Science and the Arts

by Henry on June 30, 2004

From Mike “M. John.” Harrison:

bq. The difference between Berkeleyism and superstrings is that the latter will eventually test out or be chucked on the rubbish heap of ideas that looked good but weren’t good. The project of science differentiates itself from the projects of philosophy or religion, or even politics, precisely by the size of its rubbish heap.

Discuss.

{ 24 comments }

1

jimbo jones 06.30.04 at 9:54 pm

I’d just add…and the confidence with which we can toss some things there.

2

jimbo jones 06.30.04 at 9:54 pm

I’d just add…and the confidence with which we can toss some things there.

3

jimbo jones 06.30.04 at 9:54 pm

I’d just add…and the confidence with which we can toss some things there.

4

Brian Weatherson 06.30.04 at 10:12 pm

Since among active philosophers (at least ones of my acquaintance) Berkleyan idealism *has* been tossed on the rubbish heap it’s not entirely clear that this is the best example on which to base a science/philosophy distinction. Perhaps there are lots of hidden Berkleyan idealists out there who exist even when I’m not perceiving them, but from where I stand the philosophy rubbish heap looks pretty large indeed.

5

bob mcmanus 06.30.04 at 10:23 pm

I was going to ask this below on the Rawls thread. For professional philosophers, I guess Schopenhauer is fairly laughable and the Tractatus largely refuted and superseded.

And yet there is still people like me, whatever that group is, who reads them, and not only as literature. And I doubt I would find Quine, Grice, Davidson as enjoyable or in some sense, as useful. Does this make me a Philistine or psuedo-intellectual?

6

Kip Manley 06.30.04 at 10:41 pm

Rubbish heaps grow as much due to the passing of fads as to rigorous testing-and-chucking. There’s some mighty big slag heaps under the windows of UFOlogists, magi, and literary critics, after all. (Perhaps, instead, the metric ought to be the frequency with which practitioners dive into said trash heaps to pull out something once outmoded, brush it off, and reclaim it? Not that it doesn’t happen in your “harder” sciences, too, but markedly less frequently, is my guess.)

7

Tim 06.30.04 at 10:48 pm

Brian points out that the rubish heap in philosophy is larger than is usually supposed; I’d like to add that the rubbish heap in science may be smaller than is often supposed. Many philosophers of science have recently come to endorse the idea that there have been very few widely accepted, testable theories in established sciences in the past few centuries that have been fundamentally wrong. Of course, it often turns out that the accepted theory was missing some important details: e.g. early propontents of atomic theory did not know what atoms were made of, but they had the right idea. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few serious blunders, but among widely accepted scientific theories, the phlogiston theory may be the exception rather than the rule.

I believe that the locus classicus of this view is a book by Stathis Psillos called _Scientific Realism_; he deals with a lot of historical examples in depth.

Of course, the notion that it’s the size of the rubbish heapof wrong theories–as opposed to the body of evidence we have for currently accepted theories–that justifies our belief in the truth of science reeks of Popperianism, a view that many would consider a denizen of the philosophical rubbish heap.

8

Tim 06.30.04 at 10:49 pm

Brian points out that the rubish heap in philosophy is larger than is usually supposed; I’d like to add that the rubbish heap in science may be smaller than is often supposed. Many philosophers of science have recently come to endorse the idea that there have been very few widely accepted, testable theories in established sciences in the past few centuries that have been fundamentally wrong. Of course, it often turns out that the accepted theory was missing some important details: e.g. early propontents of atomic theory did not know what atoms were made of, but they had the right idea. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few serious blunders, but among widely accepted scientific theories, the phlogiston theory may be the exception rather than the rule.

I believe that the locus classicus of this view is a book by Stathis Psillos called _Scientific Realism_; he deals with a lot of historical examples in depth.

Of course, the notion that it’s the size of the rubbish heapof wrong theories–as opposed to the body of evidence we have for currently accepted theories–that justifies our belief in the truth of science reeks of Popperianism, a view that many would consider a denizen of the philosophical rubbish heap.

9

q 06.30.04 at 10:50 pm

That is one reason that makes Berkeleyism good! Everyone can benefit from studying Berkeleyism. Much fewer will benefit from studying superstrings.

10

joe 06.30.04 at 10:57 pm

Bob,

The Tractatus’ “picture-theory” of language was abandoned by Witt. in favor of his later “game-theory”. (Stephen Toulmin’s _Wittgenstein’s Vienna_ is perhaps the most accessible overview.) Quine, Grice and Davidson et al are currently “fashionable” not only on the merits of their arguments but also because they were better teachers than Wittgenstein, and more effective at publicizing their work within the academic community via networking and so on. This sort of thing is unavoidable and should not be superficially condemned. (The only people whose ideals are shocked by such things are, by definition, pseudo-intellectuals.)

If you find merit in Wittgenstein you should read George Lakoff. Not all of what was once “philosophy” is done today by “professional philosophers”. Lakoff is allegedly a linguist. Pretty soon some young hotshot will link the two in a thesis, and if he networks properly there will be a new fashion … one way or another Wittgenstein will eventually get his due.

You can probably also still find interest in Schopenhauer among some Lit Crit/Crit Theory/Etc. types as part of their ritual flogging of the dead horse that is Hegel, but I don’t recommend this.

11

harry 06.30.04 at 11:01 pm

Bob,

read Brian O’ Shaughnessy’s work — particularly The Will – A Dual Aspect Theory, if you can find it. Profoundly influenced by Schopenauer. And BOS is still widely well thought of, I think. Rightly so, in my view, though its all out of my area of expertise.

12

harry 06.30.04 at 11:03 pm

Bob,

read Brian O’ Shaughnessy’s work — particularly The Will – A Dual Aspect Theory, if you can find it. Profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer. And BOS is still widely well thought of, I think. Rightly so, in my view, though its all out of my area of expertise.

13

John Landon 06.30.04 at 11:07 pm

I find cavalier the attitude of modern science towards the ‘rubbish heap’ of philosophy. Strange arrogance? As to Berkeley or Schopenhauer, they bring to mind old Kant, now the object of Rortyean scorn for his foundationalism. If I recall Kant challenged the foundationalism of metaphyscial systems and of empiricism built in.

What is to decide all of this? Darwin’s theory of evolution, that metaphysical research program, which generalizes about a totality without observing it, a prime candidate for the charge of metaphysics? We can see the lowball get underway with Dewey’s ‘seminal’ capitulation to Darwin. This new foundationalism is more outrageous than anything from rational psychology, theology, and the rest This refers to Darwin’s theory, not the fact of evolution.
Hmm, didn’t Bohm find the theory of relativity confirmation of the Kantian ‘limit’, the boundary of the phenomenal? Physicists are rightly terrified of quantum mechanics, and it requires almost constant suppression of the obvious suggestion of severe ‘reality’ problems. see page xv of N. Herbert’s diagram of Benjamin Bunny getting strapped down for a reality check by the ‘Professor’.

And as for (early) Wittgenstein, he seems to state the problem precisely at the dawn of the logical positivist spree, a tad Schopenhaurish.

14

joe 06.30.04 at 11:18 pm

Harry – if there is compelling contemporary stuff that draws on Schopenhauer, marvelous! I regret my Lit Crit/etc pigeonhole.

John – Logical Positivism began as the Vienna Circle’s attempt to turn the Tractatus into a research program. Wittgenstein was so appalled by their “misunderstanding” of his work that he left the academy and wrote nothing for many years.

15

Shai 07.01.04 at 1:08 am

heh, that’s a funny, if inaccurate story joe.

so, anyway, you could go in any number of directions with Henry’s quote. it’s basically saying that science, despite embarrassments such as phlogiston and phrenology, proceeds by a method which is more likely to arrive at truth, knowledge and all that.

But it’s a bit of a non sequitur because (i) science can’t replace politics or philosophy, (ii)science is influenced by politics and philosophy*, and politics and philosophy are sensitive to facts, including scientific facts.

now religion does tend to follow the method of authority, but it is nevertheless sensitive to science, politics, philosophy, everyday life

* the author may need an exorcism because he seems to be possessed by the late, great ideas of karl popper, a philosopher

16

Shai 07.01.04 at 1:14 am

In addition to aspects of string theory, m-theory, whatever, there are deterministic versions of quantum mechanics which are consistent but untestable for the forseeable future. this is not really a concern because we possess the concept of “degrees of belief”

17

Adam Kotsko 07.01.04 at 1:19 am

I can think of view areas of inquiry with a larger rubbish heap than Christian theology, but I have yet to meet anyone who has been persuaded of Christianity because of the number of heretics that have been excluded down through the years.

18

Kieran Healy 07.01.04 at 4:06 am

One of the things that’s on the philosophy rubbish heap is the thing that motivated Harrison to make his claim — the effort to formulate a rule that decisively distinguishes science from non-science. The Demarcation Problem (as it’s known) occupied philosophers of science through to the 1980s, but has been pretty much given up on since then. Ironic, really.

19

Jim Birch 07.01.04 at 5:54 am

I thought Berkeleyism was still taught because not as a practical guide on how to cook eggs but because it is illuminates a wide range of issues like perception, knowledge theory, theology, semiotics, and so on. In a round-about way it gives an insight into the modern political strategy of repeating lies until they become truth.

String theory currently is a bit short on practical consequences at present too, and, in future could well be supplanted by new, better or more elegant approaches in mathematical physics.

20

Randolph Fritz 07.01.04 at 8:35 am

And yet, and yet…

In 1796, Georges Cuvier argued that extinctions had occurred, thereby
showing us deep time. In 1828, Wholer synthesized urea, thereby
showing that living systems were not required to synthesize organic
chemicals. In 1838 Bessell determined the distance to 61 Cygni,
showing us deep space.

It is hard to escape the historical reality that the critical engagement with the physical that is at the heart of the sciences has utterly transformed philosophy. Surely someone dreamed of the depths of time before Cuvier. But it took “science”, whatever that is, to make it real to most thinkers.

I think Harrison is wrong. And yet his error points at a truth. There is something powerful in “science”, though it is hard to say just what that is.

21

john c. halasz 07.01.04 at 10:12 am

But yesterday’s thoroughly criticized and discredited ideas in philosophy are tommorrow’s bright new ideas in psychology!

Surely philosophy’s quondam relevance for the conduct of life can not have been forgotten in the mounting strata of academicism? It hardly seems to me that such a concern is fit for the rubbish heap, no matter how fantastical it has become…

22

Thomas Dent 07.01.04 at 10:15 am

I believe G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” used the idea that one great thing about the Church was its ability to avoid a myriad heresies and stick to the one orthodox Truth.

I don’t know whether he considered the fact that if any of the heresies had been accepted as orthodox, and vice versa, he would be saying exactly the same thing.

Or perhaps he saw the success and longevity of the Church as proof of its orthodoxy. In which case, Judaism should be still more orthodox.

Question: How does religious orthodoxy differ from philosophical orthodoxy (if such a thing exists) and scientific orthodoxy?

23

joe 07.01.04 at 5:47 pm

“Orthodoxy” creates heresies. Create one category and you create the other. The “one great thing about the Church” is that it creates these categories. What’s in them hardly matters.

John Rawls and G.E. Moore are good examples of significant philosophers whose work was neither intuitively convincing or even particularly interesting, but had all the features necessary to produce a successful orthodoxy. The elements of their work touch on all the main procedural questions of their day and provide examples which usefully clarify the possible approaches to those questions. As a result, anybody “coming to the table” can line themselves up for or against different points of the orthodoxy, and the whole enterprise is much simplified by a common terminology. These guys often are excellent teachers as well, which means they produce lots of students who do well and have an easy time networking, etc.

Unfortunately people forget, or never learn, the significance of these operational considerations, with the extremely unfortunate result that the content of these philosophers’ work is taken seriously long after they are dead and gone and their contemporary procedural questions are no longer relevant. Aristotle is the worst example.

24

agm 07.03.04 at 12:12 am

Re: John Landon

The idea of quantized physical quantities is now a permanent fixture in the description of the physical world. The only thing that terrifies physicists about quantum mechanics is learning how to use its mathematical tools (and the even more daunting tools of its offspring, such as QCD) and designing experiments that measure what you think you’re measuring. The idea of a quantum is no more terrifying than the idea of a dollar being made of a hundred cents. Which erases none of the wonder of it all.

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