Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

As much as I like what Philosopher Stephen Law does to debunk theism I still don’t think he gets science and empiricism.

Here is his page where he links to a video set in which he debates with Peter Atkins: Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science.

What I found astonishing is that in an earlier post Stephen said this, “Anyway, Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box, I think (though he’s obviously good at chemistry). Strong on assertion but remarkably weak on argument.”

On watching the video I found it to be that Stephen wasn’t being that sharp, with regard to science or philosophy.

Stephen’s statement that looking up Peter’s shirt to establish if Peter’s claim he has a cat up there is a simple observation and not empiricism makes me wonder what he thinks empricism is.

I made several comments on the post with the video, to which Steven hasn’t responded…

Observing Cat up Shirt = Empiricism

Thinking is done by scientists too!

Thinking alone is not enough (indded impossible) – Empiricism Rules!

The pessimism of philosophy v the optimism of science.

Confusion over the use of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

Weak philosophy used against religion.

The remainder of this post covers some of those points.

Philosophy v Science

The point was made by a member of the audience that science and the scientific method comes out of a philosophical position that looks to both our senses and our thinking for discovering what we can about the world in a rigorous manner, and yet accepts that this is a tentative philosophical position. Audience member Richard Dawkins also pointed out that, given we have got to this point of relying on science, science is the best we can do, and if science can’t solve it nothing can. So in that, philosophy has contributed to the position of science.

But from that point on I think we have to accept that some aspects of philosophy, such as armchair philosophy about the world, are no longer adequate and should be relegated to history, as are some older methods of science. That’s not to say that thinking alone is of no use; theoretical physicists do that. The important point is that if you are going to theorise only, you should base it on the experimental work that has been done by science. Many old philosophical problems have either been explained away or no longer matter; and I think Peter was objecting the type of philosophy that persists in rehashing dead ideas.

As was also pointed out, philosophy does not have a monopoly on critical thinking. In this respect then, even though the value of science may have come out of philosophical thinking, I think now it is the case that thinking is what philosophers do, and thinking and experimenting is what scientists do, and so all that philosophers do is now a sub-set of what scientists do, and an inadequate sub-set for discovering the nature of reality. Thinking alone may have appeared adequate pre-enlightenment; and it has produced all sorts of philosophical and theological nonsense (because both philosophy and theology use only thinking as a methodology).

Recognising Empirical Observations

Stephen asked if basic every day observation is science (e.g. cat-up-shirt: if Peter claims he has a cat up his shirt, Stephen merely has to look – i.e. Stephen thinks that isn’t ‘science’.), stating that he thinks it isn’t. But this is a conceptual barrier that has been constructed by theologians and philosophers of the past, and has associated with it other misconceptions about ‘other ways of knowing‘. As far as we can tell we sense and we think – that’s it. In fact, any materialist who accepts evolution as a representation of how humans came about must recognise that sensing came before thinking. All sorts of sensing capabilities, but basically physical or chemical, were developed first, and rudimentary nervous systems came along later and were able to co-ordinate the senses and motor activity. Only much later still did thinking as we know it come on to the scene.

So we are by nature empirical beings, with thinking as an add-on. And these two methodologies are all we have. The distinction then between science and non-science is only an arbitrary and quite vague one – particularly since the various branches of science use these methodologies to various extents, to the point that it is often debated whether some sciences are in fact sciences.

There is no real barrier between science and non-science. What we have is general ‘human knowledge acquisition‘(HKA)which consists of empirical interaction with the world, and the conceptual analysis of what we find. Science, as we like to think of it, using the ‘scientific method‘, is merely a more rigorous form of HKA that has developed further sub-methodologies to compensate for the fallibilities we have in our personal sensing and thinking.

One of the consequences of this is that science is still a fallible human activity; though it’s usually the non-scientists, particularly theologians, who think this relegates science to some lower form of HKA. But it is the best of all our HKA, and as was said by Dawkins, if science can’t do it nothing can.

Failing Philosophy

Peter, responding to a question in video 6, said

Our perceptual theatre is enormous, and goes far beyond a single human head.

This expresses the benefit of ‘science’ and the scientific method, and how it extends our fallible neurological capacity (as the questioner pointed out), our HKA in the hands of a single person, to use many people repeating tests, with instruments that extend our senses, using rigorous methods. In this sense the methodologies of science give us our best hope of finding out what makes the universe tick.

In this respect I think philosophy is out on a limb (though not as rotten a limb as theology) in that its core sub-methodology is thinking alone. Yes, some philosophers try to match their philosophy to empirical observation – but many have not, and some still do it badly. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to some philosophers is their ignorance of science (the philosophy duo the Churchlands have been pointing this out for some time with regard to the mind/body problem: philosophers need to keep up with neuroscience). Peter Atkins has a great understanding of the consequences of what science has discovered. Stephen’s comment on another post,

Atkins is not the sharpest philosophical pencil in the box

I think is misplaced. He gets plenty of the philosophy, but discards much of it as uninformative.

For all Stephen claims that philosophy is good at breaking down conceptual barriers I think it has actually constructed many unnecessarily. As Peter pointed out in several responses, philosophy complicates and muddles problems through vagueness and imprecision. Scientists are more adept at dealing with precision than I think philosophers are, particularly those scientists who are more precise in their use of language, in a way that acknowledges some of the difficulties. Many philosophers make problems out of nothing.

We Cannot Yet Know What We Cannot Know

Stephen’s objection to answering questions about what caused the big bang, the appeal to the laws of nature, and so on, I think misses the point. It’s quite conceivable that science will ‘know‘ (i.e. have good theories about) what was required for a universe to appear. It’s too early to say this is beyond science, simply because science isn’t close to either knowing the answer or yet even understanding the problem. This exemplifies the pessimism of philosophy as opposed to the optimism of science. Science isn’t prepared to put a limit on what we can come to know, because we can’t know what we cannot know. Stephen seems to be claiming that there are things we cannot know simply because we don’t currently understand the problem area, because we don’t yet know enough to formulate the right questions.

What makes him think science will run out of steam? What is the philosophical reasoning behind this? Is it just a hunch? Granted, there my be some vast amount of information we would like to have about what is ‘outside‘ our universe that drives our universe into existence, and granted, there may not be enough time for humans or post-humans to develop science to the point where this information could be exposed and understood. But it’s still too early to say. I find it difficult to conceive the capacity of post-humans to acquire knowledge about the universe, its origins, its exterior. It’s roughly 2.5 millennia since the early ideas of the Greek philosophers were recorded. What will we know 2.5 millennia from now? And 25 millennia?

Past v Future Not Optimism v Pessimism

It seems to me that it’s not only optimism v pessimism that distinguishes science from philosophy, but looking to the future rather than the past. I think science does better than philosophy in some respects because it seems prepared to posit ideas that philosophers are reluctant to entertain. Stephen grimaced at Peter’s suggestion that a better way of considering how (or why) something came from nothing, might be that we should consider how ‘nothing‘ came to be rearranged so that ‘something‘ became apparent. There’s a danger that philosophy is restricted by misconceptions, ‘a priori‘ assumptions that need to be challenged. Seems like scientists are better at philosophy than philosophers in this respect.

Evil Misconceived

Stephen made something of this notion:

There’s a lot of good stuff and some bad stuff?

I find this a very weak philosophical position. There is no reason to think that anything at all is either good or bad in any sense other than the psychological perceptual one; the sense that humans make of this stuff. A medium size fish is good stuff for a bigger predator, but bad stuff for smaller prey. There is nothing inherently bad about volcanoes or earthquakes – it’s just some particular animals don’t like them when they go off nearby; and, in fact, these forces of nature were probably crucial to the formation of life on this planet, and so in that sense they are good for us. Being able to dismantle the religious claims for a good God hasn’t been helped by philosophy, but by the science that has explained the processes that go on in the accumulation of life on this planet. Left to philosophy alone we’d still be debating the wilfulness of the god of volcanoes.

Seeing God

Stephen also thinks this is a philosophically justified statement:

“…I can be pretty sure that isn’t behind the screen…”

Empirically we can be pretty sure, because we’ve come across no evidence. Philosophically we cannot be sure, because, being behind the screen, we don’t know all the conditions that pertain that might make the world the way it is. It’s quite possible that there is a God and that our parochial psychological perception of him is all wrong, that he did create everything but good and bad are uninteresting terms to him, only being of interest to us, or as theologians often put it, there is good in what we see as bad, we just don’t understand why.

Weak Philosophy

Stephen again:

“There are consequences of there being a being like that and the world just wouldn’t look like this.”

This is a another pretty weak philosophical argument that can only be used against the most literal and trivial of religious beliefs.

“If you can show that that belief is false that easily…”

But Stephen hasn’t shown that. He only shows that alternative views can be constructed, which destroys the logical certainty of the main ‘good God‘ belief; it doesn’t actually show it to be false.

Stephen still doesn’t get it:

“It’s hardly science, is it.”

It’s more science than philosophy. The point Peter is making is that philosophy itself is weak here, because we can imagine pretty much any scenario to explain away an opponent’s argument, whichever side of the fence we are on – and philosophically that’s precisely what’s been happening for thousands of years with no progress.

It’s basic empiricism that’s allowing us to move away from this impasse and say, well, this is the most concrete evidence we have for non-belief, and there is no evidence for the content of God belief, so we use materialism, naturalism, physicalism as the working model or reality.

And it’s this mantle that science has taken up, the development of this basic empiricism into the scientific method, that sets science above philosophy or theology as our best route to understanding the world. Not perfect, not that it has discovered all there is, as is often implied, but that it’s the best method we have.


Update 2017-02-13 – Stephen Law still doesn’t get it. See Coel’s blog post on Law’s draft chapter for Univ. Chicago Press volume Science Unlimited (eds. Pigliucci and Boudry):

On Stephen Law on Scientism

3 thoughts on “Philosopher Stephen Law Doesn’t Get Science

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