Thursday, 13 June 2013

What Have the Philosophers Ever Done for Us?

A recent Opinion Piece on Al Jazeera titled Which Philosophy is Dead? by Santiago Zabla and Creston Davis reminded me that I had written this talk about eighteen months ago when invited to deliver a Royal Institute of Philosophy talk at St Mary's University College, London. (I subsequently presented the talk at the Russian Presidential Academy, Moscow.) So, I thought I might as well reproduce it here, for those who might be interested. It was written for a general audience so I would hope that its interest is not limited to philosophers. Indeed, the implicit point is really that a society without philosophy might well be impoverished in important ways, but I don't really here argue that point. I have a plan to expand it and include it as part of a larger series of writings (maybe a book) on the same topic.  

What Have the Philosophers ever Done For Us?

Well, I guess we could look at this question in a number of ways. We could interpret it as a straight question and go about compiling a list of those distinctively philosophical things that philosophers have bequeathed to the world. I haven’t myself given much thought to what might be on such a list. Indeed, it will become apparent as I progress that providing such a list would be difficult, not because philosophers have made no genuine positive contribution to societies, but rather because of the nature of genuinely philosophical contributions.

We could, with an eye to the question that my title paraphrases, see it as a rhetorical question, designed to lead all who hear it to believe that philosophers have done nothing. This is, of course, what the character played by John Cleese is doing as he utters the words I here paraphrase in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  For those who are unfamiliar with the scene, Cleese is playing Reg, the leader of the Judean Peoples’ Front (or is it the Peoples’ Front of Judea?) and at the start of a meeting he ‘asks’ the question “What have the Romans ever done for us”. He asks the question because he believes that his audience and fellow-members of the Judean People’s front will see that it is self-evident that the answer is a resounding ‘nothing’!

As those who know the scene will recall, Reg is disappointed: For, members of his audience miss the rhetorical idiom, and progress to respond by listing a number of significant things that the Romans had done for the people of Judea.
Of course, Reg asked the wrong question. The Romans might well have built a sewerage system, aquaducts, and brought law and order to the streets of Jerusalem, but that hardly justifies an armed occupation, political oppression and regular mass crucifixions.

But I digress.

No. My title is there not as a question expecting an answer. Nor as my own attempt at a rhetorical question, meant to highlight that philosophers have done nothing (as Reg thought of the Romans in Judea) or something (as it turns out his audience believed). Rather, the question is there because this last year has led me to believe that when it comes to philosophers (a group of which I am a member) there are a lot of Regs in prominent positions in the natural sciences: people for whom asking the question ‘what have the philosophers ever done for us?’ would serve a clear rhetorical role.

I will name three here and now.
Peter Atkins (Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Oxford and author of over 60 books),
Stephen Hawking (The world’s most famous theoretical physicist), and
UCL’s professor Emeritus of Pharmacology and author of the DCScience blog, David Colquhoun.
None of the three would object to my naming them, I am sure. All have sought to dismiss philosophy and philosophers very publicly:

Atkins in his most recent mass market book, On Being, in a filmed public debate with the philosopher Stephen Law (at the Oxford Think festival, broadcast on YouTube), and also in a brief appearance on the Today programme (17/03/11) debating with Mary Midgely (who put in a poor performance, unfortunately).

Colquhoun has many blog entries which are disparaging about philosophers and their unhelpfulness. And he names names: John Worrall, Nancy Cartwright and my colleague at MMU, Michael Loughlin. (on whom, more later).

Finally, Hawking opens his latest book, The Grand Design, by writing:

“people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

Let’s think about this passage. There’s a strong clue at the end as to why we might be well advised in not taking Hawking to be a writer with the requisite authority to make such an announcement regarding the discipline of philosophy and its current status.

Now, to be clear, I am not concerned to challenge his work as a physicist, though I am told by those who are qualified in the area that Hawking’s favoured theory: m-theory (Model-dependent realism) is a little more indebted to assumptions of a philosophical variety than Hawking is ready to acknowledge. But, as I said, this is not my concern and not something that right now I feel qualified or inclined to form a judgement on.

So, back to the passage just quoted. There are problems that are worth addressing here, by way of framing what I want to say in what follows. There are two related points I want to make. First Hawking makes a move, or rather, a leap from his list of questions that he takes to have been traditionally addressed by philosophers but that he now claims are best dealt with by scientists to the conclusion that philosophy as a discipline is dead. The conclusion is, quite obviously, not warranted by the premises alone. For even were one to agree with Hawking that these questions now fall squarely within the domain of theoretical physics and not philosophy, that hardly logically forces upon one the conclusion that the discipline of philosophy is dead. Philosophers do many other things.

Onto the second point. This emerges from our paying attention to the wording of the final sentence of the quote. To repeat that sentence: (Hawking:) “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

Hawking, one might say, is a little like the Knight, Antonius Block, at the beginning (and crucially not at the middle or the end) of Ingmar Bergman’s film the Seventh Seal, believing that all questions are epistemological questions: that is, that knowledge of more facts will settle each and every question. Block, of course, as the film progresses comes to understand that the question of life’s meaning is not one that will be settled by looking for facts. He realises he is looking in the wrong place, that his initial assumptions about the sort of question he was asking was at fault.

My reading of the film, for those who are interested, is that it follows a loose dialectical structure, whereby Block progresses from assuming the question to be purely epistemological, to seeing it as a question of understanding, to realising that it is rather not so much a question, a problem of the intellect, as quest, in the sense of being an existential journey. That is to say, the question as to whether life or the universe has meaning is not settled by availing oneself of some set of facts, nor of achieving understanding. Rather it is settled, so much as it can ever be so settled, through the recognition that what one might assume to be the question to be answered is actually a quest to be undertaken, the culmination of which will be that one’s life has meaning when that life is lived in accordance with the ordinary virtues. I digress again.  

To return to Hawking, and the passage quoted above. In short, what we see is that Hawking’s claim contains assumptions. It assumes that all questions are epistemological and that philosophy, therefore, is a primitive—that is to say, primitive relevant to the mature natural sciences—attempt to answer those questions.

Disciplining the Stroppy Teenagers

What I am trying to bring to the fore is the sense in which such an assumption implies that philosophers have nothing of genuine worth to contribute where a domain of inquiry that is of philosophical interest to them has progressed to a mature state. On this view, philosophers have existed to fill a hole left by our progression from ignorance to enlightenment. Where a domain of scientific inquiry is still too immature and yet our culture has evolved to treat religious world-views and divine metaphysics with a healthy scepticism, philosophy plays an interim role. Philosophers are the awkward adolescents, the stroppy teenagers, to the scientists’ mature adult and the theologian’s child that is prone to tantrum.

Once a science is mature, philosophical enquiry loses its worth. Indeed, once a science is considered mature, philosophical interference is seen as an irritant. More later…

Now, there are many ways philosophers might respond to these attacks. Christopher Norris has written a short but rather powerful piece, published in Philosophy Now, where he takes Hawking to task. I don’t agree with some of the details—such as his depiction of Kuhn as a relativist or philosophy of science having progressed over the past couple of decades by becoming more Realist (with a capital R)—but the general tenor of his critique is pretty much spot on, in my view. He takes the approach that I have endorsed here, of questioning Hawking’s own understanding of the discipline that he pronounces dead. Similarly, I have already mentioned in passing Stephen Law’s debate with Peter Atkins, which is available to watch on YouTube. This debate is notable for Atkins’ rather shameless and somewhat thinly veiled rhetorical moves, employed in an attempt to shut down or re-orientate the debate when he is clearly floundering. (Check-out part three of the six-part discussion; particularly see about 5 mins in, and precisely 6:04, for Atkins simply insisting on changing the subject when he clearly should (in combat-sport parlance…) be submitting)

So, there it is. Philosophers, the awkward adolescents and the stroppy teenagers, should grow up and do science or, if they insist on holding onto their awkwardness, they should keep out of the important work scientists are now doing.

Now, of course, the developmental metaphors I am choosing to employ are not used entirely seriously, but they are not employed merely to make mischief. That is to say, these developmental metaphors—the talk of stroppy teenagers and the like—don’t introduce an angle to this debate which was not hitherto there. I say this with an eye to David Colquhoun’s various contributions to the debate.

Colquhoun is forthright. But he is also indiscriminate. For Colquhoun, the world is formed into two camps: in the one camp are the postmodernists and proponents of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) and in the other camp are the Scientists and advocates of Evidence-Based Medicine. This causes a problem for anyone who is neither a proponent of CAM nor a postmodernist on the one hand, but who does want to ask some questions about the philosophical assumptions in play in EBM and the consequences of those assumptions. The problem is that for Colquhoun, in a manner that makes it tempting to engage in some psychoanalysis, there simply are only these two camps. If you criticise a prominent proponent of EBM, defend a critic of EBM, or seek to uncover philosophical assumptions in the foundations of the EBM movement, then you are a postmodernist and most likely an advocate of CAM. 

Now, I am sure this might sound like I am simplifying things here, maybe even to the extent that I am setting up a straw man. However, I will reproduce for you here an exchange between David Colquhoun and me on his blog,, from November 2010. You can draw your own conclusions.

The context for this dialogue is a blog posting of Colquhoun’s in which he described the philosopher (and MMU colleague of mine) as a hater of Ben Goldacre and a Post Modernist theorist. The exchange took place in the comments below the blog entry. Following this exchange Colquhoun did amend his blog so that Loughlin was depicted--though still inaccurately--as “Post-Modernist-influenced”, though still a hater of Ben Goldacre.

So, I begin with my opening contribution (Colquhoun's replies are italicised). I here quote myself.

inlightoftheevidence // Nov 15, 2010 at 11:41
Prof. DC.
I know evidence is important to you, and I share that commitment. So, I am somewhat surprised to see Michael Loughlin referred to as a “Post-Modern Theorist”. The evidence demonstrates otherwise.
Have you read a single publication by Loughlin? I am sure you must have, given your commitment to evidence; so I’d be grateful if you might point us to evidence for Loughlin’s alleged Post-Modernist credentials.
Only, I have read quite a bit of Loughlin’s work, since he was first referred to by you here, and I find that rather than being an anti-science, anti-evidence post-modernist theorist he is quite the contrary. He is a philosopher who has published many damning criticisms of post-modernism, in various contexts (including Health). Moreover, his own views seem to be more than respectful of evidence. He is clearly a realist, (in philosophical parlance), who meets those who propound antirealist and relativist views with a healthy dose of scepticism. This scepticism has led him to engage very critically and in some detail with anti-realists and relativists in many articles published in peer reviewed journals, and in his book (many of those he engages with might be legitimately characterised as post-modern theorists).
So, I put it to you that the evidence suggests that Loughlin is not a post modernist.
Regarding his alleged ‘hatred’ of Ben Goldacre, again I’m somewhat surprised at your line here.
Loughlin seems to be wanting to ask one thing of the EBM movement: what is your account of evidence? We can all employ the word evidence, but unless we’re clear as to what it is that counts as evidence then our employment of that term becomes empty and simply rhetorical. Loughlin makes this request as someone whose own philosophical predilections and beliefs (which is clear if you read his work) are such that he clearly has no problem with the demand of medicine being evidence-based (or any other domain of enquiry).
But, of course, here is the problem: Unless we clarify what we mean by evidence, then we’re simply employing the term as a buzzword.
12 David Colquhoun // Nov 15, 2010 at 13:05
Thanks for that comment. Yes, i have read several of Loughlin’s articles, thanks largely to my long correspondence with Andrew Miles.
Perhaps I should have said “post-modernist influenced”. Certainly Loughlin rushed to the defence of an out-and-out postmodernist article which Goldacre (and also I) had dissected. The quotation from Loughlin at seems to me, on its own, quite enough to preclude his views from being taken seriously in discussions of health matters.
I’ll confess that I find his views, and those of Miles, quite hard to understand. They seem to be a mixture of libertarianism and post-modernist influence, that is not really very helpful.
The matter of what constitutes evidence is, of course, crucial but I don’t think that philosophers have made much contribution to that discussion. Certainly I find statisticians far more useful. RA fisher, Bradford Hill and their successors have defined rather well what we mean by ‘evidence’. In contrast, most working scientists are unaware of the arguments that go on between philosophers, and I’m not convinced they are missing much. Only too often, in a vain attempt to improve on what Fisher taught us about randomisation in the 1930s, they promulgate ideas that would actually harm progress if anyone took any notice of them. Luckily, they don’t.
13 inlightoftheevidence // Nov 16, 2010 at 14:17
Thanks very much for taking the time to reply David.
Is your correspondence with Miles published, or available in full anywhere?
Just to re-iterate. I see no evidence for Loughlin being either a post-modernist theorist or influenced by post-modernism. His published work clearly demonstrates that he is very critical of post-modern arguments. In addition, when he advances his own views these are clearly views that would be antithetical to those with post-modern predilections.
I must confess to being rather surprised at your own predilection for ad hominem attacks, given your expressed commitment to evidence. However, that aside maybe we could clarify a few things (please bear with me here):
Derrida was a post-modernist par excellence, we might say. Now, I believe his theory of meaning and Deconstruction in general to be demonstrably and irretrievably flawed. However, at the same time, I would argue that the criticisms of Derrida advanced by the American philosopher John Searle miss the mark and are based in willful misunderstandings of Derrida’s writings (this is not necessarily _my_ view, but it is a sustainable position to take and one taken by many). If I am to argue this, would it thereby follow that I am influenced by Derrida or post-modernism? Of course not. I would simply be concerned that one’s identification of flaws in Derrida’s theories not serve as illegitimate justification for the belief that any and all dismissals of Derrida are correct.
Put another way, however poor argument ‘x’ is that fails to justify invalid argument advanced by those who set out to criticise argument ‘x’.
Loughlin’s defence of that paper is clearly based in a belief that the critics were advancing poor arguments. It does not follow (and is simply factually incorrect to say) that he thereby is a post-modern theorist or is influenced by post-modernism.
This is a stance taken by the rational. It is a stance I would expect from those who genuinely respect science and evidence.
But this isn’t the real issue here, is it? As someone expressly committed to evidence (as am I) I think you weaken your own position by engaging in this sort of indiscriminate mud-slinging. Let’s resist the attaching of labels to people and engage in a rigorous but fair manner with their arguments. Or is it your view that libertarians and post-modernists (and those influenced by them) should be dismissed before being heard?
14 David Colquhoun // Nov 16, 2010 at 15:36
Postmodernists have been heard. Their absurd pretensions were demolished once and for all by the superb work of Alan Sokal. Apart from his wonderful book (part of the header picture on this blog. i recommend strongly his essay Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?In the case of Loughlin, anybody who writes as he does about Goldacre isn’t worthy of serious consideration in my view.
Returning to the subject of this post. perhaps you can explain why he should choose to ally himself with the anti-scientific quacks that form the backbone of the “College of Medicine”. I certainly can’t explain it.* [on this specific point, see my comment at the end of this quoted text]
15 inlightoftheevidence // Nov 16, 2010 at 16:21
Hi again David (if I may).
Of course, it serves your interests to ignore the points I put to you about your factually inaccurate depiction of Loughlin, your tendency to ad hominem attack and your tendency to sloppy reasoning (e.g. Loughlin criticises someone who is criticising post-modernism, therefore he must be a post modernist (despite evidence to the contrary)). But I, naively maybe, hoped for and expected more from you.
I have been explicit and clear that I have no interest in defending post-modernism. Indeed, in addition to the work you link to immediately above [Sokal], I could give you my own detailed criticisms of some of the central tenets of post modernism. But, once again, this is beside the point. Indeed, why I asked in my original posting if you had read Loughlin was because he approvingly cites Sokal when he advances his own criticisms of post-modernism. You must have missed this.
You say:
“In the case of Loughlin, anybody who writes as he does about Goldacre isn’t worthy of serious consideration in my view.” 
You realise how this comes across, right? This is base tribalism. It doesn’t even gesture in the direction of rational debate. Are the words of Ben Goldacre simply beyond criticism? If so, are they so in principle? I ask this as someone who admires Goldacre’s work, admired and enjoyed his book [Bad Science], and recommend it to many people. [However,] he is not beyond reproach. No one should be.
Your final paragraph. Why not write to Loughlin and ask him (rather than surmising and then posting those speculations on your blog as if they were facts)? I suspect he will answer that he has not “allied himself” with these people. One is not automatically allied to the views of one’s colleagues, simply in virtue of them being colleagues; nor is one allied to the views of a journal editor, in virtue of having published in their journal.

16 David Colquhoun // Nov 16, 2010 at 18:59
I dispute your comment about tribalism. It is much simpler than that. I simply agree with Goldacre and find Loughlin’s comments quite offensive. The context was Loughlin’s reaction to Goldacre’s comment on a paper by Holmes et al. with the title “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism” [download reprint]. Of this paper, Goldacre said
 “Even from looking at the title, you just know this academic paper from the September edition of the International Journal of Evidence-based Healthcare is going to be an absolute corker. And it uses the word “fascist” (or elaborate derivatives) 28 times in six pages, . . .”.
My own comments were rather less flattering. The paper is post-modernist through and through and Loughlin leapt to its defence, hence my comment. Perhaps it would help if you were to tell us your own opinion about Holmes et al.

it was here that I called it a day.

[*] Now, it is worth noting here, in light of his penchant for ascribing guilt by association and despite my having tried to demonstrate the flaws in such a strategy, that Colquhoun was a member of the Conduct and Competence Committee of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), a regulatory body for alternative medicine in the UK. Colquhoun is on record as saying he was surprised at being accepted for the position. And he was, unsurprisingly, dismissed in August 2010. However, the point I wish to make is simply this: while Loughlin is dammed for associating with the “College of Medicine”, by being listed as a visiting Prof at the University of Buckingham, and by publishing in a journal edited by Andrew Miles, David Colquhoun is not to be judged by his association with the Conduct and Competence Committee of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council. It is obviously right that Colquhoun’s membership of this Committee is not leaped upon and misused as (pseudo-)evidence for his closet support of CAM.

Nevertheless, this point of consistency aside, one might respond to this dialogue between Colquhoun and me in a number of ways. Here are three:
  1. One might ask, why does it matter?
  2. One might dismiss the three scientists we’ve here discussed as unrepresentative of science in general. And
  3. One might, I guess, agree with one or more of them.

Well, in reverse order: (3) I don’t agree with them, as I’ve outlined. (2) I am not sure whether they are representative, but I do not think that question is too important, given what my answer is to the first of these three questions (1): to reiterate, that question was “why does it matter (what Colquhoun, Atkins, and Hawking believe)?”

Well, it matters because science is important, it matters because policy decisions are made and eminent scientists have influence both directly—in virtue of sitting on policy committees—and indirectly—through their prominence in the mainstream media. David Colquhoun has clout. Therefore, his penchant for ad hominem and ascribing guilt by association should not be left unchecked and unchallenged.

Let us think of Colquhoun’s beloved Evidence Based Medicine (you thought I was going to say Ben Goldacre then, didn’t you?). Now, as I said, I am not a physicist, though there have been plenty of philosophers who were; I'll also acknowledge that I am not a statistician, though, again, there are philosophers who are. You see, one might say that philosophy is a broad church, but even that can be a misleading way of putting things. Philosophers often disagree to an extent which makes it simply inaccurate to employ the church metaphor, however broad one goes on to claim the church to be. However, as a philosopher, I am happy to here state that I am broadly supportive of the EBM movement, its aims and achievements. Indeed, I confess that I am a fan of Goldacre’s work (and his Twitter feed), as I wrote on David Colquhoun’s blog. However, EBM as a movement does contain philosophical assumptions and these do have consequences that reach beyond the appraisal of medicine and the narrowly defined practice of diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. 

The methods which are appropriate in one domain of scientific inquiry are not necessarily appropriate in another domain. Science, like philosophy, is not a coherent sphere of activity, which is united by the employment of a particular method. Yet this is precisely what that other prominent public face of science, Professor Brian Cox, assumes when he writes about the scientific method, as if there is one method employed by all the natural sciences. (Indeed, this idea is problematic before we even begin considering those areas of inquiry outside the natural sciences.) Claims such as Cox's regarding the scientific method can strike anyone with a passing knowledge of the history and philosophy of science as a little naive (as commented by  here), but such assumptions abound. And Goldacre’s deservedly successful and applauded book, Bad Science, is replete with the consequences of these seemingly unacknowledged philosophical assumptions. His recent application of the methods of EBM to education/teaching might be another area where the assumptions hold back the desire to be truly evidence based. There are discussions and arguments to be had, and these discussions should be welcomed by anyone for whom evidence is important. Philosophers can contribute much to such discussions. Assumptions need bringing to consciousness because only then can they be addressed and appraised. If assumptions remain subterranean (as it were) then they act simply as constraints.

Pronouncing on the death of philosophy shows ignorance of the ways in which philosophy can play an important role in important matters, because it shows ignorance of philosophy (and therefore of science, as evidenced in the case of Prof. Brian Cox) 

So, by way of moving toward conclusion I want to make two claims.

1. Pronouncements on the death of philosophy are based in a misunderstanding of the discipline. They assume it to be a protoscience. This is to betray ignorance of philosophy. Socrates was not a protoscientist. To be sure, Aristotle had his protoscientific moments which were about as successful from our vantage point as any 2500 year old science. Similarly, Jerry Fodor has his—far more prevalent—moments also, the success on which I am happy to allow the reader to make their own decision. But for every Aristotle and for every Jerry Fodor, there is a Socrates or a Wittgenstein: a philosopher for whom identifying how the discipline of philosophy has a distinct identity, irreducible to the natural sciences, to logic, to psychology and to mathematics, was crucial. (This was an obsession for Wittgenstein). What is crucial for such thinkers is the exposing or the combatting of Sophistry. Wittgenstein thought philosophical therapy the way. Socrates thought dialogue and reason.

2. Scientists are no more immune to the temptation, or the unwitting propensity to, spontaneous philosophising than anyone else. Scientists are just as likely to be held in thrall to an underlying philosophical picture of the way the world must be as is any one. The only thing that works as a prophylactic to such a tendency is the appropriate philosophical training.

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