April 11th, 2011

breaking bad

Philosophy: harder than it looks

When I was talking about arrogance I was thinking of the arrogance of unintelligent people. I was thinking what the England football team would be like, if we recruited it from Eton and Oxbridge alone. Not only lacking in talent, but despising the concept of talent. It's tragic really, but we are all living in the tragedy.

Anyway, there is another kind of arrogance, which is - pursuing the analogy - as if the genuinely highly talented England football team assumed they could represent England at all sports and took over our rowing team and our cricket team and so on. There's been a bit of a splurge of that lately, with scientists thinking they can play every other sport.

I was reading Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design and I just stopped right at the start. I haven't got the book here with me, but he begins with a statement along the lines 'We don't need philosophy any more because we've got physics.' Hawking is obviously one of the cleverest people alive - but he's playing a different sport here, where he's not world class. He could probably get world class if he took some time, but I am guessing it would be hard to convince him that there are real challenges in philosophy, which need addressing, because he's not going to meet many people who can do justice to the subject from a position of intellectual parity. Also, the cutting edge of philosophy is a lot more variable and dodgy in quality than the cutting edge of science, with more rubbish cluttering it up. It's not a simple progression.

Here's an example (link to cartoon) of this type of misplaced confidence, which I often think about. It's from the web comic non sequitur, and the dialogue goes like this (the speakers are actually two kids):
Philosopher: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

Scientist: Yes

Philosopher: Ha ha! Gotcha smarty-pants! How would you know if no-one is there to hear it?

Scientist: Physics - Sound waves exist regardless of anyone's presence.

Philosopher stands for a whole panel, utterly confounded by the brilliance of this refutation.

Philosopher: Science is a metaphysical party pooper.

Scientist: I prefer to think of it as the designated driver.
I've seen this cartoon quoted in science blogs as like a total take-down of mysticism. As if, as if, the so-called 'refutation' has never occurred to anyone in two and a half thousand years of discussing this subject. The entire point of the question is whether phenomena should be identified with the external stimulus, or the perception of stimulus by an observer.

There's a fallacy called petitio principi where you covertly front-load the desired answer into the premises of the question. The scientist in this example is doing exactly that.

It's not somebody making the mistake that gets me, it's the smug assumption that the philosopher totally got told.