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Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

For the antepenultimate[1] essay in this series, I will tackle the thorny issue of the relation between science and philosophy. Philosophy can be made as wide as you like to include anything concerned with knowledge. In that regard, science could be considered a subset of philosophy. It is even claimed that science arose out of philosophy, but that is an over simplification. Science owes at least as much to alchemy as to Aristotle. After all, both Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Robert Boyle[2] (1627 – 1691) were alchemists and the philosophers, including Francis Bacon, vehemently opposed Galileo. Here, I wish to restrict philosophy to what might be call western philosophy—the tradition started with the ancient Greeks and continued ever since in monasteries and the hallowed halls of academia.

Let us start this discussion with Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996). He observed that Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics did not just differ in degree, but were entirely different beasts. He, then, introduced the idea of paradigms to denote such changes of perspective. However, Kuhn misidentified the fault line. It was not between Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics, but rather between western philosophy and science. Indeed, I would say that science (along with its sister discipline, engineering) is demarcated by a common definition of what knowledge is (see below). In science, classical and quantum mechanics are very different, yet they share a common paradigm for the nature of knowledge and, hence, we can compare the two from common ground.

Bertrand Russell (1872 –1970) in his A History of Western Philosophy makes a point similar to Kuhn’s. Russell claims that from the ancient Greeks up to the renaissance, philosophers would have been able to understand and discourse with each other. Plato (424 BCE – 348 BCE) and Machiavelli (1469 –1527) would have been able to discuss, if brought together. Similarly with Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), if Aquinas refrained from having Luther burnt at the stake.  They shared a common paradigm, if not a common view. But with the advent of science, that changes. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have understood Newton. The paradigm had shifted. This shift from philosophy to science is the best and, perhaps, the only real example of a paradigm shift in Kuhn’s original meaning.  Like Kuhn, Russell misidentified the fault line. It was not between early and late western philosophy, but between philosophy and science. C.P. Snow (1905 – 1980) in his 1959 lecture, The two Cultures, identifies a similar fault line but between science and the humanities more generally.

So what are these two paradigms? Philosophy is concerned with using rational arguments[3] to understand the nature of reality. Science turns that on its head and defines rational arguments through observation. A rotational argument is one that helps build models with increased predictive power. To doubt the Euclidian geometry of physical space-time or to suggest twins could age at different rates were at one time considered irrational ideas, beyond the pale. But now they are accepted due to observation-based modeling.  Philosophy tends to define knowledge as that which is true and known to be true for good reason (with debate over what good reason is). Science defines knowledge in terms of observation and observationally constrained models with no explicit mention of the metaphysics concept of truth. Science is concerned with serviceable, rather than certain knowledge.

Once one realizes science and philosophy are distinct paradigms, a lot becomes clear. For example, why philosophers have had so much trouble coming to grips with what science is. Scientific induction as proposed by Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) does not exist. David Hume (1711 – 1776) started the philosophy of science down the dead end street to logical positivism. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) thought Euclidean geometry was synthetic a priori information, and Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) introduced falsification, which is now largely dismissed by philosophers. Even today, the philosophic community as a whole does not understand what the scientific method is and tends toward the idea that it does not exist at all. All attempts, by either scientist or philosophers, to fit the square peg of science into the round hole of western philosophy have failed and will probably continue to do so into the indefinite future. Eastern philosophy is even more distant.

The different paradigms also provide the explanation of the misunderstanding between science and philosophy. Alfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) claimed that all of modern philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. On the other hand, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) claims Plato and his followers delayed the advance of knowledge by two millennia. The two statements are not in contradiction if you have a negative conception of philosophy. And indeed, many scientists do have a negative conception of philosophy; a short list includes Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988), Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), Steven Weinberg (b. 1933), Stephen Hawking (b. 1962), and Lawrence Krauss (b. 1954).  Feynman is quoted as saying: Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. To a large extent, Feynman is correct. The philosophy of science has had little or no effect on the actual practice of science. It has, however, had a large impact on the scientist’s self-image of what they do. Newton was influenced by Francis Bacon, Darwin by Hume, and just try suggesting to a room full of physicists that science is not based on falsification[4].  Even this essay is built around Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm (but most of Kuhn’s other ideas on science are, to put it bluntly, wrong).

This series of essays has been devoted to defining the scientific paradigm for what knowledge is.  The conclusion I have reached, as noted above, is that western philosophy and science are based on different paradigms for the nature of knowledge. But are they competing or complementary paradigms? My take is that the two paradigms are incompatible as well as incommensurate. Knowledge cannot be simultaneously defined by what is true in the metaphysical sense, and by model building.

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[1] That is N2LP in the compact notation of effective field theorists.

[2] The son of the Earl of Cork and the father of modern chemistry.

[3] This is an oversimplification but sufficient for our purposes.

[4] Although I am a theorist, I did that experiment. Not pretty.


– By Byron Jennings, (Ex) Theorist (or is it: once a theorist, always a theorist…) and Project Coordinator

Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996) began his career as a physicist but then, as a post-doc, went over to the dark side and became a philosopher. It is for his work on the dark side that he became famous. Normally one assumes that when a scientist starts doing philosophy it is a sign of senility, but in his case it was too early in his career and his insights were actually useful (Yes, philosophy can be useful). His main contribution, in my opinion, was his introduction of the idea of the paradigm. A paradigm is the set of interlocking assumptions and methodologies that define a field of study. It provides the foundation for all work in the field and a common language for discourse. It is the fundamental model for the field and in historical studies is sometimes referred to as the controlling narrative.

If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘paradigm change,’ you would think that all paradigms do is change. But the idea of the paradigm is actually subversive – it helped undermine the “received view” of what science is and still undermines experimentalist’s attempts to eliminate theory (Which can’t be done, by the way!). Full disclosure: I am, or rather was, a theorist. Administration is even farther to the dark side than philosophy.

The concept of paradigm was introduced in contradistinction to the ideas of positivism that defined the “received view”. The positivists tried to work directly with observations and eliminate all metaphysics or model dependence. Kuhn, on the other hand, claimed the observations themselves are theory laden or model dependent.  You cannot, as a matter of principle, eliminate the metaphysics because the observation, or at least their interpretation, depends on the theory, model, or paradigm.  The paradigm sets the frameworks that gives meaning to the observations and frames the very questions that are considered worthy of addressing.  Examples of paradigms would be Aristotelian physics, classical physics, the standard model of particle physics, or the modern synthesis of evolution.

While paradigms do more than change but they do indeed change and when they do all—oops I cannot say that!—all heck breaks loose. Things one thought one knew and could rely on suddenly go poof. This going ‘poof’ was what the positivists tried and failed to get around by eliminating the models and working directly with the observations.

As Einstein (I like name dropping) pointed out, when paradigms change, it tends to be the most central parts of the previous paradigm that are eliminated. In Aristotelian physics, it was the fixed earth and the perfect heavens that Galileo destroyed with his telescope. Classical mechanics is built on Euclidean three-dimensional space and well-defined trajectories. Special and general relativity eliminated Euclidean geometry, and string theory, if correct, means space is not three-dimensional. Quantum mechanics eliminated the well-defined trajectories. This still causes some people sleepless nights but does not bother me since most of the time I do not know where I am or where I am going anyway. Evolution wrecked havoc with the concept of species. Before continental drift was accepted, a central concept of geology was the fixed continents. The examples are endless.

A side effect of this is that one cannot depend on the contents of the present theories or models to have any direct connection with reality.  The ether (electromagnetism), caloric (heat), phlogiston (fire), and mal air (medicine) that at one time were essential parts of the understanding of how the universe works were eliminated by new improved models. There is no guarantee that the contents of the current models will not be similarly eliminated.  Maybe we will find quarks disappearing or more likely, time, since it is apparently more fundamental.

So what is science and what is it good for if the basic concepts keep changing?  Well now, that is a good question.


– to be continued –