Web edition: August 27, 2009
Print edition: September 12, 2009; Vol.176 #6 (p. 28)
Philosophers strike back
As someone who has taught philosophy of science and history of science for 30 years, I must take exception with Tom Siegfried’s editorial, “Philosophers don’t know what scientists can’t do” (SN: 7/18/09, p. 2). Of course, they don’t! But neither do scientists! Immanuel Kant and Auguste Comte were just as wrong about many things as their scientific contemporaries were. Categorical claims about the nature of the world and the nature of knowledge are risky and, as we know, often mistaken, but this is not the province of philosophers only.
David Boersema, Forest Grove, Ore.
Science News is my favorite journal of new observations and theories, and your weekly editorial is frequently my first stop. Your editorial, “Philosophers don’t know what scientists can’t do,” was exceptionally provocative. One might argue the subject ad nauseam.
Kant’s proclamation was disproved (according to current orthodox beliefs), yet Einstein could not have arrived at his conclusions without a philosophical outlook permitting him to think outside the box. Many forget Einstein’s struggle to be heard before his star ascended. The orthodox beliefs of the time categorically rejected his theories.
Today we face the same pigheadedness Einstein faced from those who now insist dark matter exists because galaxies would fly apart without its added gravitational attraction. In counterpoint to your editorial I suspect, “Scientists can’t progress without philosophers to question their reasoning.” Ignorance frequently dismisses empirical evidence, but it can also misinterpret it. Philosophers and scientists need each other, whether they like it or not.
As a philosopher and a scientist, we were astonished and then appalled to read “Philosophers don’t know what scientists can’t do.” Leaving aside the gratuitous hostility of the opening sentence (“Among many scientists, philosophers are regarded with suspicion, or even disdain”), the examples Siegfried brings to support his position are misreadings of philosophical tracts.
Kant, for example, when stating that “space must of necessity observe the rules of Euclidean geometry” was not concerned with space independent of human perception. He distinguished between the phenomena (appearances) and the noumena (essentially reality). Kant was making a point about how we perceive the natural world and not a claim about reality itself.
Similarly, Siegfried did not understand Comte’s apparent claim that we shall never know the composition of stars. In fact, in the very next sentence Comte wrote, “Whatever knowledge is obtainable by means of the sense of Sight, we may hope to attain with regard to the stars, whether we at present see the method or not.” Clearly this covers the later discoveries through spectroscopy and much else. His point was the limit of the senses, not the limits of technology or knowledge.
Too often we forget that foundational questions in science have a philosophical component, and that philosophers of science help create that structure in discourse with scientists. Editorialists in a widely read and respected science magazine should know better than to publish naïve impressions of what philosophers do and how they do it.
We are gratified that some philosophers read Science News (including the editor’s letter) and welcome expressions of other viewpoints. Certainly some philosophers have provided insightful observations about science and scientific methodology, even if much of the value of philosophy is derided by some scientists. As for the ex post facto defenses of Kant and Comte, though, their claims have been widely interpreted to be erroneous. Kant’s claim about the necessity of Euclidean space was supposedly an example of synthetic a priori “knowledge” (presumably about reality). I confess that it had not occurred to me to interpret Comte’s second sentence as contradicting the previous one, or that he somehow predicted the development of spectroscopy. In any event I first encountered these examples in a philosophy course (taught by a philosopher) as examples of famous philosophical errors. — Tom Siegfried
Pedantic but curious
I’m not normally this pedantic (OK, yes I am), but a phrase in “The star that ate a Mars” (SN: 7/18/09, p. 22) startled me. The planet’s remains were said to be bobbing in the “thin but dense” atmosphere of the white dwarf. Is the atmosphere also “hot but cold” or “black but white”?
Thin refers in this case to dimension, not degree of density. A white dwarf’s gravity pulls its atmosphere into a very thin layer on its surface — some say if Earth-type skyscrapers could exist there, they would stick through the layer into the near-vacuum of space. But the atmosphere is very dense. Another way to think of it: No matter how thin you pound a lump of lead with a hammer, it is still lead — and dense. — Charles Petit