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A Place for Philosophy

In 2004, the city of Memphis celebrated the “50th Anniversary of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” attributing the roots of rock to Elvis Presley’s 1954 recording of That’s All Right. Some have rightly taken issue with this; black artists were playing what sounded like rock music for years before Elvis. Perhaps the origin of rock music is better attributed to Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88, recorded in 1951. This event seems to be just one in music history where white artists capitalize on the talent of lesser-known black artists. Still today, some argue that white artists are more successful at pushing boundaries simply because they are white.

Just as the achievements of black artists sometimes go unacknowledged, philosophers are often not acknowledged for their past and ongoing contributions to furthering knowledge (scientific or otherwise). Moreover, scientists rely on philosophical thinking in their work but often don’t acknowledge it as such. In what follows, I hope to convince the reader that philosophical thinking has a central place in modern science and academia and that we ought not marginalize philosophy in favor of pure scientism.

Science as we know it today developed out of philosophy. Galileo and Isaac Newton were known as “natural philosophers.” It was not until the modern period that science began to separate from philosophy. Even after this separation, there was plenty of interaction between the two disciplines. The formalization of calculus was occasioned by a philosopher and many philosophers made contributions to modern mathematics.  However, science does not just owe a tip of the hat to philosophy for its origins; many modern scientific theories, such as string theory, rely on reasoning that goes beyond physically observable phenomena–what I think of as philosophical reasoning.

This past week, I attended Denver’s third Nerd Nite. Kayla Knopp, Rachel Miller, and Lane Nesbitt, clinical psychology students at the University of Denver, spoke about the way in which both biology and culture influence our understanding of sexual behavior. Although they didn’t state their conclusions explicitly (more on this below!), I take one of their main conclusions to be that (C) the set of all morally permissible sexual activities is larger than the set of all culturally accepted sexually activities. After what I think was an honest assessment of their talk, I took the argument for (C) to be the following:

P1. In nonhuman animals, there exists a set of sexual activities that our culture would find unacceptable if practiced by humans (e.g., one member of this set is deer threesomes!).
P2. We have evolved to enjoy (some) activities in this set.
P3. Since these activities are part of our natural evolutionary heritage, we ought to explore them (i.e., they are not immoral).
C. The set of all morally permissible sexually activities–i.e., the set of culturally acceptable activities plus the set of “natural-yet-culturally-unacceptable” activities that we ought to explore–is larger than the set of all culturally accepted sexually activities.

To be clear, I agree with (C); it is the argument for (C) that I take issue with.The problem with this argument–as many philosophy students may pick up on–is that P3 is fallacious: just because an act is natural doesn’t mean that that act is right, moral, or ethical. There are many examples that illustrate this fact. For one, we have evolved to eat meat—i.e., it is natural—but it’s not at all clear that eating meat is ethical; there are very strong arguments that support the claim that eating meat is unethical. To consider a more relevant example, sex between adult and juvenile animals occurs naturally among certain types of weasels and primates. But, among humans, such acts are considered immoral by most (and for good reason, since these relationships in humans often cause significant harm to at least one party, they are often non-consensual, etc.).

I notice this fallacy often in scientific discussion, and it is sometimes made by scientists. But philosophers have been warning us about making this mistake so much that they’ve given it a name: the appeal to nature fallacy. Generally speaking, my (admittedly anecdotal) experience suggests that philosophers are more careful with the form of their reasoning than scientists are. As further evidence for this claim, philosophers are notorious for writing their arguments and conclusions explicitly and very carefully; they sometimes even number their premises in the way that I did above. Philosophers follow this practice because they think it removes a lot of potential ambiguity and misinterpretation. Scientists follow this practice less often but I think that, in many instances, doing so would make their work more clear. After all, if explicitly outlining arguments was a standard scientific practice, then I wouldn’t have had to create my own (possibly misinterpreted!) outline of the sex-talk argument above. The point here is that, in so far as scientists use arguments in their work, they are doing philosophy in some sense, and that scientists may have something to learn from philosophers about how to present their arguments more effectively.

This week’s Radiolab provides another example of how philosophical thinking fails to get the credit that it deserves. It’s worth looking at the description of the episode:

The “mind” and “self” were formerly the domain of philosophers and priests. But in this hour of Radiolab, neurologists lead the charge on profound questions like “How does the brain make me?”

The connotation here (if I’m not being overly sensitive to the science-philosophy tension) seems to be that, for centuries, philosophers have spun their wheels with the question of personal identity, but that no serious work has been done until brain scientists caught on to the question. This kind of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, in an incredibly complicated area such as personal identity, just formulating the right set of questions is difficult. In many areas, philosophers deserve credit for formulating the right questions. Second, as philosopher Alva Noë has argued, neuroscience operates under the philosophical assumption that consciousness and the self are cognitive phenomena that are to be found by studying neural activity in the brain. This assumption is not empirical or “scientific”; it has roots in Cartesian philosophy (and I don’t think it is at all obviously true). Noë’s position, which builds upon work by Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, is that we are missing something of fundamental importance if we do not try to understand the self in terms of our embodied existence. Finally, the idea that discoveries in neuroscience (and many other disciplines) are reliable has been called into question by epidemiologist John P. A. Ioannidis. Ioannidis, in the celebrated paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” argues that, in “hot” fields where there are small studies, small effect sizes, or great financial interest, many findings are likely to be false (arguably, neuroscience falls into each of these categories). While Ioannidis is not a philosopher, his arguments attack the (poor) statistical reasoning of some scientists. Since statistics is really a formalization of inductive reasoning, it can be understood as a sub-discipline of philosophy. Thus, I think Ioanidis’s criticism of scientific findings is largely a philosophical criticism.

There are many other examples of the importance of philosophy in scientific practice: disputes in the foundations of statistics, the interpretation of probability in modern physics, the definition of life in biology, and the understanding of measurements and mathematical models are all inherently philosophical. We ought to  acknowledge that philosophy place such an important role.




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Science and the Quran: A Philosophical Review

spaceinquran_main_i801 Recently, the Muslim Students Association at the Colorado School of Mines hosted a talk by Mines Physics PhD student Abdulaziz Alaswad entitled, “From the Atom to the Galaxy; Quran and Science”. During the talk, Alaswad interpreted a number of passages in the Quran as clear evidence that the author of the Quran had knowledge of contemporary (i.e., 20th and 21st century) science. This fact, he claims, is proof that God authored the Quran. There is no doubt that Alaswad is a well-spoken scientist with a special talent for explaining complicated subjects (e.g., cosmology, atomic physics) in a way that the non-specialist can understand. There is also no doubt that Alaswad has a sincere belief in a higher power. Here, I do not wish to take issue either with his scientific knowledge or his faith; I have a sincere respect for both. Rather, I would like to analyze the arguments that he presented for the claim that the author of the Quran had knowledge of contemporary science (call this claim C).

All of Alaswad’s evidence for claim C was presented in the following way: first, Alaswad explained a bit of a contemporary scientific theory; then, he presented a passage from the Quran that he believed to be overwhelming evidence that the author of the Quran knew the claims of the scientific theory just presented. So, for example, Alaswad presented a brief summary of the Big Bang Theory—the theory that, at some time in the past, the universe occupied an infinitesimally small, infinitely dense point. Then he presented the following passage from the Quran: “The heavens and the earth were joined together, and we clove them asunder” (21:30). He holds that this passage is strong evidence for claim C. I believe that this example is representative of the argument structure of the entire talk.

On my view, this connection does not constitute good evidence for C. There are a number of reasons that support my view, many of which have to do with the vagueness of this passage. Granting for the moment, as Alaswad believes, that the Quran is the perfect word of God[1], we are still faced with the question on how we should interpret these words. This passage in particular allows for at least two interpretations (and in reality, many more but we’ll consider two), none of which seem better than any other. For example, it is not clear at all what is meant by the claim that “the heavens and the earth were joined together.” Does the word ‘heaven’ refer to the several levels of the afterlife that most Muslims believe exist? If so, then it should be apparent that this passage has nothing to do with modern science since the Big Bang Theory does not posit the existence of this kind of heaven. But, perhaps ‘heaven’ refers what we call ‘the heavenly bodies’—the moon, the planets, the stars, etc. This interpretation might lend some support for claim C, but with a bit of inspection, we see that it doesn’t lend much. ‘Being joined together’ is certainly not equivalent to ‘being infinitely dense’; it is hard to see how we can interpret this passage as at all matching the level of precision of the Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory makes claims about temperature, the nature of space, time, and matter; none of these things are addressed in the Quran passage (or anywhere else in the Quran, to the best of my knowledge) with any precision. Such precision is necessary in order to make the connection between science and the Quran. Otherwise, the connection is much like the purported connection between astrological events and social interactions: dubious at best.

One might object here that I’m being too demanding. Perhaps what is important about the Quran—and what is important about many religious texts—is that it displays the mysterious nature of God. Rather than speaking directly, and with precision, God is mysterious and unknowable. I’m sympathetic to this view. But, if we accept that God’s writings are mysterious, then it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that the word of God be understood scientifically. Science is meant to be clear, unambiguous, and devoid of mystery. [2] It values not believing over believing falsely. Thus, I think that the best we can hope for is that the Quran is consistent with contemporary science. But that is a very different claim than the one made by Alaswad.

The Quran may be the word of God but we, as finite beings, are left with the monumental task of interpreting His (unfortunately ambiguous) word. In many cases, there aren’t any good reasons to believe that one interpretation is better than the other. But, without a relatively unambiguous interpretation of a religious text, it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to make a link between that text and a scientific theory. As someone not at all opposed to religious thinking, it is hard for me to understand the appeal of making such connections. There are consistent positions that allow science and religion to coexist without sacrificing intellectual rigor.

[1] I am granting this claim—that the Quran is the perfect word of God—for the sake of argument. Full disclosure: the degree to which I believe that this claim is true is very low.

[2] To be clear, I am not judging which kind of discourse is superior; rather, I am merely arguing that, on an important level, the goals of each type of discourse are very different.


Filed under Epistemology, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Quran, Religion, Science

What is Science?

An article in Colorado School of Mines newspaper.

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February 5, 2013 · 8:29 pm