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Mark Perakh's Web Site

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Nonsensical statements?

By Mark Perakh

Posted on July 30, 2012

In his post on the Panda's Thumb blog (PT) titled "In defense of philosophy of science" (see www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/12/in-defense-of-p.html) John M. Lynch referred to a quotation from my earlier post (see www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/12/philosopher-rus.html) calling it a "profoundly nonsensical statement". Then philosopher of science John Wilkins provided a rather detailed response to my short post (see www.talkreason.org/articles/attacks.cfm). Wilkins's opinion of my post is also rather unflattering (with a consequent apology for being "testy"). Lynch's contemptuous remark was not the most extreme - another PT contributor, Steve Matheson, appears to be an even more invective-prone commenter. In a brief comment (of December 22, 2010) Matheson called my post "incoherent" and "idiotic."

There is nothing new for me in encountering rude personal attacks. In the nineties, when I was heavily involved in debunking the so-called Bible code, I and other "code busters" often received "love-letters" full of hatred, threats, predictions that we'd burn in hell, etc. When, around 1998, I switched to revealing the lack of scientific substance in the output of such luminaries of ID as Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells and Co., a shower of insults from the ID proponents followed. The insults rarely were ingenious. The most Dembski could invent was to name me "Boris Yeltsin of Higher Learning," whatever this supposedly denigrating appellation meant. Epithets like "hypocrite," stupid," and "dense," flowed from ID sites regularly. Obviously, resorting to names calling, in which ID adherents seemed to find an endless source of amusement, testified to the lack of real arguments, thus compelling those IDists to use the same pejorative words time and time again.

However, receiving vehement denunciations sprinkled with insults from our own side seems a new experience for me. Why are Lynch, Matheson and Wilkins so enraged by my statement denying the usefulness of the philosophy of science for practicing scientists? Such a statement is far from new. In fact, making such a statement, I was in good company. Very similar notions have been offered many times before, some of them by very prominent scientists, including Feynman, Weinberg, and others. Many years ago, while attending a seminar conducted by the famous theoretical physicist Lev Landau, I witnessed the following episode. Some student asked Landau's opinion of that student's paper. Landau, known for his penchant for acerbic comments, answered, "My dear friend, you never will be a scientist, at best a philosopher of science." Since it was more than half a century ago, I can't vouch for the exact wording of Landau's statement, but the gist of it I remember very well.

The famous physicist Richard Feynman suggested the following notion (see www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1429989.Richard_P_Feynman?page=2): "Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong."

The following comment is also attributed to Feynman: (see www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1429989.Richard_P_Feynman?page=1 ): "Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds."

And here is what another great physicist, Steven Weinberg, like Feynman and Landau, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote about the philosophy of science (see depts.washington.edu/ssnet/Weinberg_SSN_1_14.pdf): "…we should not expect it to provide today's scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find."

If we want to believe Lynch, both Feynman and Weinberg made "profoundly nonsensical statements," and if we want to believe Matheson, both Feynman's and Weinberg's views are "incoherent" and "idiotic."

True or false, the notion that invoked such an emotional rejection from Matheson, Lynch and Wilkins has been in circulation for a long time, and has been shared by people who obviously are neither idiots nor "incoherent."

Now a few words regarding what I really meant to say. I suspect that my term "entertaining ability" as I applied it to the philosophy of science, was misinterpreted. I did not mean it to be a derogatory term. Entertaining ability has after all a significant value. Moreover, our society seems to value entertainment well over science. Just compare the rewards our society offers for scientific work and for entertainment. The latter is immensely higher than the former, both money-wise and fame-wise. What I meant to say was that philosophy of science has an entertaining ability, and thus is valuable in its own right, but it is nevertheless of little help for the work of a practicing scientist. Of course, readers may disagree with that notion, but does such a disagreement justify the use of words like "profoundly nonsensical," "idiotic," and "incoherent"?

Musicology certainly has an entertaining value – otherwise books by musicologists would not find readers prepared to pay for the privilege of reading them. Has a single composer ever needed to read a book on musicology prior to starting composing a symphony? Musicology is of no help for composing good music. This is just a statement of a simple fact, not implying at all that musicology has no value in general. Its value, however, is not in providing advice to composers, say to Rachmaninov, as to how to compose his beautiful piano concertos. It has a value in its own right, while being useless for practicing composers. Saying that in no way denigrates musicology in general, but just reflects a particular observation regarding musicology's role. Replace "musicology" with "philosophy of science," and "composers" with "practicing scientists" and I see here the obvious analogy.

Some of the commenters to my post recommend I " read some philosophy," some of them naming the authors I should read, like Kuhn, Popper, and Lakatos. Thanks for the advice. I have already read all three of them, plus many others, even including the blab of Steve Fuller. Some of it I enjoyed, some found boring. Moreover, in my own writing I could not escape the trap of appearing an amateurish philosopher of science. (See, for example, the chapter "Science in the Eyes of a Scientist" in my book "Unintelligent Design.")

There are philosophers of science whose work I admire. A good example is Elliot Sober – I view his articles as excellent examples of logic, adherence to facts, and eloquence. This does not mean, though, that solving, say, a problem of calculating stress in a magnetic thin film can be somehow helped by Sober's papers. In that sense I stated that philosophy of science is not helpful for practicing scientists. And I see no reason to apologize for such a view.

Besides the comments to my post on PT, I also received private messages from some professional philosophers of science who felt offended by my opinion and demanded some clarification. Hopefully the above text has provided such a clarification.

My thanks to Matt Young and Paul Gross for pithy, friendly, and helpful comments.