Lawrence 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.