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Philosophy: harder than it looks - The Ex-Communicator

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April 11th, 2011


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08:45 am - 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.

(44 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


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From:happytune
Date:April 11th, 2011 09:09 am (UTC)
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I think this is where Dawkins has gone, and lost the spark that resonated so strongly with so many of us in his earlier work like The Selfish Gene in the process. What we have left is someone attempting to be a theologist, with little robust knowledge of theology, responding with bile. I think his latest books have been terribly weak.

Having said that, I do think the England football team seem as overpaid and arrogant a bunch of tossers as the current Cabinet. It just manifests itself in a different way.
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From:communicator
Date:April 11th, 2011 09:23 am (UTC)
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When I have seen Dawkins on telly he comes across well I think. But I know you have closer links to his circle and perhaps have seen a different person than I have.

Funnily enough I also think theologians ought to be more humble when it comes to philosophical questions. Yes - all should BOW and acknowledge the SUPERIORITY of the subject I happened to study thirty years ago. What could be fairer and more open-minded than that?
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From:watervole
Date:April 11th, 2011 10:49 am (UTC)
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I agree with you on Dawkins (really liked The Selfish Gene). I'm an athiest, and I still find his treatment of religion to be shallow and irritating.

I don't personally see evolution as disproving the existence of God, and neither do many of my Christian friends.

He chooses his own philosophical points to prove/disprove the existence of God and does not accept that believers are entitled to have their own individual reasons for accepting the existence of a deity.
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From:watervole
Date:April 11th, 2011 10:44 am (UTC)
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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 strikes me that you're guilty here of a kind of arrogance.

You've made a blanket statement about a group of people stating that the entire group are both lacking in talent and despising it in others.

If someone else had made a similar statement about a group with a lower average income, you'd have jumped on them instantly, and rightly so.

It's morally wrong to generalise about any group of people.
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From:communicator
Date:April 11th, 2011 10:49 am (UTC)
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If you restrict your field to 0.001% of the population then the chances of any of that field having a world class talent are minuscule. Statistically it's unquestionably true.

It's not morally wrong to generalise about a group of people. Why would it be? 'SF fans tend to better than average at maths' - that may be true or false but it's not morally wrong to say it. 'A large group of people is more likely to include a brilliant mind than a small group of people' - not only morally right, but factually correct.
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From:ninebelow
Date:April 11th, 2011 11:06 am (UTC)
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Hawking has got form for this. He says something similar in A Brief History of Time.
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From:communicator
Date:April 11th, 2011 11:14 am (UTC)
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I have read Brief History, way back, and I really liked it at the time, but I've lost my copy. It didn't strike me that way - but perhaps I was too caught up in the other stuff - whereas this annoyed me so much I couldn't carry on. Perhaps because he starts with it.
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From:ninebelow
Date:April 12th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I still enjoyed Brief History but in discussing quantum mechanics I remember he him been extremely dismissive of philosophy as it applies to free will and determinism. Even at the time (I was a teenager) I thought this seemed a bit simplistic. And it was.
(Deleted comment)
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From:communicator
Date:April 11th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
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I am not sure the xkcd is meant to be self-effacing, though you have made me see how it could be read that way. The non sequitur comic is (in my opinion) not meant in such a subtle way. The guy actually thinks this is a gotcha moment. And in comments:

"About time someone got the right answer"

"Philosophers are idiots who try to reason away science."

Edited at 2011-04-11 04:31 pm (UTC)
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:April 11th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC)
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And of course, proper science says that, while sound waves, light waves and so on exist independent of human perception, the phenomena of music, colour and so on are created within the perceptual system.
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From:communicator
Date:April 11th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
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This is certainly a much better answer. I think that analytical philosophers approach these problems as ones of definition of terms - which is kind of how you are approaching it. But I would say that it should be treated more like poetry: there are problems that can not be expressed in language, and there are aspects of truth which are beyond any possible human language. And questions like this attempt to thrust us towards those areas of thought.
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From:iainjcoleman
Date:April 11th, 2011 05:28 pm (UTC)
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You see, I just think this is kind of a dead-end answer. The scientific or analytical approach looks at things like optical and auditory illusions to explore the relationship between measurable physical quantities (light, sound) and mental constructs (colour, music), and in doing so it reveals all kinds of interesting, surprising and unexpected things about the human mind. It's great to find out all that stuff.
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From:dan_golem
Date:April 12th, 2011 07:26 am (UTC)
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Sam Harris interviewed in the Independent yesterday believes that science has made moral philosophers redundant. I can't comment. I found his replies unreadable and gave up.
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From:communicator
Date:April 12th, 2011 08:10 am (UTC)
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Hi I am not sure why your comment was 'screened' - sorry about that. Have unscreened it of course. I think lj is having a bit of a problem and odd things are happening.

I have been looking at the Sam Harris debate. There's a recent blog post from Cosmic Variance on this - this is a scientist correctly (IMHO) defending philosophy as a field of study distinct from science. I think his final paragraph is very telling, and I might blog more about this.

At heart I think the problem is that Sam and some other atheists are really concerned about the idea that, without objective moral truths based on science, the field of morality becomes either the exclusive domain of religion, or simply collapses into nihilism. Happily for reality, that’s an extremely false dichotomy. Morality isn’t out there to be measured like some empirical property of the physical world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be moral or to speak about morality in a rational, thoughtful way. Pretending that morality is a subset of science is, in its own way, just as much an example of wishful thinking as pretending that morality is handed down by God. We have to face up to that temptation and accept the world as it is.

I think he is quite right about the psychological motivation, which is a feeling I utterly share, that we need to resist the colonisation of life by a single religious view. But we can't throw out the ineffable, the baby with the bathwater.

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