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Shoulders of Giants? -Philosophy and Science in Context, or, “Lawrence Krauss jumps off!”

If I have seen further [than other scientists/philosophers] it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.- Isaac Newton

We act as if they’re [philosophers without current knowledge of science] authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss recently appeared on the English [UK] radio show “Unbelievable?” In this radio program, Krauss and Randy Holder, a Christian, were in dialog about “A Universe from Nothing?” [not necessarily Krauss’ book, but the subject in general]. The dialog, unfortunately, showed that Krauss continues in his ignorance of the importance of philosophy to his own subject, as well as his own flippant dismissal of generations of scientists.

At one point in the program (around the 26:00 mark), Krauss says the following:

I don’t [indiscernible–he may say “also”] care about what Mr. Leibniz said… we refer to philosophers who wrote at a time when we didn’t know that there were a hundred billion galaxies. [So?] Who cares what they say? We act as if they’re authorities about something; they knew nothing!- Lawrence Krauss


I can’t think of a more galling statement for a contemporary cosmologist to make. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, for those who don’t know, happened to be one of the men who discovered infinitesimal calculus. He also (among countless other contributions to mathematics, science, social sciences, engineering, and philosophy)  developed a calculator, contributed to the development of binary language, was one of the first to posit that space was relative, and developed the principle of sufficient reason (which supports all scientific investigation).

Yet, according to Krauss, because he lived in a time before we know how large the universe was, he “knew nothing!” You see, Krauss, and some other scientists and thinkers with a scientistic/physicalist bent, too often throw out the very basis of their thought. How far do you think Krauss could get in his cosmological research without infinitesimal calculus? How would Krauss go about investigating the causes of various natural phenomena without the principle of sufficient reason?
The answer is pretty simple: he wouldn’t get anywhere.

Krauss, like those before him, stands on the shoulders of giants. But, unlike those who are humble enough (or who know enough about philosophy and history?) to admit it, Krauss says “We act as if they are authorities about something, they knew nothing!”

Really, Krauss? Let’s see how well your next research project goes if you throw out all the contributions they made to your methodology. Next time you do an experiment, try to do it without parsimony or inference to the best explanation. Write to me how that goes!

What’s happened with people like Krauss, and I can think of others (like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins) who do the same thing, is that in their gusto for the marvels of modern science, they have forgotten the very basis for their methods, their research, and their rationality.

Without philosophy, there would be no way  to infer causes from effects; without the principle of sufficient reason, there would be no reason to think that causes even have effects; without a well developed notion that what will happen can be inferred from what has happened, these scientists could not even get going. But then they have the absurd tendency to turn around and reject philosophy. They say things like the quote Krauss fired off above.

Here’s the thing: science is utterly dependent upon philosophy to survive. If we didn’t have philosophy–if we didn’t have the developed notions of rationality, inference, and the like–there would be no science. Other theists (and philosophers) have contributed things like parsimony/Occam’s Razor to the wealth of philosophical methodological backbone which makes the scientific enterprise possible. In fact, there is still debate over whether we can reliably make inferences from science (for one example philosophically defending scientific inference, see Wesley Salmon, The Foundations of Scientific Inference). Some scientists have now apparently become those who sit in the ivory towers, blissfully ignorant of how their own research depends upon others’ outside of their field.

I suspect a multifaceted problem behind the motivation of those who throw philosophy out the window once they’ve embraced full-fledged empiricism. First, many of these thinkers have demonstrated they don’t actually know what empiricism means as a–that’s right–philosophical system. Apart from Krauss and Hawking, one could cite the recent example of Richard Dawkins admitting that he doesn’t know what “epistemic” means. Note to those who embrace that philosophical system of Krauss et al.: without epistemology, you would not even be able to justify inferences to best explanation. How’s that for a dose of reality?

Second, there is a kind of blatant ignorance of–or even intentional trampling on–the historical development of scientific inquiry. I hesitate to say that philosophy makes a “contribution” to science, because that’s not what it is. A simple study of schools of knowledge reveals that science, by its very nature, is utterly dependent upon epistemological research. Without such development, there would be no scientific method.

Third, these scientists constantly make philosophical claims, apparently in complete ignorance of the fact that they are philosophical claims. For example, in the same dialog Krauss argues that “the universe certainly doesn’t care what I like…” and throughout the discussion points out that it doesn’t matter what we think, the universe is revealed in a certain way by research.

He apparently seems utterly oblivious to the fact that that, in itself, is a philosophical position. One could take a rival position and argue that the appearances of nature don’t actually determine reality because everything is mind-dependent (idealism, solipsism, or other schools). It’s not enough to just point at nature and say “see, this is how things are!” because if that’s all one does, then someone could say “Your ideas about how things are are dependent upon your mind and ideas, and therefore don’t have any access to reality.” No scientific research could rebut such an argument, only a philosophical position in which nature can give us a reliable record for rationality can ground science.

Krauss dismisses philosophy very nonchalantly. It seems as though he (and others like him) is oblivious to the fact his entire system is philosophical. Consider the claim that “science can examine reality.” How does one go about proving it? One could argue that one could simply make a test and show that over and over again in circumstances y, x result happens, so we are justified that when we assert that if y, then x. But of course we would have to justify that a test can be connected to reality; we’d have to figure out what it means to have “justified” belief; we have to show that our scientific method is trustworthy; we have to assume that mathematical truths are true; we have to operate within a rational perspective; etc. All of these are philosophical positions. Some of them are debates within philosophy of science, in fact. The bottom line is that whenever someone does science, they are utterly reliant upon philosophy. By simply taking the empirical world as something which can be explored, they have made a number of philosophical assumptions, whether realized or not. Scientists take much of the philosophical development as a given before they even start their research. And then, some of them, like Krauss, have the gall to turn around and dismiss philosophers as though they “know nothing.” Suddenly, he has undermined his own system of thought, without even acknowledging that it is a system of thought.

Frankly, some of these scientists are just confused. Thankfully, many scientists operate with a system that respects the contributions of philosophy to science and encourage the interplay between the fields of knowledge.

Here’s the bottom line for those scientists who agree with Krauss: your entire field of research can only proceed if you grant over a thousand years of philosophical development. One major contribution was made by Leibniz, whom people like Krauss casually dismiss. But without the theistic philosopher with the awesome wig, scientists would have nothing. Thanks, philosophy! Thanks again, Christianity!



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The Past, Probability, and Teleology

This post has been expanded, edited, and published in the journal Hope’s Reason. View it in full here.

I have run into the idea more than once recently that we should discount things like the teleological argument due to the fact that it happened in the past. The thinking goes that, because an event (the existence of the universe, for example), has happened, the probability of that event happening is 1/1. Thus, people like Dawkins can say, “The fact of our own existence is perhaps too surprising to bear… How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing, but surrounded by such complexity, such excellence, such endless forms so beautiful… The answer is this: it could not have been otherwise, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it” (here).

There are a number of ways to take such sentiment. The first is quite trivial. Of course, if an event e happened, the probability e having happened is 1/1. That’s, as I said, trivially true.

The problem is when people try to use this thinking against something like some forms of the teleological argument. Statistically, some people assert, the odds that the universe would be life-permitting (like the one we observe) must be 1/1, because, we are here, after all, to observe it!

Now, imagine the following:

d: The chances of any one side coming up are (granting a fair die and surface) 1/6. I toss a die (I really just did here) and get a 1.

Now, the equivalent claim of saying that the universe must have been life permitting because we are here to observe it is saying that d must happen, given that it is what did happen. Some people have no problem with asserting this, and indeed say that this should be the case. The fact that something is true, they may argue, means that the probability that it would happen was 1/1.

We can, in fact, reduce this whole discussion to symbolic logic. It is the case that:


Which tells us that, if p is the case, then necessarily p is the case. Those who are arguing as above, however, need a much stronger conclusion, namely, □p. But this simply doesn’t follow from reality. It is the case that p, therefore, necessarily, p. But it is not the case that necessarily p.

The distinction is a simple de re verses de dicto fallacy. It is an elementary error philosophically, but it is easy to commit. I’ve done so in the past (see here for a post in which I caught myself in this confusion). Now, de dicto necessity is “a matter of a proposition’s being necessarily true” while de re necessity is “an object’s having a property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, v). De dicto necessity ascribes necessity to a proposition, while de re necessity argues only that each “res of a certain kind has a certain property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, 10).

Returning to the idea of past events, such as the universe coming into existence or rolling a die and having it come up as a 1, we can see where this error occurs. Those who deny with Dawkins that we can work out the prior probabilities of the universe being life-permitting because “it could not have been otherwise” are actually committing this basic error. They have assigned the proposition that the universe exists de re necessity, when in reality it is only a de dicto necessity. It is, in other words, true that whatever has happened, necessarily has happened. It is not true that whatever has happened has happened necessarily.

(This post is a very miniature version of a journal article I have under review for Hope’s Reason right now.)


Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford University Press. 1979.

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God-dice.jpg

Thanks to Dr. Timothy Folkerts and Dr. Stephen Parrish for some enlightening correspondence on the above points.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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