Pigliucci the Pugilist

Daily Nous

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science, in particular) has done for science, lately. There are two answers here: first, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept) to ask why it didn’t.

BOOM! By now you have probably read about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s dismissive remarks about philosophy (previously). Well, entering into the ring is Massimo Pigliucci (CUNY) over at his Scientia Salon. “Time to set you straight once more,” he tells Tyson, who can barely respond when it’s over. OH YEAH.

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Two parables: The Frustrated Scientist (I)

Lately I heard of two stories, one is a testimony of a career scientist, and another is a narrative from pop culture of the last decade. I thought re-telling these accounts as parables might make more sense of what I try to do in this blog. For most of the posts of this decade I have focussed on (inter alia) two issues: one is on the nature and scope of scientific method, explored through a largely Kantian lense, and the other concerns the potential for promoting dissident or critical thought through the media of art.

I refer to these stories as parables, for want of a better term. A parable usually has a moral to the story. However I feel that these are parables in which I cannot determine what the moral is, or perhaps the moral of these stories are open ended. I thought these parables would be an accessible introduction to the way in which I frame my reading of Adorno and Kant, and illuminate through a concrete pair of examples why these seemingly abstract and textual issues are of interest to me.

The frustrated scientist

Let me tell you a story about a Frustrated Scientist. FS Is in her late 20s, just out of grad school after finishing her doctoral thesis in the UK and within weeks of her viva examination has begun a postdoc placement at a university in Northern America. FS is working in Canada because of an unstable and competitive scientific and academic jobs market, domestically and internationally. FS was taught in her PhD training that specialisation would be key to her employability and marketability in the research jobs market. Some of FS’s friends have left academia altogether due to the instability of the postdocs market, the obscurity and lack of applicability of their area of specialism (AOS) and the general lack of opportunity and career progress in science and academia at large.

Within days of beginning work in Canada, FS has found problems from the get-go. The datasets that she has to work on relating to her postdoc AOS project have numerous methodological problems; she is given a task to process the data and report findings for an upcoming joint paper, but reports explicitly to her colleagues (project partners and project leader) that the data is basically unanalysable and unusable for a variety of technical reasons. The colleague (lets call him ‘Other Postdoc’) who was responsible for the experiment and collation of the raw data maintains that their work was coherent and done well, and takes the point that FS has made personally and as an affront to him. Project leader listens to these objections but has no input or contribution to these specific issues, but stresses that the research group must have results about the data written down for the upcoming joint paper and it is FS’s responsibility.

FS is in an impossible situation. FS cannot do much due to funding issues about repeating the experiment, FS thinks that the data shows that the experiment is unrepeatable and poorly operationalised for any worthwhile and publishable data to come out. FS is forced to make some stretched out conclusions based on the data, and not publish the raw data it is based on in the paper. The paper is published and forms part of a career portfolio of papers that FS will need to list on her dossier that future institutions will look at when she applies for future jobs. FS is worried about the jobs market, her employability and making a place in an industry that is fraught with personal politics and methodological nightmares. On top of this FS has pressures from funders and her project lead, who are in a distinct power relationship of dominion over her and her career, and pointing out flaws in their research is not in the spirit of having a reputable output of ‘high impact research’.

Moral of the story

So here comes the ‘parable’ bit. What does FS’s story tell us about the role of scientific method or scientific norms in actual scientific practice. With all the discussion I’ve had in previous years about the role of things like parsimony, systematicity, mathematicisation or other such abstract normative items, where is the method in actual science? The obvious conclusion might be that there is no place for this kind of high minded idealist talk of scientific method and scientific values, or even of scientific knowledge, when we are faced with concrete social circumstances where scientific research is much like any other part of the professional industrial world: it’s about hitting targets, reaching audiences and maximising profitability and brand presence. Where is the method? Where is the committment to truth and clarity? I’ll just leave these as open questions.

In my next post I will consider my second parable, of the Comedian.

David Hilbert on Unification

At the end of David Hilbert’s Mathematical Problems, Hilbert goes into the details for his motivations for what we may call unity of science thesis. These reasons are as poignant today in my view as they were in his own time. Motvations could be summarised thusly:


  • Divergences/fracturing mathematics into subdisciplines will mean specialised areas will not engage with other areas outside their specialism

  • The most important innovations are driven by simplicity, more refined tools and less complication.


The first thesis is a problematic of overspecialisation and genrefication of any kind of academic research. Becoming so niche that one is essentially writing for a peer group that is too specific and few. Perhaps this is inevitable in the world of industrial research and constant innovation. If we are to believe that subdisciplines and specialisation are a necessity, then we cannot understand Hilbert’s second thesis, of parsinomy. Granted, more needs to be elaborated if such a unification thesis were to work. Unification has its own problems, but there is a bonus to clarity and it is a matter of fact that many great scientific innovations are of the sort that unify and simplify seemingly irrelevant areas (Maxwell Equations or Relativity for example).

 The conclusion of Hilbert’s lecture is as follows:

The problems mentioned are merely samples of problems, yet they will suffice to show how rich, how manifold and how extensive the mathematical science of today is, and the question is urged upon us whether mathematics is doomed to the fate of those other sciences that have split up into separate branches, whose representatives scarcely understand one another and whose connection becomes ever more loose. I do not believe this nor wish it. Mathematical science is in my opinion an indivisible whole, an organism whose vitality is conditioned upon the connection of its parts. For with all the variety of mathematical knowledge, we are still clearly conscious of the similarity of the logical devices, the relationship of the ideas in mathematics as a whole and the numerous analogies in its different departments. We also notice that, the farther a mathematical theory is developed, the more harmoniously and uniformly does its construction proceed, and unsuspected relations are disclosed between hitherto separate branches of the science. So it happens that, with the extension of mathematics, its organic character is not lost but only manifests itself the more clearly.

But, we ask, with the extension of mathematical knowledge will it not finally become impossible for the single investigator to embrace all departments of this knowledge? In answer let me point out how thoroughly it is ingrained in mathematical science that every real advance goes hand in hand with the invention of sharper tools and simpler methods which at the same time assist in understanding earlier theories and cast aside older more complicated developments. It is therefore possible for the individual investigator, when he makes these sharper tools and simpler methods his own, to find his way more easily in the various branches of mathematics than is possible in any other science.

The organic unity of mathematics is inherent in the nature of this science, for mathematics is the foundation of all exact knowledge of natural phenomena. That it may completely fulfil this high mission, may the new century bring it gifted masters and many zealous and enthusiastic disciples! [David Hilbert, 1900]


On believing weird things, and post-‘New Atheism’

Believing Weird things: The case of Shermer’s cycling

I have disperately different interests. I like to read Karl Popper on the train; a good date idea for me involves going to a church concert; I love to play Halo, and lately I’ve been fascinated by weight training and improving my general fitness. Having disperate interests gives me a strange identity, where I can fit into a discussion about the influence of 19thC mathematics and physics on Einstein (even when I seemingly know nothing about these subjects) or I’m joking about internet memes such as ‘forever alone’, having that wider insight borrows uniqueness by combining them with each other where they overlap. When I’m reading fitness advice, or diet advice, I’m always cautious about fad diets or the presence of pseudoscience. I was recently reminded of this when I recently read Michael Shermer’s ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’.

In Shermer’s book, the Editor of Skeptic Magazine explores the bases of why people believe in weird things. In doing so he takes a line to debunk certain phenomena and highlights the potential harm they can bring, but also takes a sympathetic view to how and why people believe in strange things. Shermer gives a personal example of his hobby of ultra-marathon cycling. The story goes that he became interested in skeptical matters from the varying advice he recieved as an ultramarathon cyclist. As many people may find in the world of fitness, there are a lot of approaches to things and many of them involve spirituality or just outright bullshit. A contemporary example of this is the ‘power band’ which uses an odious reference to ‘Chinese metaphysics’ as a basis for improving fitness. Shermer describes his ultramarathon experience which involved extreme sleep deprivation and a bout of subsequent hallucination.

Shermer notes how the brain is hardwired to certain belief dispositions, where the brain looks for paterns where there may not necessarily be patterns (patternicity). Patternicity is a useful trait for scientific reasoning, or even in creative outlooks, patterns can be exploited to artistic merit or scientific genius. Patternicity can also be the base for improper reasoning and believing in outright weird things. Shermer’s books are to be recommended, they are a nice contrast to the overtly anti-religious work of the ‘New Atheists’. Methodologically speaking, Shermer uses interesting sociological data as well as uses a genealogy based approach to some of the beliefs and movements that skeptics are typically used to dealing with. Shermer also takes a sympathetic view to the human mind that is not necessarily judgmental about having ‘incorrect’ or ‘irrational’ beliefs. To an extent, Shermer accepts that we all have some rational blindspot and features such as patternicity can be seen as features of our reasoning process inherited through natural selection, where it would have been useful for the proverbial proto-human to see a pattern and run away, than to stare a bit more and become some predatorial prey.

Post-‘New Atheism’

The post-‘New Atheism’ movement as I’d like to describe it, are a good representative of the new lineup from the CFI’s podcasting hosts in Point of Inquiry. Point of Inquiry is one of my favourite podcasts and since the end of last year, DJ Grothe has moved on to the James Randi Foundation, and the new decade has seen a new focus of issues. To some extent this may be because of the post-Bush era, where the influence of the religious right was very much in the liberal focus of critique. The new hosts represent very different viewpoints. Robert M. Price for instance, is a biblical scholar who often deals with textual issues in the Bible, and issues in the evidence concerning the Historical Jesus. This is a very unusual candidate for an atheist, Price is also more accomodating towards religon in his approach. Another host, Chris Mooney, made his name as a journalist, and is linked to a position in the secular movement known as ‘Accommodationism’. One interesting episode with Mooney a couple of weeks ago pointed out how the old Englightenment assumptions of the 18thC are out of date, and the ideals of reasoning with people and convincing them of conclusions by argumentation and reasoning just doesn’t work. In short, you can’t convince someone to give up their faith. There are a lot of cognitive and psychological factors involved with belief that involves a lot more than the rational, philosophical examination of ‘whether x is true’.

In this way, understanding and reacting to those of faith must take a much different tact to the usual approaches of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ of the previous decade. I’d like to consider Shermer as part of this more moderating camp, as he admits to be more a ‘pluralist’ and does not focus on the ‘anti-religion’ aspect of secular humanism, but more the ‘pro-science’ aspect. Shermer also grants that many people can be ‘pro-science’, including those of faith. It’s old hat to point out how derivative the ‘New Atheists’ were on the Englightenment thinkers or the anti-religious thinkers of the late 19thC and early 20thC. It’s much more interesting to consider the more sympathetic approach, the POI interview with Jonathan Kay concerning the ‘Truther’ movement was especially sympathetic, as they identified with the belief that 9/11 was a US plot, removing that belief essentially removes their identity. This gives a much more nuanced view at belief in ‘weird things’. It also gives a more sympathetic view of why people such as Dawkins are seen as ‘extremist’ when they really are not. What is seen as extreme is that atheism is depicted by these authors as an attack on religious and cultural identity, and so such an audience will automatically sound out when considering the arguments and conclusions.

The thought of a post-reasoning aware world is a very scary one. Where we accept that the ideals of good arguments simply don’t work. More and more I feel that this insight will fuel the demagogue.


Hawking’s Grand Design

In Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design” (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking/Mlodinow make the very powerful, but distracting assertion that “Philosophy is dead” right at the offset. This has bemused some philosophers and assented some disagreement. But let me say that this is a charitable view for many philosophers.

Hawking makes the point that throughout history, humanity’s metaphysical curiosity was spend on various accounts, each increasingly more accurate. From astrological-focused accounts; where the lunar and solar movements, which were crucial to agrarian societies; took on a divine and explanatory locus to issues from divine providence to toenails. Philosopher-scientists have often taken an approach to answering these questions not necessarily with appeal to the cultural trend of superstition.

Hawking/Mlodinow give an incredibly charitable consideration to the presocratics, who deservedly have a claim to the development of scientific method. Aristotle, by contrast, is given a typically early-modern derision. I’m not sure if this is particularly fair. Aristotle is understood by the authors to be backward in how he preferred non-empirical speculation to compliment his investigations into nature. Reading Aristotle to modern readers’ is definately strange when it comes to his more ’empirical’ works, and some of his views by today’s perspective just seem outright weird. Perhaps this is an anachronistic understanding of Aristotle. Interestingly, Descartes’ was given a great amount of appraisal to the contribution of scientific method as well as his substantive contributions to the physical sciences.

Back to the original claim that ‘Philosophy is dead’; the main reason that Hawking/Mlodinow offer is that contemporary philosophy is tangential to the real questions of the universe, and has not caught up to the physics of today. Initially I just thought this claim was outright wrong, but really the target of who Hawking is addressing is uncertain. It is certainly true that certain philosophical movements that say they are concerned about the nature of science are simply speaking of abstractness for the sake of abstractness, and pontificate in that abhorrent French style of verbosity without the single slightest reference to what science actually is, as understood by science. Then there are often philosophers who address issues in metaphysics which are in some ways almost irrelevant to physics. Philosophers can speak of personal identity without serious appeal to psychology; or speak of the metaphysics of time without appeal to the fourth dimension of spacetime. Some research in philosophy take a prioristic approaches, and some highlight issues which while are insightful, do take place outside of experimental contexts. Are they worthwhile pursuits? I’d think so in some cases, at least for now.

Philosophy always would remain its own seperate discipline, as long as there are mysteries of the universe, and of the human condition. Philosophy should be understood in a renaissance way as a humanistic (or holistic) discipline that tries to cross the bounds of phenomena from humour to conceptual issues such as how to construct notions of necessity.

I’d like to consider why I really like Hawking’s writings, and that should perhaps highlight why the comment that ‘Philosophy is dead’ is simply misguided. Firstly, Hawking’s latest work has decidedly taken an atheistic view. I remember when I was still in Jesuit authority; the pastors talked of the compatibility between science and religion and cited Hawking’s seemingly agnostic-concession to having a wonder at the construction of the universe and the ‘order’ that appears within the universe. It’s perhaps for this kind of reason that Hawking wants to make himself a decidedly unambiguous atheist for misreadings of this sort, to be fair he was pretty vague about the God issue in ‘A Brief History of Time’.

Some things I like about Hawking’s writings are that physics is put into the context not only of its history, but also, the mathematics and technological implimentations. I can normally spot a bullshitter if they talk about Einstein without understanding Riemannian manifolds; or asking why I’m talking about the Maxwell equations in relation to relativity. If you don’t understand that theories emerge in a historical context, then you don’t understand the theory simpliciter. What I really like about this book as a popular science work is how it mentions some of the applications of these theories. For instance; did you know that creating the present GPS technologies presumes some of the mathematics of General Relativity (so now you can’t say it doesn’t have any real applicability, nor can you pose that misunderstood ‘it’s just a theory’ bullshit).

Hawking/Mlodinow states some good conditions of how our scientific knowledge gives us real insight, and thus, why its’ a good candidate for belief (until a better theory comes along). Einstein’s research into the photoelectric effect following the 19thC work on electricity has formed the foundation of technologies such as the television. Einstein’s General relativity thesis has also made some predictions that have come out to be true so far, now that experimental methods have improved.

Hawking’s advocation of M-theory is particularly interesting. Hawking considers that M-theory is a good candidate for what he called in his previous works the ‘Theory of Everything’. For someone who says that philosophy is dead; the ‘Theory of Everything’ sounds decidedly metaphysical does it not? Hawking believes that theoretical unification of disperate areas of physics and its mathematical modelling will create an account of the universe as well as all of its facets in terms of a grand picture constitutes the ‘Grand Theory’, or systematic understanding of reality.

Tell me how that is not a philosophical vision? Except for a good concession to empirical research (which is hardly giving up anything), Hawking’s notion of the ‘Theory of Everything’ has the following philosophical features which would not look out of place in literature in philosophy of science, or even in history of 18thC-20thC philosophy:

  1. Real reality is modelled/mathematical reality (this sounds like ‘Kant’s notion of ‘science proper’, or Vienna Circle philosophy)
  2. Theoretical unification is desirable – a theory that combines accounts is a more believable account (this sounds like how Lewis argued for possible world)
  3. Theoretical unification means parsimonious explanations: parsimonious explanations are good explanations (this is just good scientific method; but its also a good norm of philosophical method)
  4. Reality should be understood as a systematic unity. You could read this as Hawking simply replacing systematic philosophy with the system of science, or as Hawking holding a systematicity thesis.

For these reasons, as well as Hawking’s informative accessability and his humour. I maintain that The Grand Design is a particularly interesting and convincing account of a theory of everything. Don’t get distracted by ‘philosophy is dead’ as this is a fascinating book for so many reasons; not least to try to set the context of the state of the art in theoretical physics, in as much a lay account as possible.


“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. “

Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. So says Richard Feynman, apparently. Alan Sokal, in a recent interview with Jullian Baggini, wrote that this analogy is suggestive of the lack of epistemic merit that philosophy has to the structuring and adding of new knowledge to physics. Analogies like this are apt for the contribution that philosophy has to physics, granted; but I have found it wanting in other cases.

A musician, who was largely an autodidact once said to me that he did not care very much for music theory as it did not fit with performance skills and apprehension as a musician. I fell silent, not bothering to tell him that he was playing music predominantly in a mixolydian mode, while utilising tritones, ostinati, parallel 5ths, 8ths, dominant sevenths, suspensions, passing notes, arpeggiations, and so on…

I can appreciate the view that being steeped in a particualr style limits one and the musical options that they have. I have recently started to play the guitar, and I like playing on blues scales. This is largely to impress my friends at my ability to naturally create riffs and hooks, but there is another sense in which I communicate my utter disdain for a style by its ease, there is a sense of comfort and familiarity when I play a ragtime. I’m not very good at sightreading Bach, even less if I attempted Beethoven or Chopin. Joplin and Lamb, by contrast, are a joy to practice at sight, this is because of my own insecurity as a piano player, but also there is a joy in seeing the immediate fruit of one’s labour by my immediate apprehension of the musical style and its playing ease. There is not as much ease, by contrast, in heavier romantic styles.

In short, sometimes knowing the rules of the game enhances our performance as players. This is certainly true for olympic or professional atheletes; who, while being introduced to a professional level normally at university or younger; sometimes furnish their career with a doctoral thesis that relates either to their performance or training as an athelete. Our inspiration may come from other things; engineers and technologists can sometimes draw their innovations from the observation of nature.

Coming back to the philosophy example, a later point was made that physics is just as successful and unhindered by philosophy. Physicists like Feynman and Wolpert are distinctly anti-philosophical, in contrast to the likes of Einstein, or if one really wants to go back, Newton. Newton after all, had written about his empiricist leanings and nature of his methodology. Kant reacts critically to Newton’s ’empiricist’ methodology, but not the results. This kind of philosophical engagement of a physicist, by the standards of the day, were by no means amateur and are taken seriously by philosophers today.

The so-called philosophically oriented physicists of the 20thC, by contrast, are not terribly interesting in terms of our contempoary philosophical tools. Einstein’s ‘Spinozism’ has been talked about by the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, as a caveat so as not to be interpreted into religious terms. Having an understanding of Spinoza’s metaphysics, by contrast, is not even addressed. Spinoza’s approach to life was one of emotional calm against the overwhelming and sometimes uncontrollable temperaments that we suffer in life. One of the enjoyments that we can have in life is an apprehension of the unity of nature that is, in his metaphysics, how the nature of our inner consciousness subsumed in no small part to the larger reality as a whole, as well as the underlying propositional language that both support. This may sound mystical, but really, it is a form of naturalism. The two prejudices that Spinoza’s philosophy had were: admitting that his metaphysics was fundamentally correct, and we put scientific development and knowledge on a pedestal. None of this is really addressed in the ‘Einsteinian’ view so bastardised by the atheist popularisers.

Stephen Hawking’s own popular books try to establish a so-called philosophically interested reading of M-theory, string theory and general relativity. There are moments where his reading is somewhat patchy. But perhaps the real thing that is important, and that Hawking succeeds in, is making the current understanding of science understandable to a general public. This is what I would consider the most socially important thing that phyiscists can do outside of their work. Sokal’s perspective by contrast is one where physicists do their science between monday-saturday and then their speculation on a sunday. What succeeds about Hawking’s presentation is that the physics is presented in a manner that has religious and humanistic dimensions, rather than one of a technical ‘philosophical’ merit. Does the universe have a beginning? Does the universe have an end? What is our place in the grand order of things? Is there life beyond earth? Physics goes on well without philosophy’s involvement, however, it should be attributed to the death of the polymath that there are less physicists more interested in philosophy. The rise of continental philosophy that fails to acknowledge the work in physics with any real expertise is also a reason why physicists may dislike philosophy as a whole, that is the whole point of the Sokal hoax in a sense.

Perhaps the most interesting, and important thing that physicists can do for the public is to be understood. Conspiracies such as the moon landing being fake, or the belief that miniature black holes will destroy the universe; are harmful to science, harmful to reason and pander to a mindset that hurts rationalism and rationality.