Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Why is there something and not nothing?" A bit more on the question

I thought it might be useful to offer a few clarifying remarks concerning the philosophical version of the “cosmological question,” and the notion that this question operates (as I claimed in my recent “Science vs. Philosophy?” post) as a wellspring of belief in the transcendent.

First of all, as I noted in that earlier post, Leibniz put the question as follows: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” By “nothing,” here, Leibniz meant absolutely nothing, not even empty space, and certainly not empty space governed by empirically discovered laws that regulate the behavior of that empty space. By most standards of “somethingness” that I know of, to have rule-governed capacities is to be something. (In fact, as I understand one of Hermann Lotze's arguments, that is what makes something something).

Leibniz’s question, in other words, isn’t a question about why there is this kind of something (a vacuum governed by certain laws) as opposed to that sort of something (an expanding universe of quantum particles organized in a rich diversity of ways and governed by a set of basic constants). Leibniz is asking why there is anything at all.

In my earlier post I said that this “cosmological philosophical question” (borrowing the useful designator Burk offers in one comment) operates as a source of belief in the transcendent. I want to clarify what I mean by that. “The transcendent” refers to some reality beyond the empirical world but fundamental to determining its character, much in the way that the reality into which Neo awakens (in “The Matrix” movies) is a reality beyond the virtual reality matrix but fundamental to shaping the latter’s character. Put simply, “the transcendent” refers to a level of reality in principle beyond the scope of scientific inquiry but which, if it existed, would serve as the ultimate “explainer” of the reality that falls within the scope of science.

My claim is that the cosmological philosophical question (hereafter CPQ) helps give rise to belief in such a realm. Note, however, that belief in the existence of such a realm is distinct from any beliefs about what that realm of reality is like (e.g., whether or not it is personal or impersonal, monistic or dualistic, etc.), and also from any beliefs about the scope or lack thereof of human access to such a realm (e.g., whether introspective reflection on the content of consciousness can give us some insight into this realm that outward, disinterested examination of empirical objects cannot). To say that the CPQ gives rise to belief in the transcendent is not to say that it offers any particular answers to these other questions.

But even if belief in the transcendent is divorced from any beliefs about the transcendent or any beliefs about our ability to get in touch with the transcendent, it doesn’t follow that such belief is insignificant. At a minimum, such belief implies that there are important outer limits to what science can discover about reality, even in principle. If we were to imagine that science had completed its work (which it never will), discovering and understanding everything that it is possible to discover and understand about reality through broadly scientific means, belief in the transcendent entails that the most fundamental truths about reality would remain unknown.

To be clear, believing that there are orders of reality that fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry is not to say that, within its scope of inquiry, science shouldn’t be trusted (or shouldn’t be regarded as the go-to method for gaining knowledge). It isn’t to hold that some purported revelation from a purportedly transcendent source should be trusted above the direct evidence of sustained scientific inquiry. I think much scientific hostility to the postulate that there is a transcendent realm is rooted in these sorts of confusions about what positing the transcendent does (and does not) involve.

But at least some of the hostility is surely rooted in something that the postulation of the transcendent does imply—namely, that no matter how vital and amazing science is in furthering our knowledge, it cannot plumb the deepest and most important mysteries of existence. Whatever science learns, and however important or useful its teachings, the ultimate nature of reality will remain beyond its grasp. At best, some scientists bristle at this suggestion because they don’t want to place a priori philosophical limits on science’s reach. At worst, they want to believe that they are part of the ultimate project of unearthing the deepest mysteries that there are, and belief in the transcendent undercuts that narrative.

In any event, my claim in the "Science vs. Philosophy?" post was that the CPQ operates as a basis for belief in the transcendent. Now this is different from saying that the CPQ operates as a good basis for such belief, but as it happens I also think that the CPQ can serve as the starting point for a powerful philosophical argument for the transcendent—a point I make at length in Chapter 6 of Is God a Delusion?

I won’t repeat what I argued there. Instead, I will simply summarize the heart of the argument, which is this: In order for the CPQ to have an answer (in order for there to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing, as opposed to the existence of the universe being a brute fact), there must exist something that possesses the property of self-existence, that is, something whose nature renders it such that it could not have failed to exist—something whose nature sufficiently explains its own existence.

This is a property that, as Hume argued, is inconceivable of anything in the empirical realm (or any empirical entity we could hypothetically construct with our imaginations). His principle, in effect, is that the formal nature of empirical reality is such that anything which can be conceived to exist can also be conceived not to exist. And so, no empirical thing we can conceive would be such that it’s empirical nature necessitated its existence.

And so, if the CPQ is to have an answer, we must posit something beyond the empirical—something transcendent. And if the transcendent is posited to answer the CPQ, it is posited as the ultimate explanation for the existence of things.

Of course, we could say that the CPQ lacks an answer. We could say that there is no reason why there is something and not nothing—that, instead, it’s just a brute fact. That’s what Bertrand Russell did. But could a reasonable person reasonably disagree with Russell? Could a reasonable person believe in the Principle of Sufficient Reason—that everything admits of an explanation, even if we can’t discern what it is? If so, a reasonable person, reflecting on the CPQ, would come away believing in the transcendent.

I don’t think this “cosmological argument” is irresistible. I don’t, in other words, regard it as a proof of the transcendent. My own view is that this argument, like many other philosophical arguments, shows why it is that a reasonable person can reasonably believe in the transcendent—even if that does not preclude the possibility that other reasonable people might reasonably believe otherwise.

Now it is important to be clear that certain questions superficially similar to CPQ do not serve as any sort of basis—good or otherwise—for believing in the transcendent. That a vacuum is inherently unstable (given certain empirically discovered laws regulating vacuums) may explain why a vacuum in a universe governed by the basic laws that prevail in this universe would resolve into more interesting “stuff”—and thus answer the question of why our universe is a universe full of protons and electrons and stars and planets rather than an endless void. But while that might answer an interesting and important question in physics without invoking anything beyond what is accessible to physics, it does not answer the CPQ.

For the reasons I've given here and elsewhere, I’m pretty sure that if the CPQ has an answer—if there is a reason why there is anything at all—that answer in principle can’t be discovered by physics or any of the other sciences (although I’m open to being proved wrong about this).

There are some (and Krauss seems to be one of them, at least given some remarks he makes in his recent apology about his earlier dismissiveness towards philosophy) who, on the basis of this fact, are dismissive of the CPQ, regarding it as an absurd or meaningless question—as if a condition for a question’s significance is its capacity to motivate a scientific inquiry. But I am very skeptical of such dismissals. If you were a physicist trying to do physics and you confronted a question that wasn’t a question that physics could begin to address, then you might not as a physicist be interested in the question. But it doesn’t follow that no human being, as a human being, should be interested in the question. Nor does it follow that the question is incoherent—unless you adopt a logical positivist philosophy of language, which I’d advise against on the grounds that doing so renders the logical positivist philosophy of language incoherent.

In any event, my own conclusion is that the question can be addressed to some extent philosophically, insofar as it can be shown that on the assumption that the CPQ admits of an answer, we are forced to the conclusion that the answer is something that transcends the reality we encounter empirically.

Whether philosophical arguments can take us any further than reasonable belief in a “something-I-know-not-what” beyond the limits of science—that is a much more challenging question that I won’t explore here (and didn’t explore in Is God a Delusion?). What I will say is that people who (reasonably, in my judgment) believe in the transcendent can and do and should speculate about it. And these speculations are susceptible to philosophical scrutiny, in the sense that philosophers can assess such things as their internal coherence, their consistency with what we know about the empirical world (since certain views about the transcendent have implications for what the empirical world would look like), and their pragmatic implications for human life.

Philosophers can and should engage in such assessments, since such assessments help us to discern what could be true and what can’t be true about a transcendent reality that defies the grasp of specific human knowledge. Knowing what could and could not be the case about X is better than nothing, even if we cannot know precisely what is the case about X. And I think philosophers can and should address questions such as whether there are conditions under which it is objectionable to live one’s life as if one or another speculative vision about the transcendent were true—and whether there are conditions under which doing so is not objectionable.


  1. I know it is dangerous to bring QM into any philosophical discussion, but it is my understanding that all currently viable interpretations either reject the PSR or entail the existence of infinitely many parallel universes.

    This is my primary reason for rejecting the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Either the PSR is false, Craig is wrong about infinity, or both.

    1. SecularDad,

      From what I've read on this topic, current lessons from quantum physics entail that, on the assumption that the limits of our empirical reach are also the limits of reality, PSR is false. By the very same token, however, these lessons entail that, on the assumption of PSR, the limits of our empirical reach are not the limits of reality.

      But I'm not deeply read on the subject.

  2. Bernard BeckettMay 3, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    Hi Eric

    That there might be aspects of existence that science can never get at seems to me to be an entirely reasonable speculation. There is an obvious argument from evolution: what concepts are to the human brain as calculus is to the snail's brain?

    I think when we refer to these aspects as fundamental, we may be prejudging the issue. It seems to me, as soon as we start talking about causes, for example, we are insisting the transcendent back inside our limited intellectual box. In order to talk or think about it, we must inevitably use the metaphors we can cope with (how often do we hear the phrase 'outside time and space') but in doing so, do we not therefore speak of something rather less than the transcendent?

    To ask why there is something and not nothing is already to assume that the transcendent is something which why questions can sensibly be applied to.

    There may be a danger of wanting to have our cake and eat it. If the transcendent is beyond the reach of our science, it may well be because it is beyond the reach of our imagination, making the philosophical investigation of the 'realm' as futile as the scientific one.


    1. I would agree that philosophical investigation that seeks to pin down the transcendent and give us knowledge of it is futile.

      What I want to suggest is, first, that certain questions can serve as philosophical pointers to the transcendent--in the sense that if we regard the questions as having answers, they have answers only if there is that which transcends the world of experience.

      And I think there is a kind of *negative* philosophy that can then kick in when it comes to the transcendent. What I mean is that positive speculation about the transcendent can by constrained by philosophical criticism.

      Human speculations about the transcendent is inevitably framed in terms of concepts that have emerged in our engagement with the experienced world, and hence in terms of concepts that may not apply univocally to that which transcends experience. We're in the domain of analogy and metaphor. But even in such a domain, it becomes possible to note that certain claims about the transcendent suffer from a kind of inner incoherence or have implications with respect to the empirical world that are a poor fit with what we know. Such critical comments are what I mean by negative philosophy.

  3. Hi Eric,

    What I fail to see is how the introduction of this “transcendent” solves anything at all.

    Under this idea, the answer to why there is something instead of nothing is, well, it's the transcendent that gives rise to this “something” - QED. A mysterious realm we can't access through empirical means, unapproachable by any scientific technique we now possess or may develop in the future, about which we know nothing at all. And why is there a transcendent instead of nothing? It's not clear at all why the question should not apply (in fact, it seems to me it clearly does) and, if it doesn't, why we can't say the same about reality without this hypothetical transcendent?

    Isn't introducing the transcendent just a way to say “we don't know but we'll give a name to the unknown answer and call it, why not, the transcendent”? Which implicitly assumes that the question has a meaningful answer - not obvious at all. In a sense, the transcendent is not so much an answer as the assumption there is one.

    You mention some hostility towards the transcendent, rooted in the implication that science can't do it all. But I don't think many defend this idea – I certainly don't. However, if there is any “hostility” (a strong word), I would guess it's more related to the maddeningly vagueness of the idea than to anything else.

    But, if science can't solve the CPQ, why think anything else can? Bernard says it very well above, it's worth rereading his last paragraph. Very nicely said, and I agree entirely.

  4. "My own view is that this argument, like many other philosophical arguments, shows why it is that a reasonable person can reasonably believe in the transcendent—even if that does not preclude the possibility that other reasonable people might reasonably believe otherwise.."

    I.e. we are talking about rampant speculation about things we know nothing(!) about. I don't see that as a big argument for anything, but rather a leading question. A reasonable person may certainly consider the model of a transcendent whatever / nothingness as pleasant speculation, but no warrant for belief is offered.

    I think this is a key point. Shouldn't we be a little less promiscuous with our beliefs? Should we be floozies who fall into the arms of any superficially dark and handsome mystery, or should we abstain until evidence, as it were, compels us into a proper state of philosophical matrimony? This is one area where abstinence-only education might be beneficial(!)

    So I dispute your case for "reasonable belief", however ravishing this particular mystery. It is objectionable to live one's life in assumption of such airy speculations, which are not only themselves radically unknown, but allow even less certainty (were that possible) about their implications for how one is to live one's life. As they say these days, get a grip!

    Likewise, it is problematic to deal with people who have given over their lives and meanings to such uncompelling material. One might say they are trapped in a bad philosophical relationship, unwilling to seek help, blind to their partner's faults, ready to excuse every lapse of logic and binge of belief, indeed anxious to share their insecure beliefs with others, in hopes of confirming socially what can not be confirmed philosophically. ...

  5. Burk, I interpreted your point following your question"shouldn't we be less promiscuous with our beliefs?" as you do not agree with the Principle of Sufficient Reason. That is good because if you accept the principle of sufficient reason, you must accept a necessary being. Also, you don't want to reject PSR simply because it leads to an unpleasant conclusion, do you? So, why are you rejecting PSR? Also, I am speaking of the Cosmological Arg from Contingency, not the Kalam Cosmological Arg.
    I would also like to say that if we are in a Matrix like reality, whatever is real flows through me (I am part of it) even if I cannot know it through the categories of the mind, observation, or scientific methodology. Therefore, if there were a supernatural reality, I would intuit it in an unusual way (unusual in the sense that the intuition is nonscientific). My intuition would be unscientific, in principle.
    Notice in both arguments above, I am not illegitametely extending the notion of cause to the supernatural (if sn exists). I am using reason to better understand the limits of reason.

  6. Assuming the existence of the transcendent only makes philosophical sense if it means there are rules beyond those that govern our scientific reality. If the rules of a superceding reality are limited to those that affect us (and therefore can be investigated scientifically), then there is nothing "more" and therefore nothing transcendent.

    But this means that when we speculate about the transcendent, our speculation is meaningful only if it is about a wholly different reality. One with rules that don't apply to us or any aspect of our reality (because if they did, they wouldn't be transcendent). But if that's the case, there is nothing -but- internal consistency to our speculations. Consistency with our own empirical reality is absurd, as is the notion of pragmatic implications of the transcendent. What -makes- the transcendent transcendent doesn't touch -us- at all.

    What we are really doing, when we are doing something with pragmatic sense, is speculating about a world which -ours- supercedes. For example, suppose I ask the question, "If we behave in X manner, what effect will that have on the denizens of Hades, one of which may or may not one day be ourselves? Will souls be shifted to more fiery pockets of the underworld, or will they be shaken in a box of sticky pennies?" If we assume my behavior may effect some quality of Hades, that's not Hades rule-governing my reality, it's my reality rule-governing Hades.

    (And, likewise, it would make no pragmatic sense for any denizen of Hades to speculate about the rules of -our- world that -don't- affect it.)

    So while there may be a transcendent reality, its transcendent aspects are precisely those which have no bearing on our lives. And those aspects which do have bearing, we -can- investigate scientifically by examining how we are affected.

  7. Jarod, good points. But I see no contradiction in saying supernatural realities could affect me in nonscientific ways. The point is I would not intuit them through science, but through intuition...The supernatural has no bearing on my "scientific" worldview, but not my entire worldview
    Take the Matrix Analogy again... Isn't the computer created reality affected by the reality that created it?

  8. Anonymous-

    Interesting questions indeed. Firstly, I really don't know what to make of PSR at this level of speculation. Time itself beings with the big bang, as far as I understand, and PSR sort of depends on the arrow of time, to my naive thought, at least. The zoo of phenomena at this level is far beyond my ability to comprehend or form beliefs about, in the absence of some more solid knowledge.

    More importantly, if one hews to PSR, one should do so consistently. This method of saying that I get to evade PSR by defining for my convenience a self-consisting, self-creating whatever "being" that doesn't have to obey PSR, and which I happen to speak to through my navel, while you, my opponent, have to obey PSR and thus have to recognize the "Cause" of all which I propose outside of PSR ... well, that just doesn't make any sense. It's going to be turtles all the way down.

  9. Braun, so your point is it is meaningless to even ask what is the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe? Since everything reasonable begins after the big bang?
    I, on the other hand, believe the question of what happened before the big bang (or what it depends on ) is a meaningful question. It's not like asking what's north of the north pole. To use an analogy I read in Reitan's book, it's like asking what is pulling these train cars.
    As for your second paragraph, I think you misunderstand what PSR proves. It proves that, if there is a sufficient reason, then there must be a necessary being. It does not prove I understand the nature of the necessary being.

    I don't have to see or understand the nature of x to know it must exist. For example, I know light exists, but I don't understand its wave/particle duality. I know my great grandfather existed, but I cannot see him. These are two different types of analogies, but the point is I can suspect a necessary being exists without being able to understand the nature of said being.
    Also, The problem with turtles all the way day is that neither a contingent being nor a series of contingent beings explains itself sufficiently. It's like train cars without an engine car. Nor is the series more than a sum of its parts, so there must be a necessary being.

  10. Anonymous-

    "The problem with turtles all the way day is that neither a contingent being nor a series of contingent beings explains itself sufficiently. It's like train cars without an engine car. Nor is the series more than a sum of its parts, so there must be a necessary being."

    This is a fine place to start. Why even use the word "being"? This gives the whole game away as to what you are trying to accomplish, which is to cast your projected psychological totem into an anthropomorphized creator-of-the-universe role, doubtless with white beard.

    Assuming for the moment that the word "being" is taken in a purely philosophical sense of that which exists, vs not exists, you have neatly solved the problem of why there is something by positing something. End of story. I don't see what that resolves in any way. We can see that there is something- that is the question, not the answer.

    I agree that the turtles all the way down formulation is unsatisfying, even mystical. But that is what PSR really implies- some form of infinity that we probably can not grasp at all.

    So yes, the whole issue does seem meaningless, or at least far less meaningful than theists make it out to be. Conducting convenient bits of sophistry about necessary vs contingent whatevers means far less than you seem to credit, since it isn't an answer, but merely various restatements of the question.

    This sort of gets to the heart again of the science vs philosophy debate. Philosophers love to, if I may put it bluntly, bullshit. This origin-of-everything issue is a classic case. It takes a great deal of fortitude to engage these arguments seriously, delve into them at hairsplitting depth, etc., when they are the most rampant form of speculation ever to go entirely unrewarded by actual knowledge. It also carries the rather dire risk of thinking that you have come up with brilliant ideas that form some kind of "system" or rationale, but have zero relation to the reality you are putatively trying to explain/investigate.

    1. Burk,
      1)I am agnostic, not a theist. Your white beard rant is just that... an ad hominem rant.
      2) I havent posited something to explain something, I've reasoned that something that is contingent must imply something that is necessary if PSR is true. I reasoned there must be an engine car if the series of cars are moving and have the principle of movement outside themselves.
      3)PSR does not imply some sort of infinity. It implies the existence of a being that contains within itself the reason for its existence.
      4)It's not sophistry, it's the application of objective logic. Where you disagree is with PSR, not with the structure of the argument.
      5)I disagree with your last paragraph, but philosophy vs. science is interesting. Here's something with which you will probably disagree too. Science is a branch of philosophy. One branch of Philosophy is logic, and science is a type of logical reasoning that moves from observing to hypothesizing to experimenting and back (ergo, a branch of logic). Here's something even more disagreeable: Just as a great runner need not understand the physics of running, so a great scientist need not understand the phil assumptions and scope of science. Take the brillinat scientist who claims he discovered how something comes from nothing... until pressed on the ambiguity of nothing. These big questions do have meaning, not all meaning is scientific

  11. Bernard BeckettMay 4, 2012 at 7:53 PM

    Perhaps somebody can explain to me why we think 'why' questions are always applicable. I can certainly see we have an instinct to think in terms of cause and effect, and I can see how such an instinct can be very helpful in terms of learning and anticipating. But there are also times when the instinct is unhelpful (this week's lottery numbers are my phone number! A conspiracy. Somebody's sending me a message. Help!) And under some interpretations of quantum physics, the best we can say of outcomes is that they are probabilistic, so there is a sense in which PSR doesn't hold in our physical world. To take an instinct that is often unhelpful day to day, and may be at odds with fundamental physical models, and then want to apply it to an hypothesised extra-physical world... that's an instinct I don't much understand. Maybe somebody can help.

    Are we being careful enough, I wonder, when we speak of a world beyond the reach of science? Unless we can specifically pin down what it is that puts it beyond the reach of physical investigation, it becomes impossible to judge whether claims to intuitive knowledge of it make any sense. What, for instance, makes us think intuition isn't available to scientific investigation?


  12. Anonymous-

    I appreciate agnosticism.. sorry to make assumptions. But I think "being" is an extremely loaded, leading term. If such a thing exists, it is far more likely to resemble an electron, i.e. be inanimate, than what the customary definition is.. "Anything that partakes in being is also called a 'being', though often this use is limited to entities that have subjectivity (as in the expression "human being")."

    PSR simply maintains that everything has a reason, which I am sure is dear to the hearts of philosophers. It does not give any insight into what that reason might be, whether an infinity of some kind or other construction. Indeed, it is as empty as the void outside of reality (but still something!) that we are speculating about. There is no necessity for the "existence of a being that contains within itself the reason for its existence", which is logically as incoherent as the violation of PSR. You are posing a riddle and making as though it is some kind of answer. I may make great zen, but isn't necessary by any stretch.

    On the whole philosophy question ... I think the idea that philosophers somehow know the deepest mechanisms and secrets of science in some superior fashion, as a physiologist/biologist would know a runner's mechanism, is a false analogy. That kind of insight simply isn't there, and moreover, the volume and depth of knowledge resides entirely on the scientist's side. At best one gets the kind of vague, sociological commentary that Kuhn offered- which was certainly helpful and interesting, but hardly earthshaking. What does reside on the philosopher's side is a certain familiarity with various unanswerable and esoteric questions that few others have the stamina/stomach to persist in after adolescence. Indeed, if they knew so much about modes of inquiry, they would have attended to their own field, and its manifest failings, such as postmodernism, and the many other isms that have come and gone.

    The idea that I would offer is that philosophy represents the infancy of knowledge and of other fields- a groping around in the dark, formerly in fields that had some hope of attaining knowledge, (the natural philosophies), but now mostly in various completely unanswerable questions, and in some cases (theism), fields that are falsely constructed from the ground up, being psychological issues, not philosophical ones at all.

  13. I think your misconceptions about philosophy can be partially corrected by the simplest of readings. There is some truth to the runner analogy. Have you read the introduction to the philosophy of Science by Okasha?
    Also, Logic is a branch of philosophy. Are you dismissing the study of logic as adolescent?
    Surely, a person like you could see the value of some fields of philosophy, it not all? Just as one might be skeptical of sociology, but not physics? Do logic and math, which are presupposed by science, give us access to some reality?
    The gist of our disagreement is you are a positivist, and I ain't. Is that right?

  14. Eric,

    I think the question “Why is there something and not nothing?” is a false question. Here is my reasoning:

    Any proper question has an answer which represents knowledge. All knowledge we have is grounded on our experience of life (by which I mean all experience and not just objective/empirical experience) – simply because there is nothing else on which to ground knowledge. Thus all knowledge is ultimately knowledge *about* experience. (Observe that even knowledge about the non-existence of things is ultimately knowledge about experience; thus to say that there is no greatest prime is to say that one can falsify any claim about some number being the greatest possible prime; to say that no unicorns exist is to say that one will never experience a proper unicorn; etc) Thus all proper questions are ultimately questions about experience. But the question “Why is there something and not nothing?” cannot be construed as a question about experience. Therefore that question is nonsensical.

    I suppose the strongest claim above is that all knowledge is ultimately knowledge *about* experience. But if one sees that all knowledge is ultimately grounded on experience alone, then one is forced to accept that any impression one may have about knowledge referring to something beyond experience is incoherent. Since all we have to ground knowledge is experience, knowledge can never refer to something beyond experience.

  15. Anonymous-

    Thank you for the book suggestion.. I will put it on my list. I should ask who were the greatest logicians of recent times? Off the top of my head, I would say Gödel and Turing, both of whom identified as mathematicians rather than philosophers. It is one more field that has quite definitively outgrown its roots in the precincts of philosophy, though at least there, philosophers have something useful and interesting to point to in their own work as well as that of others.

    This whole debate as to who is the parent of whom can be turned around to say that the children have outgrown the parent. Theology stuggles to keep its toehold in philosophy, for even a modicum of scholarly respectibility, clutching to the skirts, as it were; while natural science fields have long left the nursury behind. True, we shouldn't be so disrepectful of the parent, but if it is in its dotage, some comment seems appropriate.

    I have been called a positivist, and that is probably true on some grounds.. at least on the utility of empiricism for investigations of reality. For our subjective and artistic pursuits, however (morals, ethics, depth psychology, etc.), I wouldn't dream of being a positivist, though. Unfortunately, the fields do overlap, since our subjective selves happen in reality and in real brains, so it becomes a very complex relationship there.

  16. Hi Burk, Anonymous,

    Concerning logic, Burk is perfectly right. To say that “mathematical logic has outgrown its origins is an understatement” is itself a major understatement. There is no common measure between what mathematical logic has achieved and anything coming out of philosophy in this area. Modal logic, for example, which seems to be the rage in some philosophical quarters, looks like child's play compared to the daily fare of (math) logicians.

    Although I am a mathematician by formation (but not actively doing math), mathematical logic is not my specialty. But I have studied it and can tell you this is a fantastically sophisticated discipline. What has been achieved in the last century is absolutely amazing, in logic per se but also in the foundation of mathematics and other areas.

    Burk, you mention Godel and Turing but other names come to mind, from Hilbert (who was one of those who started the whole thing) to perhaps Paul Cohen whose work in the 60s led to the determination that the continuum hypothesis was undecidable.

    This is not to downplay philosophy but philosophers don't help their cause with this too often seen attitude of looking down at other disciplines as just “branches” of philosophy or at scientists as if they didn't “really” understood what they're doing. This is just plain silly.

  17. Hi All,

    Well, I mean no disrespect to practicing scientists.

    But it is a mistake to think that because one practices an activity one can give a theory of it. (Putnam)

    So, I don't think it is silly to say most philosophers of science better understand the nature/scope of science than most scientists. In my experience, when I ask most majors/graduates in science what they think of Hume's problem of induction, realism/instrumentalism debate, uniformity of Nature, Hempel & the strengths/weaknesses of his explanations for scientific explanations, Popper's falsifiability and strengths/weaknesses of his ideas on deduction and nature of sci theory, and the phil assumptions of science ... they look at me blindly because they have not engaged in "metathinking" about their field. And that's ok. They are busy doing lab work, surveying the universe, discovering new meds, treating illnesses, and so on.

    Of course, there are great scientists who engage in philosophy of science (Einstein, Plank, Schrodinger, Feynman, etc). They don't just want the sci facts, but want to know how those impact their worldview(philosophy) They engage in philosophy to better understand what they are doing.

    Of course, I'm not saying studying phil of science will make you a better scientist. It might actually make you worse at science just as a swimmer might be too conscientious/mechanical after studying the physics of swimming.

    Here's an interesting point: When I ask many scientists philosophical questions about what science is, these scientists end up mouthing naive positions that have been clarified, rebutted, or deepened by philosophers of science. Putnam says they give answers that were in vogue 50 years ago.

    Finally, it's not science that is controversial, it's the logical inferences you make from science that are controversial.

    In minute 5 of part 3, Putnamn explains phil of science and its value.

    Don't pick on Putnam, he has Einstein hair.

  18. Thanks for the video and comments. I agree mostly. But one has to ask.. if all this meta doesn't actually affect or bear on the practice of science, what is the point? It is like grammar.. if the grammarians have essentially given up and retreated to a descriptive approach from their previous prescriptive approach, then it is an academic exercise, in every sense. Also the idea of "slavery" to defunct philosophers seems a tad overdone, even though when pressed, the practitioner may well quote whatever philosophy passed over the lectern when she was in college, for what that is worth, which is not terribly much.

    Lastly, on Hitler, your video discussants get some chuckles out of agreeing that it is a "fact" that he was evil. At risk of derailing the thread completely, I fundamentally disagree. It is a fact that most people agree that Hitler was evil, not that he was evil. The former is a factual observation of our social shared feelings. The latter is a conflation of fact/value, as Putnam pooh poohs. "Evil" is totally predicated on our feelings about net harms and benefits, or some similar calculus. In some perspectives, humanity is all evil all the time, due to our killing of so many sentient beings. There are so many different frames by which to view values like this that I think it is and should be impossible to separate our subjective approaches from the concept of value.

    The fact that occasionally we all (post-war generations) are able to agree on a value assignment (and effectively suppress a dissenting minority) is wonderful on many fronts, but it does not magically create an objective value out of a subjective one.

  19. Burk, I agree with your analysis of the evil comment. I wish they had expanded the discussion on that a bit more.

    As for "what's the point?" As mentioned in the previous post, the point is to better understand the nature of what I am doing qua scientist. Personally, in studying phil of science, I'm more aware of the nonscientific assumptions I make when doing science. I'm also more aware of how science affects my overall worldview (what should I infer from recent science). But I'm not sure I understood your grammar point. I think logic and grammar are distinct in that logic has real objectivity to it

  20. Bernard BeckettMay 6, 2012 at 7:43 PM

    Hi Anonymous

    If I may step in, something I'm curious about. I personally enjoy reading and thinking about the philosophy of science. I find recreational utility in it I suppose, the fun of twisting and turning arguments and seeing where they lead.

    Perhaps like you, I know a good many science graduates who would tend to say, 'yeah, but who cares?' Now, I might talk at this point about realism, pragmatism or induction, and the polite amongst them might listen attentively, but often, at the end, their response boils down to something like this:
    'So, when you say our models may not reflect reality, you mean it in the sense that your model of there being a hand at the end of your arm might not reflect reality?' Um... yeah.
    'And when you caution that we can't establish logically the validity of induction, you're not saying, when a child steps out in front of a bus, I shouldn't behave as if induction holds?' Well, no, certainly not.
    'And there's nothing in your philosophy to tell me how to better go about developing my predictive models?' Not really, no.
    'And when you say philosophy of science, you actually mean a whole heap of competing philosophies, showing no real sign of coming to any conclusions.' You could put it like that.
    'Okay, well, um, thanks for chatting. You enjoy your philosophy, won't you, I'm sort of busy with this.'

    And, unless I'm missing something in the philosophy of science, they seem to have a point.

    Unless, of course, the scientist wants to go the extra mile and propose, in the Dawkins manner, that their scientific discoveries have resolved the philosophical conundrums. At that point I think they do have to play by the pointy headed rules, or risk accusation of a self serving double standard.


  21. Hi Anonymous,

    It's interesting you mention that logic has real objectivity. Perhaps it's another indication of a disconnect between philosophy and, in this case, mathematics.

    Within mathematical logic and, more generally, in any axiomatic system, inference/logical rules are, strictly speaking, entirely arbitrary. The game, is you wish, is to posit rules and axioms and see what happens. There is no assumption of objectivity whatsoever. In fact, I would say this decoupling from any objective “reality” is a central idea in modern mathematics and logic (that is in the last hundred years or so).

  22. Bernard, Anonymous-

    I think one reasonable point to make on behalf of philosophy of science (or history/sociology of science, if those are better descriptors) is that it warns the larger society to take science with a grain of salt- showing that research programs are very value-bound, that error both unintentional and intentional are rather common, and other helpful corrective observations, even without affecting the practice of science itself.

    But commentary and warnings in the reverse direction should also be fair play.

  23. Hi JP, so deriving "All As are Cs from All As are Bs and All Bs are Cs" is arbitrary? I can play by different arbitrary rules that will work just as well? Can I say All Cs are Bs from those premises?

    Bernard, here's your point with which I disagree 'And when you say philosophy of science, you actually mean a whole heap of competing philosophies, showing no real sign of coming to any conclusions.'

    I disagree because there has been progress in philosophy of science and in philosophy in general. For example, The view that logical positivism is l consistent is now rejected and we know why. Most philosphers now reject it just as most scientists now reject intelligent design. We can progress in understanding the nature of science by studying it philosophically in other ways too Pigliucci has also written/made videos on the progress in philosophy

    Burk, I agree with that inference from Kuhn. I have a lot of problems with Kuhns arguments, but he at least showed us the value of studying the history of science in order to better understand the phil nature of science.

    Also, I don't think science has solved the phil problems because, in most cases, science has not even acknowledged they exist. Dawkins criticizes popular religious arguments but says next to nothing about issues in phil of science.

  24. Bernard BeckettMay 7, 2012 at 6:07 PM

    Hi Anonymous

    I wouldn't argue there's no progress, it's entirely correct to note that some ideas suffer from internal inconsistencies which, when discovered, tend to derail them (or force their adherents down a path of tortuous refinement and relitigation).

    Nevertheless, if we look at the list you provided earlier (instrumentalism, induction, Popper, Hempel) we don't see areas where the philosopher is able to say to the scientist, 'and here's the proper way of looking at this.' Rather, we see issues where a range of stances can be reasonably taken, and the game then becomes one of seeking out the implications of each viewpoint.

    To take what in many ways is the foundational question, do scientific models describe reality? as an our example; the range of acceptable responses to this remains breathtaking, and there are no signs that a solution is just around the corner.

    Given this state of play, it perhaps a little disingenuous to suggest scientists lose some degree of insight by not attending to this debate. What they lose, I would suggest, is rather a recreational opportunity.

    One might even argue, using your positivist example, that the progress the philosophy of science is making is towards the understanding that any attempt to provide a self sustaining platform will fail?

    Musgrave, as I understand him, argues that his take on Popper, while ultimately circular, is no more circular than any other theory that is not self-defeating. Thus, the question becomes which forms of circularity are least vicious, or most reasonable, and here reasonable appears to veer away from 'logically consistent' and towards 'widely acceptable', at which point the debate may well outrun the tools of philosophy.



  25. Bernard, I think we have different understandings of phil of science. Of the reasonable range of stances that can be taken, I think the number is shrinking and that many stances have been shown to be grossly inconsistent and others more consistent.

    I would say it is disingenuous to say scientists gain no insight about what they are doing from studying phil of science. I think there are many examples of great scientists gaining insights and writing about them (see earlier posts). I think "recreation" is a bit extreme.

    As for your deeper questions, I have no answer and need to think more on them. :)

  26. Hi Anonymous,

    Perhaps “arbitrary” is misleading. Another way to put would be to say that, from a formalist point of view, logical rules, axioms and all the rest are not about anything real at all. Mathematica/logical theories are about abstract structures or forms, unconstrained by reality. Not being constrained, anything goes, really, as long at it can be defined in a completely unambiguous way.

    Once we have selected axioms and inference rules, we can apply these rules and see what follows. True, although they could be anything, rules and axioms are not really arbitrary but only in the sense that mathematicians will work on systems they find interesting or useful.

    An example of a formal rule one may or may not accept could be: if “P implies Q” is a theorem and “P” is a theorem, then “Q” is a theorem. It's mechanical, really. It means that if we have reached both “P implies Q” and “P” by applying inference rules, then we can add “Q” to the list – and go on.

    There is some connection to reality in that we can do something like this: if we can identify real objects that satisfy the axioms/rules of a formal system, we can expect that the results we get by applying formal rules in the formal system will also obtain with these objects – in which case, they will constitute a concrete model of the abstract system. For example, pebbles work well as a model of numbers and we can say that it is impossible to organize 41 pebbles in a non-trivial rectangle because 41 is prime. Drops of water, although we can count them, sort of, don't work out so well.

    Your example (all As are Bs, etc.) can be seen, I think, as a formulation of the transitivity of the relation “is a subset of”, which is in fact a theorem of set theory. It will apply to concrete objects that we organize in sets for a reason similar to the pebble example.

    Sure enough, there are mathematical “realists” out there who believe in the existence of some objective realm of mathematical objects. I have never seen a satisfying account of this idea, however, and I don't think it makes much sense. In any case, interestingly I think, whether a mathematician is a “realist” or not has no impact on actual mathematical work – you couldn't tell the difference by reading their (mathematical) papers, for example.

  27. Bernard BeckettMay 7, 2012 at 9:46 PM

    Hi Anonymous

    Yes, recreation probably is extreme, you're right. I enjoyed watching some of the Pigliucci clips you referenced, by the way. Thank you. His definition of progress in philosophy is interesting, and I'd certainly accept this type of progress occurs, as schools tease out the implications of one another's stances, their positions necessarily become more well developed and sophisticated. And I was too quick to dismiss the value of this.

    Nevertheless, this isn't quite the same as progress that is convergent. We're thousands of years in, and Platonists are still arguing with sceptics.

    You got me wondering, too, about some of the scientific debates people I've worked with have been involved in (dinosaur extinction, the total submersion of the New Zealand land mass) and the standards of evidence practitioners instinctively go looking for. I'd concede a model of philosophy of science that is descriptive in this sense can be tremendously helpful (under what circumstances is agreement most readily reached, when has this led to errors etc?)

    When you get onto Hume's challenge to induction, however, or brains in vats and other such ephemera, it's much harder to see how it rises above the recreational.