Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login

I do science. When I was younger, I devoured philosophy treatises, law reviews, and political science books. I still find it fun, but I lost the passion for it. However, I disagree strongly with this article in his characterization of philosophers.

I haven't left philosophy because everyone in it is stupid, as this article seems to suggest. I left philosophy because after all my reading, note-taking, class-discussioning, and debate tournamenting, I never felt like I'd made any progress, and that mattered to me personally. At the end of the day, the questions that were hard to answer were still unsolved, and the gray ethical areas were still gray. This is why I don't do philosophy, and I why I found the science bug. Not because philosophy lacks rigor or reasonable investigators.

In philosophy, real answers are difficult to find and prove, but in math and science, even though every answer brings 10 new questions, you can look back and say: I proved that theorem, I empirically verified the acceleration of the earth.

To quote my favorite xkcd T-shirt "Science, it works, bitches!". Most scientists I know that disregard philosophy do so because science gives them a feeling of getting somewhere, while philosophy, even at its most rigorous, just seems to leave them more confused than when they started. It's more of a personal preference for that kind of investigation than any rejection of the intelligence of a large group of people.




I agree with all of the above. Except there are isolated cases of philosophy actually pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge. Arguably Russell & Whitehead did in the Principia Mathematica, which attempted to put the foundation of mathematics in terms of logic. That system is the system where Godel found a paradox, which lead to Godels theorems. I'm sure Turing had it in the back of his mind that the Turing machine was a useful way of reasoning about those propositions which are 'true and provable'. Russell/Whitehead --> Godel --> Turing.

Another area where there have arguably been successes (even through failure), is in the attempts to formalise natural languages into logic (Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein). This is the tradition that informed Chomsky, whose theories of grammar inform modern compiler design.

There are philosophers alive that I believe have advanced the frontier of knowledge, but as with some areas of pure mathematics it's hard to say practically what that means. I have in mind Kripke.


> Chomsky, whose theories of grammar inform modern compiler design

That's math, though, not philosophy.

The difference: Math is a symbol game that occasionally produces useful tools for other fields, whereas philosophy is a discussion of human problems.


it's more like philosophy is the dumping ground for stuff that we don't understand well enough to formalize and place in its own little box. that means that it changes with time.

so there was a point when foundational issues in maths and logic were philosophy. the importance of frege, and then later peano, russel, etc, is that they were the ones that found a way to attack that set of problems, letting us isolate a chunk of knowledge as logic, set theory, etc.

a similar process is probably happening now with consciousness - we're starting to develop the tools to answer questions that are currently "philosophical".


Exactly. Claiming that Philosophy never answers anything makes one hell of a selection bias. When Philosophy answers something, it ceases to be Philosophy.


You can go back even further. The impact of Descartes and Leibniz on math is not small.


absolutely, it's at the boundary. I think Brouwer's work in topology and intuitionistic logic is a good example of this interplay


"Without mathematics we cannot penetrate deeply into philosophy. Without philosophy we cannot penetrate deeply into mathematics. Without both we cannot penetrate deeply into anything." _ Leibniz

> Math is a symbol game

So is logic.

> philosophy is a discussion of human problems.

No. It's not.


How is logic not mathematics?


There is mathematics in it, but it's not just mathematics; it was originated, and is still used in areas like AI, as an attempt to formalize thought, i.e. a kind of formal philosophy. A good portion of the foundational work was done by philosophers (e.g. Frege, Russell), and a lot of current work (especially in modal logic) is done by philosophers as well.


Usually logic is considered part of mathematics. However, in an important sense, logic precedes mathematics. You can't do mathematics without using logic.


Many have, take the sort of mathematics done in order to understand physics. Logic is the study of formal reasoning. Mathematics is the study of form and structure. It took R&W's Principia Mathematica to attempt to show that the entirety of mathematics was rested on a logical foundation. That's pretty recent on the scene if you think about the history of mathematics! To me, the idea you expressed, seems like a very 20th century thing.


Math is a symbol game? I'm sure you don't believe that any more than you believe music is a symbol game.


You have no idea what I believe and I wonder why you think I do.


you're absolutely correct, I can only go by what you say.


Unless you are a true original in every sphere, then we can make a reasonable guess that the majority of what you believe lies within the known sets of human beliefs. Then from observing your actions and reactions to stimuli, (ie, your interaction on this board), we could extrapolate from there and make a reasonable guess on your beliefs on a wide variety of subjects. It won't be absolutely correct, obviously, but it won't be a complete shot in the dark either.


> I haven't left philosophy because everyone in it is stupid, as this article seems to suggest. I left philosophy because after all my reading, note-taking, class-discussioning, and debate tournamenting, I never felt like I'd made any progress, and that mattered to me personally. At the end of the day, the questions that were hard to answer were still unsolved, and the gray ethical areas were still gray. This is why I don't do philosophy, and I why I found the science bug.

I get your point, but for all intents and purposes that's one of the things that makes philosophy great, i.e. the fact that Heraclitus's sayings are as actual today as they were 2,500 years ago. You'll also have to agree that deciding once and for all (or "proving" by scientific means) what makes as taking "moral" decisions, or if "morals" even exist at all, or what makes us not kill each other once we've stopped believing in gods etc., is better left "unresolved", because this "philosophical quest" is what makes us humans.


I think that's a little sad. If the state of the art hasn't improved in 2500 years, why bother?


Asking a fundamental question is simple. It's the answers that are hard, just like in science. Go back to the pre-Socratics and you can find questions that are clear precursors to modern questions in science about things like causality, block time, the nature of matter or consciousness. We're still trying to find out. We've gotten unbelievably better and we still don't have firm answers. Philosophers throughout history posed questions that at the time science didn't have the capability to answer, but was able to narrow down the possibilities simply by carefully analyzing the question, producing thought experiments, etc. This cut the workload down for science tremendously by eliminating red herrings and logical impossibilities, and in turn science answered questions through testing of the physical world that philosophy could not, thereby narrowing the workload of philosophy. (I see this very prominently in the theory of Mind.) Science and Philosophy are often complementary practices.

I also think philosophy can help science in areas that do affect us but are probably untestable. I remember reading some work in primitivism that speculates that the introduction of the clock, and its conception of time, to humanity fundamentally changed the nature of consciousness. People literally thought differently before the clock became common. If this is true, it has ramifications for how we understand the past and things that people did in it that affect us today. So maybe philosophy helps us with questions of history in a way that science (at least currently, at least in my conception) cannot.


If the point isn't to "improve" but for each generation of humans to keep asking the same questions and to live with their own answers, what's wrong with not "improving"?


"Of philosophy I will say nothing, except that when I saw that it had been cultivated for many ages by the most distinguished men, and that yet there is not a single matter within its sphere which is not still in dispute,..." (Descartes, 1637)


Philosophy is about posing new questions, not providing answers. It's about imagination more than it's about deduction. Of course, in the same manner that math teachers emphasize deriving proofs rather than crafting new mathematical constructs as the fundamental activity of mathematicians, people who teach philosophy emphasize philosophical argument over opening up new frontiers of discourse as the fundamental activity of philosophers. As a result, students come to perceive philosophy as pointless.


Philosophy is about posing new questions, not providing answers.

I'm increasingly under the impression that philosophy is "about" whatever the individual philosopher or reader or writer wants it to be about, and that a lot of philosophers really like arguing about what philosophy is about. Granted, this comes mostly from sporadic reading in the field and from listening to Philosophy Bites, but the combination has still made me increasingly skeptical of explanations about what philosophy is about.

Link: http://www.philosophybites.com/


I agree. I'm just providing a reframing of what philosophy is that makes progress in philosophy a possibility.


"Most scientists I know that disregard philosophy do so because science gives them a feeling of getting somewhere, while philosophy, even at its most rigorous, just seems to leave them more confused than when they started."

The things you dislike about philosophy are exactly the things that make it so useful, and the things you like about science are the reasons why most (if not all) of it is ultimately illusory.


> the things you like about science are the reasons why most (if not all) of it is ultimately illusory.

How is science illusory?


Science is downstream from philosophy, and behind any given scientific paradigm there are dozens if not hundreds of philosophical assumptions. This means that if philosophy has taught us essentially nothing, then most likely science has taught us several orders of magnitude less than essentially nothing.

Modern science as it exists today is basically a quasi-religious system that is more or less the next version of alchemy in terms of its intellectual heritage. It's clear to me that in a couple hundred years we'll probably look back on the science of today the same way that most people today look at alchemy. Already research investigating the truth of the spiritual underpinnings of science is one of the hottest areas of research, and you can't go more than a couple weeks without seeing some new finding or treatise. It's only going to be so long before all of these disparate parts get organized into a cohesive whole that's convincing enough to undermine the current establishment.


> Modern science as it exists today is basically a quasi-religious system

No. This is simply wrong on a factual level. Science doesn't have dogma. It isn't religion. See? Your ideas fail because you don't have the facts you need to form good ideas.

> It's clear to me that in a couple hundred years we'll probably look back on the science of today the same way that most people today look at alchemy.

To the extent we do, it will be because of advances in science. Science replaces its own ideas (that is, in fact, the exact opposite of dogma) using evidence and sound mathematical logic, which is why that happens. Trying to use science to prove the weakness of science is a wonderful indication that you haven't the faintest clue what you're talking about.


"Science doesn't have dogma. It isn't religion."

That's simply false. If you don't believe that science has dogma, open up the first chapter of nearly every biology textbook. Most of them start out by discussing the dogma of science, which is roughly as follows:

- We live in a materialist universe.

- There exists nothing magical or supernatural.

- All phenomena are in principle understandable by humans.

- The scientific method is how we can understand the universe.

There are many other assumptions behind science as well, but these are the ones that most textbooks usually enumerate explicitly. Being assumptions, none of them are provable. And in fact there is good reason to believe that many (or all) of them are wrong, which would essentially make all of scientific knowledge wrong as well. And while specific scientific results are at least in theory subject to being replaced, these general principles are considered sacred and unchallengable.

Science is a religion just like any other. And if you actually look at the principles I listed, they actually look a lot like the four noble truths of buddhism. Different content, but still religious just the same.


I've never seen quotes like that. Which is not to say they're not the opinion of the authors. But it's not dogma, it's precision. Strong opinions weakly held as they say. Or more like working assumptions.


> Most of them start out by discussing the dogma of science, which is roughly as follows:

They aren't dogma. They can be refuted with sufficient evidence. The failure of the religious to provide such evidence means they haven't yet been refuted. (It also says nasty things about the religious, but propriety forbids me from being more specific.)

> there is good reason to believe that many (or all) of them are wrong

What reasons? Be precise enough and you get a Nobel Prize and eternal adulation.

> they actually look a lot like the four noble truths of buddhism

Only to someone who totally misunderstands both science and Buddhism.


"They can be refuted with sufficient evidence."

Except for that they can't, because everyone who believes in science just says that the reason they believe that science will be able to explain everything is that it has explained everything so far. This is just begging the question, and it's clear that no matter how much evidence there is that there are some things that science can't explain these will just be written off by those who have 'faith' in science. You can go over to r/science or r/atheism and find literally thousands of examples of this.

>What reasons? Be precise enough and you get a Nobel Prize and eternal adulation.

The obvious one would be that there is absolutely nothing to suggest that consciousness is material in nature. But again, the true believers refute this by listing all the other things that we didn't understand until science came up with some explanation, and saying that therefor science will most likely also be able to explain consciousness one day.


> This is just begging the question, and it's clear that no matter how much evidence there is that there are some things that science can't explain these will just be written off by those who have 'faith' in science.

You don't have any examples of this in this post, though.

> there is absolutely nothing to suggest that consciousness is material in nature

Wrong. The existence of psychoactive drugs and the effectiveness of fMRI scans disproves this statement.

EDITED TO ADD: What evidence would make you change your mind about this statement in particular?


The question in philosophy is "how does consciousness arise from the physical?" While you can claim it's due to some complex interaction in our brains, and while we have significant evidence that this is the case, I don't think that answers the question. Philosophers want to know the mechanism which produces the experience. Arguing that consciousness (or experience) is physical is a tough thing to do from first principles because of our own intuitive sense of it.

For example, how is it that the electrical signals in our brains produce "us" while electrical signals in other things don't produce conscious things? How are they different? What would it take to make a circuit "conscious"?

I can't give you good definitions for consciousness or experience and I can't even say that the question(s) make(s) sense. I'm just trying to give you give you a picture of what some people think.


I think philosophy is a worthy pursuit for a scientist. It's easy to get a feeling of going somewhere with science, because someone else has done a lot of thinking for you making you comfortable with your result. But if you leave philosophy more confused than when you started, you won't have the mental fortitude to make real progress in science. I think philosophy is ultimately the study of human thought. It's why courses on logic are an important component of undergraduate studies in philosophy. Having a good understanding of human thought, how we come to the decisions we make and how we fool ourselves with lazy thought, is invaluable in making deep scientific discoveries. When you don't come away more confused, but with a deeper understanding, you are better prepared to understand the why, instead of just accepting the how. You would know why science works, instead of making snarky remarks about science and that it works.

If you really think about it, the situation in science, that the questions that were hard to answer were still unsolved, is very similar to the situation in philosophy. Ask anyone what an electric field really is. No one knows.


> It's easy to get a feeling of going somewhere with science, because someone else has done a lot of thinking for you

Any field that is actually advancing builds on itself. That doesn't make future progress easy in an absolute sense; it merely makes it possible.




Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: