When Scientists Read Philosophy, Are They Reading The “Wrong Philosophers”?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/06/2018 - 10:35pm in

“The trouble with physicists who denigrate philosophy is that they read the wrong philosophers, which sad to say is most philosophers.”

That’s Clark Glymour (Carnegie Mellon) in an interview with Richard Marshall at 3:AM Magazine.

Glymour distinguishes between two different approaches to philosophy, noting that the one that is more useful is not the one most philosophers identify with:

By their fruits ye shall know them. Compare Plato and Aristotle, superficially. Plato made no effective contributions to how to acquire true belief. Plato had analyses and counterexamples (The Meno) and a huge metaphysical discourse; we still don’t know necessary and conditions for virtue, the subject of the Meno. Aristotle had axioms for logic, a logic that was pretty much the best anyone could do for 2300 years. He had a schema for conducting inquiry (albeit, not a terribly good one, but it wasn’t bested until the 17th century). Euclid was not a contemporary of Plato or Aristotle, but he systematized the fragments of geometry then current. The result was a theory that could be systematically investigated mathematically, applied in a multitude of contexts, and that constituted a stalking horse for alternative theories that have proved better empirically. Euclid has no formal definition of “point” that plays any role in his mathematical geometry. Just imagine if instead the history of geometry consisted of analyses of necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a point.

Newton, von Neummann, Schulte, Ramsey, Hilbert, Bernay, and Lewis come in for praise for their axiomizations and systematizations of physics, decision theory, first-order logic, and the logic of counterfactuals. Meanwhile, “Socratic thinking has no comparable fruits.”

That way of conceiving the landscape of philosophy informs Glymour’s answer to this question from Marshall:

Several prominent scientists, including the late Stephen Hawking, ask: if philosophical questions are so vague or general that we don’t know how to conduct experiments or systematic observations to find their answers, what does philosophy do that can be of any value? Maybe in the past it was creative and was the basis of science, but that was then: why do philosophy now? How do you answer them?

Here is Glymour’s reply:

The trouble with physicists who denigrate philosophy is that they read the wrong philosophers, which sad to say is most philosophers.   Had they read Peter Spirtes (CMU), or Jiji Zhang (Lingnan, Hong Kong) or Frederick Eberhardt (Cal Tech) or Oliver Schulte (Simon Fraser) or Teddy Seidenfeld (CMU) or Scott Weinstein (Penn), they might have had a different opinion. Looking back to the last century, philosophers (e.g., Bertrand Russell) made major advances in logic, created the basics of behavioral decision theory (Ramsey), co-created computational learning theory (Putnam), and created the causal interpretation of Bayes nets and the first correct search algorithms for them (Spirtes, Glymour and Scheines)…. One of my colleagues, Steve Awoody, made a central contribution to the creation of a new branch of mathematics, homotopic type theory.

The reason a handful of philosophers were able to make these contributions is relatively simple: they were well-prepared and in academic or financial circumstances that enabled them to think outside of disciplinary boxes and develop novel ideas in sufficient detail to make an impact, or in Ramsey’s case, lucky enough to have a later figure really develop the fundamental idea. It is a rare university department that allows for such thinkers.

Statistically, the physicist critics are pretty near correct. Philosophy of science is a deadletter subject filled with commentary book reports on real scientific work, banal methodological remarks (e.g.,scientists of a time don’t always think of true alternatives to the theories they do think of; scientists sometimes have to think at multiple “levels”), and “mathematical philosophy” some of which is very interesting but none or which is of practical scientific relevance. I once was interviewed for a job at UCLA. Pearl was invited to dinner with me and with some of my potential colleagues. Pearl managed to compliment me and insult the others with one question: “Why don’t the rest of you guys do anything?” In the context of your question, Pearl’s was a very good question.

Here is my answer to Pearl’s question: Demographics and history have killed philosophy of science. The Logical Empiricists, European émigrés just before and after World War II, had almost no interest in methodology, did not engage much in the developments in statistics or computation, and basically gave philosophy of science a reconstructive turn—the heritage of their neo-Kantianism. They educated two generations of American philosophers interested in science. By the 1980s computer science and statistics increasingly took over methodology, and (at least in computer science) began to address some of the issues that motivated me a generation earlier to study history and philosophy of science. After that, someone with my interests would have to be either very ambitious or foolhardy or not really smart to study philosophy rather than statistics and machine learning. Born too early, I was.

There’s more (and more kinds of) philosophy of science than ever before. Glymour knows that, of course, so when he talks about philosophy of science being “killed,” he doesn’t mean that no one’s doing it. What he means, rather, is that it is Socratic, in the sense of fruitless. I would imagine that many philosophers of science would disagree. Thoughts welcome in the comments.

Roxy Paine, “Symbiosis”

The post When Scientists Read Philosophy, Are They Reading The “Wrong Philosophers”? appeared first on Daily Nous.

Real English Wine (Magazine Ad)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/01/2018 - 2:01am in

The government strongly promoted the ‘Buy British’ message in the 1970s. It was so keen to prove the scientific superiority of British products that large-scale experiments were commissioned.

Scarfolk University, for example, was given four million pounds to develop a computer that could record the brainwaves of hundreds of Real English Wine-drinking subjects and then convert those brainwaves into sounds and images.

Scientists (and advertising agency executives who planned to exploit the results) predicted the result would produce “a wide variety of positive images, including majestic British landscapes accompanied by the sounds of waves and music as beautiful as anything written by maestros such Sir Edward Elgar or Cliff Richard”.

In actual fact, all the subjects’ brains produced exactly the same image: An electrified cage containing a baby monkey whose mind had been destroyed by medical experiments, systematic torture and the jarring sound of a toy mechanical bear mercilessly beating a drum 24 hours a day.

Despite this apparent setback, the Real English Wine committee ran with this image in their advertising campaigns. The wine sold well in Scarfolk, simply by virtue of being British, as did a spin-off ‘soft-toy’ monkey, which wasn’t actually a soft-toy at all, but a real dead monkey.

Laissez–faire Childcare (1978)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/09/2017 - 7:26pm in

In 1978, Scarfolk Health Council launched a campaign which exploited people's fear of children (especially those with uncontrolled supernatural powers), to normalise the idea of letting kids do whatever they want without censure.

It was no accident that the infants in the campaign's various posters were depicted smoking, drinking and licking chocolate-covered asbestos.

A 1979 magazine interview revealed that the campaign had been privately funded by Mrs Bottomlip, a pensioner who worked in the local cancer charity shop on Scarfolk High Street. Her reasons were largely personal. Apart from the fact that she enjoyed her part-time job and "wouldn't ever want it to end because one meets such lovely people and it gets me out of the house", her son worked for a cancer research institute. Mrs Bottomlip was concerned that he, along with a whole generation of scientists and support staff, could find themselves out of work unless the number of people developing cancer was maintained, or preferably raised.

For her support of cancer research, the institute presented her with an award, which, unbeknownst to science at the time, was made from highly carcinogenic materials. 

David Brooks Tries to Eff the Ineffable Again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/10/2016 - 4:34am in

A friend and I were discussing Brooks’ recent column, I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Full disc: I haven’t read Kronman’s book, only Brooks’ column.

Some good stuff in there. Love the focus on books and writers. (Though Brooks’ [and Kronman’s?] barely-concealed dog-whistle adulation for dead white guys’ books is both predictable and predictably infuriating…)

But this really fucking pissed me off — Kronman, approvingly quoted by Brooks:

“A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”

My response to that is: Fuck. You. My life is not “recognizably human”?

Obviously: there’s shitloads of stuff that’s impossible to eff, much less express explicitly using expository language. That’s why we have art! To express that stuff explicitly.

Spouting words like “everlasting,” “divine,” “eternal,” “enchanted,” and “God” does exactly nothing to extricate us from that inescapable human reality.

Those words are just shitty poetry, evading the very explicit expression that makes art spectacular in its expression of the ineffable. Which is better: “God,” or “Ozymandias”? Words like “god” and “spirit” have some value if they’re used metaphorically, poetically, but only some. Because it’s the universal in the particular that makes art magnificent. They’re trying to bypass the particular, and so as metaphors and poetry they’re just bad art.

I’m only halfway tongue-in-cheek when I say that bad art is the greatest sin. The Barney Show, with its obviously false “I love you, you love me, we’re all one big family,” trains people to wallow in false, facile humanity, rather than wrestling with the deep density of paradoxes that is the collective human experience. Ditto facile words like “enchantment.”

And the aspiration to “conquer death” just seems silly to me. Even my two best efforts in the direction — my wonderful daughters — have virtue and value to me purely in the here and now. I adore them. But once I’m dead, I won’t anymore. Sad.

I do like this and agree with it; it’s true for me: “if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life.”


1. I am again pretty put off by the superciliousness of this assertion. If somebody just lives a simple life, works, raises a family, dies, is that a “meager life”? Pretty fucking presumptuous.

2 None of those eff-ing words does anything for me in my efforts to wrestle with those big questions, arduously and rigorously. QTC.

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Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2016 - 11:33pm in



A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles Are the Humanities More Digital than the Sciences? A panel discussion with Howard Hotson, Andrew Prescott, Dave De Roure and Heather Viles. Part of the Humanities and the Digital Age TORCH 2016 Headline Series. The presumption is often that the relationship between the humanities and sciences will be one-way, and that it will be the humanities learning from sciences. But what can sciences learn from the way that the humanities are using digital output for their research?

Too Valuable to Die?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2015 - 9:16pm in

Silke Ackermann, Nigel Biggar and Liz Bruton debate the ethics of science and scientists going to war Silke Ackermann (Director, Museum of the History of Science) Liz Bruton (Co-curator, “Dear Harry”… Henry Moseley: A Scientist Lost to War) and Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford) will discuss the ethics of scientists going to war in response to the current Museum of the History of Science exhibition exploring the life and legacy of talented English physicist Henry Moseley.

When Moseley was killed on the battlefield at Gallipoli in August 1915, newspapers on all sides of the conflict denounced his tragic death with one English newspaper headline proclaiming that Moseley was "too valuable to die". Moseley's death contributed to a changing attitude to scientists and science going to war with scientists and engineers being kept away from the frontline. Instead the work of scientists and engineers - research and expertise - is used to meet military goals with scientific research increasingly relying on military funding.

In this discussion, the speakers discuss the ethics of scientific research being used for military ends as well as whether scientists being held back from frontline service means others serve and die in their place.

Periodic Tales

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2015 - 1:25am in


art, Science

Author Hugh Aldersey-Williams, historian of science Jo Hedesan and chemist Peter Battle discuss the ways in which the elements continue to inspire us today The chemical elements, the fundamental ingredients of all matter, have fascinated people for centuries. Their stories have been richly described in Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ bestselling book, Periodic Tales, which forms the basis for a major exhibition curated by Compton Verney Art Gallery.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is joined by historian of science Jo Hedesan (Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford) and chemist Peter Battle (Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford) to discuss the ways in which the elements continue to inspire and fascinate us in an event supported by Compton Verney, the Department of Chemistry and TORCH.

Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/05/2015 - 12:59am in

An interdisciplinary discussion of Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's book Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (Associate Professor of Modern Drama, University of Oxford) discusses her book Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett with Michael Billington (Theatre Critic, The Guardian), Morten Kringlebach (Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) and Laura Marcus (Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature).

About the book: Evolutionary theory made its stage debut as early as the 1840s, reflecting a scientific advancement that was fast changing the world. Tracing this development in dozens of mainstream European and American plays, as well as in circus, vaudeville, pantomime, and "missing link" performances, Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett reveals the deep, transformative entanglement among science, art, and culture in modern times.

The stage proved to be no mere handmaiden to evolutionary science, though, often resisting and altering the ideas at its core. Many dramatists cast suspicion on the arguments of evolutionary theory and rejected its claims, even as they entertained its thrilling possibilities. Engaging directly with the relation of science and culture, this book considers the influence of not only Darwin but also Lamarck, Chambers, Spencer, Wallace, Haeckel, de Vries, and other evolutionists on 150 years of theater. It shares significant new insights into the work of Ibsen, Shaw, Wilder, and Beckett, and writes female playwrights, such as Susan Glaspell and Elizabeth Baker, into the theatrical record, unpacking their dramatic explorations of biological determinism, gender essentialism, the maternal instinct, and the "cult of motherhood."

It is likely that more people encountered evolution at the theater than through any other art form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Considering the liveliness and immediacy of the theater and its reliance on a diverse community of spectators and the power that entails, this book is a key text for grasping the extent of the public's adaptation to the new theory and the legacy of its representation on the perceived legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of scientific work.

Leviathan and the Air Pump: Thirty Years On

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/05/2015 - 7:30pm in



The historian of science David Wootton reviews the controversial dispute between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes, followed by a reply from Boyle's biographer Michael Hunter Robert Boyle's air-pump experiments in 1659 provoked a lively debate over the possibility of a vacuum. The air-pump, a complicated and expensive device, became an emblem of the new experimental science that was promoted by the Royal Society. However, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes challenged both the validity of Boyle’s experiment and the philosophical foundations of this new approach to science. In their controversial book Leviathan and the Air-Pump (1985) Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer took up Hobbes’s case, arguing that experimental findings depend for their validity on the scientific culture in which they are made.

David Wootton (Anniversary Professor of History, University of York) reviews this controversy and present a new view of the dispute between Boyle and Hobbes. His lecture is followed by a reply from Robert Boyle's biographer Michael Hunter (Emeritus Professor of History, Birkbeck). The discussion is chaired by Ritchie Robertson (Taylor Professor of the German, University of Oxford).

That Other Place: Art and Alzheimer's

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 29/04/2015 - 12:31am in

A short video about a recent exhibition of photography and film As the social, emotional and welfare costs of Alzheimer’s disease gain prominence, and with the number of sufferers predicted to reach one million by 2025, exploring the ways in which the disease affects the lives of the sufferers and those around them becomes an ever more important task. Responding to this the O3 Gallery in partnership with TORCH presented That Other Place, an exhibition exploring Alzheimer’s disease from the perspectives of sufferer and carer.

In this short video we explore why photography is a valuable tool for documenting the effects of Alzheimer's and the relationship between art and research. We are joined by Victoria McGuinness (Business Manager, TORCH), Helen Statham (Director, O3 Gallery) and Nicola Onions (Artist).