It had its time of glory in the past. In ancient Greece, philosophy
was not yet distinguished from the science of that time, thus we
might say both were comparable in quality. Then they faced many
centuries of near-absence during the dark ages of Christian
domination, before resurrecting together and having their glory
period in the time of Enlightenment.
Enlightenment philosophy signed its good new insights of truth, by
some valuable practical accomplishments (usefulness for mankind,
that can be compared with the technical usefulness of science):
However, the situation is now very different, as science made a
tremendous lot of progress since that time, leaving philosophy far
behind. Philosophy didn't make any comparable progress of
methods or knowledge, and thus became a sterile discipline.
- An initial impulse to the development of science
- Democracy, constitutions, separation of powers
- Declaration of human rights, the right of expression (outside
- Criticism of religion, a limitation of the
Church's domination, the separation of church and state
- Development of education and university
- More lately: the end of slavery, a criticism of the political
& religious colonialism and of the arrogance towards
Some attempts of reform to remodel philosophy after science
have been made, such as the development of analytic philosophy
by Bertrand Russel who also contributed to the new foundations of
mathematics (set theory). It may be acknowledged that analytic
philosophy is a bit less irrational than continental philosophy.
But, apart from a few interesting clues such as his celestial teapot
and other remarks on religion, much of the length of Russel's
philosophy (such as his theory of the mind) remained of poor value
(long developments on pointless details that cannot contribute to
the progress of knowledge in any effective way).
For example, after the good fruits of democracy produced by the
Enlightenment philosophy, what further political revolution did
philosophy bring to mankind ? Well, it brought the Marxist
Despite its claims, Marxism is not rational. Most philosophers did
not notice the problem, and thus welcomed Marxism in their field.
Only Karl Popper developed famous writings showing the
discrepancy between Marxism and science, by observing the difference
between the Marxist and the scientific way of testing a theory
against experience (falsifiability), for example the way Einstein's
general relativity made precise predictions to be tested.
Despite this, the community of so-called "intellectuals" (of
humanities, not scientists) kept holding Marxism as a
rational theory and valid philosophy. Of course if you measure
a philosophy by its convincing power to the masses, then, Marxism is
among the best, just in the same way religions previously were. In
fact Marxism is itself a modern religion exploiting the newly
fashionable claim of scientificity. But the success of a
convincing power to the people (even to be taken as "scientific" by
an unscientific class of self-proclaimed "intellectuals") hardly has
anything to do with truth and rationality.
Now you don't need anymore to study and examine it in much details
to find evidence for its lack of rationality: just look at its
fruits (the Soviet Union). The combination of its convincing power
with its utter falsity, just means it is at the antipodes of reason:
it is powerfully misleading.
We shall discuss this more closely in Part IV.
The irrational character of philosophy, can be inferred from its
inability to naturally converge to a consensus on given questions:
many philosophers keep presenting opposite views on fixed issues,
that remain unresolved for a very long time.
criticism of philosophy
"When things are hard to
understand, people who suspect they're nonsense generally keep
quiet. There's no way to prove a text is meaningless. The
closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some
class of texts can't distinguish them from placebos.
And so instead of denouncing
philosophy, most people who suspected it was a waste of time
just studied other things. That alone is fairly damning
evidence, considering philosophy's claims. It's supposed to be
about the ultimate truths. Surely all smart people would be
interested in it, if it delivered on that promise.
Because philosophy's flaws
turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them,
they tended to be self-perpetuating. "
(and many other arguments worth reading too)
Richard Feynman (physics Nobel laureate) made harsh criticisms of
|Richard Feynman wrote:
| When I sat with the philosophers I
listened to them discuss very seriously a book called
Process and Reality by Whitehead. They were using words in
a funny way, and I couldn’t quite understand what they
were saying. (...)
What happened [at the seminar] was typical—so
typical that it was unbelievable, but true. (...). A
student gave a report on the chapter to be studied that
week. In it Whitehead kept using the words “essential
object” in a particular technical way that presumably he
had defined, but that I didn’t understand.
After some discussion as to what “essential object”
meant, the professor leading the seminar said something
meant to clarify things and drew something that looked
like lightning bolts on the blackboard. “Mr. Feynman,” he
said, “would you say an electron is an ‘essential
Well, now I was in trouble. I admitted that I hadn’t
read the book, so I had no idea of what Whitehead meant by
the phrase; I had only come to watch. “But,” I said, “I’ll
try to answer the professor’s question if you will first
answer a question from me, so I can have a better idea of
what ‘essential object’ means. Is a brick an essential
What I had intended to do was to find out whether
they thought theoretical constructs were essential
objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it is so
useful in understanding the way nature works that we can
almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory
clear by analogy. In the case of the brick, my next
question was going to be, “What about the inside of the
brick?”—and I would then point out that no one has ever
seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the
brick, you only see the surface. That the brick has an
inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things
better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began
by asking, “Is a brick an essential object?”
Then the answers came out. One man stood up and
said, “A brick as an individual, specific brick. That is
what Whitehead means by an essential object.”
Another man said, “No, it isn’t the individual brick
that is an essential object; it’s the general character
that all bricks have in common—their ‘brickiness’—that is
the essential object.”
Another guy got up and said, “No, it’s not in the
bricks themselves. ‘Essential object’ means the idea in
the mind that you get when you think of bricks.”
Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I
have never heard such ingenious different ways of looking
at a brick before. And, just like it should in all stories
about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos. In all
their previous discussions they hadn’t even asked
themselves whether such a simple object as a brick, much
less an electron, is an “essential object.”
of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is
(forgetting that, in fact, ornithology has been useful to birds in
this Feynman's text on science:
People say to me, “Are you
looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No, I’m not… If it
turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains
everything, so be it — that would be very nice to discover. If
it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers… then
that’s the way it is. But either way there’s Nature and she’s
going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to
investigate we shouldn’t predecide what it is we’re looking
for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: “Why do you
try to find out more about it?” If you began your
investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical
question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can’t get an
answer to that particular question just by finding out more
about the character of Nature. But that’s not my interest in
science; my interest in science is to simply find out about
the world and the more I find out the better it is, I like to
(The Pleasure of Finding Things Out p. 23)
"...what science is, is not what
the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the
teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem which I set
for myself after I said I would give this talk.
After some time, I was reminded of a little poem:
centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
All my life, I have been doing
science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell
you--which foot comes after which--I am unable to do, and
furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no
longer be able to do any research."
Said, "Pray, which leg comes
This raised his doubts to such
He fell distracted in the
Not knowing how to run.
"Philosophers, incidentally, say
a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and
it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive and probably
wrong. . .
My son is taking a course in
philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by
Spinoza--and there was the most childish reasoning! There were
all these Attributes and Substances, all this meaningless
chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do
that? Here's this great Dutch philosopher, and we're laughing at
him. It's because there was no excuse for it! In that same
period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the
circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of
analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every
one of Spinoza's propositions and take the contrary propositions
and look at the world--and you can't tell which is right. Sure,
people were awed because he had the courage to take on these
great questions, but it doesn't do any good to have the courage
if you can't get anywhere with the question.
It isn't the philosophy that gets me, it's the pomposity. If
they'd just laugh at themselves! If they'd just say, "I think
it's like this, but Von Leipzig thought it was like that, and he
had a good shot at it too." If they'd explain that this is their
best guess.... But so few of them do; instead, they seize on the
possibility that there may not be any ultimate fundamental
particle and say that you should stop work and ponder with great
profundity. "You haven't thought deeply enough; first let me
define the world for you." Well, I'm going to investigate it
without defining it! "
Another Physics Nobel laureate, Steven
Weinberg, wrote (Chapter "Against Philosophy" of his book
"Dreams of a final theory"):
"The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited
physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting
them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.(...) without
some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at
all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally
provided us with the right preconceptions.
Physicists do of course carry around with them a working
philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a
belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our
scientific theories. But this has been learned through the
experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings
This is not to deny all value to philosophy(...). But we should
not expect [the philosophy of science] to provide today's
scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their
work or about what they are likely to find.
After a few years' infatuation with philosophy as an undergraduate
I became disenchanted. The insights of the philosophers I studied
seemed murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling
successes of physics and mathematics. From time to time since then
I have tried to read current work on the philosophy of science.
Some of it I found to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that
I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound
obscurity with profundity. (...) But only rarely did it seem to me
to have anything to do with the work of science as I knew it.
I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated
actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose
research has been significantly helped by the work of
philosophers. I raised in the previous chapter the problem of what
Wigner calls the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics; here
I want to take up another equally puzzling phenomenon, the
unreasonable ineffectiveness of philosophy.
Even where philosophical doctrines have in the past been useful to
scientists, they have generally lingered on too long, becoming of
more harm than ever they were of use.(...)
Mechanism had also been propagated beyond the boundaries of
science and survived there to give later trouble to scientists. In
the nineteenth century the heroic tradition of mechanism was
incorporated, unhappily, into the dialectical materialism of Marx
and Engels and their followers (...) and for a while dialectical
materialism stood in the way of the acceptance of general
relativity in the Soviet Union
(...) We are not likely to know the right questions until we are
close to knowing the answers.(...)
The quark theory was only one step in a continuing process of
reformulation of physical theory in terms that are more and more
fundamental and at the same time farther and farther from everyday
"But… many introductory books on
philosophy take the tack that “philosophy is not so much a set
of answers as a way of asking questions: the important thing
about philosophy is not specific answers, but rather the
philosophical way of thinking”
Yeah – that is because the answers that philosophers have come
up with over the centuries have been almost uniformly bad!
Ethics is too important to be
left to the philosophers.
children should also be taught
not to think “philosophically,” in the manner of current and
recent academic and professional philosophers. On the contrary,
they should be explicitly told that, for at least the last two
centuries, the philosophical enterprise as carried out by
professional philosophers has been an obvious failure and that
the vast increase in our knowledge of reality during the last
several centuries has been due not to philosophy but to natural
In the same site: Is
"Science, philosophy, and religion all make claims to have a broad,
integrated view of reality. But, the views of reality they arrive at differ
It would be quite surprising if
three such radically different approaches to confronting reality
were to give compatible pictures of reality.
Of course, they do not.
...in some ways, both the
creationists and the postmodernists deserve credit for seeing
something that more sensible, moderate folks try to evade: in
the long-term, science, philosophy, and religion cannot co-exist
acknowledges and sums up the importance and relevance of top
scientists'harsch criticism of philosophy, so as to take
lessons how to consequently reform the academic practice
of philosophy.But other philosophers prefer to reject such criticism
and keep justifying their flaws anyway.
More debates if you wish :
philosophy make you a better scientist
Science Vs. Philosophy
discussion which then diverts from the subject
Other philosophers try to justify philosophy's flaws through empty
How pitiful it is to observe how philosophers
are not even able to give a decent answer to a simple question.
They try to justify their inability of finding decent answers
by claims such as : the value of philosophy would be to focus
on asking the right questions (or eliminating the wrong questions)
and eliminating some wrong answers (a sort of intellectual garbage
collecting). But these are just blind unjustified beliefs,
as the real effect of their work is just the opposite: to
multiply and preciously accumulate wrong questions and wrong
answers (intellectual garbage collectioning).
This reminds me the joke
"How many Microsoft engineers
does it take to screw in a light bulb? None. They just define
darkness as an industry standard." and other "It's not a bug,
it's a feature".
"Anyone, a mathematician
especially, who appreciates the “unreasonable effectiveness of
mathematics” and the “unreasonable ineffectiveness of
philosophy" to scientific endeavors must recognize the dangers
of letting "philosophy of math" ride roughshod over "foundations
of math" and as a last line of defense, of letting "philosophy
and foundations of math" ride roughshod over proper pure and
Just look at the talk page for "philosophy of math"! What a
mess. Note that some of these people actually believe the
destiny of science can be mastered thru verbose semantics,
concepts, schema, arguments, etc. The last time I looked, the
language of science was still written in mathematics.
Fortunately, bullshit had not yet taken over in the math
Specialists in foundations and/or philosophy of math often
over-estimate the importance of their work to those in other
Consider for example how philosophers of maths play the role of
garbage collectioners of the failed/crackpot mathematical
inspirations such as "Intuitionism" (= possibly interesting
hints not properly clarified) or meaningless conceptual divisions
that can be made obsolete by mathematical work (see about the
completeness theorem) that they raise as highly
philosophical just because it failed to be mathematically meaningful
and thus does not interest any reasonable mathematician.
In reply to the criticism that philosophy lost its usefulness
since the Enlightenment time, philosophers often react by
glorifying themselves of their uselessness, by the straw man
argument that, well, optimized financial productivity is not the
right ultimate value, and thus should not be the exclusive purpose
of public school curricula.
But, while I agree that numerical measure of the short-term
financial profit should not be the final and exclusive criteria of
value for an intellectual discipline, the trouble is that
philosophers seem to have no other evidently meaningful
alternative criteria of value either, except the very negation of
the usefulness criteria (together with their intimate but
unjustified conviction). Namely, they seem to be raising
wastefulness (uselessness) as their ultimate value, as if the very
fact something brings no fruit, could serve as an evidence that it
must surely be very spiritual. This reminds me the Shadoks'
pump, therefore I am
It is better to pump even if nothing happens, than risk that
something is going worse by not pumping...
their rocket was not highly
developed, but they had calculated that it still had 1 chance
over 1 million to work. And they hurried to fail the 999
999 first tests to ensure that the millionth works.
With wastefulness as their ultimate value, their work
turns out to be universally wasteful, for whatever purpose
including the development of the mind and critical thinking itself.
The belief they must be good for the spirit or whatever
undefinable ideal just based on the observation of their
worthlessness for financial profit, is but a superstition among
others. They may of course reject this criticism as straw man too,
as this description is not exactly their claim, But it does not
matter what they exactly claim: this is what they are doing in
How to explain the failure of philosophy ? Well, apart from the
crankiness of its members, an important cause is its
traditional obsession for essentialism (focusing on the
ultimate nature of everything - well, by the way, this is precisely
a usual character of cranks), to be contrasted with science's
non-essentialism that we described. Science has its own care for
essences when needed; it is just not an obsession. Philosophy just
failed to follow this model.
We might also describe the difference between science and philosophy
in this way:
Science is the practice of rationality, while philosophy has
theories of rationality. And these theories are usually wrong because
disconnected from practice, because, in fact, there is no better
way to understand rationality, that by practicing it. Which philosophers usually
utterly fail at, despite their claims.
But... is this really awful if philosophy is dominated by cranks ?
Well, not necessarily. After all, in order for cranks to stop
bothering scientists, they need to go somewhere else and find
another public. So, philosophy can be considered useful for its
social role of a huge intellectual bin where cranks can gather,
while science on its own side can stay clean.
OK, philosophy is so diverse that it may also be possible to find
there a minority of decent approaches: a
possible example (I only looked briefly)
Remarks on logical positivism and falsificationism
As philosophers can easily notice, there is a flaw in the way
Weinberg takes the example of logical positivism and its
unfortunate consequences for criticizing philosophy. Indeed, logical
positivism was rather made by scientists themselves, precisely as a
movement against philosophy, and was popular among scientists but
not among philosophers, who quickly rejected it. Thus, philosophers
cannot be responsible for these troubles.
Let's explain this issue in more details.
Once understood well, the statement of the principles of
science, including the "logical
positivism" principle, is not affected by Weinberg's criticism of
logical positivism: the troubles only come from a caricatural
form of logical positivism not balanced by the other
principles we stated (conceptual reconstruction of reality).
The difference made by philosophers between verificationism (as
stated by logical positivists) and Popper's falsificationism (that
was later widely taken as a reference of scientificity) has to be
Once analyzed well, these are more or less two ways of
popularizing the same logical concept. Well, the details of the
formulation of logical positivism can have been imperfect and
deserve a few corrections. But the main difference is not about
what they really mean, which is the same, but a difference of "how
they feel", how they might be misinterpreted by irrational
To the eyes of a large public as well as many philosophers, Marxism
and Psychoanalysis made an impression of being "verified", thus
scientific. But this impression of "verification" was a mere
illusion, obtained by emptying of meaning the concept of
"verification". Then, Karl Popper discovered that another phrasing,
"falsificationism", was better suited and efficient to explain how
Marxism and Psychoanalysis are false sciences, as they do not stand
to the practice of verification used in real science. This was okay,
but then he went to wrong conclusions by mistaking this
difference of usefulness (for irrational people to more easily
notice the lack of scientificity of some ideologies) for a deep
conceptual difference. The result is that he replaced the
initial misinterpretation of the nature of science, by another
misinterpretation, that does not carry the same risks of misuse but
can carry some too.
As Weinberg said, the main possible value of philosophy is to refute
some errors of other philosophers. So, Popper was good
for warning against Psychoanalysis and Marxism as
pseudo-sciences, while David Stove
was good for warning against the irrationality of Popper and other
science philosophers (Feyerabend, Kuhn...).
About clarifying scientific concepts
An example of a "philosophical subject" of interest for Jean-Marc
Lévy-Leblond (if I remember well ; but he is physicst before being philosopher)
is about noticing that
modern theories such as relativity and quantum physics, failed to go
through a work of cleaning up their fundamental concepts
and vocabulary to a comparable extent as classical physics had
succeeded before. So they are still often presented inside
the language, intuition and even mathematical parameters of
classical physics. This conflict between the modern intended
theories and the classical intuitions and language still used to
expressed them, brings these theories an unfortunate reputation
of being counter-intuitive.
That's right, but: what's the use of making a philosophy about it ?
This is not a genuine subject for philosophy. This is just a task
for science professors to clean up existing knowledge. And this is
an administrative problem to pay attention to this question, and
provide incentives to:
- publish better courses cleaning up each possible subject, once for
all in the world (or several times, of course, but each
time caring to do better again than previously);
- For each subject where such a work was already done by
someone in the world, take the new view and reform teaching after
Unfortunately, while such works exist (as I'm caring myself to do
some), the education system is so conservative that the necessary
changes are not done (because professors are usually so busy
repeating over and over again the same old teachings in boring old
ways, and are so "the best in their fields", that they have no time
to seriously care whether a better way might already have been
produced by somebody else).
But hopefully, in a future time when the cleaning up will have been
done, what will remain of the philosophy whose thesis was to claim
that the cleaning up is not done yet ? Rather do the cleaning up,
than philosophize on its lack.
Once I visited a philosophy course which claimed to prove that no 2 objects can
be identical. However this reasoning was invalid, but to find the error there it would
be necessary to understand quantum physics, and how the mathematical structure
of quantum physics proves that 2 particles of the same kind are absolutely identical,
i.e. they do not and cannot have any hidden identity that makes them 2 different objects.
But philosophers cannot understand this, because they're not good mathematicians, thus
can't follow the proof. Instead they'll keep their strong faith that such a proof is impossible
because they believe their little reasoning to be correct...
So official philosophy keeps presenting and claiming the
correctness of some reasonings, long after it was refuted by quantum physics.
Discussion on determinism
Once I saw a seminar on determinism. The possibility/impossibility of determinism or indeterminism...
The whole discussion consisted in exploring some kind of range of theoretically
possible universes. i.e. laws of evolution to wonder if they can be deterministic or indeterministic...
Seriously, where did that approach of the "range of possible universes" come from, if
not from pure blind prejudice ? Where is the justification why we should accept that it even
makes any sense to regard these presumed "possible universes" as possibilities at all, not
to speak about why exclude the possibility of further possibilities beyond that given range ?
Of particular interest in this "range of possibilities", was a class of differential equations like those of classical physics. So some partial descriptions of phenomena that could be expressed in the 19th century was in this "range of possibilities" but at no point of the discussion did the speaker ever seem interested in the question whether modern physics, i.e. quantum physics, that is the kind of laws of physics which was scientifically found to be the case or at least somehow closer to the truth than his 19th century example, could be found to actually fall anywhere in his a priori "range of possibilities". Problem : how the fuck could I take seriously a reasoning based on some a priori "range of possibilities" where our particular universe does not seem able to fit ?
Ignorance of quantum physics, again
Quote from Quantum
Mechanics and the Hard Problem by Lennart
When I studied Philosophy of mind by Kim (2011) during an introductory
course in Philosophy of Mind I was struck by how classical Kim’s view of the physical was. He wrote
things like “mere con gurations and motions [...] of material particles, atoms and molecules” ,
“bits of matter” and “the gray matter of your brain”. Kim mentions non-classical concepts like
“electrons [...] quarks, [...] spin”, but he never uses them as they are used in the theory they
belong to and thus treats them as classical physical concepts.
A famous philosopher : Wittgenstein
I once happened to visit a university course of philosophy, the teacher
was presenting some views which, he said, he took from Wittgenstein,
who he agrees with.
And what was the claim ? It essentially meant that there does not exist such
a science as mathematics with any open problems, since by nature,
all mathematical propositions are tautologies (mere ridiculously useless
combinations, or rather repetitions, of the same trivialities).
Well, my question is : why would people believing such idiocies be worth
the care to explain why they are wrong ? Just have a look at Godel's speedup theorem,
for example, and more generally, all known facts about incompleteness such as Chaitin's work
on randomness in mathematics... during that course I tried to mention
Godel's incompleteness theorem as an illustration of the falsity of this philosophy.
He dismissed my point, claiming to know the topic and denying that any point could
be made there (the discussion was too short to enter any detail) so that the conversation
ended without any common understanding. It turns out to be a well-known fact that
himself never understood the incompleteness theorem. A
discussion about it.
Another example of what I see as a logically necessary but quite non-trivial fact : Communism Cannot Work.
Both this logical fact and its non-obviousness had some concrete consequences...
See also the testimony
of how his attitude has nothing to do with reason.
Apart from this, well, it can be true indeed as he denounced, that many people commit the error
of trying to speak the unspeakable in such a way that it is not going anywhere. Nevertheless
the problem is not that there is any well-defined absolute limit to expressibilility. I don't see one.
Rather, what I generally see in the world is a lack of imagination in the people's thoughts and
use of language to express any wise and interesting ideas. Because not only the pure language
of maths is already able to express a lot of things, the ordinary use of language being not strictly
mathematical, remains open to the possibility of stimulating diverse thoughts beyond pure maths,
thus escaping any well-defined boundary.
Here I mean not only the possibility to tell lots of sterile bullshit as so often happens, but also,
eventually, to develop high intelligent thoughts as well. I experienced this myself as I found
some non-standard ways of using ordinary language to explain things in diverse texts...
Postmodernism and "science studies"
A community of ideological flaws can be seen between Marxism,
which dismisses its opposing theories (economic liberalism) as a
mere matter of social forces rather than of truth (so as to use ad
hominem as an excuse to not bother arguing rationally), and the
postmodernist "science studies".
Everyone should know about the Sokal affair, an episode of the Science Wars:
"The physicist Alan Sokal submitted
the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” proposing that quantum gravity is
a linguistic and social construct and that quantum physics supports
postmodernist criticisms of scientific objectivity. Social Text published
the article in the Spring/Summer “Science Wars” issue in May 1996.
Later, in the May 1996 issue of Lingua Franca, in the article “A
Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies”, Prof. Sokal
exposed his parody-article, “Transgressing the Boundaries” as an
experiment testing the intellectual rigor of an academic journal that would
“publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it
sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological
Sokal's hoax should not be overestimated, as it was only
directed to a precise movement (postmodernism) that should not be
confused with the whole of philosophy or social sciences: in this
interview Alan Sokal said:
should make clear that I don’t think my parody article settles
anything. It doesn’t by itself prove much – that one
journal was sloppy. So it wasn’t the parody itself that proved
it, it was the things that I and other people wrote afterward
which I believe showed the sloppiness of the philosophy that a
lot of postmodernist literary theory types were writing. But
again, I wasn’t the first person to make those criticisms. It
was only after the fact that I went back into the literature and
found philosophers had made many of these criticisms long before
me. All I did in a certain sense was to find a better public
relations method than they did."
But he also expresses his skepticism on the possibility for
philosophy of science to fulfill its goal of understanding the
"So I guess you’re right that I’m
skeptical that there can ever be a complete over-arching theory
simply because science is about rationality; rationality is
always adaptation to unforeseen circumstances – how can you
possibly codify that? But that doesn’t mean philosophy of
science is useless, because all of these attempts that have
failed as final codifications of scientific method nevertheless
"Practitioners of the social
sciences have not learned, in their own disciplines, much that
is operationally indisputable, readily reproducible, and
internationally agreed to; so they cannot easily conceive such a
thing to be possible in any field. Knowing in their own
discipline that ideology governs "knowledge" as well as theory,
they presume that must be so in all fields."
Also, the end of the above quoted Weinberg's chapter "against
philosophy" tells about the relations between science and
"science studies" by sociologists.
Some interesting observations are without problem:
"For instance, Sharon Traweek has
spent years with elementary particle experimentalists at both
the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the KEK Laboratory in
Japan and has described what she had seen from the perspective
of an anthropologist. This kind of big science is a natural
topic for anthropologists and sociologists, because scientists
belong to an anarchic tradition that prizes individual
initiative, and yet they find in today's experiments that they
have to work together in teams of hundreds. As a theorist I have
not worked in such a team, but many of her observations seem to
me to have the ring of truth, as for instance: The physicists
see themselves as an elite whose membership is determined solely
by scientific merit. The assumption is that everyone has a fair
start. This is underscored by the rigorously informal dress
code, the similarity of their offices, and the "first naming"
practices in the community. Competitive individualism is
considered both just and effective: the hierarchy is seen as a
meritocracy which produces fine physics. American physicists,
however, emphasize that science is not democratic: decisions
about scientific purposes should not be made by majority rule
within the community, nor should there be equal access to a
lab's resources. On both these issues, most Japanese physicists
assume the opposite."
But other aspects present a strong opposition:
is simply a logical fallacy to go from the observation that
science is a social process to the conclusion that the final
product, our scientific theories, is what it is because of the
social and historical forces acting in this process. A party of
mountain climbers may argue over the best path to the peak, and
these arguments may be conditioned by the history and social
structure of the expedition, but in the end either they find a
good path to the peak or they do not, and when they get there
they know it. (No one would give a book about mountain climbing
the title Constructing Everest.) I cannot prove that science is
like this, but everything in my experience as a scientist
convinces me that it is. The "negotiations" over changes in
scientific theory go on and on, with scientists changing their
minds again and again in response to calculations and
experiments, until finally one view or another bears an
unmistakable mark of objective success. It certainly feels to me
that we are discovering something real in physics, something
that is what it is without any regard to the social or
historical conditions that allowed us to discover it.
Where then does
this radical attack on the objectivity of scientific knowledge
come from? One source I think is the old bugbear of positivism,
this time applied to the study of science itself. If one refuses
to talk about anything that is not directly observed, then quantum
field theories or principles of symmetry or more generally laws of
nature cannot be taken seriously. What philosophers and
sociologists and anthropologists can study is the actual behavior
of real scientists, and this behavior never follows any simple
description in terms of rules of inference. But scientists have
the direct experience of scientific theories as desired yet
elusive goals, and they become convinced of the reality of these
There may be another motivation for
the attack on the realism and objectivity of science, one that
is less high-minded. Imagine if you will an anthropologist who
studies the cargo cult on a Pacific island. The islanders
believe that they can bring back the cargo aircraft that made
them prosperous during World War II by building wooden
structures that imitate radar and radio antennas. It is only
human nature that this anthropologist and other sociologists and
anthropologists in similar circumstances would feel a frisson of
superiority, because they know as their subjects do not that
there is no objective reality to these beliefs—no cargo-laden
C-47 will ever be attracted by the wooden radars. Would it be
surprising if, when anthropologists and sociologists turned
their attention to studying the work of scientists, they tried
to recapture that delicious sense of superiority by denying the
objective reality of the scientists' discoveries?
A delicious self-criticism article by Bruno Latour : "Why
Has Critique Run out of Steam" (archived pdf
- beginning + references in web
archive), questioning the field of social studies he created
himself, considering how it turned out to lead to conspirationism,
denialism, and endangering our planet by the way it is used by
political lobbies for denying scientific evidence on global warming:
Relativism is only one aspect of a wider, radical, attack on
science itself. (...) These radical critics of science seem to
be having little or no effect on the scientists themselves. I do
not know of any working scientist who takes them seriously."
"...I myself have spent sometimes
in the past trying to show the "lack of scientific certainty"
inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a "primary
issue." But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by
obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After
all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to
believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the
public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I
foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
In which case the danger would
no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in
ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact–as we have
learned to combat so efficiently in the past–but from an
excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad
ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the
real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective
statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and
incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of
Back to page on science