The P Word

Philosophy can get you into trouble.

I don’t get many responses to blog posts; and for some reason, most of those I get come as email. A good number of those I have received fall into two categories – proclamations and condemnations of philosophy.

The former consist of a final word offered on a matter that I wrote about having two sides and warranting some investigation. The respondents, whose signatures always include a three-letter suffix, set me straight, apparently discounting the possibility of an opposing PhD. Regarding argumentum ad verecundiam, John Locke’s 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding is apparently passé in the era where nonscientists feel no shame for their science illiteracy and “my scientist can beat up your scientist.” For one blog post where I questioned whether fault tree analysis was, as commonly claimed, a deductive process, I received two emails in perfect opposition, both suitably credentialed but unimpressively defended.

More surprising is hostility to endorsement of philosophy in general or philosophy of science (as in last post). It seems that for most scientist, engineers and Silicon Valley tech folk, “philosophy” conjures up guys in wool sportscoats with elbow patches wondering what to doubt next or French neoliberals congratulating themselves on having simultaneously confuted Freud, Marx, Mao, Hamilton, Rawls and Cato the Elder.

When I invoke philosophy here I’m talking about how to think well, not how to live right. And philosophy of science is a thing (hint: Google); I didn’t make it up. Philosophy of science is not about ethics. It has to do with that fact that most of us agree that science yields useful knowledge, but we don’t all agree about what makes good scientific thinking. I.e., what counts as evidence, what truth and proof mean, and being honest about what questions science can’t answer.

Philosophy is not, as some still maintain, a framework or ground on which science rests. The failure of logical positivism in the 1960s ended that notion. But the failure of positivism did not render science immune to philosophy. Willard Van Orman Quine is known for having put the nail in the coffin of logical positivism. Quine introduced a phrase I discussed in my last post – underdetermination of theory by data – in his 1951  “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” often called the most important philosophical article of the 20th century. Quine’s article isn’t about ethics; it’s about scientific method. As Quine later said in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (1969):

 see philosophy not as groundwork for science, but as continuous with science. I see philosophy and science as in the same boat – a boat which we can rebuild only at sea while staying afloat in it. There is no external vantage point, no first philosophy. All scientific findings, all scientific conjectures that are at present plausible, are therefore in my view as welcome for use in philosophy as elsewhere.

Philosophy helps us to know what science is. But then, what is philosophy, you might ask. If so, you’re halfway there.


Philosophy is the art of asking questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers. – David Hills in Jeffrey Kasser’s The Philosophy of Science lectures

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term. – Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” 1962

This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. – WVO Quine, Word and Object, 1960


  1. #1 by Tom Hickey on June 19, 2016 - 8:49 pm

    “Philosophy” has many different meanings and to hold out one as the meaning would difficult to impossible to defend. Yes, I have those three letters after my name.

    In the broadest sense philosophy is summarized in the colloquial question, “What’s your philosophy?” Philosophy in this sense it is reflection on one’s fundamental assumptions and those of society not only in particular but as a world view, that is, a conceptual system that models reality in symbols expressed as words rather than numbers.

    Philosophy deals with quality as well as quantity and other uses of language than purely descriptive, as well as modality. The primary tool is logic and the method is reasoning. Just as mathematics is the language of science and accounting the language of business, logic is the language of philosophy.

    Most people’s world view is acquired through socialization and education. Much of it remains implicit, and most people don’t endeavor to make it explicit or reflect on foundational matters much or even at all. Plato attributes to Socrates the observation that a life not reflected upon is not worth the living. This is generally taken to be the earliest and clearest definition of philosophy. Philosophy is reflection using reason in this broad view. What’s not to like about that?

    Since there are many fields of life and knowledge, philosophy has many branches that attempt to make the implicit explicit and to subject it to a rigorous logical critique through debate. This is the Socratic dialectic. This post and comment thread is an example of it in action.

    Moreover, philosophy isnt’ just shooting the bull over beers, although a lot of philosophizing is done that way. But philosophy is concerned with foundations rather than trivia. Philosophy of science can also be called “foundations of science,” for example. This involves the attempt to reflect on key fundamentals such as causality in order to clarify them, as well as to uncover inconsistencies in assumptions and presuppositions.

    Philosophy in the broadest sense is the attempt to reflect on the foundations of a world view, making as much of it explicit as possible and then critiquing it rigorously using reason. This is pretty much the objective of Phil 101, which is about the basics of reasoning, logic and critical thinking, usually with reference to some of the “enduring questions” that continue to be debated since no resolution has been arrived at that compels assent since agreed upon criteria are lacking.

    These questions used to be studied in terms of the great thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition and some professors still follow this course. Many others chose to seat the questions in current affairs and controversies such as medical ethics, liberal democracy, and other matters that are sure to result in spirited debate.

    • #2 by Bill Storage on June 19, 2016 - 9:42 pm

      Thanks for the those well-expressed thoughts on logic, reasoning, and their application, Tom. I fear that spirited debate may be out of fashion in my neighborhood, where critical thinking is believed to kill creativity and most skepticism is viewed with skepticism.

      • #3 by Tom Hickey on June 19, 2016 - 9:51 pm

        Some would say critical thinking went out of fashion along with liberal education. I would be one of them.

  2. #4 by Artem Kaznatcheev on June 25, 2016 - 1:43 pm

    I appreciate your campaign to introduce a bit of philosophical nuance into science and engineering. However, it is also important that in the process of doing so, we remember that the nuance goes all the way down. For example, Quine’s view that philosophy is continuous with science, although a good one, is far from uncontroversial within philosophy itself. Also, in your post you tried to distance the philosophy of science from ethics. Although this might be a good rhetorical move to make PoS palatable to some scientists, I don’t think it makes for good philosophy. The political and ethical aspects of science — both as a set of institutions and a capital ‘S’ idea — cannot be ignored, either by epistemologists or scientists themselves.

    • #5 by Bill Storage on June 28, 2016 - 10:50 am

      Thanks for the reply and good point on Quine being far from uncontroversial within philosophy.

      I see that I wasn’t clear in saying that philosophy of science is not about ethics. As you rightly note, ethics is a component of philosophy and shouldn’t be excluded from philosophy of science. I wanted to focus on epistemic values. We have plenty of capable ethicists and I could add little to that realm. While the question of what counts as evidence often has ethical consequences, it always has epistemic-values consequences; and institutional science has lost ground there in recent years.

  3. #6 by Artem Kaznatcheev on June 29, 2016 - 6:21 pm

    On the lost ground in institutional science: I think this is a great domain for exploring questions at the intersection of ethics, politics, and epistemology. Especially with the whole “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

    I have really enjoyed Will Davies’ recent writing on this, especially section 4 of this article that focuses on the transition from a fact to a data driven society. He suggests in a later article that the emerging political divisions underlying the recent political climate are based heavily around participation in universites — the institution of science. As such, any expert is inherently “on the other side” of this rift. Since many questions is the social sciences carry a moral and political element to them — no matter how much econ tries to deny this at times — the individual is faced with a tension between the pulls of moral epistemology that doesn’t recognize the expert and scientific epistemology that does.

    So I guess I am asking the converse of one of your points. When do questions of political and moral identity have epistemological consequences?

    • #7 by Tom Hickey on June 29, 2016 - 7:51 pm

      Economist Geoffrey Hodgson has some interesting things to say about this:

      Economists Forgot Smith and Darwin’s Message: Society Cannot Function Without Moral Bonds

      About loss of trust in experts, see Chicago Booth business and finance prof. Luigi Zingales,The Real Lesson From Brexit

      The basic issues involve paradoxes of liberalism arising from the trifecta of social, political, and economic liberalism because they don’t mesh well where there are asymmetries of status, privilege, power, influence, wealth and income.

      A lot of the reason for the rise of populism is due to conflating liberalism with economic liberalism as viewed through the lens of conventional economics dominated by methodological individualism, microfoundations, rational choice theory, optimization and general equilibrium. The problem is that to be tractable in an environment in which formalism is prioritized (largely owing to Paul Samuelson) the formal models are not every realistic, which means they don’t perform as advertised to the public.

      See for example, Lars P. Syll, Mainstream economics — a pointless waste of timeMainstream economics — a pointless waste of time, and also the comment of Asad Zaman how it is not “a waste of time” in that it is specifically designed that way for the benefit of those who gain most from it and therefore promote it, marginalizing other approaches as not formal enough even though some of those people, not all economists, did foresee the crisis and have proposed how to deal with it as well as reform the system so it doesn’t happen again.

      Moreover, when morality is ignored as not being substantive, then the result is that morality becomes equated with legality, so that if it is legal it is moral. Powerful elites then use their power and influence to shape the law so that what society regards as being immoral or unethical is made legal and there is not penalty involved in acting immorally or illegally. Elites are famously shameless, so that reputational risk does not restrain their behavior.

      In addition, elites are often not deterred even by illegality when they believe that the reward greatly exceeds the risk of discovery or prosecution. Law professor and former government regulator Bill Black’s book, The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to 0wn One. See also Robert Shiller and George Akerloff on looting. Their latest book is, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception (2015).

      While I am a philosopher by training, I came to realize that it is not possible to approach these issues without examining the surrounding social, political and economic conditions, just as Karl Marx (also trained as philosopher), Thorstein Veblen and many others since realized.

      One of the problems is sharp divisions among disciples resulting in losing the big picture. Economists Kenneth Boulding, who left economics to become a founder of systems theory, and E. F. Schumacher, who was a philosopher as well as an economist, emphasized.

      Math is stand-alone to the degree it is tautologous and therefore makes no claims about the world. But when models are representational, then real-world conditions count and they cannot be separated into disciplines that have no relevance to each other when there actually is relevance. This is demonstrated, for example, in predictive failure, but it is detectable in the case of clearly unrealistic assumptions when they are viewed in the big picture.

      If intellectual elites don’t get this and act on it, the public will correctly perceive them as toddies for economic and political elites.

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