Brian Bi

Is it common among scientists to scorn philosophy? (Also titled: "Why do some scientists (e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking) seem to dislike philosophy?")

I'm not a scientist, but I'm very interested in science and I think my point of view is shared by many scientists.

Most scientists don't dislike philosophy. They dislike philosophers who do some or all of the following:
  1. assert that philosophy is necessary to logically justify methodological naturalism
  2. present seemingly meaningless philosophical problems as more important than scientific problems (note that not all philosophical problems are seemingly meaningless)
  3. submit philosophical "truths" as relevant in any way to scientific fact.

To the extent that ethics can be considered within the purview of philosophy, I would say that most scientists respect at least some parts of philosophy. To the extent that philosophy helps us understand which scientific problems are worth working on, I would say that most scientists even use philosophy. However, they are likely to maintain a strict separation of philosophy of science, which philosophers seem reluctant to accept.

Point 1: We are sick of hearing about the problem of induction. Seriously. We don't care whether you think induction is logically justifiable or not. I don't think I can give a justification of the type that would satisfy philosophers, and, frankly, I don't care whether they're satisfied or not.

Point 2: These are problems like:
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Does objective reality exist?
  • Does essence precede existence, or vice versa?
I have a very hard time seeing how these problems are at all relevant to anything at all, and I imagine many scientists do as well. I'm not saying they necessarily are meaningless. Insofar as any problem is capable of generating discussion, it has some intellectual value. However, I think it's terribly hard to justify an assertion that they're somehow more worthwhile, or even equally worthwhile, as the most important open problems in science.

Not that this assertion is made explicitly, of course, but somehow it almost seems like philosophers are mocking us. Oh, so you know what happened in the first few instants after the Big Bang, but you don't know why there is a universe at all?

Another example is that, if a scientist says they are concerned only with objective fact, a philosopher might respond, how can you define "objective" without philosophy? (*)

Point 3 is perhaps the most significant of all. Scientists know that science is fundamentally empirical, and that experiment is the final arbiter of scientific truth. Scientists do not appreciate the intrusion of philosophical inquiry based on "pure reason" into scientific inquiry.

Now, it's true that a lot of scientific work is theoretical rather than experimental. That's okay, because this theoretical work is still constrained by and guided by experiment. For example, we do not consider theories in which particles can travel faster than the speed of light, unless we can also explain why we haven't observed any particles travelling faster than the speed of light. However, in 2011, when scientists at OPERA reported neutrinos apparently travelling faster than the speed of light, the scientific community responded by proposing exactly that sort of theory.

But the history of science is littered with misguided philosophical arguments. Perhaps the best example of all was the refusal to accept evolution because it conflicted with the notion that humans are somehow special and that we could not have arisen through the same natural processes that produced other species. For a more extensive list of examples and discussions, consult the chapter The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Philosophy in Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg.

Philosophers should know better by now.

(*) Yes, this has actually been said to me before, during an argument with a philosophy person over Point 1.