Philosophy that ignores science risks impotence

English: The first lecture in Experimental Phi...

The first lecture in Experimental Philosophy in 1748. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Peter Hankins has a post up reviewing Harold Langsam’s new book, ‘The Wonder of Consciousness‘.  While the book sounds interesting (Hankins describes it as philosophically dense, so I probably won’t read it), something bothered me while reading Hankins’s review.

It was the idea that we can determine things about the world without looking at it, that a-priori knowledge is enough, and that scientific information doesn’t have to be taken into account.  This isn’t explicitly stated, but it seemed  implied to me.  I get the idea that Langsam is annoyed by all that science invading his turf, and just wants to get back to good old fashioned philosophy.  (To be fair, I’m sure his position is far more nuanced that that.)

The idea that philosophy can proceed, without accounting for the latest scientific findings, is one I sometimes observe as an implicit assumption, and it strikes me as hazardously insular.  Hopefully readers of this blog know that I’m both pro-philosophy and pro-science.  Using a-priori reasoning based on what we do know can provide important insights.  Insights that science can’t provide, and in some cases may never be able to provide.

But philosophical logic is only as good as its premises, and to be good, those premises need to be based on the best of what is known, not just what is commonly known.  If you’re doing philosophy of mind, you should be broadly up to speed, at least at a layman’s level, on neuroscience and psychology.  If you’re doing ethics, you should be following psychological, sociological, anthropological, and other relevant fields of research.  And if you’re doing metaphysics, you should be knowledgable of the relevant scientific fields.

If you’re going to philosophize from your armchair, unless your subject matter is the remotest of metaphysics, that armchair better have some relevant and up to date science books by it.  Otherwise your philosophical conclusions may be dated right from the outset.

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8 Responses to Philosophy that ignores science risks impotence

  1. Great post – I’d love to read the book to find out a little more clearly what’s going on (reading philosophically dense things is my bag), but I’ve got some initial thoughts.

    As a philosopher by trade (though I really don’t think of myself as “a philosopher”, as I’m much more historically minded), I love science. I love to think about it, read about, find the overlaps, I love when scientists take an idea that was originally in the purview of philosophy seriously, I love to think about technology, everything. I think that college students should be required to take a history of science, or general introduction to the sciences as part of their core curriculum in order to get them more excited and interested in science. I’ll also say that I completely agree with you that academic philosophy needs a lot more science in it – but you’ve covered that extremely well in your post, so I won’t rehash that part.

    What I don’t love is when scientists pick up on an idea that’s been directly addressed by philosophers for decades, centuries, even millennia, and then act like it’s a brand new idea. I mentioned this blithely in a recent post about the connection between thought and language, where I cited an article that attributed the very notion that there could be a connection to a scientist in 1940 and acted like it became some kooky new trend, but I see it in other places. I recently saw another article that acted like scientists in the late 90s had “discovered” benevolent sexism and proudly proclaimed “Science now has a name for it!” when philosophers have been discussing this since the dawn of feminist philosophy. I always feel a little confused by these articles as I read through, waiting for the discovery.

    That’s not to say I want scientists to step away from what had previously been philosophical, but I do get annoyed when scientists and science writers flat out ignore extremely relevant work that had been done before on the exact same topic, with the exact same findings, as if there could be nothing gained by looking – perhaps this is what Langsam means? It happens within philosophy as well – there’s a whole new resurgence of metaphysics that’s tackling questions of the connection between ontology and epistemology like they’re brand new, and my colleagues who also work in ancient and medieval philosopher all kind of look at each other and say – huh? Isn’t that what we’ve been doing all this time?

    Again, I haven’t read Langsam’s book, so I don’t know that’s what he means, but sometimes I do feel frustrated that philosophers and philosophical historians don’t have a seat at the table when “real scientists” are “discovering” things that have been chewed over and argued about and refined for hundreds of years.

    To be fair, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and neuroscience have done a wonderful job reaching “across the aisle” as it were to work together to examine the empirical evidence alongside the logical possibilities. It’s not perfect ( but there’s a lot more effort being made at conversation than in other realms, as far as I can see.


    • I agree 100%. It’s unfortunate that so many scientists are not philosophically literate. And I’ve observed before that I think the scientists whose work is closest to philosophy tend to be the most dismissive of philosophy as a whole, largely as a defensive mechanism.

      Along the lines of your observations, I think that philosophy needs to do better outreach. Too many people see it as metaphysical tail chasing and not relevant to their lives. I think philosophers should look for every opportunity to be relevant.

      Another issue that I perceive, and this is something they share with economics, is that the profession tolerates too many kooks. People who are really theologians, or who blithely ignore scientific evidence, that wouldn’t get professional credentials in the natural sciences, are tolerated in the profession, which I think hurts its credibility.

      Anyway, as always, excellent observations. Thanks!


      • Agree with everything you say – if there’s something that frustrates me more than scientists and philosophers ignoring each other, its philosophers within their own circles being fooled by opaque nonsense, assuming that because they can’t understand something, it must be brilliant.


  2. Math is an interesting comparison. Math is pursued as a purely intellectual activity, yet has produced results that apply to the physical world. This is most surprising in cases where the development was divorced from real world concerns, yet unexpectedly found a real world application.

    So why is math seen to have succeeded at this while philosophy appears to have largely failed? Notice my weasel words; I’m open to the possibility that some of the successes and/or failures are illusory.


    • That’s a good question. I think it has something to do with the fact that mathematical conclusions are generally universally accepted or rejected. And accepted mathematical conclusions often turn out to be powerfully useful in science and engineering. In other words, it turns out to be reliable precise knowledge. In that sense, math has an advantage over not just philosophy, but science as well.

      Contrast that with philosophical conclusions. How many are universally accepted? How many turn out to be reliable knowledge? Of course, it could be argued that the “easy” problems long ago got factored off into other fields, leaving philosophy with the hardest most intractable ones. The ones without precise determinable answers.


      • But why would mathematical conclusions be generally universally accepted or rejected?

        I wonder if the difference between math and philosophy are the subjects studied? That math is philosophy applied to subjects that are amenable to reason (fully known) while “regular” philosophy is applied to objects that are too complex and have too many unknowns to subject themselves to such analysis?

        In fact, math seems to acknowledge that it studies ideas, while philosophy tries to study “reality”. Some mental objects seem amenable to purely mental means.


        • I think there’s something to that line of reasoning. Math might actually be less ambitious in certain ways, focusing on just abstract quantitative logic. The philosophical equivalent would be to just focus on logic itself, ignoring any practical application. (Hmmm, this makes me think of the algorithmic proofs in computer science.) Of course, such a limited form of philosophy probably wouldn’t be very interesting to many people.

          On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 7:22 AM, SelfAwarePatterns wrote:



  3. Pingback: Neil deGrasse Tyson is wrong to dismiss all of philosophy, but he may have a point on some of it | SelfAwarePatterns

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