One of the phenomena of modern philosophy which has troubled me, particularly in the discussion of analytical metaphysics, is its almost complete disregard for established science. It's as if professors feel as though their own discussions may continue unhindered and unchecked by science; as if science and philosophy are almost mutually exclusive.

For example, I was once sitting in a lecture where, in the course of an overview of various metaphysical theories of the nature of time, the professor accorded them each with equal weight and then mentioned that one had "the advantage" of according with Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. I was stunned. How can an accordance with fact be merely an "advantage"? And, conversely, how can dissonance with facts be merely a "drawback"?

Why is this separation perpetuated? How is any philosophical discussion considered viable when it is contradicted by science? Now, to be clear, I am not advocating for some sort of Positivistic stance. I am, however, advocating for what I see as sanity and relevance in a very important area of philosophical discussion.

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    I think you make a confusion between facts and theories. Theories can always be reinterpreted so as to match with any metaphysics, it's just that some fit in more naturally, which is an advantage. For example it is always possible to introduce a preferred reference frame in relativity. This is an ad hoc move: a big drawback for sure, but not an incoherence with facts. – Quentin Ruyant Mar 5 '18 at 20:16
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    because being liable to answer the rigors of scientific method would hinder philosophers' abilities to pontificate airy ideas without a burden of proof. Attempts to redefine philosophy as more of a science include logical positivism (Vienna Circle), analytic philosophy etc. It's funny how much "certified" philosophers hate purported frauds like Sam Harris (a great guy IMO) and denounce them as "scientistic" for simply wanting to subject ethics and values to reason rather that irrationality – amphibient Mar 5 '18 at 21:13
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    @amphibient - I agree. The reactions I have witnessed to this desire have been full-blown anger and frustration, much like that expressed by dogmatists of any religion when faced with logical arguments espoused by those who reject their premises on a philosophical basis. – quaestio e responsum Mar 5 '18 at 21:47
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    yes, people defend shields that protect them from the bitch of scrutiny... – amphibient Mar 5 '18 at 21:50
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    @quaestioeresponsum "Possible Worlds" as different from Evertt's "Many Worlds" which are taken seriously by no one -- except everyone since Feynman -- including Hawking, who tried to use this framing to handle the stability of black holes. Somehow there is no evidence for either of them, but the former is somehow objectionable, while the latter is just fine? I think you are cherry picking a bit. – jobermark Mar 6 '18 at 5:17

How can an accordance with fact be merely an "advantage"? And, conversely, how can dissonance with facts be merely a "drawback"?

I believe part of the reason philosophy has this estranged relationship with science is because science has a tendency to lend itself to phrasings that claim science has truth. As long as science does that, it's hard for philosophy to give credence to theories which are less convenient, scientifically speaking. It needs some space to breathe, so to speak.

You state that relativity is a fact. It is not. Even if we use the scientific definition of the word "fact," the facts are the individual observations we have made about the universe, such as the time delays on GPS satellites. Relativity is a theory. It is a theory which is consistent with most of the facts.

I use that phrasing intentionally. We know there's something to be refined in either relativity or quantum mechanics, because our current understanding of those two theories is incompatible when it comes to gravity. At least one of them will have to be tweaked at some point. Just some food for thought.

Now, you are surprised that agreement with a theory is merely seen as an advantage. You shun a philosophy for failing to align with your preferred theory. Now take that for a moment, and see why you see such an estranged relationship between philosophy and science might come forth.

There's work going on in philosophy all the time. Perhaps the "disadvantaged" theory of the nature of time had some really beneficial attributes, and all it needed was an update to the 21th century. Maybe you'll be the philosopher to take that theory and align it with modern relativistic thinking to create a theory that is consistent with science. The other theory has the advantage that the work is already done for you, but does that mean we should dismiss this theory outright?

Thus, your professor shows both theories, and merely mentions that one has an advantage over the other. The rest is left up to you.

Of course, it doesn't need to be that way. There's plenty of philosophy that is indeed in accord with science. I, myself, love studying how to marry science and philosophy. It's fun. The problem is not philosophy and science, its the people. It's the people talking philosophy and the people talking science. The philosophers don't agree on the nature of man, and the scientists (especially physical ones) tend to distance themselves from social sciences because they're not rigorous enough. So if there's one thing science and philosophy agree on, it's that people are complicated. Thus, I appreciate why people choose to put some distance between their ideas and those who might try to poke holes in their ideas.

  • Dictionary gives "any observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and accepted as true" for scientific fact with "the structure of a cell membrane is considered a scientific fact" as example. It does not seem that the "observation" needs (or even can) be individual or that it can not be theoretical (structure of a cell is certainly in part theoretical). So it is semantically acceptable to call established theories "scientific fact", and attempts to draw some principled theory/fact distinction repeatedly failed in the last century. – Conifold Mar 6 '18 at 1:39
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    @Conifold That's interesting. It looks like there's disagreement on the term. Wikipedia uses "In science, a fact is a repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experimentation or other means), also called empirical evidence" and "In the most basic sense, a scientific fact is an objective and verifiable observation, in contrast with a hypothesis or theory, which is intended to explain or interpret facts" – Cort Ammon Mar 6 '18 at 1:51
  • Such a disagreement gives creedence to my own pet definition of "fact," which is "any statement that is deemed so evidently true that the speaker is uninterested in discussing the possibility that it might be not-true." While somewhat snarky in nature, it actually captures all of the definitions of fact used here quite well, and I personally find the subjectivity of that definition useful. – Cort Ammon Mar 6 '18 at 1:52
  • It seems to me that there are two separate distinctions under an ambiguous label. First, "facts" are "small" while "theories" are "big", they are concatenations of "facts". So conservation law is a "fact" but relativity is a "theory". Second, the former distinction is ignored but the words are used to debate how well a theory is established, so classical mechanics is a fact (within its scope) but evolution is only a theory (to some). – Conifold Mar 6 '18 at 20:42
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    "You shun philosophy for failing to align with your preferred theory. Now take that for a moment, and see why you see such an estranged relationship between philosophy and science might come forth". I love this paragraph. I would also throw in pragmatism into the answer, I feel in behind your words and I think it might be worth bringing to the front. – Yechiam Weiss Mar 7 '18 at 17:49

It is a good thing that philosophy does not dismiss theories based on science because when science has failed in the past, the rescue has come from philosophical notions at odds with the previous science. If these were not somehow kept alive in at least some historical framework, how would we recycle them?

Consider just one notion: atomism.

It enters the scene very early, then it is entirely dismissed in favor of substances. It is almost entirely quashed by the time Carnot shows that heat can be handled as a subtle substance. (Along the way Kant declares the problem insoluble -- a bizarre tangent.)

But then it comes back in, with statistical mechanics. Yet it contends mightily with field theory, since the fact gravity and electricity spread through open space makes it hard to see how they might be mediated by particles.

It finally triumphs when we get the nuclear theory of matter. But then it is again not quite right, when we reach relativity and discover that all of matter is convertible to and from energy, which is basically a continuous measure and not a compartmentalized one.

But then it is back, with quantum dynamics, since it turns out that the energy has to come in discrete quantities. (I find this reversal most impressive since the previous loss and his win were both first proven by Einstein.)

It is gone again with String Theory, but then back in terms of the Planck length.

At what point in this endless cycle of reverals should we have thrown it out, and declared it to be at odds with science?

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    👏 Atomism is a great example, of how a fundamental conceptual insight can guide where to look. Like the ancient Greek measurement of the Earth using two sticks at mid day and pacing out the distance between towns. – CriglCragl Mar 6 '18 at 12:28

Well, its a well-attested fact that philosophers argued against the Newtonian conception of determinism and action at a distance. This was at variance with the agreed upon science at the time. Nevertheless it was later found that QM led to the loss of the first and GR to the loss of the second.

Similarly Smolin, a well-known American physicist, thinks - on philosophical grounds - that time is real. This is at variance with the conception of time inherent in GR. If you want to look up the argument then have a look at his book Time Reborn.


I'd basically agree with your position/argument, but wouldn't totally dismiss (maybe 99% dismiss rather than 100%:) the alternatives. Firstly, regarding ...

How is any philosophical discussion considered viable when it is contradicted by science?

... I'd sharpen "contradicted by science" to "contradicted by observation", where observation means, say, "the reproducible (though maybe only stochastically reproducible) outcome of unambiguous experimental procedures".

But now, even that's arguably debatable re metaphysics. In another post somewhere in this forum, I'd mentioned the ancient Greek epicycle theory of planetary motion. That reproduces observed planetary motion quite, quite well, although its theoretical/metaphysical underpinning that the Sun and (other) planets revolve around the Earth is entirely, entirely wrong.

Indeed, epicycles are in fact a complete set of functions, whereby any curve can be expanded in terms of epicycles upon epicycles, etc. If those Greeks had been somewhat better mathematicians they could've done that, and then said to critics, "Hey, our epicycle results agree with observations to fifteen decimal digits. How could they possibly be wrong???!!! Obviously, the Sun and planets must be revolving around the Earth." So metaphysics must allow for some amount of wiggle room (but maybe not too much) beyond agreement with observations.

Nowadays, for example, we often expand functions in terms of sines and cosines, also complete sets of functions, taking them to be fundamental in some way, and pointing to that same fifteen-decimal-digit-agreement (for quantum electrodynamics where that measurement accuracy is actually possible) as evidence that our theory's correct. Uh, huh. Well, indeed probably so, but leaving that 1% wiggle room might nevertheless be a wise idea.

For example, re general relativity which you cite, there's still no generally-accepted quantum theory of gravity. But what is generally accepted is that when such a theory is formulated, general relativity will just be an approximation to it, accurate in regimes where quantum effects are negligible/ignorable. So how might that more global quantum theory of gravity affect our "metaphysical conception of spacetime" vis-a-vis the conception suggested by relativity? To be determined.

Of course, when predictions of the mathematical formulation of a theory/metaphysical_position are explicitly contradicted by experimental observation, then (as far as I can tell) it's just plain wrong, like you say. But my argument above is that the converse doesn't guarantee "it's just plain right", which I take you to also be implying. (That is, your unsharp word "science", which includes theory, in the above quote maybe implies that. Had you initially sharpened it to "observation", then probably not.)

  • Thank you. I really like your formulation here, and yes, your point about my imprecise use of "science" is well-taken. To be clear, I do not mean that metaphysics and physics/science should be fully equated. Rather, metaphysics should tell us the what and "physics" should tell us the what exactly (to the degree possible). For instance, metaphysics should be able to tell us, using logic and evidence, whether the basic "stuff" of the universe is matter (as opposed to spirits, god, or otherwise), and physics comes to tell us the nature of such matter in empirical terms. – quaestio e responsum Mar 6 '18 at 3:47
  • And when refer to a theory of quantum gravity vis-a-vis General Relativity, do you mean that when such a theory is finally available, it will be similar to how Newtonian Mechanics are considered a special case of General Relativity at relatively slow speeds? – quaestio e responsum Mar 6 '18 at 3:51
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    The Greeks not only "could have done that", they did it. Ptolemaic astronomy had better precision than Heliocentric astronomy between Copernicus and Kepler. It took Kepler's notion that orbits were elliptical, not circular, to save it. (But one conic section is simpler than several circles, and we knew of parabolas in ballistics -- so conic sections win, and we ultimately get the square term in the law of gravity out of it...) This makes the 'rules' of science very ambiguous: when do you choose simplicity over outright success? – jobermark Mar 6 '18 at 5:26
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    @quaestioeresponsum Re GR, yeah, exactly, with "special_case~approximation" just a different choice of words. More precisely, there's a regime of applicability where the special_case theory agrees with observations to the available experimental accuracy. But beyond that regime, the special_case theory's observably inaccurate, and just an approximation to the more general theory. – John Forkosh Mar 6 '18 at 7:15
  • @quaestioeresponsum I'm not sure if the relationship between metaphysics and physics should be the "what" and "what exactly" as you say. I don't think metaphysics, as most people use the term, exists as a generalizer that paves the way for physics. They have a much more complicated relationship than that. As an example, I can turn the relationship around. Science observes how people act and comes to the conclusion that people can "make decisions." That's a "what." Metaphysics then comes through and explores exactly what it means to "make a decision." – Cort Ammon Mar 6 '18 at 21:28

its almost complete disregard for established science

You might very much equally ask, why do scientists disregard philosophy, even as it directly relates to their subject? Scientists like Pinker, Hawking and Dawkins, go way beyond their subject, without the background knowledge to make real sense of what positions they take up philosophically.

There is no excuse for the failing to understand the wider field, for either side. But there is a great difference in temperament, that makes it unusual for thinkers to cross and excel on, both sides divide.

How is any philosophical discussion considered viable when it is contradicted by science?

There is a bigger picture here. Philosophy can go way beyond evidence, and observables. There may be a demon, no less powerful than deceptive, trying to give us a false picture - and that 17th C. thought experiment comes back as the simulation hypothesis, and may find it's way into physics through the peer-to-peer reality model.

Hume's problem of induction, highlights that science facts can only ever be patterns; theories go beyond facts, and as soon as the facts change, and we cannot have any evidence they won't except experience, the theory must go out the window. Science is built on a thicket of assumptions, and it works brilliantly - but as the rise of quantum mechanics showed, even fundamental assumptions change.

Consciousness is a great example of an area where we need science and philosophy to work actively together. We need them to inform each other.

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