Scientists’ comments on philosophers meddling in science by Daniel Boone Savage


Thanks for putting this together Savage, and thanks Michael Meadon for the picture below.

Scientists’ comments on philosophers meddling in science

  1. To summarize, I would use the words of Jeans, who said that “the Great Architect seems to be a mathematician”. To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. C. P. Snow talked about two cultures. I really think those two cultures separate people who have and people who have not had this experience of understanding mathematics well enough to appreciate nature once.

It is too bad that it has to be mathematics, and that mathematics is hard for some people. It is reputed – I do not know if it is true – that when one of the kings was trying to learn geometry from Euclidhe complained that it was difficult. And Euclidsaid, “There is no royal road to geometry”. And there is no royal road. Physicists cannot make a conversion to any other language. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in. She offers her information only in one form; we are not too un-humble as to demand that she change before we pay any attention.

All the intellectual arguments that you can make will not communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is. In the same way all the intellectual arguments in the world will not convey an understanding of nature to those of “the other culture”. Philosophers may try to teach you by telling you quantitatively about nature. I am trying to describe her. But it is not getting across because it is impossible. Perhaps it is because their horizons are limited in this way that some people are able to imagine that the centre of the universe is man.

(Richard P Feynman; The Character of Physical Law. From the chapter: “The Relation of Mathematics to Physics” page 58

  1. On balance, it seems to me that the thinking-machine debate is really a battle between philosophers, regardless of the fact that some of them may be masquerading as psychologists, computer scientists, mathematicians, or programmers. And, as it should be in all stories involving philosophers, the debate ends up in complete chaos.

(John L Casti; Paradigms Lost. Images of Man in the Mirror of Science.

From the chapter:  “The Cognitive Machine” page 339

(Andrè)  Weil had renounced philosophy as a fatuity years earlier, after he received a good grade on a philosophy test despite having read none of the relevant texts. “It seemed to me that a subject in which one could do so well while barely knowing what one was talking about was hardly worthy of respect,” he wrote in his autobiography.

(Scientific American, June 1994)

  1. Someone has said it this way – “Nature herself does not even know which way the electron is going to go”.

A philosopher once said: “It is necessary for the very existence of science that the same conditions always produce the same results”. Well, they do not.  You set up the circumstances, with the same conditions every time, and you cannot predict behind which hole you will see the electron. Yet science goes on in spite of it – although the same conditions do not always produce the same results.

What is necessary “for the very existence of science”, and what the characteristics of nature are, are not to be determined by pompous preconditions, they are determined by the material with which we work, by nature herself.

…it is necessary for the very existence of science that minds exist which do not allow that nature must satisfy some preconceived conditions, like those of our philosopher.

(Richard P Feynman; The Character of Physical Law. From the chapter: “Probability and Uncertainty”, pages 147 & 148.)

  1. Philosophy today gets no respect. Many scientists use the term as a synonym for effete speculation. When my colleague Ned Block told his father that he would major in the subject, his father’s reply was ‘Luft!’ –Yiddish for ‘air.’ And then there’s the joke in which a young man told his mother he would become a Doctor of Philosophy and she said, ‘Wonderful! But what kind of disease is philosophy?’

(Steven Pinker; The Blank Slate. From Part 1, Chapter 1, page 11)

  1. By one of the most ironic verdicts ever delivered in the agelong litigation of fact versus speculation, the discovery of Ceres coincided with the publication by the famous philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) of a sarcastic attack on astronomers for presuming to search for an eighth planet. Would they but pay some attention to philosophy, Hegel asserted, they must see immediately that there can be precisely seven planets, no more, no less. Their search therefore was a stupid waste of time. Doubtless this slight lapse on Hegel’s part has been satisfactorily explained by his disciples, but they have not yet talked away the hundreds of minor planets which mock his Jovian ban.

It will be of interest here to quote what [Carl Friedrich] Gauss thought of philosophers who busy themselves with scientific matters they have not understood. This holds in particular for philosophers who peck at the foundations of mathematics without having first sharpened their dull beaks on some hard mathematics. Conversely, it suggests why Bertrand A W Russell (1872-   ), Alfred North Whitehead (1861-   ) and David Hilbert (1862-   ) in our own times have made outstanding contributions to the philosophy of mathematics: these men are mathematicians.

Writing to his friend Schumacher on November 1, 1844, Gauss says: “You see the same sort of thing [mathematical incompetence] in the contemporary philosophers Schelling, Hegel, Nees von Essenbeck, and their followers; don’t they make your hair stand on end with their definitions? Read in the history of ancient philosophers what the big men of the day – Plato and others (I except Aristotle) – gave in the way of explanations. But even with Kant himself it is often not much better; in my opinion his distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions is one of those things that either run out in a triviality or are false.” When he wrote this Gauss had long been in full possession of non-Euclidean geometry, itself a sufficient refutation of some of the things Kant said about space and geometry.

(E TBell; Men of Mathematics. From the chapter “The Prince of Mathematicians”, pages 239-240.)

  1. This was typical of a chemist; chemists always believe they are smarter than biochemists. Of course, physicists think they are smarter than chemists, mathematicians think they are smarter than physicists, and, for a while, philosophers thought they were smarter than mathematicians, until they found out in this century that they really didn’t have anything much to talk about.

(Kary Mullis; Dancing Naked in the Mine Field, page 38.)

  1. “It is therefore ridiculous to suppose that religion can turn anybody’s head, and if all the insane were sent to insane asylums, more philosophers than Christians would be found there.”

(Quote by Augustin-Louie Cauchy. E TBell; Men of Mathematics. From the chapter, “Mathematics and Windmills”, page 276.)

  1. Indeed Hamilton, who seems to have been unacquainted with non-Euclidean geometry, followed Kant in believing that “Time and space are two sources of knowledge from which various a priori synthetical cognitions can be derived. Of this, pure mathematics gives a splendid example in the case of our cognition of space and its various relations. As they are both pure forms of sensuous intuition, they render synthetic propositions a priori possible.” Of course any not utterly illiterate mathematician today knows that Kant was mistaken in this conception of mathematics, but in the 1840’s, whenHamilton was on his way to quaternions, the Kantian philosophy of mathematics still made sense to those – and they were nearly all – who had never heard of Lobatchewsky.

(E TBell; Men of Mathematics. From the chapter, “An Irish Tragedy”, page 359.)

10. Philosophers have said that if the same circumstances don’t always produce the same results, predictions are impossible and science will collapse. Here is a circumstance—identical photons are always coming down in the same direction to the piece of glass—that produces different results. We cannot predict whether a given photon will arrive at A or B. All we can predict is that out of 100 photons that come down, an average of 4 will be reflected by the front surface. Does this mean that physics, a science of great exactitude, has been reduced to calculating only the probability of an event, and not predicting exactly what will happen? Yes. That’s a retreat, but that’s the way it is: Nature permits us to calculate only probabilities. Yet science has not collapsed.

(Richard P Feynman; QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, page 19.)

11. The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher. The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.


12. “My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these attributes, and Substances, and all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there’s no excuse for it! In the same period there wasNewton, there wasHarveystudying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world and you can’t tell which is right.”

(Richard P. Feynman; The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.)

13. Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

(Richard P Feynman)

14. Philosophy became a gloomy science, in the labyrinth of which people vainly tried to find the exit, called The Truth.

(Edward Schwartz; One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward.)

15. To be fair, I regret sometimes lumping all philosophers in with theologians because theology, aside from those parts that involve true historical or linguistic scholarship, is not [a] credible field of modern scholarship.

(Laurence M Krauss)

16. I have in the past, taken an occasional interest in the philosophy of science. But in a lifetime doing science, I have hardly ever heard a scientist mention the subject. It is, on the whole, a subject that is of interest only to philosophers.

It’s true that some philosophers have had interesting things to say about the nature of inductive inference, but during the 20th century the real advances in that area came from statisticians, not from philosophers. So I long since decided that it would be more profitable to spend my time trying to understand R.A. Fisher, rather than read even Karl Popper. It is harder work to do that, but it seemed the way to go.(David Colquhoun; “Why philosophy is largely ignored by science.” October 28th, 2011) 

17. [T]he the­ory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really was devoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what crit­ics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was—and remains—stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, espe­cially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations—and academic egos.

(Michael Bérubé; “The Science Wars Redux. Fifteen years after the Sokal Hoax.”)

  1. When a philosopher says something that is true then it is trivial. When he says something that is not trivial then it is false.

(Carl Friedrich Gauss)

19. Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoon, who gives us this assurance.

(Bertrand Russell)

20. The natural philosophers are mostly gone. We modern scientists are adding too many decimals.

(Martin H Fisher)

21. In the mid-1970s, the philosopher Karl Popper caused a flurry in the scientific dovecotes with a claim, made in his autobiographical “Unended Quest”, that “darwinism is not a testable scientific theory”.

…. It is indeed possible to make predictions, from Darwinian theory, about the changes that will take place in a laboratory population of, say, bacteria or fruit flies, subjected to different environmental conditions and therefore different selection processes. But the test I like best, which seems utterly to refute both Popper’s original claim and the spurious arguments of those who invoke Popper as an ally in their attacks on evolutionary theorising, was carried out by three researches inNew Zealand, David Penny, L. R.  Foulds and M. D. Hendy, and reported in “Nature” in 1982.

(John Gribbin; In Search of the Double Helix, page 347.)

22. Remarks from a philosopher and a mathematician regarding women mathematicians:

“Immanuel Kant is said to have remarked that women might as well have beards as “worry their pretty heads about geometry”, a most discouraging remark from so important a philosopher.”

“.. David Hilbert responded [to Emmy Noether’s detractors’ for her appointment atGöttingenUniversity] with a delicious bit of sarcasm: “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission. After all, we are a university and not a bathing establishment.”

(William Dunham; The Mathematical Universe, pages 264-265.)

23. [T]o many of the ancients, mathematics was a stultified game to be played according to the prim rules imposed by the philosophically-minded Plato. According to Plato only a straightedge and a pair of compasses were to be permitted as the implements of construction in geometry. … Not until Descartes, 1985 years after the death of Plato, published his analytical geometry, did geometry escape from its Platonic straightjacket.

On the other hand, only praise is due to Archimedes for not appreciating the old-maidishness of Plato’s rigidly corseted conception of what the muse of geometry should be. [Archimedes was born sixty years after the death of Plato.]

(E TBell; Men of Mathematics. From the chapter, “Modern Minds in Ancient Bodies”, pages 31-32.)

24. The arbitrary freedom in the mathematical construction of “space” and “geometries” [by mathematicians like Gauss, Lobachewsky, Bolyai, Caley, Plücker and Riemann] at last made it plain that Kant’s a priori space and his whole conception of the nature of mathematics are erroneous. Yet as late as 1945 [the year this edition ofBell’s book was published], students of philosophy were still faithfully mastering Kant’s obsolete ideas under the delusion that they were gaining an insight into mathematics.

(E TBell; The Development of Mathematics. From the chapter, “Contributions From Geometry”, page 344.)

25. Kant’s conception of mathematics has long been obsolete, and it would be quite misleading to suggest that there is any close connexion between it and the intuitionist outlook. Nevertheless it is a significant fact that the intuitionists , like Kant, find the source of mathematical truth in intuition rather than in the intellectual manipulation of abstract concepts.

(G T Kneebone; Mathematical Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics, page 249.)

One thought on “Scientists’ comments on philosophers meddling in science by Daniel Boone Savage

  1. Now this will piss of the philosophers just like it pisses of the fundies when you criticize their dogmas. They immediately start philosophizing that philosophy is the one and only true path to the truth. Once they are happy they settled that argument, they start fighting with one another again. Wow, so similar to religion, isn’t it?


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