William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

When Philosophy Lost Its Way Discussion

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So the official voice of godless materialism published a piece by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle (who are plugging a new book, see below), “When Philosophy Lost Its Way” which is worth discussing.

Gist: philosophy tanked when it became an academic subject. Short response: that’s about right.

This institutionalization of philosophy made it into a discipline that could be seriously pursued only in an academic setting. This fact represents one of the enduring failures of contemporary philosophy…

The second event was the placing of philosophy as one more discipline alongside these sciences within the modern research university. A result was that philosophy, previously the queen of the disciplines, was displaced, as the natural and social sciences divided the world between them.

Theology was the true Queen of Sciences, as Newman told us, a position argued for in his (now) neglected Idea of a University. If you don’t know why you are here, let alone why you are at a university, there is no reason to be at university. Theology was first supplanted by philosophy because Western theologians didn’t take their object of study seriously. Philosophy enjoyed a brief triumph over theology before being knocked on the head by science. Funny thing: philosophers thought the blow was fatal.

But they never checked the wound. Instead, they thought they’d been killed, which is why they “resurrected” their still live selves, turning themselves into something resembling scientists, even to the extent of becoming a branch of science.

Philosophers needed to embrace the structure of the modern research university, which consists of various specialties demarcated from one another. That was the only way to secure the survival of their newly demarcated, newly purified discipline. “Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.

Science envy, or emulation, became so keen there even arose a field called “experimental philosophy”, which is an oxymoron.

Having adopted the same structural form as the sciences, it’s no wonder philosophy fell prey to physics envy and feelings of inadequacy. Philosophy adopted the scientific modus operandi of knowledge production, but failed to match the sciences in terms of making progress in describing the world. Much has been made of this inability of philosophy to match the cognitive success of the sciences. But what has passed unnoticed is philosophy’s all-too-successful aping of the institutional form of the sciences. We, too, produce research articles. We, too, are judged by the same coin of the realm: peer-reviewed products. We, too, develop sub-specializations far from the comprehension of the person on the street. In all of these ways we are so very “scientific.”

Philosophy failed in describing the world because philosophy’s job is not to describe how the world works, but rather to explain the world and our part it in. Which is why philosophy that neglects theology is always disadvantaged.

Scientism, the philosophy which dares not call itself a philosophy, is now King of the Sciences. Scientism is responsible for the embarrassing, cringe-worthy statements of physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking who say, in effect, “Science doesn’t need philosophy”, which is itself a philosophical statement and therefore self-negating. Scidolators also say “Science provides the answers to all questions”, which isn’t a scientific statement, a fact which they never seem to notice, even after it is pointed out.

The effect of the retreat of philosophers into incomprehensible and practically useless sub-sub-specialties is to elevate science to the place theology once stood, where it doesn’t belong. It is to let scientists adapt faddish philosophies, since they never are forced to confront their philosophical views and prejudices. Introspection isn’t necessary by definition if philosophy is of no use. About all scientists can recall is some vague ideas of falsifiability, which are of little practice value.

Scientists strut about like they have all the answers, and philosophers who haven’t sold their souls to this idea still have little stomach for a fight. They’re too busy turning themselves into academics and to fighting internecine battles:

Philosophic activity devolved into a contest to prove just how clever one can be in creating or destroying arguments. Today, a hyperactive productivist churn of scholarship keeps philosophers chained to their computers. Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals.

This accounts for why that which shocks or is evil or that which can package stupidity cleverly is rewarded, and which is why scientists, for the most part, are right to ignore academic philosophers.

David Stove, one of our favorites, has said what is needed to do good philosophy is a library, leisure, and quiet. The libraries universities provide, but they’re not too generous with leisure, and the sounds of silence are long past, even in libraries. As the authors of the article say in their summary to their new book:

Professional philosophy has strayed so far from its roots that Socrates wouldn’t stand a chance of landing tenure in most departments today. After all, he spent his time talking with people from all walks of life rather than being buried in the secondary literature and polishing arguments for peer-reviewed journals.

Socrates was also vividly politically incorrect and a Realist, both disqualifications for university appointments. But what would really have killed the old man (besides the hemlock) was his lack of publications and grants. Can you imagine his teaching evaluations! Socrates wrote nothing and provided zero overhead which the Deans, Associate Deans, and Assistant Deans above him could have used. His only interest was in teaching students and thinking, activities becoming further and further removed from daily academic life.

52 Comments

  1. Philosophy is for those who can’t deal with reality.

    ‘…what is needed to do good philosophy is a library, leisure, and quiet. …” That’s a certain recipe for ensuring any number of a potential myriad real-world details get overlooked.

  2. Ken: Philosophy is not about “reality”. It’s about a thought process, and since thought is outside of “reality”, so is philosophy. Of course, that would mean that those who only believe in “reality” can’t think……..

    Philosophy was never going to be a stand-alone area of study. There are few openings at universities for philosophy professors, which now, as noted, are for the politically correct crowd. Philosophy was supposed to be integrated into life, which is probably why Socarates wondered about teaching all who would listen. It belongs in all areas, not just one department in a university.

  3. Science, philosophy, and all sorts of fields of study suffer when their practitioners fear truth. Any worldview that can’t accept that things might not be how you want them to be is doomed to failure or stagnation.

  4. Ken and Sheri,

    You both miss the point. Philosophy is the study of reality and Being par excellence; St. Thomas Aquinas did not suffer from an inability to “handle reality.”

    And yes, thought is certainly a part of reality. Thought is the operation of the intellect, that organ of the soul whose job is to perceive and ruminate upon reality. I’m not grouping imagination in with thought, though even imagination is not wholly detached from reality.

  5. What is imagination if it’s not thought?

    Some philosophy says your thoughts create reality. Some say there is a “hard” reality outside of what we think and believe. There are many, many views discussed in philosophy and rarely is there any actual conclusion reached. That’s what science and religion are for. Philosophy just asks the questions and may prescribe logic, etc, to be used in finding the answers.

  6. Sander van der Wal

    January 13, 2016 at 1:22 pm

    So Science needs Derrida?

  7. What is imagination if it’s not thought?

    I can think of the concept of, for instance, a chiliagon without having to imagine it; that is a difference between knowing what something is, here a 1000-sided figure, and having a mental image of that same thing.

  8. So Science needs Derrida?

    No, but then, philosophy has no need for Krauss either. Science does, however, require an explanation of its domain and its limits that can only be arrived at philosophically, whereas philosophy can provide this for itself.

  9. “…philosophy tanked when it became an academic subject.”

    Maybe slightly OT, but the same can be said about education and journalism.

  10. I should have added that Krauss certainly needed philosophy when addressing the question of ‘something from nothing’. Oh my, how he needed it.

  11. “Like the sciences, philosophy has largely become a technical enterprise, the only difference being that we manipulate words rather than genes or chemicals.”

    One other difference–those who manipulate genes and chemicals sometimes produce something worthwhile.

  12. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 13, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    Imagination is the ability to form images by combining the inputs of disparate senses — touch, taste, smell, sound, sight — into a single perception. (These various signals arrive in the brain at different instances, so there must be an “inner sense” that combines them, what was once called the “common sense.”) This singular perception can be stored (memory) and manipulated. The memory of a blue ball can be re-imagined as a red ball. Images are not entirely visual, and in some cases may not be visual at all: e.g., an image of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A may be entirely auditory; though it would not be unusual to add a visual component of Mr. Acker Bilk playing it.

    Thinking otoh implies a verbal component, which involves the intellect (in addition to the imagination). Dover Beach’s example of the thousand-sided polygon is instructive. Visually, it would be indistinguishable from a polygon of 999 sides, or indeed from a circle. That is, we cannot perceive or imagine it; but we can conceive or think of it. In the course of conceiving it, we cannot help but form an image of some sort of many-sided polygon. Perhaps of a circle with a segment magnified to show multiple segments, but we depend on the intellect to know that there are a thousand of them.

    It is this conjunction — all concepts are conjoined with images — that obscures the essential distinction between them, and that it is possible for a being to possess imagination without also possessing intellect.

  13. This post reminds me of some people believe that mathematics as we know it may die soon.

    David Stove, one of our favorites, has said what is needed to do good philosophy is a library, leisure, and quiet. The libraries universities provide, but they’re not too generous with leisure, and the sounds of silence are long past, even in libraries.

    No, Stove is not one of my favorites. You know, it’s not uncommon that people don’t like or believe the same thing. But, yes, leisure and a library (or an e-library) would be good for me. Ordinary noise never bothers me. That’s why I must win today’s Powerball jackpot.

    Theology… If you don’t know why you are here, let alone why you are at a university, there is no reason to be at university.

    Am I missing something as this is a very strange notion to me? I don’t know answers to a hell of a lot questions, and I don’t need to know answers to all of them, but I have found answers to some of the questions at university. Not knowing seems a good reason to be at university.

    I think that universities might be the main reason why any progress and serious study of philosophy still exit nowadays.

    Socrates was also vividly politically incorrect and a Realist, both disqualifications for university appointments.
    Being disqualified for a university appointment sure beats being executed.

  14. Theology is about rationalizing and apologising for your preferred magic book. People are afraid to die, and some spend inordinate effort, sometimes their entire lives, trying to make that prospect less scary. As an intellectual exercise, however, it is hardly honest. Hence, a bit of a joke. A very long sad joke, of course. It’s driven by feelings and desires, not reason. You can try to wrap your wish fulfillment in a coat of reason, but when all the flaws and failings are pointed out — obvious to those with intellectual integrity — and invisible to those who don’t — then all the virtues you profess, seem nowhere to be found.

  15. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 13, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    Theology is about rationalizing and apologising for your preferred magic book.

    Not all religions have books. Not all their books are “magic.” Not all religions have theology, strictly speaking. Not all of them dare to subject their beliefs to rational scrutiny.

    People are afraid to die, and some spend inordinate effort, sometimes their entire lives, trying to make that prospect less scary.

    For example, they will convince themselves that they simply turn off light a lightbulb and will not experience judgment.

    Others may make it more scary by raising the prospect of eternal damnation.

  16. Philosophy has its uses. I find stimulating points of view (with which I don’t always agree) in the anti-realist school of philosophers of science–Nancy Cartwright, Bas van Fraassen, Arthur Fine. I find a lot to think about from the writings of philosophers–Bernard d’Espagnat–who try to imbue quantum mechanics with meaning.
    So, don’t knock it if you haven’t made an effort to get something out of it.

  17. And two of the best philosophers of them all, Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

  18. As an intellectual exercise, however, it is hardly honest. Hence, a bit of a joke. A very long sad joke, of course. It’s driven by feelings and desires, not reason. You can try to wrap your wish fulfillment in a coat of reason, but when all the flaws and failings are pointed out — obvious to those with intellectual integrity — and invisible to those who don’t — then all the virtues you profess, seem nowhere to be found.

    Your whole baseless comment reeks of ‘feelings and desires’.

  19. Briggs

    January 13, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    Did somebody say Acker Bilk?

  20. The ‘academic’ disquietude of philosophy has far more ancient roots. Philosophy in the West (there wasn’t really any other) lost its way when theologians began to take seriously Berengarius’s 11th century philosophical coruscation of the Eucharist, which in effect demanded that autonomous rationality and logical necessity were ‘obviously’ prior to the Sacred Mysteries.

    Philosophy had already well lost its way by the time of the founding of the first universities.

    All the rest is commentary, as is more than evident not only by the mutual un-translatability of the comments here, within which there is barely ground to differ, let alone resolve differences, but also by the mistaken, even naive, preconceptions and assumptions of the original post.

  21. Dear Sheri:

    Thought is the contemplation of concepts, while imagination (in the Aristotlean sense) is the perception of either immediate sensory experience, or images from memory.

    Furthermore, philosophy does reach conclusions; its just that philosophers don’t just want to be told the Truth, but rather come to find the Truth themselves. Because of this, and ignorance (or ignoring, when it comes to moderns) caused by sin, they go wrong.

    Furthermore, when it comes to the more abstract things, there is room for disagreement.

    Christi pax.

  22. Physics is the only true ‘Queen of the Sciences’, not philosophy or (the horror!) theology. If theology is a ‘science’, then so too is palmistry, astrology, phrenology and every other quack pseudo-science that one can name, and if that is the case then the word ‘science’ may as well be ditched, for it has by that stage lost all meaning and utility.

    Signed: A godless, materialistic theoslayer (and a proud one at that).

  23. “Some philosophy says your thoughts create reality”

    Could these philosophers create a thousand-dollar note by thinking hard about it?

  24. There’s a word for a professional philosopher – just take off the ‘philo’ and you’ll find it. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. If you can sell it, make the money. Get elected. Just remember, it’s all a steaming pile of ____ ____.

    JMJ

  25. Physics was born when Galileo asserted that the Earth really went around the Sun. He went beyond the medieval practise of “saving the appearances”.The theologians did not mind any degree of “saving of appearances” but any assertion about the reality as such raised their hackles.

    The physicists continue to be bold though with lesser justification than Galileo, whose boldness was theolgically grounded and sound. That man can know reality as such is clearly a biblical principle, even though the philosophers vainly dispute it.

  26. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 14, 2016 at 7:23 am

    If theology is a ‘science’, then so too is palmistry, astrology, phrenology

    Astrology and phrenology, at least, were engaged in by serious scientists with serious credentials. So was eugenics. They were no more pseudo-sciences than phlogiston. See below for a nice summary:
    https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/the-astrology-wars-and-abandoned-scientific-research-programmes/

  27. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 14, 2016 at 8:11 am

    Physics, the philosophy of physical bodies, was born in ancient times. If we are to date physics successful theories, then perhaps it has not yet been born, since most theories bandied about today may one day join phlogiston on the ash-heap of history.

    Physics was born when Galileo asserted that the Earth really went around the Sun.

    It was Copernicus who asserted it. Galileo was one of the ten people who agreed that Copernicus had been right. [The ancient Pythagoreans had made a similar assertion, but that was for religious-philosophical reasons.] However, it takes more than bold assertions to make a science. Copernicus has intended to save the perfect Platonic circles from the contamination of deferants, equants, and the like. To do so, he festooned the solar system with more epicycles than Ptolemy. His planetary orbits were centered not on the sun itself, but on the center of the Earth’s orbit, and in fact no two planets had the same orbital center. Physics is based on empirical evidence, and neither Copernicus nor Galileo made any observations that demonstrated the Earth to be in motion. Copernicus made few observations at all, but simply reworked the old star tables with new math.

    It was all math in those days: no one had a physical theory for the Earth revolving around the Sun until Newton came up with one based not on Copernicus’ perfect Platonic circles but on Kepler’s ugly ellipses.

    In fact, the empirical facts were against them: heliocentrism demands a Coriolis effect from the Earth’s rotation and stellar parallax from her revolution, and neither could be observed. In modern terms, we’d say the theory was “falsified.” When Kepler’s model triumphed in the 1660s, it was because his Rudolphine Tables were easier to use than other star tables. His model “saved the appearances” more simply than Tycho’s [or Ursus’] model, but it still had no empirical support and still seemed contrary to the physics.

    Telescopic observations did undermine Ptolemy, but never laid a glove on Tycho. Their main contribution, beside the discovery of the phases of Venus by Lembo, Marius, Harriott, and Galileo [all in the same month!] was to reveal some heavenly bodies as actual physical bodies. This began the shift of astronomy from the math department to the physics department.

    The theologians did not mind any degree of “saving of appearances” but any assertion about the reality as such raised their hackles.

    Not even that. As Bellarmine wrote in his letter to Foscarini, it would require empirical evidence to move from a mathematical hypothesis to a physical theory. He did not expect that to happen [nor did it until the late 18th century] but if it did, the theologians would admit that they had not previously understood the passages that they had interpreted in light of the then-settled science. Galileo, however, wanted to be accepted right away on faith. Certainly, his theory of the tides, which he thought demonstrated the rotation of the Earth, was flat out wrong: it predicted one tide per day and Spanish sailors were telling him there were two. So who ya gonna believe? Elegant reasoning or actual observation?

    Galileo, whose boldness was theolgically grounded and sound.

    His dabbling in theology may have been what got him in trouble. In his treatise on comets he had tried to insert various Scriptural claims to call his opponents “heretics,” but the censors had made him take out those passages and stick to science. Regarding heliocentrism, Grienberger [chief astronomer at the Roman College] told Galileo’s friend Cardinal Dini that he “would have been better pleased if you had first given your proofs before beginning to speak about the Holy Scriptures…” [Letter: Dini to Galileo, 7 Mar. 1615]

  28. If theology is a ‘science’, then so too is palmistry, astrology, phrenology
    Astrology and phrenology, at least, were engaged in by serious scientists with serious credentials. So was eugenics. They were no more pseudo-sciences than phlogiston.

    Yes, they were ‘sciences’ for a brief time. They are no longer. They are now ‘pseudo-science’, like theology.

    “since most theories bandied about today may one day join phlogiston on the ash-heap of history”

    Horsepucky. Always strange to see the religious types joining hands with the ultra sceptics.

  29. YOS,
    “In fact, the empirical facts were against them: heliocentrism demands a Coriolis effect from the Earth’s rotation …”

    The Coriolis effect was always there for those who had eyes to see, but the physics wouldn’t arrive for centuries. Cyclones, ocean currents, tides were all Coriolis effects and unexplainable in a stationary earth. The fact that Galileo’s explanation of tides was wrong is not relevant.

    What you are calling a Coriolis effect was a crude misunderstanding of relative motion. That is, why doesn’t the arrow fall to the west when shot vertically? There was no concept of -2wXv at that time.

  30. People are afraid to die, and some spend inordinate effort, sometimes their entire lives, trying to make that prospect less scary.

    For example, they will convince themselves that they simply turn off light a lightbulb and will not experience judgment.

    Death is a certainty, but judgment…well, let’s say that’s a whole lot less certain.
    If said judgment exists, exactly which deity is doing the judging is a whole lot less certain than that.
    Given a certain deity, its worshipers are a whole lot less certain than even that on the details of this judgment, grace vs. grace and works, for example.

  31. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 14, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    “In fact, the empirical facts were against them: heliocentrism demands a Coriolis effect from the Earth’s rotation …”

    The Coriolis effect was always there for those who had eyes to see, but the physics wouldn’t arrive for centuries. Cyclones, ocean currents, tides were all Coriolis effects and unexplainable in a stationary earth.

    What are cyclones? asks the 17th century Italian. The ocean currents are not yet mapped out, complains the 17th century Spanish sailor. The tides… well, as noted, Galileo got them wrong. Besides, the orthodox explanation for the tides has to do with the Moon and the Sun’s gravitational influence, not “sloshing” due to the Earth’s rotation.

    The fact that Galileo’s explanation of tides was wrong is not relevant.

    It was presented as the coup de gras argument for the Earth’s rotation in Galileo’s Dialogues on the Two World Systems. If it was wrong, then he had no empirical evidence whatsoever. His suggestion to search for parallax in optical binaries was disingenuous, since he had already observed a pair and failed to measure any. His bad luck: he had picked an actual binary, which no one back then ever expected.

    What you are calling a Coriolis effect was a crude misunderstanding of relative motion.

    Hence: “effect” rather than “force.”

    Problem was: both the Coriolis and the parallax were too small to measure with 17th century methods. Both fell within the error of measurement with the instrumentation then available.

    There was no concept of -2wXv at that time.

    Precisely! Even Descartes was as yet only a volunteer soldier with the Imperial army. No one would know an algebraic expression if it had bit him on the nose. Certainly, Galileo would not, and he was a certified mathematician.

  32. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 14, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    they were ‘sciences’ for a brief time. They are no longer.

    You may be confusing science with the conclusions drawn from it. Science is a method — rather, a congeries of methods — for investigating the metric properties of material being.

    “since most theories bandied about today may one day join phlogiston on the ash-heap of history”
    Horsepucky. Always strange to see the religious types joining hands with the ultra sceptics.

    So you don’t buy into the Popperian paradigm of falsification, and today’s theories will be true to the facts forever? Like Newtonian mechanics? Remember what Heisenberg said

  33. YOS,
    “What are cyclones? asks the 17th century Italian.” I think that they were aware of them. See.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Atlantic_hurricanes_in_the_17th_century

    Where do storms come from on a stationary earth?

    “The ocean currents are not yet mapped out, complains the 17th century Spanish sailor.” Thus he is aware of them. There are a number of books that describe the bizarre subterranean theories concocted to explain them, all necessary for a non rotating Earth.

    “Besides, the orthodox explanation for the tides has to do with the Moon and the Sun’s gravitational influence, not “sloshing” due to the Earth’s rotation.”

    You are wrong about this. The earth rotates through the tidal bulges which gives the roughly twice a day tides. There is lots of sloshing (see the Bay of Fundy). A stationary earth doesn’t fit the observations.

    I don’t believe that anyone in the seventeenth century was even aware of the Coriolis effect, thus I do not see it as an objection. Do you have a reference for this?

    “No one would know an algebraic expression if it had bit him on the nose. Certainly, Galileo would not, and he was a certified mathematician.” Okay then, give me a non algebraic seventeenth century understanding as requested above. The algebra is just between you and me, to make sure that we are talking about the same thing.

  34. Here is where theology lost its way:
    How could anyone think of sacrificing their child, and how could such an action come to seem ethical?

  35. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 14, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    @Scotian:
    They were perfectly aware of storms. They has experienced them on the Mediterranean and the North Sea. They knew there was prodigious storms in the Atlantic, but whether they were aware of them as cyclones requires a global view that they did not yet have.

    There are a number of books that describe the bizarre subterranean theories concocted to explain [the currents], all necessary for a non rotating Earth.

    IOW, they had theories. These theories appear bizarre to us only because we have what we think are the correct explanations; much as the borders of medieval states in Europe were oft described as bizarre because they failed to match the “natural” borders of the French, German, etc. nations.

    I don’t believe that anyone in the seventeenth century was even aware of the Coriolis effect, thus I do not see it as an objection. Do you have a reference for this?
    Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (1651)
    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1103/1103.2057.pdf
    Riccoli (and his bud, Grimaldi) were the first to calculate the acceleration due to gravity. They also named the craters and such on the Moon.
    http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2013/10/9-great-ptolemaic-smackdown-from.html

    The experiment that established the Coriolis effect was conducted by Guglielmini, who found a 4 mm Coriolis deflection over a 29 m drop down the spiral staircase at the Instituto della Scienze in 1791.

  36. YOS,
    Thanks for the link. I’ve skimmed it so far. What is interesting is that it is simply assumed that the effect would be measured by someone if it exists even though an estimate of the size of the effect would have been doable. Is this how philosophers debate?

  37. Fr. John Rickert

    January 14, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    “Being disqualified for a university appointment sure beats being executed.”
    Or, as it is attributed to Oscar Wilde, “It is better to be employed than to be interesting.”

    A word I was waiting for in this post that did not come is “decadent.” It’s an old saw to speak of “decadent Thomism” or “decadent Scholasticism.”

    Has anyone here read Garcia Morente’s “Lecciones Preliminares de Filosofia”? I got a few pages in and was really impressed with how fresh and alive the book is, but I haven’t had much opportunity to get further.

    One recommendation I would make is the extremely good series of lectures on the history of philosophy by DDDr Peter Egger. He is a genuine philosopher.

  38. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 15, 2016 at 8:26 am

    What is interesting is that it is simply assumed that the effect would be measured by someone if it exists even though an estimate of the size of the effect would have been doable. Is this how philosophers debate?

    No, it was how physicists did so in the early 1600s.

    How would they have done all this when no one had yet measured the acceleration due to gravity, there was not yet a concept of inertia, and there was no algebraic geometry? Late Moderns often overestimate what the Early Moderns were capable of, because they back-project contemporary capabilities on earlier ages. When Newton suggested dropping a bullet from a tower to measure the deflection due to the Earth’s rotation, Hooke actually carried out the experiment and found no deflection, and this was a century later.

    The amount of expected parallax had been calculated and should have been evident to the naked eye. Procyon had about the same brightness and diameter as Saturn and thus could not be much more than a hundred times the distance to Saturn without dwarfing the entire “solar” system (they said “world,” which did not yet mean “planet”). In fact, judging by their brightness and diameters and applying basic projective geometry, all the stars would have dwarfed the sun, making it the only pea in a universe of watermelons. But if the stellar sphere were little more than 100x the distance to Saturn, parallax would have been clearly visible. The only reason for the lack of such obvious parallax was that the earth was immobile. It didn’t help that they had underestimated the distance to Saturn, either.

    It was not until the 19th century that Airy demonstrated that the apparent diameters of the stars were an artifact due to spherical aberration, and thus not a useful guide to their sizes, and hence their distances.

    To put it another way, scientists like Tycho Brahe were not actually stoopid.

  39. YOS: I see a similar thing with wind and solar “energy”. I constantly hear “they used them in the past”. Yes, they did. When they needed two lightbulbs and maybe one or two other electric items. People tended to go to bed at sunset and get up at sunrise, and still use lanterns, etc. Trying to fit this technology to a world that operates on 440 three phase electricity in many operations, has a 24 hour lifestyle, etc. borders on insane. It relies on people over-estimating the usefulness of the technology in the past.

  40. Philosophy lost its way when the scientific discoveries of the last few hundred years showed the Aristotelian conclusions about the physical world that had dominated thought for centuries were wrong. Aristotle’s incorrect conclusions about motion and atomism made people realize that thought ungrounded in empiricism is unreliable. Grand conclusions can be arrived at from vague terms. There’s no mystery about it.
    It’s simple to explain to people that Aquinas didn’t know how babies were made, yet somehow can tell you all about the qualities of angels and God. No philosophical argument can really soften that.
    Philosophy can never recover from that blow. It still exists as an argumentative process about aesthetics, ethics, etc, things that can’t be definitively proved one way or the other. But that’s all. Theology is deader than a doornail outside a few quaint circles.

  41. YOS,
    I understand all that but still find it strange to use the supposed non-observance — the claim that artillery officers would see an effect without direct experience yourself — as evidence without any sense of the size of the effect itself. I don’t think that it is me that is overestimating the abilities of early moderns. It is very difficult to figure out things for the first time. This problem still exists and innovation is still difficult. I don’t think that making a distinction between early and late moderns is overly useful.

    “Airy demonstrated that the apparent diameters of the stars were an artifact due to spherical aberration …” Not diffraction?

    “To put it another way, scientists like Tycho Brahe were not actually stoopid.” Only when it came to duelling. 😉

  42. plato: Your idea of a “few quaint circles” is quite interesting. Was that arrived at empirically or via the wishful thinking route?

  43. Plato:

    Philosophy lost its way when the scientific discoveries of the last few hundred years showed the Aristotelian conclusions about the physical world that had dominated thought for centuries were wrong. Aristotle’s incorrect conclusions about motion and atomism made people realize that thought ungrounded in empiricism is unreliable.

    A completely ignorant statement. You’re just repeating the errors of Russell. Read this and heal thyself: Rescuing Aristotle, for starters.

  44. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 15, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    Philosophy lost its way when the scientific discoveries of the last few hundred years showed the Aristotelian conclusions about the physical world that had dominated thought for centuries were wrong. Aristotle’s incorrect conclusions about motion and atomism made people realize that thought ungrounded in empiricism is unreliable.

    Yet Aristotle was famous for emphasizing empiricism above rootless speculation. (In fact, his condemnation of heliocentrism was motivated by the Pythagoreans’ efforts to bend the fact to their a priori religious beliefs.)
    His theories of motion are correct relative to motion in a plenum, and even though air is a thin plenum, lighter objects are affected more strongly by air resistance than heavier objects.
    “Aristotelian physics is a correct and non-intuitive approximation of Newtonian physics in the suitable domain (motion in fluids), in the same technical sense in which Newton theory is an approximation of Einstein’s theory. Aristotelian physics lasted long not because it became dogma, but because it is a very good empirically grounded theory.”
    Carlo Rovelli, Aristotle’s Physics: a Physicist’s Look
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.4057

    His theory of minima appears more correct than Democritus’ theory of atoms. To this day, we have not found Democritus’ atoms, but only minina that can be further subdivided: materials into molecules, molecules into Daltonian atoms, Daltonian atoms into protons, etc., protons [perhaps] into quarks, and even the quark must consist of parts in the relevant sense, since up, down, top, bottom, etc. quarks can be distinguished [at least, mathematically].
    Darwin, in particular, expressed tremendous admiration for Aristotle’s work in biology.
    IOW, while he was not correct in every detail, the old man was more correct than many moderns suppose. And many of the corrections were made in a medieval mode that was still essentially Aristotelian.
    You are also confusing Aristotelian philosophy with Aristotelian physics.

  45. IOW, while he was not correct in every detail, the old man was more correct than many moderns suppose. And many of the corrections were made in a medieval mode that was still essentially Aristotelian.

    I agree completely. Aristotle was one of the greater minds in history. He was also wrong about many things. As it says in the link that dover_beach provided:
    I am not saying that Aristotle invented anything like the modern scientific method. He struggled to find the best mix of observation and deductive logic, and he did not employ the mathematical approach that Archimedes and Euclid would develop a few decades later. But we cannot read Aristotle as though he was writing yesterday, or a century ago or even five centuries ago. It does not diminish Aristotle’s stature that, in the fourth century BCE, one man in one lifetime did not complete what it would take the rest of humankind another 2,000 years to achieve.

    Saying he was wrong isn’t bashing Aristotle. It just means that he was ultimately wrong, but that it took a lot of empiric science and experimentation to point out exactly where he was wrong, and it wasn’t easy to do, or it would have been done sooner. But he was wrong in the fine details, where the devil is. And that changed things forever – it pushed the balance of things to the empiric side vs. the pure thinking side. If someone like Aristotle could be proved wrong by rolling balls down a ramp, well..

    And it caved in the long standing authority of Aristotle that had reigned so long. If somebody who was the Authority for so long turned out to be wrong, well….

  46. plato: Your idea of a “few quaint circles” is quite interesting. Was that arrived at empirically or via the wishful thinking route?

    Maybe quaint was a little obnoxious, I apologize, but yes, it’s pretty much the point of the article. Take it up with Briggs. Theology, the former queen of the sciences, has been laid low.

    “The effect of the retreat of philosophers into incomprehensible and practically useless sub-sub-specialties is to elevate science to the place theology once stood, where it doesn’t belong.”

    Good or bad, philosophy has taken a subordinate place to science. And within philosophy, theology has taken an even lower place. Philosophers lead the population in the Western world in atheism, by a far margin. David Stove was a noted example. I think empirically, yes, theology today, in the Western world, is practiced by a small, insulated group and is not taken seriously or even noted by many outside that circle.

  47. If someone like Aristotle could be proved wrong by rolling balls down a ramp, well..
    And it caved in the long standing authority of Aristotle that had reigned so long. If somebody who was the Authority for so long turned out to be wrong, well….

    And, yes, yes, I know, I realize it wasn’t quite that simple or tidy. Of course it wasn’t. But a change did happen, and that change prompted this article. The success of science in the past few hundred years has pushed philosophy into a narrower margin than it ever occupied before. You can’t argue with success. Well, you can, but it has to be a philosophical argument, and then you have to argue that philosophy is above science and it’s hard to get traction on that with many these days, and here we are.

  48. Ye Olde Statistician

    January 16, 2016 at 8:42 am

    The success of science in the past few hundred years has pushed philosophy into a narrower margin than it ever occupied before.

    The success of auto mechanics in the past hundred years has pushed thermodynamics into a narrower margin than it ever occupied before.

    OTOH, do we mean the “success of science” or do we mean the “success of engineering and technology”?

    For example, whether science tells us that a spooky “force” named gravity pulls the cannon ball toward the center of the earth even as it travels forward or that the Higgs field created by the Earth curves the fabric of space-time so that a cannon ball follows a curved path (or for that matter, whether a cannon ball receives an impetus from the constrained explosion that is gradually dissipated by resistance of the medium through which it travels) one may still successfully hit the castle wall. In fact, all one really needs are firing tables that give the charge and elevation required to hit the aforesaid walls, given the distance to the same; and those can be worked out heuristically.

  49. You can’t argue with success, but you can argue with the definition of success.

    I would note that if the devil is in the details and that’s what killed Aristotelian teaching, science is well on it’s way out, having been politicized into early death. Science is no longer interested in the truth, just winning political victories. Studies don’t follow scientific method, cannot be replicated and people who actually follow scientific rules are threatened by the government. This has caved the long-standing authority that was science. So we can safely say at this point that science is going the way of Aristotle? It was good while it lasted, but all things eventually die, and science definately being replaced by political dogma.

  50. Sheri, It will rise again. You can’t keep a good scientist down.

  51. Modern university philosophy is little different the medieval scholastic philosophy – which was also located in universities and open only to a select few. Both modern and scholastics tend to argue deductively from premises to “explain” the world and Man’s place in it. Empirical science only gets in the way of the Truth!

    Science, modern science, was in fact a product of the Puritains in the 1600’s in Britain. Off the top of my head, I think that 2/3rd of the original founders of the Royal Society were Puritans. Puritans rejected the notion that “authoritative text” were a source of knowledge, and believed that a careful, study of nature would bring one closer to understanding God’s plan. No Church interpreters needed, thank you. Each man could learn of his own personal God through direct experience and interaction with the world (i.e. Science).

    Nonconformists were largely excluded from Universities, and yet made up the majority of scientist, engineers and inventors in the 1700’s – all out side of the Anglican Church, Government or University life. Josephy Priestly, mentioned in the article, was a dissenting theologian and Chemist – typical of the great men of his age who greatly advanced science, commerce, political rights and had a huge influence on the foundation of the United States.

    Science informed these nonconformist in their beliefs.

  52. YOS,
    I haven’t been to this site in awhile. Very interesting that I saw your mention of Rovelli. I just watched a Youtube presentation of his QRM (at Princton I believe) and have had the Bas Van Fraassen paper on Rovelli on my reading list for some time.

    What’s your take on QRM. Seems pretty solid to me (taking into account I’m not a physicist, however…..)

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