Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain, Part X

There are plenty of colorful details surrounding the sciences. Complex and interesting characters, dramatic interactions, memorable experiments and political struggles between individuals, factions, and external forces. They make for very interesting reading, and it would be a shame for that information to be discarded or lost.

But is any of it important to actually learning and practicing science?

No, not really.

Chemistry teachers do not spend lots of time discussing alchemy. Physics teachers don’t spend time on Aristotle’s ideas about how things fell. Mathematicians don’t dwell on the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, nor do they recount the drama of geometry and arithmetic in ancient Greece except in passing. (The man who demonstrated that not all numbers can be represented as a ratio of two whole numbers was executed as a consequence. If that’s not high drama, I don’t know what is.)

All of those disciplines consist of practical knowledge and practical techniques. They can be taught and acquired without any discussion of the historical events that produced them or the failed models that preceded them.

And yet somehow that’s not true of philosophy. The rigorous, objectively-demonstrable parts of what was once called philosophy have split off into their own disciplines. Logic is part of mathematics, although many universities still include it in the liberal arts. Physics, chemistry? Split off. Science as a whole doesn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with the subjects academic philosophy does, and scientists just ignore philosophers’ claims about the nature of the scientific method. In the one science that I have the most experience with, cognitive psychology, the scientists tend to be openly contemptuous of philosophers dealing with the subject. Their ‘contributions’ often betray a total ignorance of even the simplest findings of modern research, of the kind you could get by cracking open a textbook or reading a few articles intended for laypeople.

As each subset of ancient philosophy adopted rigorous standards and began to produce reproducible findings, it separated from the catchall category and became its own discipline. Math, which as the most abstracted of the sciences requires the least physical support, was the first. Eventually others followed: biology, physics, chemistry. Alchemy ceased to exist; the useful techniques it discovered through trial-and-error were absorbed into chemistry, while the great body of ‘theory’ that had built up regarding the search for substances no one had ever seen but were certain could accomplish specific things was discarded.

Yet if you go to learn ‘philosophy’ in the modern world, you’re exposed to ideas that are to thinking what alchemy was to chemistry.

Everything good and useful split away. What remains is all of the useless stuff no one could find an application for, that did not produce knowledge. Philosophy has no means of sorting gold from the dross, resources from garbage. Its basic standards are incredibly low, and so it is dominated by what is easy and what is simple.

And so what results is intellectual laziness that can’t be bothered to distinguish between useful ideas and nonsense, dressed up in complex language that the people outside the priesthood cannot reproduce. This both disguises the nonsense and prevents just anyone from grabbing a suckling position at academia’s teats.

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4 Responses to “Removing the Head, or Destroying the Brain, Part X”

  1. I think you’re mistaken about the alchemy/chemistry comparison. There aren’t too many people today who, when encountering chemistry for the first time, think principles of alchemy are true. However, /most/ people, when encountering philosophy for the first time, think the most ridiculous things that would get them laughed out of even a medieval course in philosophy – for example:

    “I think that’s true for me, even if it’s not true for you” (about, say, whether God exists, or some other objective fact)

    “If God didn’t exist, there couldn’t possibly be morality”

    “p->q; ~p; therefore, ~q” (or your favorite formal/informal fallacy)

    Add a whole mix of bad reasoning and unwarranted assumptions.

    And BTW, logic really isn’t a part of mathematics. Inasmuch as logic can be seen as a formal system (or several of them, really) it makes sense for it to be studied by mathematicians. But logic covers a much wider range of topics that don’t fit into that category.

  2. “I think that’s true for me, even if it’s not true for you”

    What they usually mean is that the positions are relative, rather than objective.

    “But logic covers a much wider range of topics that don’t fit into that category.”

    Or perhaps mathematics is a broader category than you thought.

  3. You seem to be misinformed. The criticism you level in your post has in fact dominated analytic philosophy itself for almost 100 years. Believe it or not, but modern analytic philosophy is largely ahistorical, and historical figures like Plato, Kant, Hume, et al. are often treated with contempt or simply ignored.

    “In the one science that I have the most experience with, cognitive psychology, the scientists tend to be openly contemptuous of philosophers dealing with the subject. Their ‘contributions’ often betray a total ignorance of even the simplest findings of modern research, of the kind you could get by cracking open a textbook or reading a few articles intended for laypeople.”

    What about philosophers like Jerry Fodor? Noam Chomsky? Daniel Dennett? David Buller?

    • They haven’t done much.

      The people who have made real contributions are the mathematicians. Godel and Turing, considered together, have done more for our understanding than any other two individual humans ever.

      None of the people you list have permitted us to exclude contingencies, and so they have added nothing to our knowledge.

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