About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The borderlands between philosophy and science

Philosophy Now just published a short article I wrote about the troubled boundaries between philosophy and science. As we all know, science originated as a branch of philosophy (“natural philosophy”), and there was a period during the early history of science where it wasn't easy to tell whether someone was a scientist or a philosopher (Newton and Galileo considered themselves philosophers; Descartes thought that his most important work was in physics, not philosophy).

Yet, the divide between the two cultures has only increased since, with philosophy now being part of the humanities, usually housed in a different part of campus, and – needless to say – much underfunded compared to even the lowest budget-sciences. Scientists and philosophers, with some notable exceptions, simply ignore each other, or – worse – fire critical or condescending shots at the other side whenever they have a chance. So we observe the pathetic attempts to undermine science by practitioners of so-called “science studies,” who usually know very little about the science they criticize; on the other hand, high-caliber scientists of the like of physicist Steven Weinberg and biologist E.O. Wilson dismiss philosophy as “armchair speculation,” when they know little about either how philosophy is done or what its goals are (e.g., Weinberg complains that philosophy hasn't solved any scientific problem, apparently without understanding the elementary fact that philosophy is not about solving scientific problems – that's what science is for!).

In the Philosophy Now article I report some of my personal impressions after having spent a few years straddling the two fields. I began with the admittedly naïve expectation that philosophers would welcome a scientist who was interested enough in their field to go back to graduate school and get a degree in philosophy. I was also expecting my science colleagues to put their money where their mouth usually is, supporting interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship.

With the exception of most philosophers of science and of a few science colleagues, I found that C.P. Snow's famous observation of a deep divide between the two cultures is still largely accurate today. Most philosophers I have met seem inherently threatened by the very fact that a scientist wants to do philosophy: apparently, E.O. Wilson's insane idea that the humanities will one day be “reduced” to biology has helped deepen the distrust of an already academically endangered community. On the other side, too many of my science colleagues simply dismiss philosophy as something that one does toward the end of one's career, or after retirement, displaying without much subtlety what they really think the relative intellectual merits of the two activities are.

Too bad, because when you actually do get scientists and philosophers to talk to each other, as I did a few months ago at a special symposium at Stony Brook University, the intellectual sparks fly all over the room, and everyone seems to have a jolly good time. It isn't a question of turning scientists into philosophers, much less of subsuming philosophy into science. It's that the borderlands between the two are a truly exciting place to be, for both scientists and philosophers.


  1. You think that's bad? Try being a philosopher of science who does history of science from time to time. Everybody hates you...

  2. "...E.O. Wilson's insane idea that the humanities will one day be “reduced” to biology..."

    I think you are talking about his book Consilience. I read it ages ago, but I don't remember Wilson putting it exactly that way. Why do you think it's insane?

  3. Sneb,

    that's pretty much the way E.O. puts it. I think it's insane because cultural evolution took off from but is not limited to, biological evolution, and he ought to know this.

    To pursue Wilson's project is, I think, arrogant and naive (attributes that often go together).

  4. John,

    Hatred is such an easy /simple solution-minded emotion to give way to, i am surprised that people who consider themselves serious scientists and philosophers would indulge themselves in that way.

    My feeling is that secure people can genuinely like and appreciate people who even completely disagree with them. I watched my wonderful dad live this way all his life, & I always considered him probably the smarter and wiser of most of the company he kept.

    The stronger person, in the end, just doesn't ever hate anyone over things that might change anyway.

    Yeah, and some of those guys remind me A LOT of a little pug or bulldog hanging on by his teeth to the towel while someone swings him wildly in circles through the air. :)

    That's really worth it, isn't it.
    who is actually the one in control?


  5. Oh, and, Massimo, I suppose you would rather if I were to actually discuss what you wrote.

    I agree completely with your analysis. People that do what you are talking about, do that so they can take credit for "everything" that they presume to have developed and appear to have to rely on no one.

    What a throughly dishonest way to live.


  6. Massimo wrote:
    "To pursue Wilson's project is, I think, arrogant and naive (attributes that often go together)."

    Maybe my memory of the book has faded. The main idea I remember is that there are no clear borders between physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and on towards the humanities so the fields shouldn't be in conflict over the pursuit of knowledge.

  7. Your point isn't just true of philosophers and scientists. Everyone thinks their own profession is the center of the universe. Have you ever heard politicians talk of how politics is central to life? Or business people?

  8. Isn't there a discipline called philosophy of science? And shouldn't this crossover discipline bridge the gap between philosophy and science?

    In general scientists tend not to bother too much with putting things in a broader context but seem totally occupied with their own scientific specialism. Creating empirical models of reality is one thing, understanding what is created is another. Take quantum mechanics. The mathematical models work and predict very accurately but don't ask a physicist to discern between Copenhagen, Many Worlds, Bohm and Transactional interpretations. This is the territory, so I believe, of the philosophy of science. When it is not clear on what grounds we should choose, what perspective we should take, philosophy can help. It can take a step back from the mathematical models and ask questions that defy these interpretations, put to the test their coherence with the grander scheme of reality. Ultimately it can help pinpoint crucial differences between these interpretations and thereby stimulate the development of decisive empirical tests.

  9. What follows may be totally irrelevant.

    This you-tube video was just posted on VWXYnot(http://vwxynot.blogspot.com/2007/11/november-kickabout-in-mendels-garden.html)

    It is an old
    Monty Python skit

    Well there is some good collaboration between science and philosophy (Archimedes and Socrates)

  10. I think there is not a conceptual boundary between philosophy and science; it is our conditioned mind that impedes us to see the conexion. An effort directed to cross the boundary, will signify an effort to open our mind, and therefore, to be independent, critical and creative… and probably broke!.


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