Thoughts After HOPOS

**Please take note of my followup / apology for this post. **

The recent HOPOS event in Ghent, in which I participated, gave me a lot to think about. Eric Schliesser has written eloquently of the event as a kind of spiritual homecoming. Finally, he feels, there is an organization that embodies his own approach to the philosophy of science.

I can’t say I feel the same. I greatly admire the work of Schliesser and the other HOPOS participants, and I very much appreciate the generosity with which I was welcomed to attempt my own contributions. But, as Schliesser claims, HOPOS amounts to a way of doing philosophy of science, one that gives due emphasis to the importance of history. What I (try to) do, however, is not philosophy of science. I suppose what I do amounts to old-fashioned Oxford-style conceptual analysis, though again with a new historical emphasis. I should note that I think the word ‘analysis’ in this context is often given much too restrictive a sense (to analyze the concept F is to give necessary and sufficient conditions of the form ‘x is an F if and only if…’ – well, no).

In fact I suspect that what I do amounts to the kind of thing that, according to Schliesser, philosophy of science since the time of Newton’s exegetes was deliberately conceived in order to rule out as invalid. On his story, philosophy of science emerged as the exclusive authority of empirical science was invoked by figures like Maclaurin, ‘s Gravesande, Musschenbroek, and Nieuwentyt against the notion that mere reflection on the meanings of concepts can reveal substantive truths about concrete reality. (As red meat to the pedants, let me throw down the caveat that ‘concrete reality’ can here be taken to exclude those portions of concrete reality that constitute human discourse, whose forms are obviously dependent upon the senses of concepts.) Nieuwentyt identified this banned notion specifically with Spinozism; to the extent that I retain it I suppose that I am a loyal Spinozist.

I didn’t get the chance to ask Eric whether he actually endorses this agenda (perhaps he can tell me if he reads this). But if it is an accurate characterization of the philosophy of science, then my primary philosophical interests are largely the embodiment of what philosophy of science tries to expunge. My presence at HOPOS was then somewhat akin to that, at a conference on the history of hygiene, of an advocate for germs.

Anyway, I think it’s interesting to consider why philosophy of science, in particular, should militate against the idea of informative conceptual analysis. There is plenty from outside the philosophy of science that militates against it. There is the complaint that no concept has ever been successfully analyzed by a philosopher, and so the game isn’t worth the candle. There is Timothy Williamson’s claim, expounded at the start of his The Philosophy of Philosophy, that attention to the real practices of philosophers reveals their activities to be always aimed at something other than the understanding of concepts. There is the suspicion that treating conceptual analysis as informative carries with it a sordid air of idealism. I don’t mean to address these sorts of concerns here (though on the last I can’t resist pointing out that it involves a bad inference: on the plausible assumptions that most of our concepts accurately capture reality and that we don’t always know how, it follows, even for a staunch realist, that understanding our concepts better might help us to understand reality better).

But what particular objection emerges from philosophy of science specifically? At its root lies, I think, a simple and understandable sense that science is perfectly and uniquely capable of comprehending concrete reality all on its own, without help from anything else, including conceptual analysis. I don’t think all philosophers of science have this sense as such. But I do think that something like it is common among many of them, and if Schliesser’s history is right it was one of the prompting motivations that led to the development of philosophy of science in the first place. One doesn’t, after all, do philosophy of science without thinking that science is important, and this thought leads naturally to the thought that, at least in the domain of concrete discovery, it is exclusively important.

A similar thought probably underlies the recent flurry of pronouncements from famous physicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, and others, to the effect that philosophy is a waste of time (deGrasse Tyson’s comments seem particularly targeted against the conceptual analysis type of philosophy). Philosophers of science usually respond to this kind of claim by pointing out that the purpose of philosophy is to understand how science works, not to contribute to its direct project of comprehending concrete reality. Here, again, I differ; I think that understanding concepts can, in many cases, advance the very same kind of understanding as science advances, and often plays an indispensable role.

Even within physics – science’s great success story – a feeling of self-reliant achievement would be unjustified. It is certainly a fact that physicists make many fascinating discoveries without the help of philosophers or anybody else. They take what they like from mathematicians and leave a great deal; perhaps you’ve heard a physicist arguing that the series 1+2+3+… to infinity sums to -1/12 (thanks to Robert Bassett for pointing me towards this antidote). But how do we know how well they’d be doing if they did draw more upon philosophy? One is reminded of the young child’s protest: ‘Don’t help me, I can do it myself!’ It is mere sensitivity to the child’s budding self-esteem that prevents the adult from replying: ‘Yes, but pretty badly and pretty damned slowly.’

I don’t mean to say the analogy necessarily holds. But, for all we know, it may. String theory, to take what is quickly becoming a hackneyed case, seems to be spinning its wheels a little, or, as F.H. Bradley might say, turning in the circle of its perfections like a squirrel on a wheel. It does seem to be mired in difficulties of a philosophical nature; we don’t know if philosophers might help because by and large their assistance hasn’t been requested.

There are also cases where it is more clear that what might help the physicist is a bit of reflection upon concepts. Michael Dummett gives a good instance in his book, The Nature and Future of Philosophy (pp.26-8).  Modern physical theories take the continuum of real numbers as a model for time. Various physical changes are represented as functions, taking real numbers representing temporal instants as arguments. But if one holds a classical rather than a constructivist view of mathematics, it is mathematically possible for such functions to be discontinuous; one could have, for example, a variable oscillating an infinite number of times within a finite interval. One can stipulate laws of physics ruling out such possibilities. But then, Dummett points out, the impossibility is a weakly contingent matter of physical laws. I would add that the solution seems implausibly ad hoc: the physicist’s reason for stipulating such laws is just her intuitive recognition that such possibilities are inconceivable. By contrast, Dummett notes, ‘in the “intuitionist” [constructivist] version of mathematics proposed by Brouwer, a function defined on all real numbers will be demonstrably continuous’ (28). Taking a constructivist rather than a classical view of mathematics, in other words, might provide a neat explanation for a physical fact – the impossibility of changes represented by discontinuous functions – that is otherwise not well explained. Yet physicists almost universally ‘ignore or are unaware of constructive mathematics’ (27). This may well be because there is no way to something like Brouwerian intuitionism except by way of serious reflection on the meanings of concepts like those of truth, inference, and number.

These, then, are the beginnings of my plea for Spinozism against the aggressions of philosophy of science. I thank the organizers and participants of the HOPOS conference for putting me in mind of them.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts After HOPOS

  1. Pingback: Thoughts After HOPOS II | Origin of Specious

  2. Pingback: Philosophy and Science – let the healing begin | Origin of Specious

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