Philosophy is Dead, Or It Should Be

neil degrasse tysonLawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson have both been very critical of philosophy lately, saying that it hasn’t kept pace with modern science and, at least according to Tyson, what has it done for science lately?  Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci has responded, specifically to Tyson in an article, but I’m really not convinced.

Now I admit to being rather anti-philosophy myself, not about any specific field of philosophy, but about the practice in general.  I don’t think that, compared with other fields of inquiry, it has much to offer.  Sure, lots of ideas, but nothing demonstrable to do with them.

Anyhow, here’s one of the comments left by Pigliucci toward Tyson that I wanted to address before I got into a wholesale evaluation of the general state of philosophy today:

A common refrain I’ve heard from you (see direct quotes above) and others, is that 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 (yes, of course, informed by previously available empirical evidence) to do just that. Or — even better — take mathematics itself, a splendid example of how having one’s butt firmly planted on a chair (and nowhere near any laboratory) produces both interesting intellectual artifacts in their own right and an immense amount of very practical aid to science. No, I’m not saying that philosophy is just like mathematics or theoretical physics. I’m saying that one needs to do better than dismiss a field of inquiry on the grounds that it is not wedded to a laboratory setting, or that its practitioners like comfortable chairs.

Yes, but as Pigliucci admits, the work of theoretical physicists is informed by previously available empirical evidence.  Part of how science works is that it is predictive.  When Einstein predicted the existence of black holes, for example, we had no way of proving that they actually existed.  We didn’t get our first actual evidence for the existence of black holes until 1972 with the work of Louise Webster, Charles Thomas Bolton and Paul Murdin on Cygnus X-1, more than half a century after Einstein made the prediction and almost 20 years after Einstein died.

Pigliucci also says that nobody argues against history.  Yes, that’s because history only tells us what happened in the past, it doesn’t try to make a case for what we ought to do in the future.  History is also based on evidence, archaeology, anthropology, books that have been written, etc.  It doesn’t just surmise that something must have been true because they can construct an argument in the heads of historians that it might have.  There may be things to criticize about history from time to time, but the results it produces more often than not come from hard facts, not an unleashed imagination

So my question is, what has philosophy done, other than play watchdog over science?

So much of modern-day philosophy is little more than navel noodling nonsense, it is ideas without limit, but also without application.  It really is no different than religion.  It’s ideas that appeal to the individual philosopher expanded into positions that can be neither objectively verified or justified.  It is, in the purest sense of the term, mental masturbation.  It claims to be truth but gets nowhere near demonstrable fact.

In fact, let me address that for a moment.  Every single modern-day apologetic argument is philosophical in nature.  Every single one.  There are none that are based on evidence, they are all based on building a logical syllogism in it’s proper form and going to town, even if the argument itself doesn’t actually prove anything.  The Kalam Cosmological argument, the Ontological argument, the Teleological argument, all come from philosophy and not from reality.  They don’t prove a damn thing and that’s their problem.  They do not provide any evidence that their conclusion is factually accurate.  They just assert that it is!

That’s the biggest problem.  You can construct a syllogism that says anything you want.  Sure, looking at logical forms can help you to identify ideas that are bad, but it can’t help you identify ideas that are  good.  It can say that your argument fails here, but it can never say that your argument accurately reflects the way things actually happen in the real world.

Even when it comes to ethics, philosophy doesn’t actually prove one system is better than another, it just makes assertions, based largely on the individual philosopher’s presuppositions, that they can build into a system that they personally like.  If philosophy had anything substantive to say about ethics, then there wouldn’t be a million and one different ethical systems, each with their own philosophical proponents.  In that, philosophy is little more than opinions with college degrees.  It might propose solutions to problems but it doesn’t actually solve the problems.  It might set you on the path but it doesn’t actually get you anywhere.

Thinking is good. Thinking without any real-world application is not.  I’m all for a system which teaches us how to think rationally and critically about things, but not a system that does not produce demonstrable and verifiable results.  I’m entirely cool with certain disciplines of philosophy keeping an eye on science and keeping it honest. I think Tyson had it right when he observed that a lot of philosophy devolves into debating meanings and not about advancing knowledge.  That’s because there’s no actual knowledge to be had from philosophy, no knowledge generated by philosophy, just ideas and not necessarily good, useful or worthwhile ideas at that.  Maybe we ought to do away with the concept of thinking for a living in a bubble that produces no demonstrable results.

7 thoughts on “Philosophy is Dead, Or It Should Be

  1. I am curious about why you did not cross-post this piece in the comment thread connected to the essay by Massimo to which you are responding here. I think you are displaying the very anti-intellectualism that was one of Massimo's points. I am myself an advocate of science. But your comments here are bordering on the very scientism that Massimo charges Krauss, Tyson and other scientists with practicing. I'd be very interested in Massimo's reply to your thoughts here. Perhaps you will share them with him and then share his reply with us?

  2. " I don’t think that, compared with other fields of inquiry, it has much to offer."

    What exactly are you looking for from a field of inquiry? Seems to me that you are judging philosophy's value and utility in the way that you would judge some new invention: does it do anything practical? does it solve a practical problem? But this is not the purpose of philosophy. One of philosophy's most important purposes is to help clarify our thinking on a question. Not only this, but philosophy raises questions that science is at present incapable of answering, and in some cases, likely will never be able to answer. Questions having to do with ought rather than is, for example. Such questions may never have a clear-cut, one right answer. But philosophy focuses our thought processes on such questions in a way that helps us make the best judgements about the potential answers.

  3. "When Einstein predicted the existence of black holes, for example, we had no way of proving that they actually existed."

    FYI, Einstein was not the first to predict the existence of black holes. The idea of these types of stars was first proposed in the "late 1790s when John Michell of England and Pierre-Simon Laplace of France independently suggested the existence of an "invisible star." Michell and Laplace calculated the mass and size – which is now called the "event horizon" – that an object needs in order to have an escape velocity greater than the speed of light." (Source:…. The term "black hole" as a name for these types of stars was coined in 1967 by theoretical physicist and physics Nobel Laureate John Wheeler.

  4. "Yes, but as Pigliucci admits, the work of theoretical physicists is informed by previously available empirical evidence."

    What is your point? The fact that this is true (a fact that Pigliucci acknowledged) does not in any way undermine the point that Pigliucci made. Theoretical physics fits into the definition of the phrase "armchair speculation", as does mathematics. Just as theoretical physics can be and is informed by empirical work from experimental physics, philosophy also can be and is informed by empirical data from science and other branches of knowledge.

  5. "Pigliucci also says that nobody argues against history."

    This is a gross misrepresentation of what Picliucci wrote as well as the point he was making. Here is what he actually wrote in full:

    "And philosophy is not the only discipline that engages in studying the workings of science: so do history and sociology of science, and yet I never heard you dismiss those fields on the grounds that they haven’t discovered the Higgs boson.

    Your paraphrasing above of what was said has no resemblance at all to the point being made. If Tyson, or you for that matter, are going to dismiss philosophy as an intellectual pursuit on the grounds that it contributes nothing to science or to our understanding of the material universe, then by the same reasoning you must also dismiss history and sociology of science as intellectual pursuits for the same reason. They contribute nothing to our understanding of nature in the same way that philosophy also does not. But, and this is the more important point, this is not their task; this is not their purpose. It is a category mistake to argue that philosophy is useless because it does not provides answers to the questions investigated by science. Philosophy is not tasked with answering such questions.

    Philosophy tackles questions that science is incapable of answering at present, and may never be able to answer. And when science does answer a question that Philosophy explores, then it becomes a part of the scientific corpus and philosophy gladly relinquishes this question. But in doing so this does not relegate philosophy to a position of irrelevance. There are still many questions in philosophy that science hasn't the ability to answer. Philosophy keeps such questions alive, questions worthy of consideration, even though they may be unresolvable in an absolute sense. Questions such as the meaning of life, what moral principles should one adopt, etc.

    Yes, that’s because history only tells us what happened in the past, it doesn’t try to make a case for what we ought to do in the future."

    Nor does science. You cannot decide what ought to be done from what is. Science can give us answers to the "what is" questions, but it does not provide the answer to the "what ought" questions. I know you have, as you admit, a prejudice against philosophy. But you seriously need to actually read some philosophy. I would start with David Hume since you seem to not understand the difference between "is" and "ought" nor the idea that "ought" cannot be derived from "is."

  6. " History is also based on evidence, archaeology, anthropology, books that have been written, etc."

    The fact that history is based on evidence does not counter the point that Pigliucci made. Sure, this gives it something in common with science. But the sharing of this trait does not refute Pigliucci's point that history provides us no more understanding of the material universe than does philosophy, yet you and others dis philosophy for this failing and say nothing about history's failing in this task.

    Truth, however, is that neither philosophy nor history deserve to be criticized for failing to do this. Why? Because, I shall repeat, this is not the task or a task of either of these disciplines. Neither should be judged using the criteria used to judge the progress of science. Neither explores the types of questions investigated by science.

  7. "There are more things in heaven, and earth Horatio, than your philosophy's have ever dreamt of." Hamlet 1:5 Billy S. The Bard. Now that's what is known as PITHY.

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