Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Another follow-up to "Science rocks/philosophy sucks"

I wanted to follow up on a few things related to my post on science and philosophy.

I'll start off by saying again that although it represents my real opinion, the post wasn't meant to be taken very seriously. I'd have thought that using words like "rocks" and "sucks" would've been enough of a hint at that (along with the tag "humor" at the bottom). But maybe not. Anyway, I'll be a little more serious in this post. (Mostly.)

Second, I am (obviously) neither a trained scientist nor a trained philosopher. If you think that means that I have absolutely no right to pontificate on either subject, well, fuck you* fine. I disagree. I have a computer, an internet connection, and a blog; that gives me the right to pontificate on anything I want.

Third, contra some opinions at reddit, I know the difference between epistemology and ontology (although they can be frustratingly difficult to tease apart, and far be it from me to ever sneer at anyone who confuses them once in awhile). I talked about epistemology in my post, not ontology. The Gouldian definition of "fact" that I used ("In science, 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.'") is very much a question of epistemology. It makes "facts" a question of what we know, not of what is.

That's because if we use that definition of fact (of scientific fact specifically -- I would have been careful to point that out if I'd know that actual philosophers/wannabes were going to get their greedy little minds* on my post), then all knowledge is provisional and conditional.

Take some known "scientific fact," say, that the speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s. We "know" this, but, if we truly think scientifically, we only know it provisionally. As far as we know, the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s; it would be silly to think otherwise given the evidence; but we remain open to the (vanishingly small) possibility of contradictory new information.

In practice, of course, we skip all that "provisional" stuff and just say we know what the speed of light is. But strictly speaking, we're not talking about what the speed of light is, we're talking about what we've found it to be. That's why it's a matter of epistemology, not ontology.

(That's also, BTW, another reason that science rocks and philosophy sucks.* Science knows lots and lots of stuff, but pretends it doesn't; philosophy knows very little but pretends it knows a lot.)

Fourth, there are a couple of reasons why I used Gould's definition. The first is simply that I really like it. I like the idea of all (scientific) knowledge being only provisional. But the main reason was that I was trying to set the bar low. I wasn't asking for an absolute fact; I was asking for a provisional one.

Because fifth, if anyone has read this far, that's still a question I'd like to hear some opinions on: Has philosophy ever given us a fact about the world? I'm asking that seriously, because I don't know the answer. (Although I suspect it's "No".)

Nobody bothered to answer that question, either on the post or over at reddit. I mean, things like "science is a philosophy too" or "that's not what I use philosophy for" or "we need both science and philosophy" or "philosophy doesn't either suck" are all good points, but they're also non sequiturs. I didn't ask about any of those things. I wish somebody would address the question I did ask.

*Note: that's meant humorously/affectionately.

Follow me on Twitter
Friend me on Facebook
Ask me a question


  1. "we remain open to the (vanishingly small) possibility of contradictory new information."

    As a scientist myself, I think this says it well regarding most, if not all, things in science. :)

  2. Thanks! I'm glad somebody finally thinks I got something right! ;)


What do you think?