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Links for 2007-02-25

4 replies on “Links for 2007-02-25”

I must admit I find it slightly strange that you single out philosophy; in my experience both the material and the lecturers tend to be rather keen on science! Admittedly the department I’ve been in (Bristol) has a noted speciality in the philosophy of science, but the whole philosophical canon has always been strongly on the side of science. By today’s lights, Aristotle was a scientist, Descartes was a scientist, and casting an eye towards a bookshelf full of philosophical tomes I can’t think of even one which I would describe as “anti-science” (although I realise this may say more about me than about philosophy).
Yes, many of the sceptical questions asked in philosophy undermine the basis of science—but they hardly do so exclusively! Indeed, I’d argue that many or most of our other belief-forming and -revising practices come off far worse. Moreover, the entire point is generally taken to be overcoming (where possible) those sceptical obstacles in the pursuit of a better epistemology, or a better metaphysics, but in any case a better foundation for scientific research (which we take to be the best way of finding out about the particular world we find ourselves in—not that I’m tacitly countenancing modal realism, of course).
In my own case (we all love a personal anecdote, despite their tiny statistical relevance) I became enamoured of philosophy for the same reasons I was interested in science: asking difficult, fundamental questions about the nature of the world. In talking with numerous lecturers and postgraduates over the years I’ve found many people who share this view. While the article you linked to is talking about science education in America, our problem in the UK might (to some extent) be the narrowness of the curriculum. In my experience students choosing their A-levels are advised or encouraged to “pick a side”; to go into the arts, or the sciences. Anyone daring to do both is looked at rather askance, as though we’re robots that come in only models A and B, not people with a wide range of interests and capabilities that we wish to develop. At any rate, philosophy is a good tool with which to overcome the lies and exaggerations of marketing executives, and as such I would recommend it to any and all.

Interesting numbers in the piece. I don’t know if they represent the wider level of general interest in science, though. We had crowds of people show up in the early wee hours for the transit of Venus (yours truly looking like a twit halfway down the page). There’s an interest in science, but subscribing to Sky and Telescope is really for the hardcore astronomy nerd.
For what it’s worth, when I was a teaching assistant for Astronomy 100, I wondered if I was just cranking out a new generation of marketing executives too.

To be honest, it’s not so much the practice of contemporary philosophy that I have issue with, although I think particularly continental philosophy and the practice of cultural studies has a fair amount to answer for (not in terms of doing the wrong things, but in terms of confusing an absence of certainty with an abandonment of truth or truth claims).
I do have trouble with the teaching of philosophy though – as it’s fundamentally taught historically, almost as history of philosophy rather than as an empirical enterprise with a goal. And I think it’s precisely the division of philosophy into science and philosophy that has caused many of the problems we’re talking about – while science has progressed (albeit still by asking often cluelessly inadequate questions), philosophy has been left as thinking with no testable criteria for proof except for argument itself.

I’m having to read between the lines somewhat here, so I may be taking your points completely the wrong way, but it feels more like you have a grievance with post-modernism and literary theory than with philosophy (as I construe it).
As far as the mode of teaching is concerned, even if it’s not true to the same degree, science is taught historically as well: it’s only once we’ve got Newton’s laws of motion down that we move on to Einsteinian relativity. This is for reasons of comprehensibility as much as anything, because Newtonian mechanics is a lot simpler, but nonetheless, learning science very often consists in learning the history of science. Similarly, in philosophy taking a historical approach one can see how arguments and positions developed, which is pretty valuable if you want to understand how the field works. Just look at the literature in epistemology that Edmund Gettier’s Is Justified True Belief Knowledge? spawned: paper after paper advancing new positions to work around a famous set of counterexamples, and being shot down in their turn, only for new suggestions to rise in their place.
I must admit I’m unsure what you’re looking for in terms of “testable criteria for proof”; it’s not as if philosophy is an empirical science in the way that, for example, physics is. Could you expand on this a little?
Ultimately I agree that it would be better if more philosophers were scientists, and more scientists philosophers, but it’s hardly the most serious problem either field faces, and since both disciplines get people asking questions and aiming at the truth then as far as I’m concerned they’re both good ways of countering the bullshit so prevalent in our society (as I recall, Harry Frankfurt argued in his book on the matter that bullshit was a greater threat to the truth than lies, because liars need a mostly truthful discourse in order to be effective, whereas someone using bullshit doesn’t care if what they say is truthful or not).

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