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Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

Why Evolution Is True

When I read the title of this New York Times piece in The Stone philosophy section, “There is no scientific method,” I thought at first it would be about Paul Feyerabend’s contention that, in science, “anything goes.” I discuss this in Faith versus Fact, agreeing that the classic presentation of “The Scientific Method” in the classroom is misleading.  That presentation usually goes like this: concoct hypothesis—> test hypothesis —>support or reject hypothesis based on test.

But not all science is done like that. For example, facts usually precede hypotheses, at least in biology (Darwin often used that method to concoct his theories).  And much good science can be done without any hypotheses at all. An example would be describing all the species in an area like a patch of Amazonian rain forest. Those facts may be useful some day (e.g., for conservation or for finding new drugs from plants)…

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The Birth of Experimental Science

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
June 2016, Vol 36, No. 2, under the title ‘Out of the Dark’).

To the ancient Greeks, science was simply the knowledge of nature.  The acquisition of such knowledge was theoretical rather than experimental.  Logic and reason were applied to observations of nature in attempts to discover the underlying principles influencing phenomena.

After the Dark Ages, the revival of classical logic and reason in Western Europe was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress.  It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods in the thirteenth century, which I think were even more important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  The two most influential thinkers in development of scientific methods at this time were the English philosophers Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) and Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292). (Note: Roger Bacon is not to be confused with Francis Bacon).

Apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.[1]  But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[2] [3]  These translations of ancient works had a major impact on Medieval European thought.  For instance, according to Pasnau, ‘when James of Venice translated Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics from Greek into Latin in the second quarter of the twelfth century, ‘European philosophy got one of the great shocks of its long history’.[4] This book had a dramatic impact on ‘natural philosophy’, as science was then called.

Under Pope Gregory VII, a Roman synod had in 1079 decreed that all bishops institute the teaching of liberal arts in their cathedrals.[5]  In the early twelfth century, universities began to emerge from Cathedral schools, in response to the Gregorian reform and demands for literate administrators, accountants, lawyers and clerics.  The curriculum was loosely based on the seven liberal arts, consisting of a trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; plus a quadruvium of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.[6]  Besides the liberal arts, some (but not all) universities offered three professional courses of law, medicine and theology.[7]

Dialectic was a method of learning by the use of arguments in a question and answer format, heavily influenced by the translations of Aristotle’s works.  This was known as ‘Scholasticism’ and included the use of logical reasoning as an alternative to the traditional appeals to authority.[8] [9]  For the first time, philosophers and scientists studied in close proximity to theologians trained to ask questions.[10]

At this stage, the most influential scientist was Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) who was a leading English scholastic philosopher, scientist and theologian.  After studying theology in Paris from 1209 to 1214, he made his academic career at Oxford, becoming its Chancellor in 1234.[11]  He later became the Bishop of Lincoln, where there is now a university named after him. According to Luscombe, Grosseteste ‘seems to be the single most influential figure in shaping an Oxford interest in the empirical sciences that was to endure for the rest of the Middle Ages’.[12]


Robert Grossteste  (1175-1253)

Grosseteste’s knowledge of Greek enabled him to participate in the translation of Aristotelian science and ethics.[13] [14]  In the first Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, from the 1220s, Robert Grosseteste distinguishes four ways in which we might speak of scientia, or scientific knowledge.

‘It does not escape us, however, that having scientia is spoken of broadly, strictly, more strictly, and most strictly. [1] Scientia commonly so-called is [merely] comprehension of truth. Unstable contingent things are objects of scientia in this way. [2] Scientia strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always or most of the time in one way. Natural things – namely, natural contingencies – are objects of scientia in this way. Of these things there is demonstration broadly so-called. [3] Scientia more strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always in one way. Both the principles and the conclusions in mathematics are objects of scientia in this way. [4] Scientia most strictly so-called is comprehension of what exists immutably by means of the comprehension of that from which it has immutable being. This is by means of the comprehension of a cause that is immutable in its being and its causing.’[15]

Grosseteste’s first and second ways of describing scientia refer to the truth of the way things are by demonstration, that is by empirical observation.

Grosseteste himself went beyond Aristotelian science by investigating natural phenomena mathematically as well as empirically in controlled laboratory experiments.  He studied the refraction of light through glass lenses and drew conclusions about rainbows as the refraction of light through rain drops.[16]

Although Grosseteste is credited with introducing the idea of controlled scientific experiments, there is doubt whether he made this idea part of a general account of a scientific method for arriving at the principles of demonstrative science. [17]  This role fell to his disciple Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292CE) who was who was also an English philosopher, but unlike Bishop Grosseteste, Bacon was a Franciscan friar.

Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292)

Bacon taught in the Oxford arts faculty until about 1247, when he moved to Paris which he disliked and where he made himself somewhat unpopular.  The only Parisian academic he admired was Peter of Maricourt, who reinforced the importance of experiment in scientific research and of mathematics to certainty.[18]

As a scientist, Roger Bacon continued Grosseteste’s investigation of optics in a laboratory setting.  He supplemented these optical experiments with studies of the physiology of the human eye by dissecting the eyes of cattle and pigs.[19]  Bacon also investigated the geometry of light, thus further applying mathematics to empirical observations.  According to Colish, ‘the very idea of treating qualities quantitatively was a move away from Aristotle, who held that quality and quantity are essentially different’.[20]

The most important work of Roger Bacon was his Opus Majus (Latin for ‘Greater Work’) written c.1267CE.  Part Six of this work contains a study of Experimental Science, in which Bacon advocates the verification of scientific reasoning by experiment.

‘…I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience;..’[21]

Bacon’s aim was to provide a rigorous method for empirical science, analogous to the use of logic to test the validity of deductive arguments.  This new practical method consisted of a combination of mathematics and detailed experiential descriptions of discrete phenomena in nature. [22]  Roger Bacon illustrated his method by an investigation into the nature and cause of the rainbow.  For instance, he calculated the measured value of 42 degrees for the maximum elevation of the rainbow.  This was probably done with an astrolabe, and by this technique, Bacon advocated the skillful mathematical use of instruments for an experimental science.[23]

Optics from Roger Bacon’s De multiplicatone specierum

The optical experiments that both Grosseteste and Bacon conducted were of practical usefulness in correcting deficiencies in human eyesight and the later invention of the telescope.  But more importantly, Roger Bacon is credited with being the originator of empirical scientific methods that were later further developed by scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke.  This is notwithstanding the twentieth century criticism of inductive scientific methods by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, in favour of empirical falsification.[24]

The benefits of science to humanity – especially medical science – are well known and one example should suffice here.  An essential component of medical science is the clinical trial, which is the empirical testing of a proposed treatment on a group of patients whilst using another group of untreated patients as a blind control group to isolate and statistically measure the effectiveness of the treatment, whilst keeping all other factors constant.  This empirical approach is vastly superior to the theoretical approach of ancient physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, and owes much to the pioneering work of Grosseteste and Bacon.  This is why I think that the development of empirical scientific methods was even more important than the revival of classical logic and reason, in terms of practical benefits to humanity. However, it is somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.

Whilst the twelfth century revival of classical logic and reason was very significant in terms of Western intellectual progress generally, the development of empirical scientific methods were in my view the most important intellectual endeavor of the European thirteenth century; and Bacon’s contribution to this was greater than that of Grosseteste because he devised general methodological principles for later scientists to build upon.


 Primary sources

Bacon, Roger, Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962).

Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Secondary works

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/roger-bacon/&gt;.

Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005).

Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/grosseteste/&gt;.

Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp.350-376.

Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery. (London and New York 1959).


[1] Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).pp.x-xi

[2] Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p.351.

[3] Colish, p.274.

[4] Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.357.

[5] Moran Cruz and Geberding p.351.

[6] Ibid. p.353

[7] Ibid. p. 356.

[8] Ibid, p.354.

[9] Colish, p.169.

[10] Colish, p.266.

[11] Colish, p.320.

[12] Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). p.87.

[13] Colish, p.320.

[14] Luscombe, p.86.

[15] Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 358..

[16] Colish, p.320.

[17] Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[18] Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005). p.80.

[19] Colish, p.321.

[20] Colish, pp.321-322.

[21] Bacon, Roger Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962) p.583

[22] Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Section 5.4.3.

[23] Hackett, Section 5.4.3.

[24] Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery.(London and New York 1959). Ch. 1.’…the theory to be developed in the following pages stands directly opposed to all attempts to operate with the ideas of inductive logic.’

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Progress in Science — III

Footnotes to Plato

laws of physics[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Progress in science: different philosophical accounts

The above discussion has largely been framed in terms that do not explicitly challenge the way most scientists think of their own enterprise: as a teleonomic one, whose ultimate goal is to arrive at (or approximate as far as possible) an ultimate, all-encompassing theory of how nature works, Steven Weinberg’s famous “theory of everything.” However, the epistemic, semantic and functionalist accounts do not all seat equally comfortably with that way of thinking. Bird’s epistemic approach can perhaps be most easily squared with the idea of teleonomic progress, since it argues that science is essentially about accumulation of knowledge about the world. The obvious problem with this, however, is that accumulation of truths is certainly necessary but also clearly insufficient to provide a robust sense of…

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Progress in Science — II

Footnotes to Plato

science[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Progress in science: some philosophical accounts

I now turn to some philosophical considerations about progress in science. The literature here is vast, as it encompasses large swaths of epistemology and philosophy of science. Since what you are reading is not a graduate level textbook in philosophy of science, I will focus my remarks primarily on some recent overviews of the subject matter by Niiniluoto (2011, an expansion and update of Niiniluoto 1980) and Bird (2007, 2010), because they capture much of what I think needs to be said for my purposes here. Niiniluoto (2011) in particular will offer the interested reader plenty of additional references to expand one’s understanding on this issue beyond what is required in this chapter. Readers with a more general (i.e., less technical) interest in the history…

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Progress in Science — I

Footnotes to Plato

Karl Popper[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.”
(Karl Popper)

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Feynman on scientific method

Physicist Prof. Richard Feynman explains the scientific and unscientific methods of understanding nature.


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Dennett on philosophy-free science


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A brief conceptual history of Philosophy

Does philosophy make progress? Of course, but it does so differently from, say, science. Here is a brief conceptual history of how philosophy evolved over time, from the all-purpose approach of the ancient Greeks to the highly specialized academic discipline it is today. Written and narrated by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. 

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Where’s the proof in science? There is none

The Conversation
By Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney

UNDERSTANDING RESEARCH: What do we actually mean by research and how does it help inform our understanding of things? Those people looking for proof to come from any research in science will be sadly disappointed.

As an astrophysicist, I live and breathe science. Much of what I read and hear is couched in the language of science which to outsiders can seem little more than jargon and gibberish. But one word is rarely spoken or printed in science and that word is “proof”. In fact, science has little to do with “proving” anything.

These words may have caused a worried expression to creep across your face, especially as the media continually tells us that science proves things, serious things with potential consequences, such as turmeric can apparently replace 14 drugs, and more frivolous things like science has proved that mozzarella is the optimal cheese for pizza.

Surely science has proved these, and many other things. Not so!

The way of the mathematician

Mathematicians prove things, and this means something quite specific. Mathematicians lay out a particular set of ground rules, known as axioms, and determine which statements are true within the framework.

A statue of Euclid with something very interesting added to his scroll. (Source: Garrett Coakley)

One of best known of these is the ancient geometry of Euclid. With only a handful of rules that define a perfect, flat space, countless children over the last few millenia have sweated to prove Pythagoras’s relation for right-angled triangles, or that a straight line will cross a circle at most at two locations, or a myriad of other statements that are true within Euclid’s rules.

Whereas the world of Euclid is perfect, defined by its straight lines and circles, the universe we inhabit is not. Geometrical figures drawn with paper and pencil are only an approximation of the world of Euclid where statements of truth are absolute.

Over the last few centuries we’ve come to realise that geometry is more complicated than Euclid’s, with mathematical greats such as Gauss, Lobachevsky and Riemann giving us the geometry of curved and warped surfaces.

In this non-Euclidean geometry, we have a new set of axioms and ground-rules, and a new set of statements of absolute truth we can prove.

These rules are extremely useful for navigating around this (almost-)round planet. One of Einstein’s (many) great achievements was to show that curving and warping spacetime itself could explain gravity.

Yet, the mathematical world of non-Euclidean geometry is pure and perfect, and so only an approximation to our messy world.

Just what is science?

But there is mathematics in science, you cry. I just lectured on magnetic fields, line integrals and vector calculus, and I am sure my students would readily agree that there is plenty of maths in science.

Albert Einstein. (Source: Wikimedia/Doris Ulmann)

And the approach is same as other mathematics: define the axioms, examine the consequences.

Einstein’s famous E=mc2, drawn from the postulates of how the laws of electromagnetism are seen by differing observers, his special theory of relativity, is a prime example of this.

But such mathematical proofs are only a part of the story of science.

The important bit, the bit that defines science, is whether such mathematical laws are an accurate description of the universe we see around us.

To do this we must collect data, through observations and experiments of natural phenomena, and then compare them to the mathematical predictions and laws. The word central to this endeavour is “evidence”.

The scientific detective

The mathematical side is pure and clean, whereas the observations and experiments are limited by technologies and uncertainties. Comparing the two is wrapped up in the mathematical fields of statistics and inference.

Many, but not all, rely on a particular approach to this known as Bayesian reasoning to incorporate observational and experimental evidence into what we know and to update our belief in a particular description of the universe.

The only way is down for these apples.
(Source: Flickr/Don LaVange)

Here, belief means how confident you are in a particular model being an accurate description of nature, based upon what you know. Think of it a little like the betting odds on a particular outcome.

Our description of gravity appears to be pretty good, so it might be odds-on favourite that an apple will fall from a branch to the ground.

But I have less confidence that electrons are tiny loops of rotating and gyrating string that is proposed by super-string theory, and it might be a thousand to one long-shot that it will provide accurate descriptions of future phenomena.

So, science is like an ongoing courtroom drama, with a continual stream of evidence being presented to the jury. But there is no single suspect and new suspects regularly wheeled in. In light of the growing evidence, the jury is constantly updating its view of who is responsible for the data.

But no verdict of absolute guilt or innocence is ever returned, as evidence is continually gathered and more suspects are paraded in front of the court. All the jury can do is decide that one suspect is more guilty than another.

What has science proved?

In the mathematical sense, despite all the years of researching the way the universe works, science has proved nothing.

Mark the spot where nothing was proved. (Source: Flickr/Rob)

Every theoretical model is a good description of the universe around us, at least within some range of scales that it is useful.

But exploring into new territories reveals deficiencies that lower our belief in whether a particular description continues to accurately represent our experiments, while our belief in alternatives can grown.

Will we ultimately know the truth and hold the laws that truly govern the workings of the cosmos within our hands?

While our degree of belief in some mathematical models may get stronger and stronger, without an infinite amount of testing, how can we ever be sure they are reality?

I think it is best to leave the last word to one of the greatest physicists, Richard Feynman, on what being a scientist is all about:

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.”

This article is part of a series on Understanding Research.

Further reading:
Why research beats anecdote in our search for knowledge
Clearing up confusion between correlation and causation
Positives in negative results: when finding ‘nothing’ means something

The Conversation

Geraint Lewis receives funding from the Australian Research Council, including a Future Fellowship.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


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Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex

Massimo Pigliucci logo


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 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)


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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