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Here’s a post I wrote several years ago. OK, it’s a filler as I am out of town but still relevant – especially with the current philosophical arguments raving on here.

You must watch the Monty Python video.

I seem to have upset someone with my comment “bugger the ‘philosophy’” in a recent discussion. Of course I wasn’t trying to deny the value and role of philosophy – just the way it is sometimes used. My comment was meant in the same way that a previous Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jim Bolger, commented “bugger the polsters” on election night 1993. He did so to underline that the pre-election polls were wrong – and this was shown by the election itself.

I am amazed at how often people will use ‘philosophical’ arguments to support unscientific positions, such as creationism/intelligent design. ‘Philosophical’ arguments also seem to play a central role in theology.

Philosophical and logical arguments have their place. In many ways mathematics can be seen as arguments by logic. The danger lies in using them as a substitute for real experience. Such arguments easily become divorced from reality and can then be used to justify conclusions which conflict with reality. In particular they give free reign to subjective opinions, personal prejudices and emotional commitment to conclusions.

I guess that is why some people prefer ‘philosophical’ and ‘logical’ arguments to consideration of empirical evidence.

Being subjective

Of course, everyone is prone to subjectivism. But objective reality is what keeps science honest. Ideas, hypotheses, theories and speculations are expected to be tested and validated by mapping against reality.

Philosophy and logic are used dishonestly when the discussion is just a game and participants grab at arguments to justify their preconceived positions, or to ‘shoot down’ opponents arguments. ‘You can’t even prove that you exist’ or ‘you can’t prove that you are not a brain in a vat’ arguments are just ways of avoiding the real evidence.

And there is always the way that words are used. Philosophical categories are usually not defined and very often participants will understand them differently. Consider words like ‘matter’, ‘materialism’, ‘natural’, ‘supernatural’ and ‘naturalism.’ I often find that the meaning I would give to these words is different to what some others do. Without common meanings discussion becomes a bit irrelevant so I prefer to avoid such terms.

For example, we used to consider ‘matter’ in a mechanical way. As something with physical substance. That may have been useful a few hundred years ago but is not adequate for our current scientific knowledge. Consequently ‘matter’ today has a deeper meaning and use of the term in philosophical debate needs to accommodate this. But it very often doesn’t.

How often do we hear science being criticised as ‘materialist’ where ‘matter’ is assumed to be only something with physical substance. It’s a silly criticism because it is using these words in a very archaic way – matter’ today has a deeper meaning. When this deeper meaning is understood the ‘materialist’ criticism is not relevant to modern science as any simple consideration of the history of science will show.

Substituting logic for reality

Logical arguments are also often used in ways which don’t take into account modern knowledge. Consequently such arguments which may be true in their abstraction are used to justify conclusions about reality which may be completely wrong. For example conservation laws today are applied in a very different way to 150 years ago when nuclear transformations and the equivalence of mass and energy were not known. Similarly we often hear the 2nd law of thermodynamics being used inappropriately to ‘disprove’ evolution.

Even where ‘logical’ arguments are used honestly mistakes can be made by applying abstract principles to real life situations. Without empirical checking it is easy to draw the wrong conclusion. The abstract logic cannot be used as a ‘proof.’

I think Monty Python conveyed the problem of a philosophy divorced from reality in their video of the International Philosophers football game. It’s an old clip but an excellent one.

Philosophers’ football (3 min 47 sec)

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