Saturday, May 27, 2017

Thinking for yourself

We live in an age where we are overloaded with information. To know what is going on in the world, what has happened in the past, and what may happen in the future, we often have to rely upon the testimony of journalists, government officials, civilians, military personnel, and experts. Without a foolproof way to determine who is telling the truth, there are those who advocate a rather extreme form of skepticism. It is not that they think we cannot know anything, but that our sources of knowledge are very limited. There are those who argue that certain kinds of testimony are either unreliable or that we cannot determine whether or not it is accurate. Specifically, the skepticism is generally directed at journalists (the “mainstream media”) and experts. But at times, testimony from other groups removed from the establishment is deemed reliable (e.g. certain government officials, civilians). Let’s call this view establishment skepticism (ES). Without journalists and experts, E-skeptics recommend the following two strategies for gaining knowledge.

      1)      Think for yourself
      2)    Rely solely upon personal experience and things you have seen firsthand

In this post, I will demonstrate why these strategies are prone to error and why dismissing certain kinds of testimony is not only misguided, but dangerous.

It’s generally a good idea to think for yourself. Provided that one knows how to employ valid reasoning and is well-informed about a given topic, independent thought can be useful in developing novel arguments and insights. But notice the potential pitfalls.

Suppose there is an individual who not only lacks (implicit or explicit) knowledge of basic logic, but who vehemently believes that fallacies (invalid arguments) are good arguments. It seems safe to say that it would be a bad idea for this person to think for themselves.

Suppose there is an individual who is capable of independent thought but has only encountered misleading evidence or false information. In this case, thinking for oneself will likely lead to many false conclusions given that the premises one has to work with are false.

In avoiding the pitfall of the second individual, how does one acquire good information? One might argue that a reliable way to get good information is through firsthand experience. If you are able to see with your own eyes that something is the case, how can you go wrong? Here are two ways:

(1)               Your sample size is too small
(2)             Your recollection of what you have seen is selective. We all have certain biases and tend to see what we want to see. [We tend to remember the hits and forget the misses].

Experts are in the business of correcting for all of the pitfalls previously discussed. To take two quick examples, they take into account the possibility of bias on the part of other researchers and have a solution for it (i.e. peer review), and they ensure that their sample sizes are large enough to make accurate generalizations. Nonetheless, experts sometimes get it wrong.

The most recent case of expert failure is the 2016 US presidential election. An often made argument by E-Skeptics goes as follows. The (polling) experts were wrong about Trump losing, therefore, experts, in general, are (probably) wrong about everything. This is a terrible argument and is patently fallacious. Consider the following parallel line of reasoning, which no reasonable person would accept.

Speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle. Therefore, they always do (or get it wrong most of the time).

But the E-skeptic argument is even worse than this. The argument implicitly generalizes from polling experts to all experts. It would be like concluding, because speedometers sometimes misrepresent the speed of a vehicle, all measuring instruments are unreliable.

Not all domains of expertise are of equal epistemic authority. Polling experts have to work with data that is sometimes unreliable or hard to predict. So, pollsters will probably get it wrong a lot more often than experts in other fields (e.g. engineering, physics).

The relevant question to ask is, for a particular domain of expertise, “how often do the experts get it right?”

In the case of pollsters, some actually have a pretty good track record (e.g. 538). Even in the case of the recent US election, the state polls were off within a normal margin of error (1-3 percentage points), and even before the results came in, pollsters had warned about this possibility. The national polls weren’t that far off at all. Pollsters predicted that Clinton would win the popular vote by 3 percentage points. She won the popular vote by 2. More recent elections, such as the presidential election in France, have reminded us of the general reliability of election polling.

The reality is, we need to rely upon the testimony of experts and journalists in order to know what’s going on in the world. Thinking for yourself has its limitations, some of which I have already discussed, and we should be well aware of them. We do not have God-like powers to see everything in the world firsthand, so, we need to rely upon other people who have seen things firsthand, as well as those who have observed more indirect forms of evidence (e.g. archaeologists, geologists, astronomers). 

Now, we should not assume that experts are infallible. It’s possible that they could have employed bad reasoning to reach their conclusions, or that they are unaware of evidence that undermines their position, etc. Nonetheless, we are warranted in accepting expert testimony, as long as it is in general agreement by most of their peers, and there is no strong evidence that negates what they say.

Regularly watching the news, reading some articles or watching youtube documentaries does not make you an expert. Most of us cannot dedicate the time and energy to become well-informed about complex issues, so we have to rely upon the testimony of those who do. There’s a reason why we have graduate schools and advanced degrees. [This isn’t to say that one cannot become an expert after years of extensive study on one’s own. Only that, it takes a lot of time to become an expert and a graduate education is the most common, and, perhaps, most reliable way of gaining expertise.]

What’s the harm in considering journalists and experts to be generally unreliable sources? One harm is that someone might end up putting all of their trust into a dangerous and unreliable source (e.g. a corrupt politician). Tyranny usually begins with government leaders attacking the press while seeking public support for their policies through propaganda and lies. By selectively pointing out things that journalists or experts have gotten wrong, and by selectively pointing out the things they themselves have gotten right, authoritarian politicians try to mislead the public into thinking that they are the only reliable source of information. Note how the same bad argument mentioned earlier gets transformed into an argument for listening to certain politicians over everyone else.

Politician A is sometimes right about what he says. Therefore, he is probably right about most things.  

The relevant question to ask is “who has the better track record of getting things right? The experts or politician A?” But those who have already become won over by clever politicians will likely conclude that the politician has the better track. After all, they believe that the politician is the one stating the facts. If it gets to the point where the only justification for believing what the politician says is that he or she said it, we have a serious problem. There would seemingly be no line of argument that could be used to get them to change their closed minds. That’s why we need to ask ourselves and each other to provide some kind of non-circular justification for the beliefs we hold. I conclude with a few suggestions for preventing the kind of dangerous closed-mindness just discussed.

(1)               Read widely. Don’t get all of your information from a small set of sources. Read essays and articles written by those you disagree with (If liberal, read e.g. WSJ, Daily wire, or Fox from time to time. If conservative, read e.g. NYT, CNN or the Guardian from time to time).  
(2)             Make sure your arguments are logically valid (Ask: Would I accept the same argument form if applied to other contexts, or stated by other individuals?)
(3)              Communicate to people you disagree with. Try to understand why they believe what they believe, understand their arguments and reasons, and articulate why you hold your own views.

(4)             Have some humility. There are issues where even the experts reasonably disagree with one another. If it’s a controversial subject, don’t rest much weight on your conclusions and be open to entertaining alternative views. 

Related previous posts:

Sunday, May 21, 2017


Ontology is a sub-branch of metaphysics that deals with what kinds of things exist. At first pass, it might seem like scientists would be better authorities to consult than philosophers on what exists, but that would be to misunderstand the project of metaphysicians.  Unlike science, which refers to specific classes of physical objects (e.g. electrons, hydrogen, enzymes), metaphysics refers to the most general or abstract categories of things that exist: substances, properties, and kinds.*

To paraphrase the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, metaphysics deals with how things, in the broadest possible sense of the word ‘things’, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of ‘hang together’. Metaphysicians who specialize in ontology, work on determining what the things. Put more simply, they ask 'what kinds of things are there?' Taking a step back from level of analysis provided by physics, metaphysicians try to determine specifically what (if any) kinds of substances, properties, and kinds exist. To make things more concrete, let’s look closely at these concepts and see how views about them lead to interesting philosophical conclusions.


Substances are understood as the entities in which properties inhere. While controversial, there are those who believe there are two types of substances: physical and mental. Mental substances would include things like immaterial human minds and God. Physical substances would include all of the objects of scientific study (e.g. tables, bears, helium, etc.), as well as all of the other physical objects we encounter in everyday life (e.g. tables, chairs, Ipads). The view which states there are two types of substance is called substance dualism. An alternative view would be that there is only type of substance (substance monism). On physicalism, the view which states the one type of substance is physical, minds are considered to have a physical basis in the brain, and the existence of other kinds of immaterial substances, like God, are denied. 


Properties are understood as the entities that inhere in things (e.g. redness, circularity, positive charge). So, all of the red objects are thought to share the property of ‘redness’ in common, all of the circular objects have the property of ‘circularity’ in common, and so on. Just like for substances, there are property dualists who think there are two types of properties (i.e. mental and physical properties). Property dualists argue that mental properties cannot be fully explained by the physical properties of the brain. Mental properties are sometimes characterized as (strongly) emergent properties of the brain. Mental properties are thought to be dependent upon the brain, but something over and above brain processes. If we were to know everything about how the brain works, property dualists think there would still be the question of ‘why is conscious experience paired with brain activity of a certain kind?’ This is known as the hard problem of consciousness (Chalmers 1996). Physicalists see consciousness and other mental properties to be analogous to other biological properties, like digestion or photosynthesis. Photosynthesis may be an emergent phenomenon of biochemistry, but it is nothing over and above its underlying chemical properties. There are some physicalists who simply deny that there is hard problem. If one accepts that minds are identical to brains (c.f. mind-brain identity theory), then the question ‘why is A paired with B’ turns into the incoherent question of ‘why is A paired with itself?’


Kinds are groupings of objects (or substances) that share essential properties. For instance, gold is a chemical kind. All instances of gold will share certain chemical properties that are not shared by other chemical kinds (e.g. silver, potassium). Most of the kinds discussed by scientists are considered to be natural kinds, in that, the categories are taken to be individuated on an objective basis. It was not up to the scientists whether or not the whale was a mammal, the whale simply is a mammal, regardless of what humans believe. To better understand what a natural kind is, let’s contrast them with a clear case of an artificial kind: ‘pets’. The kind ‘pets’ include cats, dogs, parrots, and any of the other animals humans have adopted for companionship. Human interests determine which animals get selected as pets and which do not, and those interests vary depending on time and place. While there is some usefulness, for us, in using the category of ‘pets’, there is no property or cluster of properties that all of the pet animals have in common (other than certain groups of humans liking them). Thus, the kind ‘pets’ is not a natural kind.

There are also instances of categories in science where it looks as if scientists have to rely upon rather arbitrary categorization methods. In the case of counting the number of planets in our solar system, it used to be that there were 9, but after the discovery of additional Pluto-sized objects, Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. Instead, scientists could have kept Pluto as a planet but just increase the number of planets from 9 to 13. 

To move to a particularly controversial example, take ‘race’. Should ‘race’ be considered a natural kind, or a category more like ‘planets’ or even ‘pets’? One consideration is that we know that humans are grouped differently around the world. The way we individuate races in the United States is different from how they distinguish races in other countries (e.g. Brazil). In the US, there are, roughly, five races (Black, white, American Indian/Alaskan native, Asian, and mixed). In Brazil, there are nine (see below). Anthropologists, who are the experts on human biodiversity, widely disagree about how to group humans, and come to widely different answers depending on their criteria of race individuation. Should we conclude that any single one of these groupings of humans is objectively correct? Or is it more plausible to assume that human interests primarily shape how we categorize human beings.

Real world applicability

While scientists are typically unaware of philosophical jargon, they draw conclusions and make statements that can be accurately characterized as rejecting or accepting controversial categories, like race, as instances of natural kinds. You also see among laypeople that certain assumptions are made about controversial categories. For example, take the kind ‘gender’. A widespread view is that ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ are closely connected and that both are grounded in biology. One interpretation of the "common sense" view is that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are natural kinds in biology. An alternative view, held by both scientists and laypeople alike, is that ‘sex’ is a natural kind whereas ‘gender’ is an artificial social kind, one that varies according to human interests relative to time and place. Many proponents of this alternative view consider gender to be, what's referred to as, a social construction

People have pretty strong views about race and gender, views which are amenable to philosophical analysis. There are also those who are skeptical about the prospects of ever settling these areas of controversy. But if there is a fact of the matter with respect to the ontological status of these categories, one is going to have to do the philosophical work to sort out the answers. Empirical evidence alone will not tell you what ‘race’ or ‘gender’ is. After all, there are experts who are aware of all of the relevant evidence but yet disagree about the more philosophical issues. Even if a consensus among scientists were to form, one may still reasonably ask whether or not the scientists drew the right conclusions.

*Metaphysicians disagree about just about everything. My breakdown of the world's ontology is hardly original, and is just one way to do it among many. 

Works cited

Chalmers, D. J. (1996). The conscious mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford University Press.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Alternative Archaeology: Gobekli Tepe and the Sphinx

On a recent JRE podcast, skeptic Michael Shermer went head-to-head with Graham Hancock and Randall Carlson, two proponents of alternative archaeological theories. The debate could be summarized as follows: Hancock and Carlson argued that the simplest explanation for the presence of ancient archaeological sites, like Gobekli tepe (below image) and the Sphinx, is that there was a transfer of knowledge from an unknown advanced civilization to the builders of those structures. Shermer argued against their thesis by citing the fact that most archaeologists dispute their claims, and that there is little to no positive evidence in favor of their hypotheses. According to Shermer, the default position should be to side with the majority of experts. 

The “mainstream” view among archaeologists is that the Gobekli Tepe site, found in southeast Turkey, was built by hunter gatherers around 9000 BC. Hancock and Carlson argue that the mainstream account is wrong because of the presence of several, otherwise inexplicable, anomalies. In response, Shermer accuses Hancock and Carlson of focusing on negative evidence rather than producing positive evidence for their view. Finding some problems with a well-established theory is easy to do. Finding good evidence for alternative theories is evidently very hard. How should a layperson adjudicate the debate between “mainstream” and “alternative” archaeologists? In this post, I will argue that Hancock and Carlson’s arguments for the existence of an unknown ancient civilization are not persuasive. In the process, I will critically assess some of the specific anomalies cited by Hancock and Carlson.

Before addressing their reasoning, it is useful to know the backgrounds of both Hancock and Carlson. Graham Hancock is an author and journalist who has written extensively about the mysteries of ancient civilizations. Randall Carlson describes himself on his website as a “master builder and architectural designer, teacher, geometrician, geomythologist, geological explorer and renegade scholar.” Neither are experts in archaeology, a discipline that seems most relevant to assessing their claims. However, their lack of credentials does not affect the quality of their arguments. They either have good reasons for accepting their views or they don’t.

Hancock argues that the presence of Gobekli Tepe cries out for an alternative explanation. Before 9000 BC, there is no archaeological record of the gradual development of skills and technology you would may expect to find. For example, archaeologists have not found less sophisticated stone structures found dated around twelve or thirteen thousand years ago. Gobekli Tepe is the oldest stone structure we have found and it appears as if its construction came out of nowhere. Without any evidence of older structures or ancient civilizations, what is the best explanation for its presence? Hancock argues that the best explanation is that an advanced civilization taught hunter gatherers how to build the stone structures. 

There are several problems with Hancock’s reasoning. First, he expects there to be archaeological evidence for the gradual development of skills, but apparently does not expect to find the same kinds of evidence for his proposed advanced civilization. Hancock’s only evidence for an advanced civilization is indirect: the mere existence of Gobekli Tepe. A second problem with Hancock’s argument is that he makes an assumption that he provides little warrant for: that hunter gatherers could not have learned how to build the structures on their own in a relatively short period of time (i.e. hundreds or thousands of years). Let’s compare Hancock’s hypothesis with some others.

Burst hypothesis: The skills required to build Gobekli Tepe were acquired and honed in a relatively short period of time (hundreds of years), solely by the hunter gatherers.

Gradualist hypothesis: There was a gradual development of skills but the evidence was not preserved well or it is all still underground.

As it stands, most would agree that there is probably much more evidence to uncover. But in order to favor Hancock’s Transfer of Knowledge (ToK) hypothesis, one would need to show that both the burst and gradualist hypotheses were less likely to be true. I take the ToK hypothesis to be the most extravagant because it posits the existence of a civilization we have no evidence for. The other hypotheses just make, in my view, reasonable assumptions about humans we know existed. How does Hancock try to establish that ToK is the best explanation? 

It seems like Hancock, Carlson, and Rogan are all incredulous about the burst hypothesis. But given that they all lack expertise in cognitive science and anthropology, they are not in a position to say what the limits of human cognition or social learning were at the time. Thus, they are committing the fallacious argument from personal incredulity. Hancock gives a second reason to reject the burst hypothesis. He points out that the mainstream archaeological community had long thought that hunter gatherers were not capable of building something like Gobekli Tepe. Experts no longer believe that in light of recent archaeological finds, such as Gobekli Tepe, that were undoubtedly built by hunter gatherers using stone age technology. Skeptical of the recent change of expert opinion, Hancock appeals to what the experts used to think to justify his belief that hunter gatherers couldn’t have pulled it off. 

Hancock is not in a position to rule out the gradualist hypothesis either. In order for his own hypothesis to be taken seriously, he needs to assume that there is a lot of hidden or destroyed archaeological evidence. But one would make the same assumption in order to support the gradualist hypothesis. Without any independent reason for favoring ToK over the gradualist hypothesis, it would seem that the simpler explanation would be the latter.

But of course, Hancock and Carlson do think there are independent reasons for positing the existence of a lost ancient civilization. They go even further when they suggest that this same lost ancient civilization was responsible for teaching many of the early civilizations (e.g. Egyptians) how to construct megaliths. Their evidence consists mostly of anomalies found in other archaeological sites that do not fit well with the standard accounts. One of the main pieces of evidence they refer to is the apparent water erosion on the enclosure walls of the Great Sphinx. The Great Sphinx is widely thought to have been built around 2500 BC. But in order for the weathering markings on the enclosure walls to form, you would need much more rain than was present at the time of its construction (1). So, if there was not enough rain around 2500 BC, then it must have been built much earlier than we previously thought (~6000 BC). That, or the idea that there is evidence of water erosion is simply mistaken.

The vast majority of archaeologists, geologists, and Egyptologists reject the water erosion hypothesis for two main reasons. First, the weathering marks can also be accounted for by other factors such as wind erosion, quarrying activities, or rainfall runoff (Reader 2001; 2006, Lacovara 2004, Vandercruys 2006). Second, there is no archaeological evidence of an advanced civilization around that area that predates the Egyptians. [It is often pointed out that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but that is only true when the evidence should not be expected. In the case of an advanced civilization, you would expect there to be some kind of evidence, not only for the civilization at its peak, but for the gradual development of the civilization. In this case, we have reasonable grounds for thinking that absence of evidence is in fact evidence of absence.]

The simplest explanation is that there was no water erosion from intense rainfall to begin with. Hancock and Carlson do not seem to take this possibility seriously, suggesting that either they know something the archaeological community does not (e.g. the weathering marks could only be caused by intense rainfall at an earlier time), or that they have missed something the archaeological community is aware of. The same possibility remains for the remainder of their "evidence". In interpreting the empirical record, expertise is sometimes required. Those who are lacking certain kinds of knowledge about, say, the methodology of geologists or archaeologists can easily go astray. Given that Hancock and Carlson do not have formal backgrounds in the relevant fields, it is possible that they have unwittingly misinterpreted the evidence. 

There is usually a good reason why alternative theories are given little weight. It's not that most scientists are closed-minded, it's that they are very skeptical. Alternative theories tend to be lacking in the evidence department, and so when they get criticized, the proponents often feel like they're getting an unfair shot. But given the nature of scientific inquiry, and the extravagance of many of the alternative theories, one should not expect anything different. If there was an advanced civilization that aided the hunter gatherers at Gobekli Tepe, it will take some high quality evidence to convince the scientific community. Hancock and Carlson should continue their research, but it's reasonable to conclude that they're probably wrong. 

(1)  Geologist Colin Reader (2001, 2006) has proposed that the Sphinx was built several hundred years before the mainstream timeline, a time in which there would have been enough rain to directly cause the weathering marks. 

Works cited

Peter Lacovara. (2004). The Pyramids, the sphinx: tombs and temples of Giza. Bunker Hill Publishing, Inc.

Reader, C. D. (2001). A Geomorphological Study of the Giza Necropolis, with Implications for the Development of the Site. Archaeometry, 43(1), 149-165.

Reader, C. (2006). Further considerations on development at Giza before the 4th Dynasty. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt/Egyptology, 3(2), 12-25.

Vandecruys, G. (2006). The Sphinx: dramatising data… and dating. PalArch’s Journal of Archaeology of Egypt, 1, 1-13. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Philosophy of science

The philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

I believe the preceding quotation, often attributed to the great physicist Richard Feynman, captures a common sentiment among scientists. Philosophy of science is thought to be useless to practicing scientists. Why bother with philosophy when you could just do science? What exactly is philosophy of science, and why is it considered, by philosophers, to be a legitimate area of inquiry?

Philosophy of science, proper, deals with normative, epistemological, and metaphysical questions that concern all of the sciences. Here are five such examples:

o   What are the criteria for theory confirmation?
o   What makes a theory scientific?
o   What rational basis is there for making inductive inferences (reasoning from past cases to future ones)?
o   What kinds of metaphysical commitments do our best scientific theories have (e.g. should we believe the Higgs Boson exists?)?
o   Does science tell us about reality or only about appearances from the perspective of human beings? (Would space aliens develop scientific theories that are at odds with our own?)

Over the past few years, there has been a vocal group of scientists (e.g. Neil de Grasse Tyson, Peter Atkins, Lawrence Krauss) who think that reflecting upon on these kinds of questions are (1) irrelevant to their line of work, (2) trivially easy to answer, or pointless to ask, either because (3) there is no answer or that we could never know the correct one. A more general critique to philosophy of science as a whole is that it is alleged to be uninformed by contemporary science (4). In this post, I will address each of these contentions in turn.

(1)               Philosophy of science is irrelevant to practicing scientists

I think it’s true that scientists can go about their work without ever thinking about the philosophical assumptions that they make, but I think it's much less clear whether they should. But I do not know of any philosophers who think scientists need to do philosophy of science to become competent experimenters or to develop novel hypotheses to test. Hence, I think scientists who say that they don’t need to do philosophy of science are attacking a straw man. That isn’t to say that philosophy of science is of no use to scientists. On the contrary, I think it would be a good thing for scientists to be aware of the philosophical import of their views. Being aware of the assumptions one makes is the first step in determining whether or not those assumptions are warranted

The physicist Lawrence Krauss advances a pretty weak argument for why scientists philosophy is of little to no use for scientists. His reasoning? Because scientists, who do their jobs just fine, don’t read philosophy journals. The problem with Krauss’s argument is that it doesn’t tell you anything about whether the scientists who do keep up with philosophy of science are better or worse off. It could be philosophy of science is of use to scientists, but that most scientists have been missing out.

(2)             Philosophical questions about science are trivially easy to answer

The first thing to say about this is that these questions are not easy and those who think that they are probably haven’t thought much about them. If it’s so obvious, it should be easy to develop arguments and reasons for why theory A is preferable to theories B, C, and D. Without doing the work—in showing why their own assumptions are rationally defensible—it prevents them from entertaining alternative views that may be more plausible, given a different set of starting assumptions. Moreover, some of their scientist peers probably have the same attitude about their own views (i.e. they’re just obvious), preventing a proper debate about the issues to be had. Philosophers are in the business of revealing hidden assumptions in order to subject them to careful logical and conceptual analysis.

(3)              Philosophical questions about science are meaningless or impossible to answer

How do we answer the questions raised by philosophers of science? What all of these questions have in common is that you won’t solve them by doing science. Perhaps that is why scientists don’t really like to raise these questions. Their area of expertise is in addressing questions that could, in principle, be answered through experimentation and observation. But those are not the only ways to settle a debate. Scientists may not know how to answer normative, metaphysical, or epistemological questions, but it doesn’t follow that no one does. Philosophers have been making progress on these questions by clarifying the concepts and theories that have been advanced in trying to answer these questions. For example, in determining whether a theory is scientific or not, philosophers have put forward a number of views, each one building upon the successes and improving upon the faults of their predecessors. Scientists like to defer to the philosopher Karl Popper, in that science, unlike pseudoscience, is in the business of falsifying hypotheses, not confirming them. To just accept what Popper says at face value is to assume that no progress has been made on the question since the 1960’s. However, there are more recent views that are, in my view, much more plausible and nuanced (c.f. Lakatos 1978, Thagard 1978, Pigliucci and Boudry 2013).

(4)             Philosophers of science have not kept up with the science
Stephen Hawking has alleged that philosophy of science is a dead enterprise because philosophers have not kept up with modern science (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010). It is interesting to note that, in his book, Hawking provides no evidence to support his claim.  

Contrary to Hawking’s claims about philosophers, many have extensively studied the science relevant to the questions they work on. Taking a look at some of the prominent philosophers working on the foundations of physics, David Albert and David Wallace have PhD’s in physics, while others like Tim Maudlin have BA’s in physics and have displayed extensive knowledge of the field in technical papers and books. So while scientists concentrate more of their interests on conducting experiments and carrying out research, it is not as if philosophers of science are unaware of their projects. Philosophers keep themselves up to date with the scientific literature, all while continuing their work on solving the philosophical questions that have been lingering in the background all along.

Ever since science split off into all of its specialized sub-branches (e.g. biology, physics, psychology), new philosophical questions, specific to the subject matter of each particular field, began to surface. In turn, philosophers have become increasingly specialized to deal with such questions. To give three quick examples, philosophers of physics grapple with how to interpret experimental findings (e.g. double slit experiment) relevant to understanding quantum mechanics, philosophers of biology sort through controversies over how to understand the level (e.g. individual vs. group) at which natural selection takes place, and philosophers of psychology work on clarifying and analyzing the concepts used to explain cognition and behavior (e.g. ‘mental representation’). While scientists also grapple with many of these questions from time-to-time, the philosopher works full-time on these issues.


Just like there has been a division of labor among scientists with respect to a range of subject matter, there has been a division of intellectual labor among the kinds of questions that are raised in each field. Before the 20th century, most scientists, or natural philosophers, reflected upon both kinds of questions. Even within the 20th century, some of the greatest scientists (e.g. Einstein) carefully studied and reflected upon the philosophical issues related to their areas of study. This, rather recent, division of intellectual labor is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has led to a kind of rivalry between scientists and philosophers that is, in my view, mistaken. Science and philosophy go hand in hand in explaining the world and our place in it. Where science leaves off, philosophy takes over. This says nothing about whether one is more important or explanatorily privileged than the other. It is just to say that these are different endeavors, each sharing the same aim: knowledge and understanding.

Works cited

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design: new answers to the ultimate question of life.

Lakatos, I. (1978). Science and pseudoscience. Philosophical papers, 1, 1-7.

Pigliucci, M., & Boudry, M. (Eds.). (2013). Philosophy of pseudoscience: reconsidering the demarcation problem. University of Chicago Press.

Thagard, P. R. (1978, January). Why astrology is a pseudoscience. In PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (Vol. 1978, No. 1, pp. 223-234). Philosophy of Science