Tag Archives: science

Quo Vadis, Materialism? Nowhere, It Seems…

I mentor a few young philosophers; which basically means young readers of philosophy pester me for answers, and I annoy them with corrective questions.  Occasionally, I do give them something like an answer, but it is mostly for the purposes of spiking their silly ideas into the sand, causing their thought process to begin again fresh, humbled.  Socrates’ modus operandi may have been likewise inspired.  The question I’m going to address has been posed to me in a variety of different ways, and I’m not quite sure how to best reformulate the question.  I think it would be approximately accurate to recast the question as follows:  Isn’t there an issue with the fact that “matter” seems to be a metaphysical concept, yet it is referred to as a physical entity?  Another way of asking the question might be: Why would a scientist hold a materialistic worldview in conjunction with their scientific perspective, if materialism is a philosophical presupposition that is grounded metaphysics?  The concern I’m faced with, in these young students, is that, in their philosophical reading from ancient times onward and their penchant for popular scientific literature, they are detecting that there is no necessary connection between scientific theories and practices, on the one hand, and a materialistic worldview, on the other.  I’m torn on the matter of expressing my thoughts when they are struggling with ideas, because they are vulnerable, perhaps even liable, to commit an argumentum ad verecundiam, as if I know what I’m talking about.


A short response is satisfactory for now, I think, and for good reason.  The reason is this: having discussed the concept of what “matter” is with philosophers and scientists over hundreds of hours, it is clear to me that none of them know what they mean by word.  Actually, I know what they want to mean, rather, but the problem is that, once brought to light that what they wish the concept to be can’t actually be reified in any meaningful way, there is endless ad hoc substitutions, vague ersatz definition supplements, and sometimes accusations that, “oh! You are just philosophizing [and annoying me by revealing my definitive cognitive dissonance and egregious lack of clarity of thought]!”  Scientists, especially physicists, like to give water-tube toy definitions of matter, once they struggle after just a couple of seconds.  (You know, those rubber, gel-filled toys in which you squeeze one side, and the gel squirts to the other end.)  The water-tube toy “definition” is that matter is a different form of energy.  There is a bit of irony in that, as I’ll end with some closing remarks on the Logical Positivists/Logical Empiricists and W.v.O. Quine –the latter being a product of the former in ways.  The upshot from those remarks will be clear.


The big problem with materialism, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what they mean by “matter,” is that there was a commonsense usage which did little to transform from ancient times.  The beginnings of the concept of matter in Greek philosophy begins with “hyle,” which can be swapped with “stuff,” or even as non-descript stuff (e.g., excrement, again, as used today in vulgar social contexts).  The non-descript and inert nature of this hyle is what defined it, entirely, as a phenomenal entity.  There was nothing metaphysical about, and it was present in givenness, plain and simple.  It seems to be that, as separation of materials (e.g., separation of clays from soil and ores, etc.) from one another came to conscious inquiry and foundationalist hierarchies of ontology came about, philosophers wanted to explore a newer concept, hypokeimenon.  It’s a bizarre, hard-to-explain shift in thinking that occurred: the Greeks wanted to know what gave rise to phenomena.  As you can read throughout Plato, especially in texts like the Theaetetus, Plato’s (and Socrates’) philosophy had at its heart the distinction of reality and appearance –hence, Bertrand Russell’s later title.  Obviously, the Greek philosophers became interested in the hyle under the hyle, and the underlying hyle was called the hypokeimenon: that’s the metaphysical stuff that underlies and gives rise to the stuff that is merely apparent, and not necessarily real in the fullest sense, known as hyle or matter.  The interest, from then on, was what gave rise to the appearance of matter.  On and off throughout history, philosophers had some rather forgetful bouts with the history of philosophy, wherein they proposed “matter” to be somehow fundamental, disregarding the plenitude of questions posed by philosophers before them.


Filling in the details of this history and the nature of philosophical inquiry might be a little blogging project I take up at some later point, but there are two major developments in the history of philosophy that are most relevant here.  The first is the coming of idealism, which was effectively the realization that the physical world is comprised of characteristics (e.g., extension, penetrability/impenetrability, etc.), rather than requiring a strange ancient folk-philosophical concept, namely, “matter,” which represented a time when metaphysics and ontology were naively compressed into a single, unconsidered existence, when the stuff of appearance was also what was underlying.  (As strange as that sounds, it will be relevant in a second, when the Logical Positivists come on the scene.)  Leibniz was perfectly capable of developing is theories of natural philosophy (now called “physics”), despite rejecting these strange ancient ideas about matter, and occupying an intellectual space of idealism.  Leibniz, being deeply metaphysical, discarded with the ancient folk-philosophical concept.  There was no need for it.  (And what the heck does anybody mean by “matter,” anyway?)  A great deal of the development of natural philosophy into later “hard science” was the pursuit for more metaphysical understanding of the stuff of givenness, such as in the work of Newton, Lemonosov, and Lavoisier; but no deeper metaphysical underlying cause of the world of appearance was understood.


At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of physicists, mathematicians, and a few philosophers, called the Vienna Circle, sounded the death knell of matter.  What was matter, anyways?  The Vienna Circle completely revamped the philosophy of science by putting everything into terms of phenomena and logical rules of behavior.  (An oversimplification, but fine for this discussion.)  Maybe no greater representative of the group of intellectuals was Rudolf Carnap, who sought at every turn to destroy and eliminate all traces of metaphysics from the sciences.  It often goes unnoticed, but all traces of any notion like matter was eliminated, save for the respect in which matter was meant to refer to a kind of phenomena.  Its existence was purely linguistic and referential to phenomena of types.  Were I an historian in 1930, I probably would have been writing about how the Vienna Circle had put an end to the vague antiquated folk-philosophical concept of matter.  Where is the need for it?  What conceptual work does the word do?  As I mentioned, nobody can really even say what they mean, especially when words from the ancient version, like “indefinite” and “inert,” are stripped away.  After the Vienna Circle, W.v.O. Quine would present a philosophy of science that was both influenced by the Vienna Circle, but one that also rejected it in a linguistic turn: his proposal was that science is a sort of network of linguistic statements that are revised, interconnected, and necessarily interdependent.  It’s for this reason that the definition of matter given by scientists today is ironic.


In large part, it is my opinion that the absurd philosophy and dogmatic views of Bertrand Russell have done a great deal to revive the folk-philosophical concept.  I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader, especially those who have read Appearance and Reality, to consider why Bertrand was so worried about matter.  What could he socially and politically gain?  I’ll give you two hints: 1) in history, what positions did people historically hold who made authoritative statements about metaphysics? and 2) what was Russell’s annoyance with George Berkeley in Appearance and Reality?  Understand these things, and you understand a great many things about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


To close, for those interested in shifting the definition of matter to be mass-bearing objects of spatial extension, then you have a big problem, which is quite sophisticated.  The nature of the problem is that mass is not a definite idea, in itself.  Not only does the meaning of the term change between times and contexts, but there are also some procedural experimental difficulties in distinguishing mass from other concepts.  The work highlighting all of these issues is Max Jammer’s work, Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics, which contains a discussion of experimental and theoretical physics related to the notion of mass, the concept’s historical transformations, and a philosophical examination of the concept throughout history.


Filed under Ancient Greek, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Metaphysics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Pure Philosophy, Science

Distinguishing between Types of Science: Unmixing Metaphysics and Pragmatic Science

I get questions regularly about the bizarre nature of contemporary physics.  I am sure practicing physicists with PhDs get these more regularly than I, yet I occupy an interesting and rare position in the academic disciplinary landscape: I’ve studied science, particularly physics, into the graduate level, and I am actively developing my expertise in the history and philosophy of science, particularly physics, as well as being a lifelong student of more traditional philosophy (e.g., analytic, contemporary, and Eastern).  The question most regularly asked of late has been: What are physicists talking about with all of this “non-verifiable” theory; it sounds like philosophy?  By this, they mean the fact that there is this apparent post-empirical turn, and the lack of requirement of empirical data to substantiate proposed theory.  I’d like to spend some length explaining my thoughts on this, including a suggestion to all practicing scientists, regardless of discipline.

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Filed under Cosmology, Epistemology, History and Philosophy of Science, History of Physics, History of Science, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Popular Science, Science

A Reflection on the Introduction of Josh Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning” and the State of Academic Philosophy

the-art-of-learning-Josh-WaitzkinI was rereading Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning[1] the other day, and it resonated with me much more so than when I read it in 2007.  I suspect part of this has to do with the fact that I was studying physics at the time, and, by now, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in philosophy departments and at workshops/conferences/get-togethers with graduate students in philosophy.  In the introduction, in addition to recounting some of his experiences as a young chess sensation —perpetually the highest rated chess player in his age group from the very beginning—, he talks about his experiences in Columbia University’s philosophy department from his days as an undergraduate student.  His discussion includes the frustration of having to deal with philosophers (i.e., philosophy professors) who constantly deride certain ideas, take on a smug countenance when presented with difficult to verbalize ideas, and switch to a mode of think that is anything like serious whenever faced with an idea that is not easily resolvable in focus, especially vague terms, terms that are moderately or extremely mystical, Eastern in philosophical disposition, and so on.  Waitzkin says, ‘Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions.  Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language— when I spoke of intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning’ (p. xvi).  This is the thing that bothers me about the circles I have roamed in, to this point, and maybe things are different in different departments, but I my experience corresponds to this.  The student of philosophy very quickly learns what cannot be said around the tenured professors.  Admirably, and no doubt partly due to his undergraduate naivety and partly due to his willfull nature, Waitzkin didn’t seem to go down without a fight when such instances arose.

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Between Feynman in Babylon and Metaphysics: What the Mathematical Process and the History of Science Can Tell Us Philosophically about the Education Process

Since I have spent the summer studying mathematics at Harvard University with Jameel Al-Aidroos (Ph.D Berkeley), expect that my next few posts, or at least some of them, will be on topics related to mathematics.  I want to take some time, in this blog post, to look at where mathematical thought fits into some of my understandings of I have gleaned from studying the history of science.  The upshot of the historical, philosophical, and mathematical content and musings will be pedagogical, just to give the reader some idea of where I am going.  An important thing to understand, before reading this post, is the distinction between pure and applied mathematics.  “Pure mathematics,” as opposed to “applied mathematics,” is, in its essence, math for its own sake, entirely apart from possible applications.  In many cases, pure mathematics initially has no known application.  Additionally, pure mathematics deals with abstract entities that have been detached from particular entities —and this will prove to be important to what I will say later.

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The Inexistence of “Raw” Data in Science and Everyday Experience

The subject of this blog post might as well be catalogued as being among those things that scientists say that makes my head explode.  In this case, sitting in the Bloomington Starbucks across from Sample Gates about a month ago, I heard a cognitive science (currently dissertating) PhD candidate say something to the effect: “It’s raw data, so there is no possibility of it being biased.”  He was talking to a colleague, defending against some onslaught presented by a journal article, the title of which I didn’t catch.  What I want to emphasize is the erroneous thinking of this student, who has since this time successfully defended his PhD thesis.  I shake my head at this kind of lack of understanding so many scientists have of their own field and the general nature of science.  Particularly egregious was his follow-up comments, which asserted that biasing cannot be added to unbiased data without it being extreme and obvious to all, as if the heavens would open and Zeus would callout, “biased!,” if such were to happen.  I’ll only deal with the first statement that I paraphrased above.

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Feynman on the Necessity of Philosophy for the Progress of Physics

Serendipity often leads to some of our most fruitful realizations, creative ideas, and understanding —and are even responsible for our most citation-worthy bits of supporting information.  Such is the case to be discussed here.  It so happened that, just after writing the blog in response to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ignorant position on philosophy, I read Richard P. Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law to unwind.  The Nobel laureate was always notoriously, even devilishly, anti-philosophy. Continue reading

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Neil deGrasse Tyson and Philosophy: The Voice and Never-Was of Science Insults the Foundation of All Intellectual Thought

The primary problem with putting anyone on any kind of pedestal is that the positioning in the spotlight contains quite a bit of power, power that can be misused or abused.  Anyone possessing the spokespersonship of a particular academic discipline, in promoting their discipline, as a rule, should never knock other disciplines.  Rather unfortunately, Neil deGrasse Tyson occupies one such position as a science advisor to the government and a science popular, and he has also misused (abused?) his position by knocking another discipline, philosophy.  During a podcast that featured his presence, he spoke condescendingly of philosophy, spoke of its uselessness, and pointed out that it can ‘mess you up,’ presumably, meaning to say that philosophy can adversely affect the general mode of one’s thinking.  (For the complete podcast, click on this sentence.)  The objective in this blog is to address some of what Tyson has said, and hence partly a work of philosophy apologetics to a certain extent, but I also want to besmudge his reputation a bit, as he is in serious need of deflating —and I think the reader will find that very little needs to be done to each either of these ends, just a bit of thought.

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Filed under Philosophy, Popular Science

Vitalism and Nutrition: Distinguishing Science and Philosophy of Science

I have often found it difficult to explain to someone the difference between theoretical science and the philosophy of a special science.  In general, by “someone,” I mean any fairly intelligent human being possessing some modicum of scientific literacy.  The problem is not limited to the communication with intellectuals and general academicians, but also non-specialists in more closely related to the field of history and philosophy of science.  For instance, a preeminent scholar in the philosophy of biology has often told me that she sees biologists and general philosophers having a difficult time delineating theoretical biology and philosophy of biology; for those trained in a traditional philosophy program, it seems what this scholar does is biology, not philosophy; for those trained in biology, especially in departments that are not very philosophical in their science, what she does is philosophy, not a matter for biologists so much.  If demarcation of what a science is has been a problem, then the plight of the historically- and scientifically-knowledgeable philosopher of science is sui generis.  I have found explaining the distinction between philosophy of physics and theoretical physics impossible.  After all, explaining how discretization of space could have implications for symmetry breaking in the special theory of relativity (STR) is just confusing to the technically-untrained intellectual, because, after all, if it could have an impact on physical explanation, why wouldn’t physicists be interested?  Explaining that symmetries in nature are tacitly taken as axiomatic, and that physicists have their own implicit metaphysical assertions when going about their science, is a tall task.  Between the scientific technicalities and thorough philosophical subtleties, it is impractical to explain why it is that physicists don’t want to deal with an issue and express why the issue is sufficiently philosophical for it to not be classified as science properly, at least not yet properly science.  However, an example of where philosophy of science could make a valuable contribution to pragmatic science, even if the philosophy of science does not make a direct contribution to scientific theory.  That is, an example of philosophy of science, in which there is a tangible product in methodology and knowledge, but that does not properly contribute to particulars within scientific, should serve as a satisfactory illustration of the distinction between philosophy of science and science.  Continue reading

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Humanity’s Relation to Nature: Hawthorne, Rappaccini and Blithedale

In his The Blithedale Romance and Rappaccini’s Daughter, Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates elements of an enduring clash between humanity and Nature, and humanity’s attempt to find an equilibrium point in its relation to the natural world.  Though they take different forms, and even their primary subjects are quite different, there is a sense in which they can be viewed as two parts of a larger story; and the two parts may be viewed as having some amount of overlap, as well.  For those who have not read The Blithedale Romance, the story is a very warm tale that ends grimly, postulating that communal living in close quarters to Nature is the aforementioned equilibrium point, and equally expostulating humanity’s inability to recognize and facilitate this fact. Continue reading

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