On the Relationship Between Philosophy and Science with Massimo Pigliucci


How do you define the following: philosophy, science and pseudoscience?

I try not to. Philosophy, science and pseudoscience are what Wittgenstein called family resemblance concepts. They are not identified by sharp boundaries, they grade into each other, and there is no small set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that one could use to arrive at a clearcut definition. Moreover, their natures evolve over time: alchemy was science at the time of Newton, but no longer. And of course science itself was part of philosophy until the scientific revolution of the 17th century.

That said, science is an effort to understand the world on naturalistic terms, on the basis of theories that are constrained by empirical evidence in the form of either observations or experiments (or both).

Philosophy is a type of rational discourse, applicable to any subject matter, that attempts to make sense of such subject matter (be it ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics or whatever). It is also constrained by empirical evidence, provided both by common observations and by science, but it concerns itself with an exploration of conceptual, rather than empirical, “landscapes” (as I call them) — i.e., spaces of logical possibilities.

A pseudoscience (there are many) is a set of claims about the world that attempts to appear scientific — sometimes including aping academic structures and tools, like specialized journals and conferences — but fails to do so because either the theory or the empirical evidence (or, more often, both) simply don’t stand up to critical scrutiny.

You mentioned that the concepts of science and philosophy grade into one another. What is your opinion on the modern relationship of the hard sciences and philosophy; and what do you think it should be? Frege famously said “Every good mathematician is at least half a philosopher, and every good philosopher is at least half a mathematician.” Does the same apply to science?

Hmm, I disagree with Frege. I don’t think a good philosopher needs to be half a mathematician, and plenty of mathematicians can do their job without philosophy.

The same goes for the relationship between philosophy and science.

That said, philosophers cannot ignore the natural (and social) sciences if they want to do their job well, and there are areas at the borderline between these disciplines were it is hard to distinguish whether a particular example of scholarship is science, philosophy, or both.

For instance, biologists and philosophers often discuss together the concept of species. Physicists and philosophers talk about the nature of evidence and its relationship to theory. And so forth.

But you asked what the relationship should be. I think it should be one of mutual respect and occasional aid. It has become fashionable among some high profile physicists these days (though there are several exceptions) to declare philosophy “dead” because it doesn’t contribute to empirical discoveries in science.

That strikes me as an almost anti-intellectual, willful misunderstanding of what philosophy is about. It isn’t the job of philosophy to solve empirical problems. We have science for that, and it’s doing very well, thank you very much.

But it then becomes almost comical to see scientists argue over Popper and falsification, attempting to either deploy or dismiss the concept to further their own theoretical agendas, very clearly — to a philosopher — without ever having read or understood Popper.

Excellent. That answer brings me smoothly to another point I wanted to raise. There is a current trend amongst, well at least some reductionist physicalist philosophers, to propose that physics, to quote Alex Rosenberg, “fixes all the facts”. What is your opinion of this branch of scientism? What does it achieve, and where does it fall short?

Right, quite frankly, I find that phrase quite irritating. So, to begin with, even Alex grudgingly admits that mathematical (and, I would add, logical) “facts” are not fixed by physics. The properties of geometrical figures, the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, etc. simply have nothing to do with empirical observations and experiments.

Indeed, it gets worse: a mathematical Platonist (which I am not) would go so far as to say that it is the mathematical facts that fix all the facts, meaning that mathematical (or logical) constraints determine what can and cannot exist physically. Even some physicists say so, for instance Max Tegmark. So there.

Closer to the ground, however, “physical facts fix all the facts” can be taken to mean a number of different things. Does it mean that everything in the universe is made of basic physical components (setting aside whether those components are quarks, strings, or a single cosmic wave function)? Sure, no problem.

Does it mean that physics is “causally closed,” that nothing can happen or exist that is not described by our current understanding of physics? Hardly. Imagine if Newton had made that sort of statement (actually, he or someone after him probably did). Then came general relativity, and quantum mechanics…

Does it mean that “in principle” all that happens is encompassed by the laws of physics? Sure, at the least in the modest sense that no system, including biological or social ones, can act in a way that violates the laws of physics. Whether, however, the basic laws of physics are the only laws that regulate the cosmos (i.e., whether there is no such thing as strong emergence) remains to be seen, and it is actually going to be very hard to establish.

Oh, and by the way, what is a law of physics? Surely it isn’t given to us by a lawmaker (which is how Newton intended it). Is it then just an empirical generalization (the take favored by Galileo)? Well, then it could conceivably vary over time (as physicist Lee Smolin has suggested), or admit of exceptions (as philosophers Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking have proposed.

Finally, if Alex & co. mean that physics will eventually allows us to understand all the phenomena in the universe, including biological and social ones, simply forget it. Physics does not provide us with the right level of description, nor with the proper conceptual tools for that, and we’ve known that at the least since Jerry Fodor’s landmark paper on the nature of the “special” sciences, back in 1974.

Extending the subject of what science can adequately explain; what is your analysis of the claim science can ground moral values? Does this not go against a large portion of the history of philosophical inquiry?

Ah, just published something on that today:

The problem with cognitive and moral psychology

In a nutshell, I think that empirical evidence broadly construed — not just “science,” a word to which I attach a specific technical and cultural-historical meaning — is obviously pertinent to ethical judgment. It has always been so, since at the least the Stoics.

What is problematic is if someone (typically, evolutionary psychologists or neuroscientists) begins to make noises toward the idea that we can derive normative claims from (alleged, hypothesized) evolutionary histories, or from brain scans.

As I write in the post:

Imagine we subjected a number of individuals to fMRI scanning of their brain activity while they are in the process of tackling mathematical problems. I am positive that we would conclude the following (indeed, for all I know, someone might have done this already):

• There are certain areas, and not others, of the brain that lit up when a person is engaged with a mathematical problem.
• There is probably variation in the human population for the level of activity, and possibly even the size or micro-anatomy, of these areas.
• There is some sort of evolutionary psychological story that can be told for why the ability to carry out simple mathematical or abstract reasoning may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene (though it would be much harder to come up with a similar story that justifies the ability of some people to understand advanced math, or to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem).

But none of the above will tell us anything at all about whether the subjects in the experiment got the math right. Only a mathematician — not a neuroscientist, not an evolutionary psychologist — can tell us that.

Finally, can you tell those that might be reading, what philosophical projects your working on/when they’re due out; and give a brief overview of their content?
Thank you for the time.

I’m involved in three main projects at the moment. The first one to come out will be a book for Chicago Press on whether and how philosophy makes progress. In it, I argue that it does, but in a way that is distinctive from science and more akin to mathematics or logic.

Essentially, philosophers work in a series of “conceptual landscapes,” defined by a set of assumptions they use to set up whatever particular problem they are interested in (say, meta-ethics). Their job is then to identify and explore whatever viable ideas (I call them “peaks”) may be available within each landscape (e.g., different ethical frameworks, like deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics), while at the same time discarding unpromising views (which I call “valleys” in the landscape).

The second project, in collaboration with my friend Maarten Boudry at the University of Ghent, Belgium, is a collection of essays exploring the phenomenon of scientism — the attitude that science is the sole source of human knowledge. It will also be published by Chicago Press.

Finally, I’ve just began my sabbatical work, a book aimed at the general public on Stoicism as practical philosophy, structured around a number of fictional conversations that I imagine having had with Epictetus, the slave-turned-teacher of I-II Century Rome. It will be published by Basic Books.

Thanks for the opportunity, it was fun!

To find out more about Massimo, check his Wikipedia page, and also his blog.


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