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.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Podcast double teaser: what is philosophy of science good for, and why should we care about teaching the humanities?

by Massimo Pigliucci
Julia and I are about to tape two episodes of the Rationally Speaking podcast, the first on the topic of philosophy of science, the second on the somewhat related subject of recent assaults on the teaching of humanities in American (and British) universities.
There is of course much to be said about philosophy of science, a topic which we have touched on before and will undoubtedly again. Still, a good point of departure for this discussion is a recent interview with Alex Rosenberg, author of Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, published by Routledge. I don't necessarily subscribe to all of Rosenberg's specific views, naturally, but he is a prominent philosopher of science, and he is addressing the sort of questions we will debate during the show.
These questions include: what is philosophy of science about? Should philsci matter to scholars in other disciplines, particularly scientists? Why is there a certain degree of animosity between philosophers and scientists? For instance, Richard Feynman famously said that philsci is as relevant to scientists as ornithology is to birds, but Daniel Dennett quipped that there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on-board unexamined. And more: how does philsci relate to philosophy more broadly? Which philosophers of science have had the most impact during the past century, and why? (Here is where my own views will diverge sharply from Rosenberg's.) And what are the current areas of investigation in philsci?
Next we will turn to what is rapidly becoming a war on the humanities in many universities, fueled at least in part by the increasing widespread attitude that higher education should be treated as a business, and that programs that bring in money (in the form of high tuitions from students or external grants) should be prioritized, with the rest put on the chopping block.
A recent example is the closing of several language departments at SUNY-Albany, which has been roundly criticized, among others by molecular biologist Gregory A Petsko on his blog (witty, as well as incisive). This comes at a general time of crisis in academia, when entire departments can be literally bought by outsiders with overt political agendas, and when people begin to seriously question whether a degree for which one spends tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars is actually worth the price tag.
So, what is the point of teaching languages, literature, history or philosophy? Can we seriously have universities that focus only on science and marketable skills? Is the ideal of a liberal education an antiquated leftover of bygones eras, or a necessary foundation for any open democratic society? Chime in, and then download the episodes!


  1. I think one of the problem is that scientists don't realize that almost every decision they make in conducting a study is rooted in some philsci concept. From what questionnaire or other tool to use to collect the data to any statistical analysis they do. Many scientists became technicians, they use certain tools that are available for them without giving much thought if that's the proper one. They become very good in using those tools but they might do better jobs using other tools or at least thinking about it beforehand.

  2. I agree with Dennett that there's no such thing as philosophy-free science. But, then, a big reason why I enjoy his writing is that it's intertwined with science (i.e. he offers a nice balance of a priori and a posteriori arguments).

    BTW, is any one doing "sciphi" (as in the scientific study of philosophy)? The closest I've seen (albeit, for a popular audience) is Lakoff's collaboration with Mark Johnson (i.e. Philosophy in the Flesh, which I've endorsed here more than once), but that was published over ten years ago, and the authors have since moved on to other territories (e.g. politics in Lakoff's case and aesthetics in Johnson's).

  3. There is also tendency to "optimize" universities, regarding their science-departmental composition. It is not just humanities in trouble (for example, bandwagon drive in biology disciplines toward all things molecular). Shortsightedness penetrated all science policy decisions long time ago. Most scholars devalue diversity of intelectual endeavours (or regard just that part of diversity, that directly touching their discipline). On the other hand, young scientist pursue those disciplines that lie along lines of minimal academic (and social-image) resistance. This system works with positive feedbacks, that strenghten trend toward cross-alienation and misunderstanding of disciplines.
    I think discussed problems are severalfold in their content.

  4. I have written on the importance of literature to science majors:


    The Koch complaints are idiotic. All money has strings attached, whether from government or from leftist donors. The only reason people complain about the Kochs is they oppose true open inquiry and academic freedom. Academic freedom is only supported if it toes the leftist party line.

  5. Troy, wrong again. Academic freedom is a deeply cherished value, even though of course one can always find individual cases in which the practice is not as good as the theory.

    But Koch is literally attempting to buy a department and directly imposing his own views on the hiring of faculty and the type of scholarship they would be doing. That is insane and unacceptable. Please find me an example of a big magnate on the left attempting something along similar lines.

  6. Evolutionarily (as ideas, not physically) speaking science and philosophy are inseparable, having as they do the same origins in general human inquiry into the nature of the world. The value of philsci for scientists is comparable, in my mind, to the value of ape anatomy and mouse or drosophila genetics to the medical profession. Not to mention the multitudes of ethical considerations that scientists inherently have to grapple with, although strictly speaking this is less philsci and more moral philosophy.

  7. Are there specific examples in the history of science where philsci has positively influenced scientific thinking?

  8. Kevin,

    Yes, there are quite a few. One might look at the influence of logical positivism on Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, e.g., or the influence of Ernst Mach's (and Berkeley's) positivist critique of Newtonian absolute space on Einstein, as another.

    Moreover, look at Newton's rejection of Descartes' scientific methodology; besides by Newton's own inductivism, his rejection of Cartesian scientific methodology was in many ways influenced by the empiricist philosophers Hobbes and Locke (Newton in turned greatly informed Locke's ideas).

  9. I'm asked a lot about my degree's financial utility. It doesn't have much, so I generally avoid giving a straight answer. When I do, it's like telling a jingoistic nutjob there are great things about other countries, puzzlement or hostility usually follows. The truth is I'm damn grateful for having been a philosophy major, for it's own sake.

    Imagine that.

  10. It seems to me that science is designed for people to agree and all the incentive is to get the new discovery first and then get everyone else to agree that the weight of the evidence supports the conclusion.

    The incentive in philosophy on the other hand is to not agree with your fellow philosophers because that just make you a 'me-too'-er. Advancement and success are dependent on standing out from and above the crowd, not on agreeing with them. It seems to me (admittedly viewing from the outside) that philosophers thus have a strong incentive to disagree with each other and to argue endlessly. I would certainly not expect a lot of progress from that process.

    The subjugation of academia to the interests of money is perfectly predictable in our materialistic capitalistic society. Indeed I am surprised it has taken this long. It is a shame though. It just means that people become obsessed with going farther and faster without any thought to where exactly they are headed and what they will do when they get there.

    With that said the universities really need to adjust to the fact that information access has changed with the advent of the internet. We now live in a time where almost anything you might want to know is available with just a few mouse clicks. Also why spend all the time and effort to learn a language when you can buy a device that will translate for you?

  11. Corporate money erodes university integrity the same way corporate cronyism influences government policy. It is disheartening that some in the humanities choose to point fingers at other faculties for what is a problem systemic throughout society; this type of influence must be dealt with at all levels.

    One shouldn't feel guilt-ridden simply because their degree lead to a job, yet I hear distain from humanities professors that people use their ivory towers as vocational training. That type of interfaculty pettiness needs to stop as well.

    Liberal arts needs to continue to be an integral part of university education. However, I feel the balance between science and humanities will be reached at the moment when innumeracy becomes as social unacceptable as illiteracy. Until then, I feel we have a long way to go before people are scientifically literate.

  12. I believe that one (not only though) important function for phisci to us is to help us distinguish between "real" science and "pseudo science". The former can tell us about the truth and the latter are often used by political groups to further their agenda, and history have told us that this can lead to disastrous results.
    For example, creationism was a pseudo scientific theory, used by medieval Christians to promote their propaganda. If people had have known some basic concepts in phisci, they wouldn't have fell into that trap.

  13. Thameron,

    scientists have as much of an incentive to disagree as philosophers or any other academic. You don't get tenure by agreeing on someone else's discovery, but either by proving them wrong or by making new discoveries.

    Philosophy does make progress, as I've argued in the past, but in a different manner from science - not surprisingly, considering that the two are very different sorts of disciplines. For instance modern utilitarianism is more sophisticated than the Bentham or Mill version, because moral philosophers have come out with a number of objections to the original versions, which were followed by refinements, counter-objections, and so forth.

  14. Re: Thameron's: “The subjugation of academia to the interests of money is perfectly predictable in our materialistic capitalistic society.”

    I am not quite sure what state of affairs you are identifying when you say 'subjugation of academia to the interests of money.' It has always been the case that academia has had need to rely upon the productive factors of an economy for financial support. The difficulty is not so much the source of their funding but rather the stipulations which might accompany the funds. Private individuals and business firms have historically played essential roles in the funding of scientific and academic research (e.g., Bell Labs, John D. Rockerfeller, Andrew Carnegie, T. Boone Pickens, Boeing, Guinness Breweries, to name only a few) but, traditionally, such funding was provided without much restriction on academic freedom and integrity. The Koch brothers' sin does not lie in their generous funding offers but rather in their attempt to control employment and direct research and thus compromise academic freedom and integrity.

    As for your bit about 'materialistic capitalistic society' I will say that never before has scientific and academic research benefited and advanced as it has under the capitalist means of production.

  15. paraconsistent said: never before has scientific and academic research benefited and advanced as it has under the capitalist means of production

    I'll buy that. But then I'm tempted to ask: What proportion of that research is funded by public (a.k.a. government) sources? I expect that the answer will vary according to country, industry, and era (e.g. pre- vs. post-WWII). But I've often read/heard that the majority of basic (a.k.a. "blue skies") research is (and/or has been) publicly funded (albeit, in the US, usually with military interests in mind) prior to its release to the private sector, where it is often pursued further for commercial purposes.

    If so, then it's arguable that such advancements in knowledge owe less to the source of funding (as you suggested earlier) than to, say, a particular set of values (e.g. human well-being and knowledge for its own sake), the availability of empirically proven methodologies for pursuing those values (a.k.a. science and evidence-based medicine), and the setting of a functional society - whether its economy is best described as capitalist, socialist, or mixed.

    It's also arguable that, even if capitalism (or market rules, in general) plays a central role in advancing knowledge (be it necessary or not), there are diminishing returns to that role - unless it's kept in check by other forces (e.g. social movements and politics).

    That said, the case of a wealthy individual like Koch controlling academic research seems to me like a natural outcome of gross socioeconomic inequality, which is descriptive of (but not particular to) societies like the US and UK, which tend (with help from their respective conservative parties) towards an extreme version of capitalist ideology (a.k.a. market fundamentalism), despite opposition from other (say, more progressive or social-democratic) forces. That other wealthy individuals (e.g. Gates, Buffett, and Soros) choose to use their resources more benignly is appreciable, but not then I suppose that one could say likewise about a benign dictator.

  16. Typo correction: That last phrase should read "...but then I suppose that one could say likewise about a benign dictator."

  17. JCM,

    Suffice it to say that you and I may disagree on the genesis of income inequality and the merits of a free-market economy.

    However, to address your initial question, whether research funding comes from the government or the private sector, the source is the same: economic productivity. Governments, of course, do not create wealth, they redistribute wealth via tax policies (for better or worse), and insofar as they apportion tax revenue to various research interests, they must use some metric by which to allocate rationally scarce resources. Thus, research is inextricably tied to money, whether the government or private sector pays the bills.

    As for funding for the sake of pure and practical research, I must maintain that both benefit far more under (more or less) capitalist economies than under more centralized economies, due to both private sector funding and the abundance of tax revenue in capitalist economies.

    Moreover, the private sector has a remarkable track record of supporting not only practical research, but also pure research: Institute for Advanced Studies, (my alma mater) Carnegie-Mellon, Salk Institute, MIT, and Rockerfeller University, being only a few notable examples.

    Of course, even in these private institutions government funding plays vital roles (as you note, mostly through DoD contracts), but each conducts pure research on the private sector's dime.

    Contra Thameron, I suggest that we not malign either source of funding- I very much support government funding of research, but we must recognize the private sector's significant contribution. (If I have misconstrued your position, Thameron, please correct me.)

  18. Para said: Governments, of course, do not create wealth

    As I see it, people create wealth from the resources that nature affords them. It matters little to me whether that process is fostered by governments, markets, or (more realistically) by some interaction between the two. As Joseph Stiglitz put it:

    The real debate today is about finding the right balance between the market and government. Both are needed. They can each complement each other. This balance will differ from time to time and place to place.

    Of course, it's hard for people to agree on a "right balance" when they approach the problem with opposing criteria, based on different moral-political models. That seems no less true of economists (e.g. social democrats vs. market-fundamentalists) than of society at large (e.g. progressives vs. conservatives), only the former group more often frames the debate in terms of "efficiency", rather than right or wrong.

    Anyway, glad we agree that what the Koch brothers are attempting qualifies as a "sin."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.