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Engaging with the science is much easier said than done; it takes a lot of science education to be up to snuff, which takes a lot of time and effort.

As a result, incentive-structures come into play. For instance, why spend years making up for the physics education I never had in college if I can just hammer out a few articles on the (a priori) possibility of gunk (i.e., an atomless, infinitely divisible universe), and get a tenure-track job somewhere with AOS metaphysics?

(Aiming at truth, alas, is not enough; in a competitive market with scarce resources/jobs, one who takes extra time to learn extra material is penalized for lack of specialization/publication…)

If knowing logic or Ancient Greek is a prerequisite for being a good professional philosopher, then grad programs have logic or Greek requirements. If a working knowledge of contemporary science is a prerequisite, however, do you expect philosophy programs to have some sort of science requirement?

And if so, is there just one course- “science for philosophers”? Too superficial, likely. So then what: specialists in phil bio must enroll in an actual bio class? Fine, but will you learn all you need to know in one bio class? No. Besides, maybe you can’t even enroll without undergrad or other bio prereqs… so what do you do?

The more science philosophers have to add to their education in order to be good naturalist philosophers, the longer the degree will take, or the less time one will spend on reading Kant or Aristotle or whatever… and then what do philosophy departments look like 30 years down the road…?

Marcus Arvan

name: Thank you for your comment. Alas, I think your line of argument shows exactly what is wrong with philosophy today.

Instead of spending almost all of our time in grad school learning primarily a priori methods (intuition-based philosophy of language, M&E, etc.), philosophy programs should dramatically change and become far more interdisciplinary. Philosophers of physics should study *physics* in grad school, as well as philosophy. Philosophers of mind should study artificial intelligence & cognitive science. Philosophers of language should study computational linguistics, etc. We need to get away from doing philosophy without scientific knowledge.

Indeed, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, etc. were all natural scientists in addition to beings philosophers -- and I suspect they would all turn in their graves if they saw how rationalistic and intuition-based so much philosophy is these days. I believe we do ourselves no favors by hunkering down and continuing to do philosophy without detailed knowledge of the relevant sciences. It makes us look silly to outsiders, and it results in precisely the kinds of interminable a priori, intuition-mongering debates that make philosophy look more and more like Dennett's make-believe Chmess game than a philosophy concerned with the real world.

In short, I believe that in order to be good philosophers, we need to leave the armchair and study, empirically, how human brains work, how physics works, how people use language, etc. -- and that this *does* take a lot of time and effort. But it would be time and effort well-spent. It would revitalize philosophy. And so, I say, we need to change.


just for the record, i do not disagree that philosophers should be far more educated in science than they are. i just see the problem as institutional- so unless there are major changes in the curriculum - e.g. a year studying physics instead of a year satisfying the history and value-theory requirements - it is hard to see how the change will actually come about.

but then the worry is that philosophy will become even more specialized- philosophers of physics won't even end up satisfying that value-theory requirement, say... and will have even less ability to connect up what they learn from their empirically informed metaphysics with ethics...

not only was there less to know when ArisDesLockHume were around, but they didn't have to rush to publish pre-tenure to avoid starving or taking a job in -gulp - industry... they could take their sweet time learning everything there was to know at the time...

in brief, i agree as an ideal- philosophers should know more science, definitely. i'm just skeptical that it would take anything other than a massive overhaul in how philosophers are educated (re: course requirements, prereqs, lab work in addition to dissertation, whatever.. .)- which would in turn, i surmise, make philosophers even less systematic and more specialized than they already are...


name and Marcus: There is, happily, (at least) one such interdisciplinary program (one that I know of, but obviously my knowledge is limited). It is a joint BA in sciences and philosophy at UPMC and Paris-Sorbonne[*]. I don’t know whether there are similar programs in the US or wherever in the English-speaking world (hopefully the answer is “yes”).

[*] If you read French, here is the program’s website (sorry I didn’t find the page in English): http://www.upmc.fr/fr/formations/diplomes/sciences_et_technologies2/licences/doubles_cursus_de_licence/double_cursus_sciences_et_philosophie.html

Marcus Arvan

name: Thanks for your reply. I think it *would* take a massive overhaul in how philosophers are educated -- but this is my very point. It is an overhaul that very much needs to take place.

On your final point -- on specialization -- I am far more optimistic. And, in two ways.

First, I think that a deep understanding of science provides grounds for *greater* systematicity, and that it is really the traditional "intuition-mongering" approach to philosophy that results in the kind of splintering specialization we've seen. So, for instance, I think that a greater understanding of physics and information theory promises to revolutionize how we think about a *wide* array of philosophical problems ranging from the philosophy of mind, time, free will, etc. (see my http://philpapers.org/rec/ARVANT-2 ).

Second, I think that there isn't anything wrong with specialization if it is *productive*. Look, there are many areas of specialization in just about any field. In physics, there is solid-state physics, high-energy particle physics, nuclear physics, etc. -- and this is a GOOD thing. Each sub-field makes genuine progress, and the fields fit together and jointly inform one another. In philosophy, however, different fields (ethics, M&E, etc.) proceed mostly autonomously precisely because we lack any real deep empirical understanding of information theory, cognition, etc.).

So, I say, if you want philosophy to become (A) more systematic, and (B) more specialized in a good way, you too should be in support of the kind of overhaul I am suggesting. It is high time for philosophers to stop playing a prior mind games and get "in deep" with science, history, sociology, linguistics, etc. That, I say, is the path of the future. A priori-istic philosophy is -- or, at least, should be -- the past.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pierre: Thanks for the reference. Yeah, there are a few such programs. Washington U in St. Louis has long had a PNP (Philosophy/Neuroscience) program, and my alma mater (Arizona) offered a cognitive science minor (which I received, and am thankful I did!).


Marcus, I largely agree with you. Could you expand on two points?

First, does your argument imply that philosophers should not only move towards scientific training but should also move away from humanistic training? Is the humanistic (and historical) strain in our philosophical education pernicious, indifferent or positive, in general, do you think? It will inevitably have to be largely sacrificed if we move in the direction you advise ('name' makes an important point - there's almost no prospect of someone being a generalist in the way Descartes, Hume etc. were nowadays - there's too much to know).

Second, I think one reason a lot of philosophers don't want to give up their reliance on intuitions is because, without this reliance, they struggle to see what philosophy actually is, as a discipline. If we can't trust our intuitions, then how can we have a distinctive discipline called 'philosophy', they might ask. In the overhaul of the subject that you recommend, how do you prevent philosophers just morphing into out-and-out scientists (assuming you do want to prevent this). If philosophy is just reduced to thinking hard about the consequences of empirical work for our folk concepts, then many scientists would say they already practice philosophy in this sense, and we don't need a distinct department to do this stuff. With the exception of logic (which could be put into comp sci or mathematics) and ethics, it seems hard to see which parts of philosophy as it's practiced today shouldn't just disappear into the hard sciences, if we follow your recommendations.

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