Posts Tagged ‘science’

Here we go again…

February 23, 2008

… yet another article that begins with the overused sentiment that yet another question philosophers (gosh, these people must be really stupid!) have been unable to make any progress on has finally been addressed (successfully, naturally) by SCIENCE, and hence there is hope for an answer, at last.

While the question “Whence morality?” has been addressed by many thinkers, it is not the question “which has troubled philosophers since their subject was invented.” The question that underlies most philosophical reflection about morality (or ethics, rather!) is: what should we do? how should we live? The question is not primarily about why we engage in moral judgment, but rather which moral or ethical judgments to make. Such questions have prompted further questions about the meaning and epistemic standing of moral claims, and many interesting philosophical answers have been developed. Naturally, we do not see any of them mentioned in the article.

But note the rhetoric: philosophers are TROUBLED by questions – they don’t investigate questions, or give answers to them, no it is questions who trouble them. They are similarly passive with respect to their entire subject: it was invented. By whom, one might ask. Nor has their been any development in the subject – which presumably makes it permissible to ignore contemporary philosophers.

Aside from some serious questions about the science in this particular case, the most annoying fact about the article is not just that it fails to mention any of contemporary philosophical normative theory or meta-ethics, but that the author can be certain to get away with it. Why is that?

Science & Soccer

February 8, 2008

You play it in a team. The rules are fairly clear and roughly the same everywhere in the world. Competition and prestige are high. Billions of dollars are being spend on finding the greatest talents and putting together the best teams. You have to make your career when you’re young. The older you get, the more likely you are going to be stuck with management work.

It’s hard to be really good. If you are, however, you can work almost anywhere in the world.

Where are the philosophers?

December 19, 2007

Glancing over this article from the NYT one begins to wonder, whether philosophers are just keeping a low profile, or are simply not perceived as potential contributers to a debate that is clearly philosophical. What is a law of nature? Not: which laws of nature are there, but: what is a law of nature? Sounds pretty philosophical, doesn’t it?

And yet, the only philosophers mentioned in the article are great old dead ones, not contemporaries.  Philosophy probably came to an end some time in the 17th century. Instead just about any physicist with a philosophical view gets his two lines of fame (or rather: two more lines of fame). But seriously, this debate is old and, in philosophical circles, pretty sophisticated. Maybe philosophers should start writing more popular books?

A nasty habit

November 25, 2007

The presentation of philosophers and philosophical thought in popular science articles. All too often it goes something like this: for centuries, philosophers have been puzzled by this question. Now scientists have found the answer.

The most annoying thing about this is actually that it usually doesn’t serve any particular purpose internal to the article — it is just some random way of introducing the subject matter — but that it nevertheless has devastating effects on the public perception of philosophy and philosophers. Philosophers, we learn, are mostly puzzled creatures, wondering about the world while trapped in their ivory tower. Fortunately, one of these question has now been taken on by scientists, who of course produced a solution in no time. There you go. So philosophers get bad publicity, and all just because some mediocre journalist couldn’t think of a better introduction to the topic at hand.

What is furthermore annoying is the blatant anachronism. The strict distinction between philosophers on the one hand, and scientists on the other, dates back only to the 19th century. Many of the questions philosophers have been puzzled by for centuries are actually the same questions that scientists have been puzzled by for centuries, in part because science was just a way of doing philosophy: natural philosophy. Not infrequently, the same person (Descartes or Newton, for example) would make contributions in areas we now call ‘science’, as well as in areas we are now inclined to call ‘philosophy’.

Add to this the equally anachronistic idea that ‘the question that has been around for centuries’ is in any straightforward way ‘the same question’ answered by the particular scientific result presented in the article. Questions that have been around for centuries tend to be very general (is there a beginning to the world, or no?/is there a smallest possible bit of matter, or no?/how free are we in our decisions?), whereas answers given by any particular scientific discovery tend to be rather narrow in scope. They furthermore tend to presuppose a great deal of theory. The question whether or not two particular genes are to be found on the same chromosome is not one we would expect to have been around for centuries. Sure, there may be some interesting connection between a question which has been around for a long time, and a particular scientific discovery. That’s great. But let’s not pretend that scientist (or anybody else for that matter) simply addressed ‘the same question’. In fact, in a way it might not make very much sense at all to claim that there is such a thing as ‘the same question’ that has been around for centuries. Instead it might be wise to say: here is a question which can be understood as a transformation of an earlier question (which in turn was a transformation of an earlier question…), and here is an answer we can give to the particular twist we put on this question.

If post-modernism has taught us anything, it is to be wary of anachronism. But let’s leave this for some other time.