Friday, March 11, 2016

Science Guy Misunderstands Philosophy

Bill Nye (The "Science Guy") has blithely wandered onto some thin metaphysical ice. A video of him responding to a young philosophy major's question about the importance of philosophy elicited a response that has a lot of philosophers shaking their heads.
I addressed this very topic in a post last summer titled Does Science Need Philosophy? (8/21/15) and thought it might be appropriate to run it again in response to Nye's video:

It seems to be something of a trend lately for materialists, particularly materialist scientists, to denigrate philosophy. Cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss are two recent examples. Hawking even went so far as to pronounce philosophy dead in his book The Grand Design.

I wonder if one of the subconscious reasons for their disdain for philosophy is that these scientists and others are writing books claiming that science pretty much makes belief in God untenable, but they're finding that philosophers who critique their arguments are showing them to be embarrassingly unsophisticated. The animus against philosophy may derive from personal chagrin suffered at the hands of philosopher-critics.

Be that as it may, Hawking and Krauss, for all their brilliance, are astonishingly unaware of the philosophical faux pas that pervades their own writing.

Krauss, for example, made the claim in his book A Universe from Nothing that the universe emerged spontaneously out of a mix of energy and the laws of physics which he calls "nothing." Thus God is not necessary to account for the universe. Of course, this is a semantic sleight-of-hand since if the cosmos was produced by energy and physical laws then there was not "nothing," there was "something," and we're confronted with the mystery of how this energy and these laws came about.

Hawking declared philosophy "dead" in the early pages of his book and then spent a good part of the rest of the book philosophizing about realist and anti-realist views of the universe and the existence of a multiverse.

It's ironic that physicists like Hawking and Krauss would be so willing to deprecate philosophy since their own discipline is infused with it. Every time physicists talk about the multiverse or the nature of time or space or their own naturalistic assumptions about reality, they're doing metaphysics. When they talk about knowledge, cause and effect, the principle of sufficient reason, the principle of uniformity, or the problem of exactly what constitutes the scientific enterprise (the demarcation problem), they're doing philosophy. Whenever they discuss the ethics required of scientists in conducting and reporting their researches or express awe at the beauty of their equations, they're doing philosophy.

The entire discipline of science presupposes a host of philosophical assumptions like the trustworthiness of our senses and of our reason, the orderliness of the universe, the existence of a world outside our minds, etc. Yet these thinkers seem to be oblivious to the foundational role philosophy plays in their own discipline. Indeed, science would be impossible apart from axiomatic philosophical beliefs such as those listed above.

Science tells us the way the physical world is, but as soon as the scientist starts to draw conclusions about what it all means he or she is doing philosophy. It's inescapable. There's a bit of a joke at Uncommon Descent about this. It goes like so:
Scientist: "Why does philosophy matter?"
Philosopher: "I don't know, why does science matter?"
Scientist: "Well, because scie...."
Philosopher: "Annnnnnnd you are doing philosophy."
There's more on how science is inextricably infused by philosophy here.