Paper: Presenting philosophy, what science has taught me about it

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Science and philosophy are two areas of human endeavor that currently have, shall we say, a complex relationship. Arguably, the scientific approach to understanding the world was invented by the Pre-Socratic philosophers — folks like Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the others — when they took the crucial step of rejecting mythical “explanations” of phenomena and realized that true understanding begins only when we look for natural causality (Waterfield, 2009). So was born natural philosophy, a branch of philosophy separate from metaphysics, ethics, logic, aesthetics, and so forth.

Jump forward to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries (Shapin, 2018) and we begin to discern clear elements of what we nowadays refer to as science, fundamentally distinct from philosophy. Even though the word “scientist” wasn’t introduced until 1833 by philosopher and historian of science William Whewell (Cahan, 2003), and even though Galileo, Newton, and Boyle considered themselves natural philosophers, the irreversible divergence of science from philosophy had clearly started. It continued with a series of new scientific fields sequentially spinning off natural philosophy: physics, with Galileo and Newton; chemistry, with Boyle; biology, with Darwin; and psychology, with James. The process is still ongoing, with the classic field of philosophy of mind (Heil, 2019) increasingly turning into cognitive and neuro-science (Bermúdez, 2020). …

[From: Human Affairs, 15 October 2021. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

3 thoughts on “Paper: Presenting philosophy, what science has taught me about it

  1. I am about two-thirds through Nick Lane’s new book “Transformer,” the one that Paul Braterman lauded so much. In addition to looping back to part of his abiogenesis ideas in “The Vital Question” (the first half of this book is primarily about the Krebs cycle, its origin and related issues), he gets at least tangential to philosophy of science issues, and arguably to philosophy of history issues, too, with something approaching “Great Man” thoughts, and the pitfalls of a “Great Man” focus, on the development of scientific thought. In the likes of Otto Warburg, he notes how a Great Man’s personal philosophy of science, or a particular science, can influence that person’s research or interpretations thereof. (In the last one-third, where I am now, he takes a look anew at issues related to cancer and other ‘diseases of aging’ based on his Krebs cycle development and other ideas. He doesn’t reject genetic mutation as *A* cause of cancer, but he does reject its likelihood as *the most significant cause* in many cases.) Per all this, plus his writing style, I think this book would interest you at least as much as de Waal’s new one.

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  2. I was struck by your comment on Aristotle’s Rhetoric (which I have not yet gotten around to reading, I’m in the middle of the Nicomachean Ethics): “Aristotle distinguishes three parts to the art of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos.”

    Of course, the creationist preacher was more adept at rhetoric, especially the spoken kind: they have to stand up and persuade their flock every Sunday. I am glad to read that you ask of your students something similar: that they are engaged and not just eating the popcorn.

    I think it is important to emphasize that engagement should spring from our deepest emotions.

    I recently read a New Yorker article

    “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” By Elizabeth Kolbert February 19, 2017
    with this provocative section:
    In “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us” (Oxford), Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the Gormans note. But no matter how many scientific studies conclude that vaccines are safe, and that there’s no link between immunizations and autism, anti-vaxxers remain unmoved. (They can now count on their side—sort of—Donald Trump, who has said that, although he and his wife had their son, Barron, vaccinated, they refused to do so on the timetable recommended by pediatricians.)

    The Gormans, too, argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive. And they, too, dedicate many pages to confirmation bias, which, they claim, has a physiological component. They cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” they observe.

    The Gormans don’t just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong; they want to correct for them. There must be some way, they maintain, to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous. (Another widespread but statistically insupportable belief they’d like to discredit is that owning a gun makes you safer.) But here they encounter the very problems they have enumerated. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. “The challenge that remains,” they write toward the end of their book, “is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

    The provocative statement is this: “Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.”

    This is taken as a given, but flies in the face of what Aristotle is getting at.

    The question is posed: why the hell not appeal to the emotions in the name of good science? Talk with any scientist who is committed to their career, and you will hear the passion in them. Science, as social intercourse, is just as emotional as the arts. C.P. Snow talks about the two cultures and their differences. Passion in what you are doing should not be one of those differences.

    In the case of rejection of vaccinations, two of the underlying emotions are distrust of authority and fear of bad outcomes. But a careful rephrasing – while preserving sound science – is to reframe this issue with the emotions that get your point across. For example, for a parent, the responsibility to protect the child should be emphasized. I don’t know what cocktail of positive emotions is the most successful in this case, but it is obvious that, to have people accept sound science, it has to be done at the emotional level so that the science “feels right” And that goes beyond a well-constructed syllogism.

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    1. Yes, that strikes me as exactly right. Aristotle emphasized that one should not just appeal to emotions, one should *also* have one’s logos — that it, arguments and facts — straight. As well as the third component, ethos, that is, credibility (with the specific audience).

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