Ep54 – Johnno Pearce – Skeptic Canary Show

This week we are joined by Johnno Pearce from A Tippling Philosopher to chat about philosophy! Questions we will be addressing include “Is it right for Dan Linker to call Neil deGrasse Tyson a philistine for his views on philosophy?”.

As always, we welcome questions from the audience before and during the show. You can get your questions in via Twitter or email tom at skepticcanary.com. See you here from 7pm this Wednesday May 14th!

One Comment

  1. sir_russ

    I do wish that the titular Jonathan Pearce, “Ep54 – Johnno Pearce – Skeptic Canary Show” had been permitted the opportunity to more fully clarify his thoughts and lay out his case for why Neil deGrasse Tyson should not advise physics(or other) students against the study of philosophy.

    I watched the entire episode looking specifically for some clear evidence or argument for philosophy being foundationally critical to the conduct of science, but I never saw it. Fincke tried to make a point about philosophy being important to the determination of semantics in science, but throughout this episode I witnessed three philosophers playing fast and loose with the definition of “philosophy.” At times, philosophy was “everything.” At other times, it was “talking about everything.” Philosophy was also given the appearance of being more well-defined in particular contexts like science or politics. There was even some definition-of-philosophy foot-shooting when it was intimated that if philosophy produces a useful outcome, that outcome then leaves the realm of philosophy and crosses over into science.

    If the three of you analyzed this podcast, “philosophically,” I think you might be more charitable toward the likes of Tyson or Krauss or Coyne or Dawkins. I think the three of you failed to make a case for the usefulness of philosophy, in general, and, in particular, you failed to show the relevancy of philosophy to the conduct of science. What you seemed to be reinforcing and reasserting more than anything else is that philosophy is an endless “talking about” and “evolving of” and “thinking about” ideas. If it is more than that shouldn’t you be able to demonstrate that point with concrete examples?

    In philosophy you ponder ethics, but does your pondering compel anyone? Well, no. You might offer up a one hundredth variation on the theme of ethics to a non-philosopher’s ninety nine. But, when someone acts in a way consistent with one of the philosophically-divined options on your list can you claim that it was philosophy having a causal affect? No. But, I suppose you can always claim an abstract trivial victory for things under the rubric ‘philosophy’ by appealing to the “philosophy is everything” definition.

    The three of you talked about philosophy being important for defining science, but then you acknowledged the many definitions for science. Mankind has been conducting science, and thinking generally, for tens of thousands of years, but it has only been in the most recent three millennia or so that third parties, in the forms called philosophers and their much uglier cousins the theologians, have sought to claim credit for what is in other people’s minds. Humans have been practicing the science – the thinking – of evolution for at least twenty thousand years. It was scientific thinking that allowed man to harness fire over 200 thousand years ago. But, no one would think of hunting for a philosopher to thank for those truly foundational contributions to all of us, except, of course, those operating under the assumption that, for some carefully chosen definition of philosophy, philosophy is implicit to every thought, permeating every neuron, like the Force from Star Wars.

    Much of the railing against philosophy by scientists really does derive from not wanting to be bound up with a discipline of the mind, which seems, ironically, so boundlessly undisciplined. Guilt by association? Certainly. But, think of how difficult it is to mine all that is today’s philosophy for what few specks of gold lie in the tons and tons of rubble. Look at how philosophy wants credit for science while it puts much more effort into undergirding anti-science bullshit – Christianities, Islams, New-Agers, psychics, paranormalists, quantum woo and quantum poo, too. Philosophy is a tool which allows respect and a sense of authority to be heaped onto any idea, completely indiscriminately. Philosophy is the universally right lipstick for any woo-monger’s pig. That philosophy will whore itself out to prop up both sides of a contradiction, should be a hint as to why some might want to keep their distance. Some of us look on philosophy’s claims the same way we look on religion’s: if any of its claims are shown to be true, useful, effective and reliable, the world will be informed by the media.

    I think each of you mentioned one or more scientist who has caught flack for being publicly unkind to philosophy. But, if science is actually dependent on philosophy, as you seem to think – that is, if philosophers do something more than just think and talk about science – then philosopher’s indignation is unwarranted. In fact, if the relationship really is one of dependence, then, that is an empirical claim, verifiable with something more than words and arguments. If science depends on philosophy, then a causal link should be demonstrated. Tyson, and all the rest, would be instantaneously silenced.

    I want to address the notion of philosophy as a waste of time.

    In Dan Dennett’s latest book “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” he addresses the tendency of philosophers to wade into the Philosophy Swamp, my term, not Dennett’s, and then remain forever or very long mired in it. From page 47:
    “Another clue: sometimes a problem gets started when somebody way back when said, ‘Suppose, for the sake of argument, that . . . ,’ and folks agreed, for the sake of argument, and then in the subsequent parry and thrust everybody forgot how the problem started! I think that occasionally, at least in my field of philosophy, the opponents are enjoying the tussle so much that neither side wants to risk extinguishing the whole exercise by examining the enabling premises.”

    Public perception of philosophy, according to the Public Philosophy Network, is similar to “Aristophanes’ view that philosophers remain “in the clouds,” incapable of doing publicly relevant.”

    As philosophers, perhaps you can tell me how it would be relevant to a physicist to discuss these sorts of ideas:

    Time isn’t real.
    Matter doesn’t exist.
    This is the best of all possible worlds.
    It is impossible to learn from experience.
    Women are less rational than men.

    That person who wants to make a contribution in, say, physics needs a good understanding of many diverse and complex subject areas. A student allocating time to concerns which are often equivalent to navel-gazing rather than things directly relevant to physics, reduces the likelihood that their mind will be readied to recognize a significant opportunity when it briefly shows itself.

    I think this former student of philosophy(http://www.stupididea.com/category/philosophy/ ) nicely encapsulates how academia elevates the perceived importance and relevance of philosophy, and how that does and should change with time and life experience.
    “…I have a liberal arts education and a master’s in philosophy. When these institutions have pushed me to read texts for class I’ve been set ablaze by their ideas, perhaps even going overboard in the degree to which I incorporated their outlooks (in college I was in turn a Stoic, then a Humeian, then a Kantian, then a Hegelian, then a Nietzschean). I found writing papers in graduate school — trying to understand the system of the work and setting up a controversy to hang a paper on — extremely satisfying, extremely fun. I liked the experience of becoming a mini-expert on some marginal issues in the systems of these heavy thinkers. To this day some chance comment might elicit from me an impromptu (and probably unwanted) discourse about Maimonides’ theory of scriptural interpretation or my understanding of the Absolute in Hegel. But time moves on, these institutions no longer terrorize my life, and I’m not reading these texts anymore. I hate what this says about me and about the original importance of those texts for me.”

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