Here are quite interesting and extremely intense video debates between philosophers and a scientist on a role and value of philosophy today. It is interesting how the debates between the two generally evolving around a "death of philosophy" issue are unfair to scientists just because to deny the value of philosophy they actually have to take a certain philosophical stance. But the point that Lewis Wolpert makes here is quite interesting: he denies the value of philosophy saying that a pure, not applied, ethically-neutral scientific process is free from all philosophical concerns and questions. An interesting stance, but again not sure if it works. Is it possible to have a non-applied science and if it is, can it then be truly ethically-neutral anyway? The URL link is here

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Very interesting, Nikolay. I think it's fair to say that some of the big questions have shifted from the "why column" to the "how column" and thus from philosophy to science. Lawrence Krauss whipped up some controversy on this topic last year following the publication of his book, A Universe from Nothing. My takeaway from the debate you posted is that while scientific knowledge may be neutral (Wolpert's point) what we do with it, how it changes our conceptions of society and the world, rarely/never is. The others seem to be saying that there are ethical and philosophical assumptions inherent in the methods of science and logic itself. Do you interpret it the same way?

Wolpert asks some questions I believe remain inadequately answered by the other panelists. Early in the discussion he asks, 'What progress has philosophy made?', which he understands as, 'What has philosophy discovered?' These concern the point of philosophy, and its use. Even if science has discovered as many bad things as it has good, a scientist still gets to say she has discovered something; the philosopher, Wolpert might say, can't or won't give this baseline defense of the discipline. Later he asks, `What is philosophy?', which, for him, seems synonymous with, `What are the principles of philosophy?' Again, even if you say the principles of science are flawed or philosophically grounded, which the interlocutors gleefully do, you still get to say that science has principles, and as such is definite and, in an important sense, real. The philosopher, again, is left to defend himself with indirect abstractions and seems incapable of productively defining philosophy.

These two sets of questions are connected. Science makes progress because it works with principled axioms that define a particular realm within which progress can be made. The principles, as it were, allow for discovery and progress. Does philosophy have any structure of this sort? Why do the apologists of philosophy have so little to say? Is it because philosophy does not have this structure; and if so, what structure does it have? Or does it have this structure, and philosophers just consistently fail to discern it? At the end, do you find the philosophers to have adequately addressed Wolpert?

To be quite frank, I found Wolpert's arguments to be sophomoric at best. If you'll humor me, I'll try and lay out what I think are some of the larger problems with his argument in answering your questions. I'd love to hear what you think about my response!

First off, Wolpert operates on the assumption that philosophy is useless, and whenever confronted with counterexamples to that claim are presented, he tries to weasel himself out of it by saying that "that's not philosophy." A good example of this is when bioethics comes up, and Wolpert rejects that it is a branch of philosophy.

Philosophers call this mode of argument the "no true Scotsman-fallacy." To paraphrase the argument, Wolpert makes a universal claim (philosophy is dead), to which the others raise a counterexample (bioethics is a form of philosophy that is very much alive and relevant). Wolpert then tries to get rid of the counterexample that disproves his claim by using a narrower definition of philosophy that does not include bioethics (bioethics is a form of scientific ethics).

To the question "what progress has philosophy made?," examples like logic, ethics, law, and women's rights come to mind. Saying that philosophy makes no progress because it does not make empirical discoveries makes as much sense as saying that basketball players are not athletes because they do not score touchdowns. As for the question of what philosophy is, that question is a lot trickier to answer. To borrow from Richard Rorty, I would argue that there is no universal principle of philosophy, because philosophy is an incredibly broad and diverse field that share something more like a family resemblance than a fundamental principle. Kind of like how there isn't a single principle that makes a game a game. Some games have rules, others do not. Some games are competitive, while others are cooperative. Some games are played alone, and some games are played with others. There aren't many principles that carry over all the way from existentialism to logic, but there aren't many principles that carry over from freeze tag to puzzles either. Yet no one would deny that there is a category of activities (games) to which they both belong.

I believe philosophy has made progress in a few ways, although I think it does so in a more subtle way than, say, science, does. This is because when philosophy is most successful, that success manifests itself in other, related fields, rather than in philosophy itself. The progress we have made toward women's rights, the rule of law, and so on, originated in philosophical questions about those issues. But there is no quantitative way in which we can measure that progress, because concepts like moral progress are in many ways subjective.

So if we define "having merit" as being a science, then no, philosophy does not have merit. But I do not agree with the assertion that the only way in which a discipline can have merit is through being like science.

Does that seem to address your concerns, or am I way off?


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