A philosopher in the age of science

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A philosopher in the age of science

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At 87, Hilary Putnam is one of the world’s greatest living philosophers. He attacks the prevailing distinction between “facts” and “values”

In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson delivered the following assessment of contemporary philosophers: “they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant.”

The Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam might seem a dwarf at first glance, and his latest collection of essays, Philosophy in the Age of Science, another scholarly text for academics. It is a weighty book from a university press with foreboding chapter titles like “Axioms of Set Existence.” It will likely be ignored by non-philosophers. This is a shame because Putnam, in lucid and readable prose, confronts some of the most philosophically rich debates out there. Can science produce an exhaustive description of the universe? Are moral values subject to rational scrutiny? Can we give an account of mind that is compatible with what we know about cognitive psychology?

Putnam, unlike most philosophers, does not take a slow and plodding approach. His style is more detached, more panoramic. He takes long strides, condensing arguments into a few sentences, rather than the whole chapters one would usually expect. What Putnam’s approach lacks in microscopic nuance, it makes up for with its ability to capture the big picture—to see how small philosophical problems relate to grand, overarching topics.

This kind of approach can come off as naïve or arrogant, unless deftly handled. Bertrand Russell got away with it in his Problems of Philosophy because he was a famously brilliant logician, who also spent decades thinking about the arguments he reduces to short paragraphs. For similar reasons William James’s Pragmatism, a poignant American counterpoint to Russell, gets away with its grandiose and sweeping style. Putnam pulls off the trick too—he is one of the few living philosophers in the same mould as Russell and James.

Like Russell, Putnam began his philosophical career working on topics concerning logic and mathematics. In the 1960s his work with three other mathematicians led to the solution of Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, and his work with Martin Davis led to the creation of an algorithm about satisfiability for first-order predicate logic. Like William James, Putnam has a keen eye for where lofty philosophical notions such as truth, knowledge, value, and justification can be related to pragmatic concerns about use and practicality. And like James and Russell, Putnam sees both science and philosophy as participating in a similar project of refining our conception of reality. Sadly Putnam has never enjoyed a similar level of fame or public influence, though his famous essay “Brain in a Vat” may have been one of the inspirations behind The Matrix, a film which introduced philosophical scepticism to a whole new audience.

Within the world of academic philosophy, Putnam is famous (perhaps notorious is the word) for his habit of changing his mind. His entry in the joke Philosophical Lexicon runs:

Hilary: A very brief but significant period in the intellectual career of a distinguished philosopher. “Oh, that’s what I thought three or four hilaries ago.

His longtime admirer Sidney Morgenbesser once quipped of Putman: “He’s a quantum philosopher. I can’t understand him and his position at the same time.”

This intellectual mutability extends to his politics and personal life. Born in 1926 to an intellectually gifted, middle-class Jewish family in Chicago, Putnam was raised an atheist and progressive. In the 1960s Putman was a vocal defender of the Civil Rights Movement, a critic of the American involvement in Vietnam, and a member of the communist Progressive Labor Party. By 1976 Putnam, after grappling with the human rights abuses by communists, left the PLP and gave up his support for Maoism. Both Putnam and his wife, the philosopher Ruth-Anna Putnam, returned to Judaism after decades of atheism. Putnam was 68 when he had his Bar Mitzvah.

Changing your mind in any situation, much less academic philosophy, is seen as a sort of weakness. It takes a very secure ego to end a debate with “well I think I may have been wrong.” Putnam’s shifts in position demonstrate not just his intellectual confidence, but also the virtue of seeing the bigger picture. Putnam is able to step back for a moment and see a particular position, say functionalism in philosophy of mind, and notice that it doesn’t quite fit in with a greater commitment in metaphysics and philosophy of language.

In Philosophy in an Age of Science Putnam wants us to take a step back and consider the relationship between two deeply entrenched ways of understanding the world. One, the scientific position, attempts to explain things in mind-independent and law-like terms. This is often called the descriptive or “is” position. The other, the moral position, attempts to explain things in mind-dependent and value-laced terms. This is often called the normative or “ought” position.

For the past century philosophers, and our culture in general, have seen these positions as mutually exclusive. This line of thought was taken up during the 1940s and 50s by the logical positivists. Wanting to place all thought on firm scientific ground, they proposed a severe reduction of the scope of philosophy. Proper philosophy, they argued, should concern itself with the analysis of well-defined propositions with clearly identified conditions for verification.

Inevitably, after the reign of the logical positivists, there followed a backlash. Their sharp division between the scientific and normative positions began to appear untenable. Putnam was one of the leaders of the attack, consciously rejecting the primacy of the scientific stance that has dominated philosophy since Russell.

Philosophy in an Age of Science condenses a career’s worth of work but it is Putnam’s criticism of the false distinction between facts and values that is his most convincing and important argument. Briefly put, in Putnam’s view there is no clear-cut way to distinguish facts from evaluative judgements.

This goes against one of the most widely held convictions of the modern age. It seems a simple matter to sort our beliefs into neat piles—objective facts in one corner, subjective opinions and values in another. “The acceleration of gravity on earth is 9.8 metres per second squared” as opposed to “Schubert’s music is better than Justin Bieber’s.” Politicians and pundits are always trying to “get to the facts.” We placate disagreements with “well that’s just my opinion.” Working in the background here is another idea: that facts are something that all rational people can agree upon while values are ultimately impervious to reason and argument. This view of the world as divided into the subjective and objective is so deeply held that many people assume that it is just the way things are and not a philosophical position.

Putnam’s argument against this dichotomy is not any sort of naive relativism, where there simply is no difference between asserting “2+2 =4” and “That pasta carbonara tasted revolting.” Putnam’s point is simply that values and facts are inextricably entangled.

Take scientific judgements—the embodiment of a discourse which is supposedly factual and objective. Imagine two scientists are proposing competing theories about the motion of the moon. One scientist argues that the moon orbits the earth at such and such a speed due to the effects of gravity and other Newtonian forces. The other, agreeing to the exact same observations, argues that behind Newtonian forces there are actually undetectable space-aliens who are using sophisticated tractor beams to move every object in the universe. No amount of observation will resolve this conflict. They agree on every observation and measurement. One just has a more baroque theory than the other. Reasonably, most of us think the simpler theory is better.

But when we ask why this theory is better, we find ourselves resorting to things that are patently non-factual. We may argue that theories which postulate useless entities are worse than simpler ones—citing the value of simplicity. We may argue that the space-alien theory contradicts too many other judgements—citing the value of coherence. We can give a whole slew of reasons why one theory is better than another, but there is no rulebook out there for scientists to point to which resolves the matter objectively. Even appeals to the great pragmatic value of the first theory or arguments that point out the lack of explanatory and predictive power of the space-alien theory, are still appeals to a value. No amount of observation will tell you why being pragmatic makes one theory better—it is something for which you have to argue. No matter what kind of fact we are trying to establish, it is going to be inextricably tied to the values we hold.

The second major theme of Putnam’s work is his insistence that meaning in language is, in the jargon, both external and normative. What we mean by certain utterances, he argues, can’t be explained in terms of our internal mental states alone—their meaning is derived from factors like being causally related to an external world. Although in the past Putnam has provided several detailed arguments for this position, recently he has taken to simply stating that at virtually every juncture, some amount of externality and normativity creeps into our language.

Externalism, at first glance, seems to go against the plausible idea that what we mean by our utterances is a matter of internal factors like our own ideas and intentions. What you mean by saying “I like the bank” has a lot to do with whether you want to talk about the side of a river or a building in which you apply for a loan. But Putnam will point out that there is nothing inherent in symbols (like words) which gives them content.  An ant running in the sand could randomly trace out the sentence “I’m half sick of shadows” regardless of humans ever existing. Any content in those symbols, even symbols which are contextually dependent on a speaker’s intentions, derives from a very complex network of information, metaphor, and history entirely external from our mental states.

If externalism is correct then science can’t, even in principle, provide an adequate account of language. You could have a complete neural reading of someone’s brain and measure patterns in the air they produce, but still have no understanding of what they mean. Brusquely put by Putnam:  “Cut the pie any way you like, meaning just ain’t in the head.”

This theme of Putnam’s work poses an additional problem for the primacy of the scientific stance because it adds a further level of entanglement, over and above the fact-value entanglement. If science can’t, in principle even, provide an adequate account of language, it seems like it is missing a crucial part of human rationality. Moreover there is the methodological trouble that science itself requires a grasp of meaning and language for us to even construct hypotheses and interpret empirical data.

Putnam’s final theme, his commitment to conceptual relativity, is closely related to the points above. In his view, there is no reason to suppose that a complete account of reality can be given using a single set of concepts. That is, it is not possible to reduce all types of explanation to one set of objective concepts. Suppose I say, “Keith drove like a maniac” and you ask me why. We would usually explain the event in terms of value-laden concepts like intention, emotion, and so on—“Keith was really stressed out”—and this seems to work perfectly fine. Now we can also take the exact same event and describe it using an entirely different set of scientific concepts— say “there was a chain of electrochemical reactions from this brain to this foot” or “there was x pressure on the accelerator which caused y torque on the wheels.” These might be true descriptions, but they simply don’t give us the whole or even a marginally complete picture of Keith driving like a maniac. We could describe every single relevant physical detail of that event and still have no explanation. Nor, according to Putnam, should we expect there to be. The full scope of reality is simply too complex to be fully described by one method of explanation.

The problem with all of this, and one that Putnam has struggled with, is what sort of picture of reality we are left with once we accept these three central arguments: the collapse of the fact-value dichotomy, the truth of semantic externalism and conceptual relativity. Richard Rorty embraced all of these positions, as did Donald Davidson, but Putnam is keen to point out why he is no Rorty or Davidson. Putnam thinks Rorty goes too far in rejecting the idea there is such a thing as a “correct representation of reality” as opposed to a merely “useful fiction,” but without something like the primacy of one set of concepts over others, there is little for Putnam to grab a hold of. He wants to believe science is getting things right, but how can he convince us we are getting closer to truth and not simply further away from where we used to be?

We could—like Putnam before the 1970s—become robust realists and simply accept that values and norms are no less a part of the world than elementary particles and mathematical objects. We could—like Putnam until the 1990s—become “internal realists” and, in a vaguely Kantian move define reality in terms of mind-dependent concepts and idealised rational categories. Or we could adopt Putnam’s current position—a more modest realism which argues that there is a mind-independent world out there and that it is compatible with our ordinary human values. Of course Putnam has his reasons for believing what he does now, and they largely derive from his faith in our ability to represent reality correctly. But the strength of his arguments convincing us to be wary of the scientific stance leave us with little left to trust in it. He is hard pressed to find a good reason not to adopt Rorty’s position.

It is this lack of a complete worldview that leaves Putnam without any disciples or a positive doctrine. There are Quineans and Rortians, but no Putnamians.  But it is hard not to end up admiring Putnam’s commitment to non-commitment. He is the philosophical version of a lucidly self-aware neurotic who undermines his own most honourable enterprises. His commitment to human dignity and welfare led him politically towards the far-left and Maoism and, after an unforgiving look at the consequences of the latter, this same commitment led him to change his politics. His commitment to the reality of moral and epistemic values has caused him to shift from one ontological landscape to the next. And though in the end we don’t always know where these commitments lead us, Putnam has always forced us to think hard about wherever it is we end up.

A Kant without hubris, a Wittgenstein without quietism, an unrelenting critic, gadfly and deeply original thinker, Putnam is one of the 20th century’s true philosophical giants.

IF YOU LIKED THIS ARTICLE, WHY NOT TRY:

Wittgenstein’s forgotten lesson: Wittgenstein’s philosophy is at odds with the scientism which dominates our times. Ray Monk explains why his thought is still relevant

Thomas Nagel is not crazy: The philosopher Thomas Nagel thinks the materialist scientific worldview cannot explain consciousness, says Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson. Is he right?

Richard Rorty: He was arguably the most influential philosopher of our time: a radical American who is against war in Iraq – and against truth, reason and science. Yet his radicalism turns out to be oddly disarming, argues Simon Blackburn

Who was John Rawls?: The reclusive philosopher revived liberal political philosophy with A Theory of Justice. Ben Rogers looks at why he wrote it

  1. March 14, 2013

    Alan Robinson

    In my view, philosophy in the popular sense:

    - is irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population
    - after 2500 years of bickering has failed to make much contribution to society
    - with the exception of maybe Socrates and Diogenes, is an occupation for affluent men

    A philosopher is literally a friend of wisdom. To qualify as a philosopher ought not therefore require academic study, and I have to say that university courses in the subject ought to be named “the history of philosophy”, for as far as I can see, students spend their time reading what other people said or wrote. Following such studies does not require any affinity for wisdom, and neither does it ensure the student becomes wise. Most usually it merely enables them to quote others.

    As far as wisdom goes, I am convinced that many pensioners and disadvantaged people could teach our “philosophers” a few things about how to live a reasonably pleasant life without all the trappings of affluence and status.

    While I am on the subject, what “age of science ” is this? The scientific method was for Aristotle an entirely intellectual pursuit. This continued until Francis Bacon decided it was time for a scientific revolution, from which point we had inductive thinking and observation. It seems Thomas Kuhn had a valid point when he said that science goes in cycles consisting of accepted ideas, followed by crisis and then revolution. Popper too had a point in that science is that which has survived ages of abysmal testing. These days, science seems to me little more than metaphysical speculation, and there are great questions concerning acceptable authority, testing and proof.

    Take meteorology; the difficulties studying the atmosphere are tremendous; you cannot take samples of clouds or rainbows for study in a laboratory, and worse still is the study of the stratosphere and the deep oceans. My toes curl when in connexion with the climate change debate I read the comment that “the science is settled”.

    Philosopher in the age of science? I think I must have missed something.

    • March 14, 2013

      Andy McKinnon

      *Posted this as a comment rather than a reply by accident*

      I think you might have missed the actual article. Did you read it? Because it seems an awful lot like you’ve just taken the two terms ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Age of Science’, and graced us with a few paragraphs of uninformed and pretty much incoherent rambling.

      “2500 years of bickering has failed to make much contribution to society”

      I’m almost embarrassed to point out the existence of law (concepts like accountability, agency, fallibility etc.) ethical frameworks for pretty much every area of our existence (like medical ethics) and even science!

      You can’t seriously have meant that sentence. If you meant it sarcastically, or if you meant to say that this ‘popular sense’ is somehow mistaken, why do you demonstrate such profound ignorance of how philosophy – and, for that matter, science – work? Or what those terms even mean?

      If your understanding of meteorology extends to puzzlement about how scientists “take samples … of rainbows”, perhaps it’d be better if you spent more time reading and less time writing.

      • March 15, 2013

        Alan Robinson

        I began commenting on this website because it seemed to me there were no ad hominem arguments, but it didn’t take long for such to begin I see.

        Just before I strike Prospect Magazine off my browser’s list of “favourites”, perhaps you will explain to readers why philosophy failed to prevent WW1, or WW2, or the Credit Crunch, and why the western world isn’t run like Plato’s republic or Thomas More’s Utopia? I don’t suppose it is because most of us find irrelevant the affluent, conceited men who consider themselves intellectually our superiors?

        I’ll tell you who makes a difference in this world; it is men such as Oliver Cromwell, Lenin and Winston Churchill. These make a real difference in our lives, not a bunch of sophists pondering metaphysics.

        Having got that off my chest, goodbye Prospect Magazine.

        • March 15, 2013

          Andy McKinnon

          There’s a difference between contributing to society, and governing it absolutely.The Republic and Utopia have nothing to do with metaphysics.

          I rarely, if ever, comment in comment sections like this, but your reply to the article was absolutely infuriating. Don’t hide behind phrases like ‘ad hominem arguments’, as if you’re somehow above providing evidence or reasoning to support what you say. You seem to operate your arguments within a framework of caricatures and stereotypes.

          I read Prospect and browse it’s comment sections because it is generally free of comments such as yours.

           
        • March 16, 2013

          aravistarkheena

          Why are you under the impression that anyone cares whether you comment here or not?

           
        • March 28, 2013

          Anne

          You are an ignorant mess of conceited idiocy. Have you even read More’s Utopia? Think you missed the point of just about every thing you’ve referred to. How sad.

           
    • March 16, 2013

      aravistarkheena

      What a sad man you are…not to mention, incorrect in just about everything.

      1. I am a full professor of philosophy, at a large university in the lower midwest. I am not affluent or anywhere close to it.

      2. Your conception of science employs the crudest sort of verifcationist epistemology, with a correspondingly crude conception of observation. By your constraints, we couldn’t do physics.

      3. Philosophy has, among other things, given the world liberal democracy. The democracies of the West are all pretty much based on the blueprints set out by Locke and Rousseau. This is hardly “no contribution.” If we add to this the contributions made to logic, mathematics, physics, psychology, and other sciences, the claim is even more absurd.

      You really ought to think and study a bit more before spouting rubbish like this. All you do is embarrass yourself.

      • September 11, 2013

        Bret Chandler

        This conversation may be a bit stale, but I happen to like Alan Robinson’s point. There is a sense in which academic philosophers tend to think of themselves as “above the fray”–and are often entirely ignorant of their own institutional context and, to borrow from Bourdieu, their academic doxa. I also find it interesting that many so angry with Alan’s views are–or seem to be–academic philosophers! And no, philosophy did not give us liberal democracy–such is the pretension of the philosopher to think that ideas alone produce reality.

    • March 16, 2013

      Jim

      I think perhaps you may have.

    • March 17, 2013

      Nick Firth

      Alan, you are wrong to align philosophy so closely with the pursuit of wisdom (inasmuch as you seem to define wisdom as something not particularly rigorous and as a sort of collection of loose speculations on how to live a pleasant life). Of course one can argue for ‘philosophy as the love of wisdom’ from an etymological point of view, but even this interpretation is somewhat fuzzy. At any rate, etymological considerations are somewhat redundant. Philosophers, in their everyday work, do not sit around dispensing ‘wisdom’ and ruminating airily on the meaning of life. While different paradigms within contemporary philosophy have different methods, the actual business of philosophy is often concerned with conceptual clarification, the application of logic, meta-scientific analysis and much else.

    • March 17, 2013

      AEFic

      Consider the proposal that, were every human more skeptical of the value of violence as solution to problems, as a philosophers such as Putnam are, nations would probably be far less likely to organize themselves into groups with the conviction that eradicating another human subgroup will solve the problem. Now, you can point out “unrealistic” nature of trying to get everyone to sit down and contemplate with each other, but that misses the point: that it WOULD be beneficial, whether or not it’s going to happen. This is one example, but my point is: perhaps philosophy is considered irrelevant by people, but this is not because they are so wise that they don’t need it. It’s because they’re too blind to realize that they do.

  2. March 14, 2013

    Andy McKinnon

    I think you might have missed the actual article. Did you read it? Because it seems an awful lot like you’ve just taken the two terms ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Age of Science’, and graced us with a few paragraphs of uninformed and pretty much incoherent rambling.

    “2500 years of bickering has failed to make much contribution to society”

    I’m almost embarrassed to point out the existence of law (concepts like accountability, agency, fallibility etc.) ethical frameworks for pretty much every area of our existence (like medical ethics) and even science!

    You can’t seriously have meant that sentence. If you meant it sarcastically, or if you meant to say that this ‘popular sense’ is somehow mistaken, why do you demonstrate such profound ignorance of how philosophy – and, for that matter, science – work? Or what those terms even mean?

    If your understanding of meteorology extends to puzzlement about how scientists “take samples … of rainbows”, perhaps it’d be better if you spent more time reading and less time writing.

  3. March 16, 2013

    ESS

    All science began with philosophy, and in the newer sciences a lot if it still does. Philosophical questions are ones we don’t quite know how to go about answering. We work with them until they’ve been put in a form, or placed against a sufficiently worked out theory and practice, that they admit of empirical answer.
    But some philosophical questions will never be answered in that way, by empirical testing. Such as the question (which Putnam is Pparently grappling with in his book) of what picture of the world science is offering us. That’s a meta-scientific question, outside the scope of any scientific theory.
    By the way, we aren’t all affluent, or men! And I hope most of us don’t consider ourselves superior to non-philosophers. It’s not the world’s most important job, but few are, and, like most jobs, it’s worth something!

  4. March 16, 2013

    Jim Holt

    “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs in one.”
    –Hilary Putnam

  5. March 16, 2013

    empiricist

    Farewell, Alan Robinson, let us hope.

    Actually, this is an incredibly good article (any severe objections?). I now do call myself a Putnamiam. A committed non-commitment might be saintly, not neurotic. And I hilarize.

  6. March 16, 2013

    Jon Monroe

    Science cannot remove the veil that culture places between reason and reality, mind and environment. Ultimately, without the mental discipline that philosophy provides, science would become just another prejudice, hypocrisy, self-interested delusion… another prop to the feudalistic gravitation of our as-yet-incomprehensible minds. Science has no independent means (yet) for de-culturing our way of being.

  7. March 16, 2013

    anonymous

    Yes, this is a very good article, and points out that it is not that philosophers have failed to rise to the occasion this generation, but that people aren’t paying attention to the very important things they are saying.

    The guilty party is scientists who refuse to listen to professional philosophers or feel free to expound on philosophical ideas with no philosophical knowledge (cough cough Hawking Dawkins Harris cough cough).

    In the end they end up historically looking like a joke, but they wield a lot of power now. It’s unfortunate, and hopefully people like Putnam will continue to do good work and toil away, and eventually history will vindicate them.

  8. March 17, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    Did I read article? Check.

    I never consider a perceived ‘ad hominem’ reply/attack worth the bother of not arguing. Whatever is seen as personal attack simply becomes irrelevant, or at best a sign of an undisciplined, perhaps ill-mannered, response. Too many people seem to believe an interest in philosophy justifies or even demand a kind of faux religious fervor.

    I liked Alan Robinson’s views. And I disliked Andy McKinnon’s reaction, very likely because it comes across as boorish, self-important, ignorant of the view of others and, necessarily, undisciplined. I look for even-tempered sharpness in philosophical exchanges, not a street fight or bar brawl, nor even adolescent cantankerousness.

    Anyhoo (sic): of course there must be a link between fact and value; they are both worked over by the rational mind.

    • March 17, 2013

      Nick Firth

      I think, quite to the contrary of what you write, that it is Alan Robinson’s views that are ignorant and undisciplined. If you like his views then clearly your fairly clueless.

    • March 17, 2013

      Nick Firth

      I think, quite to the contrary of what you write, that it is Alan Robinson’s views that are ignorant and undisciplined. If, as you write, you want “even tempered sharpness in philosophical exchanges” then it is rather surprising that you agree with Alan.

      • March 17, 2013

        Jon Monroe

        Or, in the spirit of science (in the popular sense), you might have simply supplied the evidence — a quote:

        “In my view, philosophy in the popular sense:

        - is irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of the world’s population
        - after 2500 years of bickering has failed to make much contribution to society
        - with the exception of maybe Socrates and Diogenes, is an occupation for affluent men.”

        Once in a while the data does speak for itself!

    • March 17, 2013

      aravistarkheena

      It would be helpful to know why you like his views.

      Referring to what “too many people” do/think/say, in order to justify something…doesn’t.

      Your last statement is simply a non sequitur.

    • March 17, 2013

      Andy McKinnon

      I apologise for the perceived boorishness, borne purely out of frustration at Alan Robinson’s absolute disregard for the article. I like this site because the comment sections often contain discussions of concepts, from lots of different approaches, taking the article as a starting point. If you don’t do that, you just end up shouting about what you think, with no attempt at dialogue. And there’s not much point in that… and it seems a wee bit self-important.

      It seems a bit unfair to label a request for some coherence and dialogue undisciplined.

  9. March 17, 2013

    Ted Schrey Montreal

    the word ‘demand’ in my previous post may be replaced by ‘demands’ and that’s okay by me.

  10. March 17, 2013

    Mark Kennedy

    Hilary Putnam is welcome to change his views as often as he likes, but shouldn’t his views of the moment still, at a minimum, strive for coherence? If no distinction exists between facts and values, what is it that we’re to understand as being “inextricably entangled?” The ‘motion of the moon’ example doesn’t even address the relationship between facts and evaluative judgments, much less establish an identity relation between them. The non-controversial proposition that this example instead illustrates is that scientists can infer different explanations for what they observe, a ‘conflict’ that does nothing to undermine the factual nature of the observations themselves. Indeed, given just how divergent the inferences are, the scientists’ sole area of agreement can safely be attributed to the stubborn factuality of the observational content.

    Factual considerations also play a more important role in the evaluation of the disparate theories than the argument concedes. It isn’t our ‘values’ that tell us a noumenal world of alien tractor beams, undetectable even in principle, can’t ‘explain’ observed phenomena. The possibility of any noumenal explanation of phenomena is ruled out by the concept of noumena itself. As part of a supposedly competing theory rooted in different values, tractor beams are infelicitously chosen for another obvious reason. Why bother with such beams at all if the theory of Newtonian forces is being rejected? Why do the undetectable aliens invariably operate their tractor beams as if Newtonian forces did, in fact, explain something, and never in a way that contradicts that explanation? Shouldn’t an alternative theory furnish us with ‘counter instances’—observations incompatible with strict adherence to the first theory? Not only does the second theory needlessly multiply entities; it seems to ‘value’ Newtonian forces as highly as the first one does, albeit indirectly.

    The ‘motion of the moon’ example supposedly sets out to demonstrate why beliefs can’t be sorted into neat objective and subjective piles but ends up claiming something quite different: “No amount of observation will tell you why being pragmatic makes one theory better—it is something for which you have to argue. No matter what kind of fact we are trying to establish, it is going to be inextricably tied to the values we hold.” The meaning of ‘fact’ has here migrated from something observed, like the motion of the moon, to something ‘established,’ like the utility of theories that are coherent and pragmatic (as opposed to those that are presumably neither). The possibly looser epistemological status of this second-order, inferential sort of fact may provide more scope than does primary observation for discussions blurring the distinction between facts and values, if that is the aim. Still, it leaves observations of the moon’s motions untouched; and a philosophical stance that requires us to treat the motions of the moon and coherence not as observable facts and a minimum requirement for comprehension but as ‘values’ would seem a challenging one to defend.

    Equivocal arguments are often prefaced by suitably ambiguous locutions, designed to disguise the fact that the train is about to surreptitiously jump to a (usually closely parallel but) different track; and the article provides a dandy: “Take scientific judgements—the embodiment of a discourse which is supposedly factual and objective.” Using this vague, potentially multi-tiered set of implied claims as a springboard we can now confidently launch ourselves into the blurrosphere. What isn’t so easily gained from transforming ‘factual’ and ‘objective’ into discourse and embodiment adjectives is any discernible premise relevant to reaching the conclusion, ‘The distinction between facts and values is false.’

  11. March 17, 2013

    BAS

    It would appear that a philosopher has run over Alan Robinson’s dog. However I don’t take him to task for being critical of the bloat surrounding today’s popular philosophers but rather for passing over philosophy wholesale as a realm devoid of anything redemptive or worthwhile.

    It merely shows Mr. Robinson’s complete lack of appreciation for intellectual life; which in itself is nothing to begrudge another, (after all, the world continues on with or without philosophy) but rising up to say so is entirely in bad form and entirely unnecessary – akin to screaming from the rooftops that you despise music or sporting events and expecting that it makes you a better person. It is the haphazard braying of the conceited.

  12. March 17, 2013

    Daniel King

    Putnam’s philosophical stance is an interesting take on relativism and its many facets when it interacts with human purpose. For instance, it could be argued that his
    journey from Maoism to Judaism, is a replacing of one dogmatic belief system with another. However, the greater merit is that he does not rigidly belie this intellectual searching with adherence to a scientific determinism which has given us atomic weapons as a by-product of humanity’s hubris to know it all – whatever all is.

  13. March 18, 2013

    BAS

    It would appear that a philosopher has run over Alan Robinson’s dog. However I don’t take him to task for being critical of the bloat surrounding today’s popular philosophers but rather for passing over philosophy wholesale as a realm devoid of anything redemptive or worthwhile.

    It merely shows Mr. Robinson’s complete lack of appreciation for intellectual life; which in itself is nothing to begrudge another, (after all, the world continues on with or without philosophy) but rising up to say so is entirely in bad form and entirely unnecessary – akin to screaming from the rooftops that you despise music or sporting events and expecting that it makes you a better person. It is the haphazard braying of the conceited.

    • March 18, 2013

      A Dog

      This comment has nothing to do with the article, which I thought was very good, but with the debate in this comment thread.

      I think that frustration has resulted in the neglect of interesting, thought-provoking claims on both sides of these debate.

      Notwithstanding Mr Robinson’s passion-fueled excesses, he does mention a significant difference between philosophy as a life-practice in which homeless beggars can achieve excellence (indeed, in which homelessness and begging are themselves marks of philosophical accomplishment – I hope you know the dog I am referring to) and philosophy as an academic, text-driven and text-productive discipline. While it is as absurd to deny influential achievement in the latter sort of philosophy as it is to do so in the former sort, there is something laughable about the self-importance and snobbery of more than a few philosophy graduate students and professors (and so I am with Mr Schrey here). Being admitted to a graduate program, receiving a terminal degree, even teaching at a university – these are, by themselves, no proof of philosophical excellence (and I am speaking as one who has done all three). The proof is in the pudding, I think: do what Putnam and the like have done, and you can call yourself a philosopher and not just a scholar of philosophy or “philosophical labourer” (which is the only title that most professors of philosophy have a right to). Hopefully we all have enough humility to accept this, although many of you are young, and humility is, like a good wine, something that tends to come only with age.

      • March 18, 2013

        A Dog

        “this debate,” not “these debates.” You would never have found such a terrible mistake in the work of Putnam!

  14. March 18, 2013

    S. B. Benjamin

    Well, it seems to me those who comment on other people’s comments are missing the point (s’accuse). My concern with Putnam is whether or not he has said anything of value. The reviewer is wrong to believe that Putnam has no worldview. He cannot follow a cause, even if later thrown overboard, without having such a view. Also, everyone is entitled to change his mind when he believes the ‘facts’ do support previously held ‘opinions’. There is, however, a certain unseriousness when a thinker poses questions that he is unwilling to follow through to the end. Maybe it is better not to ask the question in the first place. Kant, contrary to the reviewer’s opinion, at least so inferred, did follow through to the logical conclusion the questions he set for himself. In the end, I am not sure Putnam is asking the right question. (Now there is a loaded sentence ripe for vitriol.) What would that question be? I propose that the question he should be asking is: Can we identify an objective reality that is independent of the mind’s perception? Everything flows from the answer to that question, whether in the affirmative or the negative. I think it is fair to say that philosophers ancient and modern all have seen that, consciously or otherwise, as the fundamental issue. Of course, I could be wrong and then what I say is irrelevant – but, before you concur, answer me why that is so.

  15. March 19, 2013

    Krishna menon

    this antagonism between science and philosophy is not good. both are complementary. They both sanitize each other. Scientific achievement may come through hard science but scientific temperament and rationality comes from philosophy. Without this philosophical and scientific temperament, in west also the river of science may dry up as it did in Eastern societies. Even today, it is the widespread scientific temperament that differentiates and distinguishes the western societies from east.

  16. March 21, 2013

    christopher

    In regards to the original Commenters talk of philosophy being useless, It does seem as if you’ve taken the view that “a philosopher is useless” and so anytime a philosophical viewpoint has been proved useful, it is then decried as “not real philosophy” see: “no true Scotsman” in many ways the same could be said of physics, as in “physics didn’t get us to the moon, engineering did, once the physics becomes applied, it becomes engineering”
    But without getting too distracted, if any philosophical thought (and bear in mind, a person/thinker doesn’t have to CALL themselves a philosopher in order to contribute to philosophical thought) has been found useful in providing insight, clarity, frameworks for governing, legal developments, or any other area (and I believe it has) then philosophy is undoubtably usefull

  17. April 2, 2013

    Secret Hen

    If any proof were needed that philosophers contributes little of any value, this discussion thread achieves that nicely. Fortunately none is.

    • April 4, 2013

      Nick Firth

      @Secret Hen:

      I think the onus of proof that philosophy “contributes little of an value” is on you. Moreover, it’s snide little comments like yours that ruin these discussion threads.

  18. April 5, 2013

    RB2

    I think that I’m a Putnamian too, not in any sense of subscribing to all Putnam’s doctrines (or even knowing what they all are), but in the sense of thinking that changing your mind and admitting that you have commitments you struggle to reconcile are good things. Surely this is the position that most of us are actually in, most of the time?

    PS re the article, saying that Putnam’s ‘brains in vats’ paper partly inspired The Matrix may be true, but should maybe be qualified – as I recall he was actually arguing that radical scepticism of the ‘brains in vats’ variety is incoherent

    PPS if one believed that philosophy ‘contributed little of value’ (whatever that means), like some of the commenters here, why would one spend time reading about it and commenting about it? More broadly: surely any intellectual activity which brings pleasure has value, in the judgement of all but uncouth philistines.

    • April 5, 2013

      Jon Monroe

      Allow me to be the first ever to write in an Internet discussion thread that I heartily approve of the use of the terms “uncouth” and “philistine” — not that I’m “hating on” the uncouth or the philistine.

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Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson
Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson writes about philosophy, literature and film. Follow him on Twitter @mt_nicholson 




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