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Why Do Some Famous Materialist Scientists Hate Philosophy?

Philosopher of biology Massimo Pigliucci takes Richard Dawkins to task for dismissing philosophy but he might have said the same of Stephen Hawking

Massimo Pigliucci (pictured) makes clear that he is a naturalist (materialist) like zoologist Richard Dawkins. For example, he tells us that they crossed paths at a conference whose purpose was to promote naturalism (materialism):

Over four centuries of scientific progress have convinced most professional philosophers and scientists of the validity of naturalism: the view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.

Sean Carroll, “Moving Naturalism Forward (announcement)” at Preposterous Universe

So his response to Dawkins’s habit of talking down philosophy is meant as a friendly rebuke. But it is a rebuke. He starts by putting Dawkins in his place about his contributions to biology:

I have never seen eye-to-eye with Dawkins. I think his famous “selfish genes” view of evolution is too narrow. I maintain that his influential concept of memes is nothing but a misleading metaphor.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Richard Dawkins writes really silly things about science and philosophy” at Figs in Winter (March 8, 2021)

Indeed, those who think Dawkins has the last word on evolution have not read widely enough. The field is changing rapidly. Pigliucci also thinks that his critiques of religion are “crude and ineffective.” But soon he gets round to his main point:

But over the years the most annoying attitude that Dawkins has displayed, as far as I’m concerned, is his relentless criticism of philosophy, coupled with a hopelessly naive view of science. And this past weekend he’s done it again. I woke up Sunday morning to the following tweet: “Science is not a social construct. Science’s truths were true before there were societies; will still be true after all philosophers are dead; were true before any philosophers were born; were true before there were any minds, even trilobite or dinosaur minds, to notice them.” Now, I normally don’t bother responding to tweets, even of famous people. And I even more rarely write a whole essay about them, such as the one you are reading now. But Dawkins is too influential an author, and what he writes has serious potential to do harm, to both philosophy and science, so here it goes.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Richard Dawkins writes really silly things about science and philosophy” at Figs in Winter (March 8, 2021)

Pigliucci dissects Dawkins’s trite not-really-truisms sentence by sentence. Here’s just one:

“Science’s truths were true before there were societies.” This is very sloppy language. What he means is that the facts about the world that science studies are, presumably, mind-independent. Saturn would have rings regardless of whether Galileo ever trained his telescope toward the planet. But there are two important issues to consider here. First off, how scientists interpret the empirical evidence changes over time. Galileo initially thought that Saturn’s rings were satellites, because nobody had ever seen rings around a planet. Looking at the very same data, geologists once believed continents to be fixed, now they think they move. Physicists keep changing the way they think about the subatomic world. Indeed, that’s how science makes progress. “Truth,” whatever one means by that word, is at best approximated by science as a human activity. It is not immutable and perennial. Because truth too is a human construct.

Massimo Pigliucci, “Richard Dawkins writes really silly things about science and philosophy” at Figs in Winter (March 8, 2021)

Not only that but quantum mechanics shows that the basic particles that make up our universe only have a specific position when we measure them. Yes, the particles really exist. But what we understand about their existence is what we choose to measure. And once we are dealing with choices, we must account for them. That’s when we should start to hear from philosophy.

Philosophy isn’t just butting in. It’s more like this: We won’t make any sense of what we are seeing if we don’t start with some premises. To engage in clear thinking, we must examine them.

And the whole truth of anything may be more than what we choose to measure.

Stephen Hawking also attacked philosophy in his last book, The Grand Design (2010), authored with fellow theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow, prompting this response from a philosophy professor at Cardiff University:

… scientific theories – especially theories of the ultra-speculative kind that preoccupy theoretical physicists like Hawking – involve a great deal of covert philosophising which may or may not turn out to promote the interests of knowledge and truth. This had better be recognised if we are not to be taken in by a false appeal to the authority of science as if it possessed the kind of sheer self-evidence or indubitable warrant that could rightfully claim to evict ‘philosophy’ as a relic from the pre-scientific past.

Christopher Norris, “Hawking contra Philosophy” at Philosophy Now © 2011)

Pigliucci notes several other prominent scientists who have dismissed philosophy, including Neil deGrasse Tyson (“distracting”) and Larry Krauss (“science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”). Philosopher Patrick Stokes has called that “philosophy denialism,” riffing off the concept of “science denialism.”

Perhaps, he says, they should heed Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Pigliucci adapts a quotation from him: “philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind.”

It may be that some scientists ignore philosophy precisely because they do not wish to confront the fact that all observations depend on choices and once we talk about choices, we are talking philosophy. Does our philosophy measure up?


You may also wish to read: In quantum physics, “reality” really is what we choose to observe. Physicist Bruce Gordon argues that idealist philosophy is the best way to make sense of the puzzling world of quantum physics. The quantum eraser experiment shows that there is no reality independent of measurement at the microphysical level. It is created by the measurement itself.


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Why Do Some Famous Materialist Scientists Hate Philosophy?