A response to Lawrence Krauss’ comments denigrating philosophy at American Atheists’ 2012 convention

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Lawrence Krauss’ speech at American Atheists’ 2012 national convention

Lawrence Krauss is quite a prolific figure in and outside of the secular community. For readers who may not be familiar, Krauss recieved a Ph.D. from MIT, is the Foundation Professor and Director of the Origins Initiative, and is the Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University. With these honors that are just a small portion of his impressive CV, I expect a great deal from Krauss and certainly would not expect him to denigrate philosophy and philosophers during his speech at American Atheists’ 2012 convention which I had attended, but I was tremendously disappointed … even though it might have been the case that he may have been angry or ‘in a bad mood’ (I’ll get into the anger issue toward the bottom of the post).

In my undergraduate studies as a philosophy major at King’s College, one thing I learned — heavily stressed by many of my professors — was the principle of charity which roughly dictates that persons should read or otherwise interpret arguments or statements which may seem unclear, ambiguous, or vague in — as readers may have guessed — a charitable fashion perhaps to make the argument or statement as ‘intelligent as possible.’

When Krauss had denigrated philosophers and philosophy during his recent speech, I had thought — as I often do when I grimace like David Silverman did in an interview with Bill O’ Reilly interview — that Krauss was simply erring or otherwise had a slip-up, but as his speech continued, this didn’t seem to be the case. I wanted, of course, to interpret his statements so that they don’t sound really uninformed and reckless, but there doesn’t appear to be a ‘way out.’

Here are some examples of some interesting portions from Krauss’ speech in which Krauss denigrates philosophy and doesn’t appear to understand what he is talking about regarding philosophy. As you can see, there was not only one comment.

(1) 1:35: “What’s truly amazing is that science has progressed to the point where the question ‘Why something rather than nothing,’ which many people have thought of as a religious or philosophical question, has become a scientific one in spite of some moronic philosophers who have just written for the New York Times today.”

(2) 2:33: “’Out of nothing comes nothing’ is as philosophers have said thousands of years ago and have maintained ever since. Of course philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years whereas science has.” (this elicited a very odd and worrying applause from the audience)

(3) 3:19: “We don’t understand the universe by thinking about it, we understand the universe from probing.”

(4) 18:00: “Nothing is not what we used to think it was. I’ve tried to explain that in small words to philosophers, but as I say, some of them – they don’t understand. But we now understand using the laws of quantum mechanics…”

(5) 18:21: “We now know that due to quantum mechanics and relativity, empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence at times so short you can’t see them. Now that does sound like philosophy.”

(6) 35:42: Science has demonstrated that a universe from nothing is not only plausible, but likely. More importantly, what we mean by something and nothing has completely changed since the time the classical philosophers and theologians first raised this issue. This is an idea I can’t seem to explain to philosophers and theologians. It’s changed. Those questions you asked aren’t relevant now.

I have many other points of contention with Krauss’ speech that will remain unlisted (particularly surrounding point three), but I would like to focus on the points I listed and explain why I believe Krauss’ comments seem to be quite reckless and uninformed. I’ll explain just some progress philosophy has made in the past two thousand years, show how philosophy informs science, and how science informs philosophy. Hopefully readers will be charitable toward me and not dismiss the post because I happen to be critiquing Lawrence Krauss or otherwise offering some criticism instead of focusing on the positive. We’re supposed to be skeptics and challenge that which sounds off-base, right?

It strikes me quite odd that one can claim that no progress is made in an academic discipline within the past two thousand years. While atheists like Krauss denigrate theology [and we happen to believe, of course, that belief in supernatural entities is unwarranted], theology has even progressed in the past two thousand years. Men dominated (and perhaps still dominate) the field of theology, but with just some progress — largely because of the book “Sexism and God Talk” — we can see ‘moves’ away from a male-dominates perspective toward a more equitable or otherwise diverse perspective. Whether or not supernatural entities exist does not matter here.

Theology aside, and back to philosophy, there has been tremendous advancement in philosophy which Krauss, perhaps ironically, almost addresses in a roundabout way when he mentions musings of the Ancient Greeks. Philosophy has largely shed, although Krauss didn’t mention this, ideas of Plato’s forms, elements, ideas of a soul, and much more (see Plato’s ideas here).

One of the most famous ‘modern philosophers,’ Descartes, as this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article suggests, provided a philosophical groundwork for the possibility of the science. Much unlike some medieval philosophers [whom many critique, and rightly so, as perhaps ‘hijacking philosophy’ to conform with Christian belief or otherwise wedding philosophy with theology], Descartes questioned his initial assumptions — regardless of believing in a god — and developed the famous “I think therefore I am” phrase. Descartes, as his Wikipedia article explains, postulated the view which would be called Cartesian dualism positing a material body and an immaterial mind. Much of Descartes’ work has inspired revolutions and, of course, progress in philosophy. Old ideas were thrown aside when new ideas refuted them.

Epistemology is a branch of philosophy which deals with knowledge. This field of philosophy has seen a tremendous amount of progress and has, as one might and should suppose, informed science. One recent sign of progress in philosophy was spawned by a short article by Edmund Gettier called “Is justified true belief knowledge” which challenged conceptions of knowledge seemingly forcing readers to draw distinctions between the two. Because of Gettier, epistemology has drastically reformed (and not in the Plantingian sense). The ‘controversy’ still continues and new ideas of looking at knowledge, particularly epistemic virtues or ‘virtues of the mind‘ may have been a result.

It’s also important to note, because it is very relevant to this discussion surrounding Krauss’ comments, that science is informed by philosophy. To start, science is based on the belief that the future will resemble the past. Additionally — although similar, but slightly different –scientists, in order to even start or ‘do work,’ must assume nature is uniform (a philosophical assumption). Science also operates under the banner of methodological naturalism [restricting its study to the natural world or otherwise assuming that, while doing science, the natural world is all that exists depending on your interpretation] based on a philosophical assumption [that naturalistic explanations are most fruitful and perhaps some other assumptions].

When considering which scientific theories better account for data or otherwise provide a better framework for explaining phenomena, persons are ‘doing philosophy’ considering, perhaps, ideas such as parsimony, fruitfulness, falsifiablity, conservativism, and testability. One must draw conclusions (engage in philosophy) when ‘theory-weighing.’ In physics, for example, philosophy has a great impact one whether certain intepretations of quantum mechanics are plausible or not! Many-worlds interpretation? Copenhagan interpreation? Ideas of Bohm? Bell? Mach?

Another example of progress in philosophy and the interaction between science and philosophy surrounds the idea of causal determinism which is largely rejected nowadays by philosophers and scientists. Ideas [in the past 2000 years and even in the last four hundred] of the universe being a ‘billiard table’ of sorts were abound in which if we knew how the ‘billiard balls’ moved on the ‘table,’ we would be able to predict outcomes. Some thought that we, when asserting to understand the laws of physics, could predict events reaching so far even to human behavior or otherwise could justifiably believe that the future is unalterable vis-a-vis appeals to laws of physics and (some other assumptions). Some major hammerblows from philosophical investigation have been dealt…and progress was made.

I could go into much more detail about progress in philosophy and how philosophy informs science, but I don’t think it is needed; a few examples should suffice to prove my point. For Lawrence Krauss to denigrate philosophy — it seems — is for him to shoot himself in his feet because the work he engages in is directly informed by [the progress of] philosophy. While scientific investigation largely deals with the empirical, much reflection or conclusion-drawing is wholly apart from experience…and we can and do have a mix of the two. Unfortunately, Krauss doesn’t seem to be very knowledgeable in the area of philosophy, his off-color comments detract from his speech, and Krauss seems to give people a very distorted view of philosophy as something that has withered away that has no place in discussions about cosmology, physics, and science at large.

If Lawrence Krauss reads this, I would like for him to — if I am getting something wrong here — explain or otherwise better clarify his comments and he hopefully will apologize for the philosophy denigration. There’s no need for a ‘war’ between science and philosophy. The fields can and should (and do) inform each other. Progress in philosophy can translate to progress in science and, as both domains attempt to do, increase our knowledge of the universe.

For more insight into the idea of ‘progress in philosophy,’ please read Massimo Pigliucci’s post titled “Progress in philosophy not an oxymoron.”

An ending note:

Although I think it to be quite obvious that Krauss misunderstands philosophy because of his various statements showing such misunderstanding and denigrating philosophy, anger may account for some of Krauss’ comments. As mentioned in Krauss’ speech, philosopher David Albert reviewed Krauss’ book and was not happy with Krauss’ book.

After Krauss’ talk, I had confronted Krauss simply asking him why he said that philosophy has not progressed in the past two thousand years. Krauss, not answering my question, expressed his displeasure with Albert and walked away after I said — if I recall correctly — that if he had a disagreement with a philosopher, he should show why the arguments from the philosopher fail rather than dismissing philosophy. Regardless, even if anger was the case — which it doesn’t seem to be considering the many differing statements Krauss had during his speech — Krauss was acting extremely unprofessional to ‘take out’ his anger on philosophy and philosophers multiple times during his speech.

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