Philosophy and Science: Better Together

Recently, I wrote about what I saw as a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism that had arisen in the context of Donald Trump’s political ascension, among other things. But I think it’s also worthwhile considering other much milder forms of anti-intellectualism that sometimes come from unexpected sources — scientists, for example.

Most scientists blaze with enthusiasm when talking about the wonders they study — whether it’s the amazing discoveries of the past or the seemingly impenetrable mysteries that we are still grappling with today, hoping for a breakthrough. You can sense the passion and excitement that the scientist feels for her work and for the scientific endeavour itself, which is enough to inspire poetry. Read Unweaving the Rainbow or listen to Carl Sagan ponder our Pale Blue Dot and you’ll get my meaning.

Contrast that with the indifference and occasional hostility that some scientists feel toward philosophy. Despite having laid the groundwork for science, philosophy is, according to some, “useless”. Far from being a worthwhile academic endeavour, it deserves our contempt for pertinaciously contemplating pointless questions that have no real bearing on life — unlike science, which has tangibly improved our lives, in addition to profoundly enriching our understanding of the world. The overarching message: don’t bother with philosophy. Stick with science.

As someone interested in both, I wonder where this attitude comes from and whether it helps (or hinders) science and philosophy, which I’ve always seen as inseparable in the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and “the good life.”

Underlying this attitude seems to be the impression that philosophers labour over questions that need not be pondered because they lack any obvious relevance to everyday life or the day-to-day work that scientists are engaged in. Why then do some people think that these questions are important and worth taking seriously?

Considering that science strives to advance our understanding of the world, as scientists we should care about philosophy because, in the course of pursuing knowledge, philosophical issues are simply unavoidable. The very act of seeking knowledge raises philosophical questions: what is the best way of figuring out truths about the world?; is there a universal scientific method, normative to all disciplines?; how do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? These questions have real social and political implications for a society that increasingly turns to science for guidance on matters of practical importance.

But I would go further and argue that in the course of living philosophical problems are inescapable. Such problems pertain not only to ways in which we gain an understanding of the world but, more broadly, to ways in which we live as human beings. Philosophy shapes not only our conception of the world, but our engagement with it, and this occurs whether we are practicing philosophy explicitly or simply living by the results of others’ philosophical contemplation.

This is why I think philosophy should be pursued for its own sake, regardless of how useful it is to the everyday work of the scientist. The questions it raises are important and interesting in their own right.

Bumping into philosophical issues may be an inescapable fact of life, but is there any value to seriously contemplating such questions? Is it worth studying? As Bertrand Russell points out in the closing chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, the very act of philosophising is intellectually enriching, even if the answers we reach are not definitive.

Philosophy encourages a spirit of open-minded inquiry, freeing us to examine both radical new ideas and habitual ways of thinking. It teaches us intellectual humility and liberates us from “the tyranny of custom,” as Russell called it. It raises our guard against sophistries and other errors that would lead us astray. In doing so, philosophy equips its practitioners with critical thinking skills applicable to a wide variety of domains.

In an information-rich age replete with diverse claims clamouring for our attention and assent, in which many such claims are based on specious reasoning and promulgated by those eager to fool either us or themselves, what could be more valuable than that?


Anti-intellectualism, Truthiness, and Trump

Scientific work is always set in the context of certain social and political realities, and scientists cannot afford to ignore them. Brexit cast a long shadow across UK research, and the US government shutdown of 2013 exposed the fragility of the underlying funding apparatus that most research depends on. Combine that with a toxic political climate in which expertise and statistics are lazily dismissed in favour of emotionally charged but vacuous rhetoric, and you get to the situation we now find ourselves in.

Although the threat of lost funding is significant on its own, it forms only a piece of the puzzle. When you consider Trump’s clamorous rise to become the Republican nominee for President, Michael Gove’s disparaging remarks about experts, Newt Gingrich’s elevation of public sentiment over facts and data, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of thousands of academics in Turkey, a sinister pattern begins to emerge — one that cuts across national boundaries.

The underlying message seems to be that knowledge and expertise do not matter in the political process. All that matters is how strongly one believes and, crucially, how passionately one can express those beliefs, even if they lack rational justification. That’s why the opprobrium Trump’s comments attract seemingly make no dent on his popular appeal, at least among Republicans, some of whom have started to borrow from his approach.

As an example, consider Antonio Sabàto Jr, who insisted at the Republican convention that Obama was not a Christian, but a secret Muslim belonging to the “other side.” When asked to support this claim given all the evidence to the contrary, in an exemplary display of truthiness, he simply said that he felt it to be true “in his heart.” Sabàto’s religious intuitions apparently supersede any and all facts that would show them to be wrong.

As with Trump, it seems that the strength of the justification is not considered nearly as important as the strength of the conviction and the vociferous manner in which it is conveyed. He says it with passion, so who would dare doubt it? And if they were to question it, by what authority? We’ve already dispensed with experts and fact-checkers! We’ve already dismissed facts and data. “Enough of them,” as Gove put it.

If this is how the political game is to be played now, by appealing to emotionally evocative intuitions while ignoring facts, then what place is there in this discourse for scientists and other scholars who care enough to examine those intuitions? What happens when legislators are allowed to spurn rational accountability for policies that are promulgated in denial of what we have learned through scientific inquiry (e.g., climate change)?

When political discourse is tethered to firmly entrenched intuitions that are seemingly impervious to facts, and the loudest voices are confused for the most authoritative, what kind of society can we expect to find ourselves in?

Apart from cuts to research funding, the scientific community should also be concerned about preserving the critical discourse on which both science and democracy fundamentally depend. As bitter and ugly as politics has become, we cannot afford to ignore the anti-intellectual streak weaving its way through the culture and into the legislative chamber, where it can do untold damage to scientific and democratic institutions.

Reflection on the past semester of teaching

One of the interesting things about teaching in an undergrad cognitive neuroscience course is how students’ perceptions of the field change over time. At the beginning, many come to the course with the impression that the field is so far advanced that we are on the brink of being able to “read minds.” By the end, most are far more skeptical, which is a good thing overall. It means that we are achieving one of our teaching goals, which is to encourage students to critically evaluate claims based on neuroscience.

But does it also mean that some leave the course disillusioned with the entire enterprise? It’s conceivable that some students do a full 180-degree turn and go from thinking that neuroscience can tell us everything about brain and mind to thinking that it tells us absolutely nothing — it’s worthless. I don’t know how many students feel this way, but as I see it there are two ways of responding.

The first is to succumb to a sort of epistemic nihilism regarding neuroscience: we know nothing about the how the brain works and we never will. Abandon all hope ye who enter here, for there is nothing to be gained. The second approach is to acknowledge our profound ignorance and to continue inquiring. The first approach is defeatist and cripples intellectual growth; the second accepts research as a creative process, which is often messy and haphazard. The first approach is easy (maybe lazy even); the second is hard.

Perhaps we need to encourage students to do more than just be skeptical about neuroscience. Once they get into the habit of being skeptical it becomes all too easy to lazily dismiss any and all findings as rubbish based on even the most superficial of flaws — I see it all the time in lab reports. Although skepticism is essential to good scientific practice, it needs to be complemented by creativity as well. We need students to be able to generate ideas and to figure out ways of testing those ideas. So this study sucks, but how would you do better? So this method is flawed and the inferences based on it are dubious, but what methods would satisfy the question? Heck, what is the question?

Conversation with a Nonbeliever

There are many questions that science cannot answer, but which religion can. Religion makes sense of things that science fails to.

If science cannot make sense of some problem or explain some phenomenon, it doesn’t necessarily follow that religion can. That something is beyond our current understanding doesn’t imply that some supernatural force must be at play; it just means that we are ignorant. Appealing to the supernatural as an answer doesn’t solve anything; it doesn’t further our understanding of the universe in any meaningful way. And if that’s the case, then we can carry on inquiring without it.

The truth of my theology is confirmed by my sensus divinitatis, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

What of those whose sensus divinitatis leads them to theological commitments that differ to your own? Why lend so much epistemic weight to your personal sensus divinitatis? What makes you think that your own sensus divinitatis is more reliable than that of someone of a different religion who feels just as strongly about his theological commitments as you do about yours?

Without belief in God, life is meaningless. There is no wonder or joy, only despair.

Some people believe that everything must be imbued with theological significance or else it has no significance at all; it’s meaningless. I don’t subscribe to this nihilistic worldview. When I gaze upward into stelliferous skies, I don’t feel as though life is devoid of meaning. The cosmos is awe-inspiring on its own; one need not view it through a theological lens to be enthused with wonder.

Why do you care? Why can’t you just let people believe whatever it is they want to believe?

Because ideas matter; ideas guide actions, which have real consequences. Too often, we find that political decisions are made on a religiously motivated basis. Such decisions affect us all, which is why we have an interest in examining the rationale behind them.

On the Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is tremendously popular among apologists,  particularly fans of William Lane Craig, its most prominent contemporary proponent. The basic argument can be summarised as follows:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The basic argument tells us nothing about the nature or identity of the cause, so apologists typically include an additional statement that identifies the cause as a personal creator God. Some stop there, but others go further to identify the creator as the particular God of their religion (e.g., Yahweh). Without explicitly identifying the cause as the Christian God, Craig argues that the cause must be an unfathomably powerful, unembodied, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless mind, capable of wilfully creating whole universes from nothing. According to Craig, these characteristics are consistent with the putative nature of a personal creator God, such as the God of Christianity.

As the premises are ambiguous enough to permit multiple interpretations, we can only evaluate the merits of the argument once their meaning has been made clear. To that end, there are a few questions worth considering: What does the apologist mean by something “beginning to exist” or “coming to be”? What does he mean by “the universe”? What does he mean by it having a “beginning”? The purpose of asking questions like these is twofold: (1) to be better able to examine whether the premises are supported or not; and (2) to avoid the confusion that can arise when premises are poorly defined. With that in mind, let’s turn to the first premise.

Premise 1

In support of the first premise (P1), apologists gesture toward our everyday experience and the intuitive understanding of causality derived from it. However, the way in which they use the phrase “begins to exist” departs significantly from that understanding. If “beginning to exist,” or “coming to be,” is conceived of as the creation of matter, energy, and spacetime from absolute nothing (creatio ex nihilo), then apologists cannot appeal to our everyday experience as support for P1. We don’t experience things “coming to be” in this way. The apologist is conflating ex materia creation, which is supported by our experience, with ex nihilo creation, which is not. In doing so, the arguer is taking our causal intuitions beyond the context in which they are applicable, and this alone renders the first premise suspect.

Premise 2

For the second premise (P2), apologists typically appeal to contemporary cosmology for support, arguing that the Big Bang theory shows that the universe “began to exist.” As with the first premise, the meaning of the phrase “begins to exist” needs to be clarified before the premise can be properly examined. If P2 is taken to mean that matter, energy, and spacetime were created ex nihilo, then apologists cannot appeal to contemporary cosmology as support for P2. In its present form, the Big Bang theory only indicates that the universe began to expand from a very hot and dense state 13.8 billion years ago.1 What happened before then, if it even makes sense to speak of a “before then”, is presently unknown to us. To quote Alan Guth in The Inflationary Universe (p. 2)2:

Although the generally accepted big bang theory holds that the observable universe emerged from an explosion some ten to twenty billion years ago, the theory nonetheless assumes that all the matter in the universe was present from the start. The form of the matter may have been different, but it was all there. The classic big bang theory describes the aftermath of the bang, but makes no attempt to describe what “banged,” how it “banged,” or what caused it to “bang.”

Importantly, whether the universe had a “beginning” (and what that means exactly) remains an open question in cosmology.1 In some models, the Big Bang is seen as a transitional phase in the universe’s history, which goes back further and may even be eternal. In this scenario, the Big Bang may be the “beginning” of the current age of the universe, the age in which we find ourselves, but its history stretches back even further. In other models, there is an absolute beginning, but it’s not a “beginning” in the sense of being a transition from a state of nothingness into a universe, which is what proponents of the KCA seem to envisage when they talk of the universe “beginning to exist”; instead, it’s a “beginning” in the sense of being the earliest moment of time. In this scenario, asking what came “before” the beginning would not make sense because there was no “before” the beginning.

At present, it’s far from certain which cosmological scenario actually holds true1, but it’s difficult to see how either could lend support to P2 given that the arguer seems to be talking about the universe “coming from” absolute nothingness. Neither scenario posits a state of nothingness into which the universe “sprang forth” or “popped into existence.” There never was a state of nothingness to start with.

Finally, there may be an equivocation fallacy at play between P1 and P2. If P1 refers to ex materia creation, which seems safe to assume given the evidence adduced in support of it, and if P2 refers to the universe being created ex nihilo, then the arguer is using two different meanings of the phrase “begins to exist,” and the argument is therefore unsound.


The aforementioned problems with the argument’s premises are enough to cast the conclusion into doubt. With that caveat in mind it would nevertheless be interesting to consider the conclusion itself and where apologists tend to go from that point. Since the conclusion (“the universe has a cause”) doesn’t necessarily imply anything theological or supernatural, on its own the KCA doesn’t give sufficient justification for theism. What the apologist wants to say then is that the cause is a personal creator God, or put another way, that such a God provides the best explanation for the origin of the universe. But for the apologist to get to that point additional arguments are needed, going beyond the three-line KCA.

Recognising this, William Lane Craig goes further, arguing that a “conceptual analysis” can disclose the basic characteristics of the cause, and that these characteristics happen to be congruent with the purported nature of his God. The term “conceptual analysis” seems more like a euphemism for speculation in this instance. Specifically, Craig speculates that the cause is an unembodied, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless mind who wilfully, and even lovingly, brought our universe into being from nothing.

How well does such an explanation fare? Well, there are a number of issues — let’s briefly survey some of them. First, it’s assumed that mind can exist independently of matter, energy, and spacetime. To the best of our knowledge, the existence of minds depends on there being a universe with conditions conducive to the evolution of organisms capable of thought. Second, it’s assumed that this mind is unitary rather than plural; that there is only one personal creator and not many. Third, it’s assumed that this single mind exists without a beginning and is therefore not subject to P1.

In response to these and other concerns about their theological explanation, apologists often say that the cause must be exceptional: since it exists beyond the universe it must be exempt from whatever principles are at work within the universe. It follows then that we shouldn’t expect it to conform to our scientific understanding of minds, given that such an understanding is derived from within the universe. Such a response may seem like an expedient move, but it comes at a price: the same trick can be used to save any explanatory model from the same line of scrutiny. Consequently, the apologist cannot dismiss alternative models on the grounds that they do not conform to certain principles at work within the universe, while also upholding his preferred theological model by demanding exemptions to those principles. To do so would be special pleading.

As an example, consider the following alternative model: “the universe sprang forth from the flickering of an eternal, impersonal, imperishable, nongaseous flame.” In my experience, apologists often respond to this model by arguing that since fire is a part of the universe, and the material components necessary for fire are all found within the universe, it would be unintelligible to talk of a “flame” apart from the universe. So we can dismiss the “imperishable flame” as an explanation for the universe’s origins.

But couldn’t the model be defended by mimicking the apologist’s strategy? “This is no ordinary flame. The imperishable flame is exceptional. Our understanding of how physical flames form within the universe doesn’t apply to the imperishable flame that exists beyond the universe.” If the imperishable flame can be critiqued and dismissed on the basis of principles operant within the universe, then why should the apologist’s preferred theological model be immune from the same treatment?

A common objection to this is that the actual model itself is inconsequential: whatever the explanatory model is, it is “God.” This objection depends on a strategically elastic definition of “God,” which ultimately renders the entire argument pointless. If you want to say that whatever the answer is, it is “God,” then “God” merely becomes a placeholder for whatever the real answer is, even if that answer doesn’t involve any supernatural elements at all. In effect, this response admits defeat by conceding that the question remains unresolved and that positing the existence of a personal creator God has in no way remedied that situation.

  1. Carroll SM. Does the universe need God? In: Stump JB, Padgett AG, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell; 2012:185–197. 
  2. Guth AH. The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins. Perseus Books; 1997. 

The Pale Blue Dot

This February 14 marked the 25th anniversary of the Pale Blue Dot, an iconic photograph of Earth captured by Voyager 1 at a distance of more than 6 billion kilometres, past the orbit of Neptune. It shows Earth as a tiny pixel enveloped in a beam of sunlight, surrounded by darkness.

In contemplating the significance of this pixel, Carl Sagan authored one of the most stirring passages ever put to paper. The image, together with Sagan’s reflections1, has inspired countless artists and scientists alike. (Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy provides some examples).

To my mind, images like this dispel the crude notion that science is a cold-hearted and passionless affair, forever detached from the deeper questions of human life. Some people believe that the deeper questions are properly addressed by religion, and they consider it churlish when a scientist encroaches on what they perceive to be their territory. The message seems to be that scientists ought to keep to their labs and observatories, and leave the task of contemplating the significance of it all to the priests, rabbis, imams, and theologians.

The unspoken assumption in this view is that the religious are somehow better equipped to ponder the human condition, and that the rest of us ought to simply live by the results of their thinking. Quite frankly, this is wrong. Contemplating what it means to be human is not a religious exercise per se; it’s a human exercise. Although the pages of their holy books are purportedly suffused with wisdom, the religious are not necessarily better at this exercise than those of us who do not share their theological commitments.

Personally, I think the Pale Blue Dot and Sagan’s accompanying essay both express insights far more penetrating than those found in the sacred scriptures of the various world religions. You may disagree on that, but you cannot deny that images like this have profoundly enriched intellectual life on this tiny mote of dust we call home.

  1.  Sagan C. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York, NY: Random House; 1994. 

Tools and Questions

A field of study is not defined by the tools that it uses, but by the questions that it asks. The tools are secondary to the questions. Endel Tulving captured this point well in this interview for Cognitive Neuroscience (2002):

The single most critical piece of equipment is still the researcher’s own brain. All the equipment in the world will not help us if we do not know how to use it properly, which requires more than just knowing how to operate it. Aristotle would not necessarily have been more profound had he owned a laptop and known how to program. What is badly needed now, with all these scanners whirring away, is an understanding of exactly what we are observing, and seeing, and measuring, and wondering about.