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Massimo PigliucciRSS Feed of this column.

Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy

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Yesterday I was facilitating a philosophy discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture when I found myself all of a sudden defending philosophy from the accusation that it’s all made up stuff. Two of the participants raised the objection from different perspectives, both representing persistent misconceptions concerning how philosophers go about doing their business.

The first criticism is that philosophy can never settle anything because, unlike science, it does not rely on experimental evidence. Granted, philosophers don’t do experiments (other than the very inexpensive thought variety), but then again philosophy isn’t science, so it seems odd to accuse philosophers of not doing what scientists do. (Then again, check out the experimental philosophy web site!)

Philosophers have other ways of settling disputes and advancing their discipline, and these ways make use of the rules of rational discourse and logic. For instance, just like no self-respecting scientist would be caught dead conducting an experiment with a statistically flawed design (say, the lack of a control), so no professional philosopher wants to be found engaging in a logical fallacy. And logical fallacies are even more clearly defined and understood than most experimental protocols.
Michael Shermer (the well known author and publisher of Skeptic magazine) and I usually see eye to eye on all things skeptical. On matters of economics, however, we seem to depart rather sharply. He is a former Randian (as in Ayn Rand) and current moderate libertarian. I am an unmitigated progressive liberal (yup, I like very progressive taxes -- that is, steep on the rich -- welfare, universal health care, free education -- including college -- and a tiny military).

During the summer my lab at Stony Brook University reads a couple of books for fun and intellectual enrichment. One of them this year is Shermer’s The Mind of the Market. I will take issue here with the arguments he deploys in chapter 3 in particular, entitled “Bottom-up capitalism.”

One of the central ideas of the book is to build a parallel between Darwin’s natural selection and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” It isn’t that Shermer is trying to go back to so-called social Darwinism (which Darwin himself vehemently rejected), but rather to make the case that both biological systems and economies are “complex adaptive systems with emergent properties.” The conclusion to be drawn from this is that, just like natural selection yields results without the intervention of an intelligent designer, so we should let markets work their magic without government tampering (I simplify somewhat, you should read the book if you want the full treatment).
A few days ago I had the opportunity of moderating a conversation with philosopher Daniel Dennett, hosted by the New York Society for Ethical Culture as part of their presentation of two of the “Atheists Tapes” produced by Alive Mind. It was a pleasant and intellectually stimulating afternoon, which reminded me both of why I admire Dennett, and also of the points of disagreement we have on substantial issues in philosophy and humanism.

For instance, we certainly agree that religion is, as Dennett puts it in his book, a natural phenomenon. How exactly it came about, and what the relative contribution of biological and cultural evolution was to its shaping remains a matter of debate and a fertile field of inquiry, but religion in that respect is no different from other peculiar human habits, such as producing music, or engaging in team sports (or war, for that matter).
As I wrote a few days ago, if we agree that the nature of science is along the lines I have described, next we need to ask why it is so. Platt, in his classic 1964 article on strong inference, briefly mentions a number of answers, which he dismisses without discussion, but that I think are actually a large part of the reason "hard" and "soft" sciences appear to be so different. These alternative hypotheses for why a given science may behave “softly” include, as Platt puts it, “the tractability of the subject, or the quality of education of the men [sic] drawn into it, or the size of research contracts.” In other words, particle physics, say, may be more successful than ecology because it is easier (more tractable), or because ecologists tend to be dumber than physicists, or because physicists get a lot more money for their research than ecologists do.

The second option is rather offensive (to the ecologists at least), but more importantly there are no data at all to back it up. And it is difficult to see how one could possibly measure the alleged differential “education” of people attracted to different scientific disciplines. Nearly all professional scientists nowadays have a Ph.D. in their discipline, as well as years of postdoctoral experience at conducting research and publishing papers. It is hard to imagine a reliable quantitative measure of the relative difficulty of their respective academic curricula, and it is next to preposterous to argue that scientists attracted to certain disciplines are smarter than those who find a different area of research more appealing. It would be like attempting to explain the discrepancy between the dynamism of 20th century jazz music and the relative stillness of symphonic (“classical”) music by arguing that jazz musicians are better educated or more talented than classically trained ones.
In May, Nature magazine published a draft sequence of the entire genome of the platypus, the bizarre mammal endemic of Australia that is so strange looking that the first scientists who received a description of it from Captain John Hunter in 1798 thought it was a joke.

Far from being a joke, the platypus is a strong piece of evidence for the theory of evolution (not that it really needed additional ones) and, scientifically speaking, a rich source of insight into the evolution of mammals from reptile-birds (birds are considered a group of reptiles, in particular, part of the same line of descent as dinosaurs).

Biologists already knew quite a bit about this strange creature, for instance that it produces milk (like any mammal) though it doesn’t have nipples (unlike any other mammal). This suggested that the ability to produce milk evolved before specialized anatomical structures to deliver it, or -- less likely -- that the platypus lost the nipples sometimes after its divergence from the rest of the mammalian lineage. Molecular biology now confirms that platypuses have genes that produce casein proteins, an essential element of true milk, which means that milk production evolved about 166 million years ago, after the mammal-sauropsid split (living sauropsids include snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles and of course birds; extinct ones comprise plesiosaurs and pterosaurs).
“Scientists these days tend to keep up a polite fiction that all science is equal. Except for the work of the misguided opponent whose arguments we happen to be refuting at the time, we speak as though every scientist's field and methods of study are as good as every other scientist's, and perhaps a little better. This keeps us all cordial when it comes to recommending each other for government grants.” Fighting words about the nature of the scientific enterprise as seen from the inside by a participating scientist. And what makes these sentences even more remarkable is that they were not uttered behind close doors in a room full of smoke, but printed in one of the premiere scientific magazines in the world, Science. It was 1964, the year I was born, and the author was John R. Platt, a biophysicist at the University of Chicago. The debate between scientists on what constitutes “hard” (i.e., good, sound) and “soft” (i.e., bad, sloppy) science has not subsided since.