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on July 30, 2012
his post on the Panda's Thumb blog (PT) titled "In
defense of philosophy of science" (see
www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2010/12/in-defense-of-p.html) John M. Lynch referred to a quotation from my earlier post (see
calling it a "profoundly nonsensical statement". Then
philosopher of science John Wilkins provided a rather detailed
response to my short post (see
Wilkins's opinion of my post is also rather unflattering (with
a consequent apology for being "testy"). Lynch's
contemptuous remark was not the most extreme - another PT
contributor, Steve Matheson, appears to be an even more
invective-prone commenter. In a brief comment (of December 22, 2010)
Matheson called my post "incoherent" and "idiotic."
is nothing new for me in encountering rude personal attacks. In the
nineties, when I was heavily involved in debunking the so-called
Bible code, I and other "code busters" often received
"love-letters" full of hatred, threats, predictions that
we'd burn in hell, etc. When, around 1998, I switched to
revealing the lack of scientific substance in the output of such
luminaries of ID as Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski,
Jonathan Wells and Co., a shower of insults from the ID proponents
followed. The insults rarely were ingenious. The most Dembski could
invent was to name me "Boris Yeltsin of Higher Learning,"
whatever this supposedly denigrating appellation meant. Epithets
like "hypocrite," stupid," and "dense,"
flowed from ID sites regularly. Obviously, resorting to names
calling, in which ID adherents seemed to find an endless source of
amusement, testified to the lack of real arguments, thus compelling
those IDists to use the same pejorative words time and time again.
receiving vehement denunciations sprinkled with insults from our own
side seems a new experience for me. Why are Lynch, Matheson and
Wilkins so enraged by my statement denying the usefulness of the
philosophy of science for practicing scientists? Such a statement is
far from new. In fact, making such a statement, I was in good
company. Very similar notions have been offered many times before,
some of them by very prominent scientists, including Feynman,
Weinberg, and others. Many years ago, while attending a seminar
conducted by the famous theoretical physicist Lev Landau, I witnessed
the following episode. Some student asked Landau's opinion of
that student's paper. Landau, known for his penchant for
acerbic comments, answered, "My dear friend, you never will be
a scientist, at best a philosopher of science." Since it was
more than half a century ago, I can't vouch for the exact
wording of Landau's statement, but the gist of it I remember
famous physicist Richard Feynman suggested the following notion (see
"Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely
necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see,
rather naive, and probably wrong."
following comment is also attributed to Feynman: (see
): "Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as
ornithology is to birds."
here is what another great physicist, Steven Weinberg, like Feynman
and Landau, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote about the philosophy of
science (see depts.washington.edu/ssnet/Weinberg_SSN_1_14.pdf): "…we
should not expect it to provide today's scientists with any useful
guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are
likely to find."
we want to believe Lynch, both Feynman and Weinberg made "profoundly
nonsensical statements," and if we want to believe Matheson,
both Feynman's and Weinberg's views are "incoherent"
or false, the notion that invoked such an emotional rejection from
Matheson, Lynch and Wilkins has been in circulation for a long time,
and has been shared by people who obviously are neither idiots nor
a few words regarding what I really meant to say. I suspect that my
term "entertaining ability" as I applied it to the
philosophy of science, was misinterpreted. I did not mean it to be a
derogatory term. Entertaining ability has after all a significant
value. Moreover, our society seems to value entertainment well over
science. Just compare the rewards our society offers for scientific
work and for entertainment. The latter is immensely higher than the
former, both money-wise and fame-wise. What I meant to say was that
philosophy of science has an entertaining ability, and thus is
valuable in its own right, but it is nevertheless of little help for
the work of a practicing scientist. Of course, readers may disagree
with that notion, but does such a disagreement justify the use of
words like "profoundly nonsensical," "idiotic,"
certainly has an entertaining value – otherwise books by
musicologists would not find readers prepared to pay for the
privilege of reading them. Has a single composer ever needed to read
a book on musicology prior to starting composing a symphony?
Musicology is of no help for composing good music. This is just a
statement of a simple fact, not implying at all that musicology has
no value in general. Its value, however, is not in providing advice
to composers, say to Rachmaninov, as to how to compose his beautiful
piano concertos. It has a value in its own right, while being
useless for practicing composers. Saying that in no way denigrates
musicology in general, but just reflects a particular observation
regarding musicology's role. Replace "musicology"
with "philosophy of science," and "composers"
with "practicing scientists" and I see here the obvious
of the commenters to my post recommend I " read some
philosophy," some of them naming the authors I should read,
like Kuhn, Popper, and Lakatos. Thanks for the advice. I have
already read all three of them, plus many others, even including the
blab of Steve Fuller. Some of it I enjoyed, some found boring.
Moreover, in my own writing I could not escape the trap of appearing
an amateurish philosopher of science. (See, for example, the chapter
"Science in the Eyes of a Scientist" in my book
are philosophers of science whose work I admire. A good example is
Elliot Sober – I view his articles as excellent examples of
logic, adherence to facts, and eloquence. This does not mean,
though, that solving, say, a problem of calculating stress in a
magnetic thin film can be somehow helped by Sober's papers. In
that sense I stated that philosophy of science is not helpful for
practicing scientists. And I see no reason to apologize for such a
the comments to my post on PT, I also received private messages from
some professional philosophers of science who felt offended by my
opinion and demanded some clarification. Hopefully the above text has
provided such a clarification.
thanks to Matt Young and Paul Gross for pithy, friendly, and helpful