Tag Archives: Lawrence Krauss

Skepticism, Science and Scientism

By Tim Harding B.Sc.

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2017, Vol 37 No 3)

In these challenging times of anti-science attitudes and ‘alternative facts’, it may sound strange to be warning against excessive scientific exuberance.  Yet to help defend science from these attacks, I think we need to encourage scientists to maintain their credibility amongst non-scientists.

In my last article for The Skeptic (‘I Think I Am’, March 2017), I traced the long history of skepticism over the millennia.  I talked about the philosophical skepticism of Classical Greece, the skepticism of Modern Philosophy dating from Descartes, through to the contemporary form of scientific skepticism that our international skeptical movement now largely endorses.  I quoted Dr. Steven Novella’s definition of scientific skepticism as ‘the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’

Despite the recent growth of various anti-science movements, science is still widely regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for the discovery of empirical knowledge, that is, knowledge derived from observations and experiments.  Even theoretical physics is supposed to be empirically verifiable in principle when the necessary technology becomes available, as in the case of the Higgs boson and Einstein’s gravitational waves.  But empirical observations are not our only source of knowledge – we also use reasoning to make sense of our observations and to draw valid conclusions from them.  We can even generate new knowledge through the application of reasoning to what we already know, as I shall discuss later.

Most skeptics (with a ‘k’) see science as a kind of rational antidote to the irrationality of pseudoscience, quackery and other varieties of woo.  So we naturally tend to support and promote science for this purpose.  But sometimes we can go too far in our enthusiasm for science.  We can mistakenly attempt to extend the scope of science beyond its empirical capabilities, into other fields of inquiry such as philosophy and politics – even ethics.  If only a small number of celebrity scientists lessen their credibility by making pronouncements beyond their individual fields of expertise, they render themselves vulnerable to attack by our opponents who are looking for any weaknesses in their arguments.  In doing so, they can unintentionally undermine public confidence in science, and by extension, scientific skepticism.

The pitfalls of crude positivism

Logical positivism (sometimes called ‘logical empiricism’) was a Western philosophical movement in the first half of the 20th century with a central thesis of verificationism; which was a theory of knowledge which asserted that only propositions verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful.

One of the most prominent proponents of logical positivism was Professor Sir Alfred Ayer (1910-1989) pictured below.  Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in his bestselling 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic.  Ayer’s thesis was that a proposition can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical content, otherwise it is either a priori (known by deduction) or nonsensical.  Ayer’s philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and the 18th century empiricist philosopher David Hume.

James Fodor, who is a young Melbourne science student, secularist and skeptic has critiqued a relatively primitive form of logical positivism, which he calls ‘crude positivism’.  He describes this as a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, the three most commonly-encountered components of which are the following:

(1) Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.

(2) Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.

(3) Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it ‘works’.  Philosophy, theology, and other such fields of inquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.

Somewhat controversially, Fodor classifies Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking as exponents of crude positivism when they stray outside their respective fields of scientific expertise into other fields such as philosophy and social commentary.  (Although to be fair, Lawrence Krauss wrote an apology in a 2012 issue of Scientific American, for seemingly dismissing the importance of philosophy in a previous interview he gave to The Atlantic).

Fodor’s component (1) is a relatively uncontroversial viewpoint shared by most scientists and skeptics.  Nevertheless, Fodor cautions that crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence automatically picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities.  In practice, however, this is almost never the case because the interpretation of evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory.  For instance, the raw data from most scientific observations or experiments are unintelligible without the use of background scientific theories and methodologies.

It is Fodor’s components (2) and (3) that are likely to be more controversial, and so I will now discuss them in more detail.

The folly of scientism

What is ‘scientism’ – and how is it different from the natural enthusiasm for science that most skeptics share?  Unlike logical positivism, scientism is not a serious intellectual movement.  The term is almost never used by its exponents to describe themselves.  Instead, the word scientism is mainly used pejoratively when criticising scientists for attempting to extend the boundaries of science beyond empiricism.

Warwick University philosopher Prof. Tom Sorell has defined scientism as: ‘a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.’  In summary, a commitment to one or more of the following statements lays one open to the charge of scientism:

  • The natural sciences are more important than the humanities for an understanding of the world in which we live, or even all we need to understand it;
  • Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore if the humanities are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it; and
  • Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

At the 2016 Australian Skeptics National Convention, former President of Australian Skeptics Inc., Peter Bowditch, criticized a recent video made by TV science communicator Bill Nye in which he responded to a student asking him: ‘Is philosophy meaningless?’  In his rambling answer, Nye confused questions of consciousness and reality, opined that philosophy was irrelevant to answering such questions, and suggested that our own senses are more reliable than philosophy.  Peter Bowditch observed that ‘the problem with his [Nye’s] comments was not that they were just wrong about philosophy; they were fractally wrong.  Nye didn’t know what he was talking about. His concept of philosophy was extremely naïve.’  Bill Nye’s embarrassing blunder is perhaps ‘low hanging fruit’; and after trenchant criticism, Nye realised his error and began reading about philosophy for the first time.

Some distinguished scientists (not just philosophers) are becoming concerned about the pernicious influence of scientism.  Biological sciences professor Austin Hughes (1949-2015) wrote ‘the temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’

Prof. Hughes notes that advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself.  Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not.  He writes ‘as a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’

Limitations of science

The editor of the philosophical journal Think and author of The Philosophy Gym, Prof. Stephen Law has identified two kinds of questions to which it is very widely supposed that science cannot supply answers:

Firstly, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual, rather than scientific or empirical.  They are usually answered by the use of reasoning rather than empirical observations.  For example, Galileo conducted a famous thought experiment by reason alone.  Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string.  Drop these linked objects from the top of a tower.  If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object.  But the linked objects together are heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This logical contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption about heavier objects falling faster is false.  Galileo figured this conclusion out in his head, without the assistance of any empirical experiment or observation.  In doing so, he was employing philosophical rather than scientific methods.

Secondly, moral questions are about what we ought or ought not to do.  In contrast, the empirical sciences, on their own, appear capable of establishing only what is the case.  This is known as the ‘is/ought gap’. Science can provide us with factual evidence that might influence our ethical judgements but it cannot provide us with the necessary ethical values or principles.  For example, science can tell us how to build nuclear weapons, but it cannot tell us whether or not they should ever be used and under what circumstances.  Clinical trials are conducted in medical science, often using treatment groups versus control groups of patients.  It is bioethics rather than science that provides us with the moral principles for obtaining informed patient consent for participation in such clinical trials, especially when we consider that control groups of patients are being denied treatments that could be to their benefit.

I have given the above examples not to criticise science in any way, but simply to point out that science has limitations, and that there is a place for other fields of inquiry in addition to science.

Is pragmatism enough?

Coming back to Fodor’s component (3) of crude positivism, he makes a good point that a scientific explanation that ‘works’ is not necessarily true.  For instance, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing ad hoc notions of the deferent, equant and epicycles to the geocentric model of what is now known as our solar system.  This model was completely wrong, yet it produced accurate predictions of the motions of the planets – it ‘worked’.  Another example was Gregor Mendel’s 19th century genetic experiments on wrinkled peas.  These empirical experiments adequately explained the observed phenomena of genetic variation without even knowing what genes were or where they were located in living organisms.

Ptolemy model

Schematic diagram of Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos

James Fodor argues that just because scientific theories can be used to make accurate predictions, this does not necessarily mean that science alone always provides us with accurate descriptions of reality.  There is even a philosophical theory known as scientific instrumentalism, which holds that as long as a scientific theory makes accurate predictions, it does not really matter whether the theory corresponds to reality.  The psychology of perception and the philosophies of mind and metaphysics could also be relevant.  Fodor adds that many of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are really applications of engineering and technology, rather than the discovery process of science itself.

Fodor concludes that if the key to the success of the natural sciences is adherence to rational methodologies and inferences, then it is those successful methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in, rather than the data sets collected in particular sciences.

Implications for science and skepticism

Physicist Ian Hutchison writes ‘the health of science is in fact jeopardised by scientism, not promoted by it.  At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response in other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism.  It taints science itself by association’.  Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science — scientism.  By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research.

The late Prof. Austin Hughes left us with a prescient warning that continued insistence on the universal and exclusive competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase in science denialism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.

References

Ayer, Alfred. J. (1936), Language Truth and Logic, London: Penguin.

Bowditch, Peter ‘Is Philosophy Dead?’ Australasian Science July/August 2017.

Fodor, James ‘Not so simple’, Australian Rationalist, v. 103, December 2016, pp. 32–35.

Harding, Tim ‘I Think I Am’, The Skeptic, Vol. 37 No. 1. March 2017, pp. 40-44.

Hughes, Austin L ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis, Number 37, Fall 2012, pp. 32-50.

Hutchinson, Ian. (2011) Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing.

Krauss, Lawrence ‘The Consolation of PhilosophyScientific American Mind, April 27, 2012.

Law, Stephen, ‘Scientism, the limits of science, and religionCenter for Inquiry (2016), Amherst, NY.

Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.

Sorell, Thomas (1994), Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, London: Routledge.

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Krauss apologizes for dissing philosophy

Why Evolution Is True

Over at Scientific American, Lawrence Krauss has written an apology for dismissing the importance of philosophy, as he seemed to do in his interview in The Atlantic.  Apparently set aright by Dan Dennett, and reminded of confrères like Anthony Grayling and Peter Singer, Krauss admits that philosophy has some value after all, though not so much when it comes to guiding the progress of physics.  He then clarifies what he meant by the “nothing” in “the universe from nothing”—a better explanation than, as I recall, he proffers in his book.

Krauss’s apology becomes a bit of a notapology in the last paragraph, though:

So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize.  I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the…

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ASU’s Krauss hails discovery, which he predicted, as important as the invention of the telescope

Everything shifted this morning.

In the 100th-anniversary year of Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientists announced they have proved it.

Using a stunning display of technological prowess, a group of physicists measured gravitational waves, a ripple in the fabric of space caused by the collision of two immense objects far out in the universe.

The discovery is on par with the invention of the telescope, said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University.

“It heralds what I think is the beginning of the new astronomy for the 21st century,” Krauss said. “Gravitational-wave astronomy will be the astronomy of the 21st century. It’s opened a new window on the universe, just like the telescope in some sense or when we first used radio waves to explore the universe.”

Researchers at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, used two detectors at opposite ends of the country to measure a change in length down to a tolerance of one ten-thousandth of a proton.

“Using gravitational waves to explore the universe will allow us to see things we could have never seen before,” Krauss said. “We’ll be exploring science in a domain we’ve never seen before. It will also allow us to explore objects in the universe we’ve never seen before.”

The LIGO experiment observed the collision of two black holes. Black holes are at the center of virtually every large galaxy, and their dynamics may be related to the dynamics of galaxy formation. It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Which formed first?

Two incredibly immense black holes collided, converting a mass three times the size of the sun into energy in a single second, sending out a ripple in space and time.

“It allows us to see things that are just truly mind-boggling,” Krauss said. “A black hole with a mass 39 times the mass of our sun collides with another black hole 26 times the mass of the sun, comes together to make one big black hole that’s 62 times the mass of the sun. If you do your addition, 62 is not 39 plus 26, it’s three solar masses smaller. Three solar masses of energy went in a second into gravitational waves. … Our sun over 10 billion years is only going to convert a small fraction of its mass into energy by burning 100 million hydrogen bombs every second. But in one second or so, in a very short time — BOOM — three times the mass of the sun was converted by E=mc² into energy. It’s unfathomable. It just disappeared. Imagine our sun just disappearing in a second.”

“Gravitational-wave astronomy will be the astronomy of the 21st century. It’s opened a new window on the universe, just like the telescope in some sense or when we first used radio waves to explore the universe.” — tweet by Lawrence Krauss, ASU theoretical physicist and cosmologist

They fired lasers down the arms and bounced them off mirrors at either end. The laser path lengths are equal under normal circumstances, but not when a gravitational wave passes through.

“It’s a testament to human perseverance and ingenuity,” Krauss said. “What was required to build a detector to detect gravitational waves is unbelievable.”

It’s like being in California and detecting a leaf falling in Virginia. The system is so sensitive a truck hitting a pothole miles away threw it off in the early years when it started operating in 2002. The arms are so long that the curvature of the Earth is a measurable 1 meter (vertical) difference over the 4-kilometer length of each arm. “The most precise concrete pouring and leveling imaginable was required to counteract this curvature and ensure that LIGO’s vacuum chambers were truly ‘flat’ and level,” the lab’s website said. The detectors are so precise continental drift had to be taken into consideration, Krauss said.

“They had to be able to measure the change in length of a 4-kilometer-long tunnel by an amount equal to one ten-thousandth the size of a proton,” he said. “When you say that, it’s just amazing. It’s just amazing that human beings could do that. They had to push quantum technology to its limits. Even the quantum fluctuations of atoms in the mirror are such that even those have to be controlled. It’s just amazing what they can do. It’s proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Science-fiction writers wouldn’t dare to even propose it, but it’s been done. It’s taken 20 years of hard work by thousands of physicists; there are more than 1,000 people working on that collaboration.”

LIGO will allow the laws of physics to be tested in domains never seen before, like the event horizon of black holes, “which is that region inside of which you never get out, and which, if you’re near, strange things happen — if you’ve seen the movie ‘Interstellar,’ time dilates and everything else,” Krauss said. “It’ll be a whole new type of astronomy.”

He appreciated the poetics of the discovery happening in the anniversary year of relativity.

“It’s beautifully fitting that on the 100th anniversary of the development of general relativity, when Einstein first proposed the existence of gravitational waves, that they’ve finally been directly discovered,” he said. “It’s superlatives all over. It’s an amazing piece of work by an amazing group of scientists who were dedicated to doing something that appeared impossible, to discover something that opens a new window on the universe. And every time we open a new window on the universe, we’ve been surprised. I’m sure there will be surprises.”

Krauss has taken abuse from some quarters for teasing the announcement on his Twitter feed, once this past September and again in January. (One astrophysicist claimed to be “appalled” by the tweets.) Krauss thought drumming up interest in a major discovery was the right thing to do.

“If scientists are excited, I didn’t see why the public shouldn’t be,” he said. “No one on the project told me anything in confidence. I just heard the rumor, and it turned out to be true. … The net result was hundreds of articles are being prepared now for this result that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t in some sense laid the groundwork. … I think I’d say I was doing God’s work, if I believed in God.”

Reblogged from Arizona State University weh site.

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Is Philosophy Dead?

Philosophy Professors Daniel Kaufman & Massimo Pigliucci discuss the value of philosophy in light of recent attacks from a few well-known scientists. They argue that such attacks on philosophy are expressions of sheer ignorance, and result in a certain kind of anti-intellectualism.

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December 24, 2014 · 5:15 pm

Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex

Massimo Pigliucci logo

 by

I don’t know what’s the matter with physicists these days. It used to be that they were an intellectually sophisticated bunch, with the likes of Einstein and Bohr doing not only brilliant scientific research, but also interested, respectful of, and conversant in other branches of knowledge, particularly philosophy. These days it is much more likely to encounter physicists like Steven Weinberg or Stephen Hawking, who merrily go about dismissing philosophy for the wrong reasons, and quite obviously out of a combination of profound ignorance and hubris (the two often go together, as I’m sure Plato would happily point out). The latest such bore is Lawrence Krauss, of Arizona State University.I have been ignoring Krauss’ nonsense about philosophy for a while, even though it had occasionally appeared on my Twitter or G+ radars. But the other day my friend Michael De Dora pointed me to this interview Krauss just did with The Atlantic, and now I feel obliged to comment, for the little good that it may do. And before I continue, kudos to Ross Andersen, who conducted the interview, for pressing Krauss on several of his non sequiturs. Let’s take a look, shall we?

krauss

Krauss is proud (if a bit coy) of the fact that Richard Dawkins referred to his latest book, entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,” as comparable to Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” on the grounds that it upends the “last trump card of the theologian.” Well, leave it to Dawkins to engage in that sort of silly hyperbolic rhetoric. (Dawkins still appears to be convinced that religion will be defeated by rationality alone. Were that the case, David Hume would have sufficed.) The fact is, Krauss’s book is aimed at a general audience, popularizing other people’s (as well as his own) work, and is not the kind of revelation of novel scientific findings that Darwin put out in his opus, and that makes all the difference.

Krauss’s volume was much praised when it got out in January, but more recently has been slammed by David Albert in the New York Times:

“The particular, eternally persisting, elementary physical stuff of the world, according to the standard presentations of relativistic quantum field theories, consists (unsurprisingly) of relativistic quantum fields… they have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.”

That’s harsh, and Krauss understandably doesn’t like what Albert wrote. Still, I wonder if Krauss is justified in referring to Albert as a “moronic philosopher,” considering that the latter is not only a highly respected philosopher of physics at Columbia University, but also holds a PhD in theoretical physics. I didn’t think Rockefeller University (where Albert got his degree) gave out PhD’s to morons, but I could be wrong.

Nonetheless, let’s get to the core of Krauss’ attack on philosophy. He says: “Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.” This clearly shows two things: first, that Krauss does not understand what the business of philosophy is (it is not to advance science, as I explain here); second, that Krauss doesn’t mind playing armchair psychologist, despite the dearth of evidence for his pop psychological “explanation.” Okay, others can play the same game too, so I’m going to put forth the hypothesis that the reason physicists such as Weinberg, Hawking and Krauss keep bashing philosophy is because they suffer from an intellectual version of the Oedipus Complex (you know, philosophy was the mother of science and all that… you can work out the details of the inherent sexual frustrations from there).

Here is another gem from this brilliant (as a physicist) moron: “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’ And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever. … they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

Okay, to begin with, it is fair to point out that the only people who read works in theoretical physics are theoretical physicists, so by Krauss’ own reasoning both fields are largely irrelevant to everybody else (they aren’t, of course). Second, once again, the business of philosophy (of science, in particular) is not to solve scientific problems — we’ve got science for that (Julia and I explain what philosophers of science do here). To see how absurd Krauss’ complaint is just think of what it would sound like if he had said that historians of science haven’t solved a single puzzle in theoretical physics. That’s because historians do history, not science. When was the last time a theoretical physicist solved a problem in history, pray?

And then of course there is the old time favorite theme of philosophy not making progress. I have debunked that one too, but the crucial point is that progress in philosophy is not and should not be measured by the standards of science, just like the word “progress” has to be interpreted in any field according to that field’s issues and methods, not according to science’s issues and methods. (And incidentally, how’s progress on that string theory thingy going, Lawrence? It has been 25 years and counting, and still no empirical evidence…)

Andersen, at this point in the interview, must have been a bit fed up with Krauss’ ego, so he pointed out that actually philosophers have contributed to a number of science or science-related fields, and mentions computer science and its intimate connection with logic. He even names Bertrand Russell as a pivotal figure in this context. Ah, says Krauss, but really, logic is a branch of mathematics (it’s actually the other way around), so philosophy can’t get credit. And at any rate, Russell was a mathematician (actually, he was largely a logician with an interest in the philosophy of math). Krauss also claims that Wittgenstein was “very mathematical,” as if it is somehow surprising to find a philosopher who is conversant in logic and math. Nonetheless, Witty’s major contributions are in the philosophy of language.

Andersen isn’t moved and insists: “certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?” And here Krauss is forced to reveal his anti-intellectualism, and even — if you allow me gentle reader — his intellectual dishonesty: “Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people’s attention.” Oh really? This from someone who later on in the same interview claims that “if you’re writing for the public, the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you.” Indeed people are going to believe you, Prof. Krauss, and that’s a shame, at least when you talk about philosophy.

Krauss also has a naively optimistic view of the business of science, as it turns out. For instance, he claims that “the difference [between scientists and philosophers] is that scientists are really happy when they get it wrong, because it means that there’s more to learn.” Seriously? I’ve practiced science for more than two decades, and I’ve never seen anyone happy to be shown wrong, or who didn’t react as defensively (or even offensively) as possible to any claim that he might be wrong. Indeed, as physicist Max Plank famously put it, “Science progresses funeral by funeral,” because often the old generation has to retire and die before new ideas really take hold. Lawrence, scientists are just human beings, and like all human beings they are interested in mundane things like sex, fame and money (and yes, the pursuit of knowledge). Science is a wonderful and wonderfully successful activity (despite the more than occasional blunder), but there is no reason to try to make its practitioners look like some sort of intellectual saints that they certainly are not (witness also the alarming increase in science fraud, for instance).

Finally, on the issue of whether Albert the “moronic” philosopher has a point in criticizing Krauss’ book, Andersen points out: “it sounds like you’re arguing that ‘nothing’ is really a quantum vacuum, and that a quantum vacuum is unstable in such a way as to make the production of matter and space inevitable. But a quantum vacuum has properties. For one, it is subject to the equations of quantum field theory. Why should we think of it as nothing?” Maybe it was just me, but at this point in my mind’s eye I saw Krauss engaging in a more and more frantic exercise of handwaving, retracting and qualifying: “I don’t think I argued that physics has definitively shown how something could come from nothing [so why the book’s title?]; physics has shown how plausible physical mechanisms might cause this to happen. … I don’t really give a damn about what ‘nothing’ means to philosophers; I care about the ‘nothing’ of reality. And if the ‘nothing’ of reality is full of stuff [a nothing full of stuff? Fascinating], then I’ll go with that.”

But, insists Andersen, “when I read the title of your book, I read it as ‘questions about origins are over.’” To which Krauss responds: “Well, if that hook gets you into the book that’s great. But in all seriousness, I never make that claim. … If I’d just titled the book ‘A Marvelous Universe,’ not as many people would have been attracted to it.”

In all seriousness, Prof. Krauss, you ought (moral) to take your own advice and be honest with your readers. Claim what you wish to claim, not what you think is going to sell more copies of your book, essentially playing a bait and switch with your readers, and then bitterly complain when “moronic” philosophers dare to point that out.

Lee Smolin, in his “The Trouble with Physics” laments the loss of a generation for theoretical physics, the first one since the late 19th century to pass without a major theoretical breakthrough that has been empirically verified. Smolin blames this sorry state of affairs on a variety of factors, including the sociology of a discipline where funding and hiring priorities are set by a small number of intellectually inbred practitioners. Ironically, one of Smolin’s culprit is the dearth of interest in and appreciation of philosophy among contemporary physicists. This quote is from Smolin’s book:

“I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today — and even professional scientists — seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.” (Albert Einstein)

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Postscript: As people have pointed out, Krauss has issued an apology of sorts, apparently forced by Dan Dennett. He still seems not to have learned much though. He confuses theology with philosophy (in part), keeps hammering at a single reviewer who apparently really annoyed him (in the New York Times), and more importantly just doesn’t get the idea that philosophy of science is NOT in the business of answering scientific questions (we’ve got, ahem, science for that!). It aims, instead, at understanding how science works. Really, is that so difficult to understand, Prof. Krauss?

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Philosophy under attack: Lawrence Krauss and the new denialism

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

I really shouldn’t let myself watch Q&A. Don’t get me wrong, the ABC’s flagship weekly panel show is usually compelling viewing. But after just a few minutes I end up with the systolic blood pressure of Yosemite Sam and so fired up I can’t get to sleep for ages afterwards. Good thing it’s on when the kids are in bed, or they’d pick up all sorts of funny new words from Daddy yelling at the screen.

I’m expecting more of the same this week when physicist and author Lawrence Krauss is on the panel. Krauss is an entertaining commentator and science populist – if often quite provocative, especially on matters of religion. He should be fun to watch.

But Krauss has also been at the forefront of what looks like a disturbing recent trend among media-savvy scientists. There has rightly been a lot of concern lately about “science denialism”. But many of those sounding the alarm themselves seem to be engaging in what we might call philosophy denialism.

The subtitle of Krauss’ 2012 book A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing is tantalising, offering to answer one of philosophy’s fundamental questions. Not everyone liked Krauss’ answer, however.

In response to a critical review by philosopher of physics David Albert, Krauss called Albert a “moronic philosopher” and told the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen that philosophers are threatened by science because “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”.

Krauss’ gripe with philosophy seems to be, as Massimo Pigliucci eloquently points out, that philosophy hasn’t solved scientific problems. The same charge is levelled even more bluntly by none other than Stephen Hawking, who in 2010 declared philosophy was dead.

According to these scientists, philosophy and physics were chasing the same prize – an understanding of the ultimate nature of reality – and physics simply got there first.

Yet this misses the point of what philosophy does, and how it relates to and differs from other disciplines. “Is 2 to the power of 57,885,161 minus 1 a prime number?” or “Did Richard III murder the princes in the tower?” are questions for mathematics and history.

“What is a number?” or “Does the past exist?”, however, are not. It’s when these fundamental conceptual questions arise that the philosophical rubber hits the road.

So when Krauss complains that philosophy of science is unjustified because it doesn’t influence the way physicists do physics, he’s assuming both that philosophy only matters if it helps to answer the same questions scientists ask, and that questions only matter if they can be answered in a certain type of way. Those assumptions need to be argued for – and that’s a philosophical task.

In fairness, Krauss has walked back a lot of his rhetoric in the months since, even expressing admiration for some forms of philosophy – but he still insists that when it comes to his question of why there is something rather than nothing, the claims made by philosophers are “essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying”. The empirical exploration of reality, he tells us, changes “our understanding of which questions are important and fruitful and which are not”.

But what makes an explanation sterile or fruitful? Should an explanation’s being “annoying” (or elegant for that matter) matter, and in what way? Don’t look now, but in asking questions like that we’re doing philosophy, even if Krauss doesn’t seem to think we need to. And he’s not the only one.

It’s usually assumed that science is descriptive rather than normative; it tells you how the world is, not how it should be. But recently Sam Harris and Michael Shermer have each argued that science can indeed answer moral questions, with Shermer lamenting that science has “conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers”. Both start from the rather Aristotelian assumption that the object of morality is securing the flourishing of conscious beings, and that science can tell us how to do that. But this simply puts off the question of why we should value flourishing at all, rather than answering it.

But, you might ask, does any of this really matter? After all, if scientists are too busy trying to cure cancer to wade through Heidegger’s Being and Time, do we really care?

I don’t want to overplay the gulf between scientists and philosophers, or between disciplines like theoretical physics and metaphysics; equally, there’s no question many philosophers (including me) could do with greater scientific awareness. But when prominent scientists start dismissing the questions philosophy asks as irrelevant – not just scientifically irrelevant, but irrelevant as such – I think we do have a problem.

Harris and Shermer are right that moral decisions need to take empirical data into account. Our ability to be effective moral beings depends upon our capacity to understand and respond to the world around us. Moral philosophy, in that sense, cannot ignore science. But science, equally, needs to be aware when it is straying beyond its own borders in problematic ways. Those who are concerned to defuse the charge of “scientism” need to watch out for precisely this sort of overreach.

If it seems from the outside like philosophy doesn’t make progress, perhaps that’s because our questions haven’t changed that much since Socrates’ day: what is the nature of existence? What do we know, and how do we know that we know it? How are we to live?

These aren’t questions we can simply answer and move on. But equally, they don’t go away just because we ignore them.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished by permission).  Read the original article.

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