean you actually don't know.

ZPenn said...

ozarklatinist:

If that's how you want to do so, go on ahead. The burden was on me to be more clear about what I meant by know, I guess. Typically when I say "know" I mean based on certain assumptions I am willing to make (I exist, I have the ability to use reason, et cetera) that I am certain of the truth of my claim. I would never go so far as to say that what I know is 100% certain. That doesn't leave me any room to be presented with evidence to the contrary, and it doesn't allow evidence to change my mind.