Cloaking Device

We all know it’s depressing/frustrating to be a libertarian and watch tv. But the same applies to being a philosopher and watching tv.

spinning wheel illusion

Tonight I half-watched a series of National Geographic specials about vision, memory, illusions, and such. It was fascinating, and all the science in it was sound (AFAIK). But not all the purported science in it was science. What the series did (as is fairly typical for science programs) was to translate the scientific results into a conceptual framework that is actually philosophical (and philosophically controversial), not scientific. All the stuff about colour not existing in extramental reality, about our brains “filling in” background information, and so forth are part of a particular philosophical interpretation of the scientific data, not something one can simply read off the data.

I happen to think that the particular conceptual framework into which the National Geographic series was cramming its data is a deeply mistaken and oft-refuted philosophical confusion. But that’s not my point just now. My point is that the people who make shows like this don’t even realise that they are making any philosophical assumptions. And that in turn is because the entire field of philosophy is essentially invisible in our culture (meaning, in this context, American culture; things are a bit different in, say, France). People who are interested in what are actually philosophical questions generally turn to science or religion, because they are simply unaware that there are philosophical methods for addressing such questions.


7 Responses to Cloaking Device

  1. Cal October 10, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    Yep, I believe it was Christopher Norris who wrote somewhere that much of “science,” especially popular science, consists of scientists or science journalists doing philosophy without realizing they’re doing philosophy and thus the result you typically get is really bad philosophy obscured by sciency lingo… something along those lines.

  2. Todd S. October 10, 2011 at 5:30 am #

    I read in an anthropology text recently that anthropology “like all sciences” grew out of philosophy. I think that is a point lost to, at least, American culture.

  3. Anon73 October 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    I have a few friends who seem to do that sort of thing from time to time, but if I point it out they dismiss my concerns as nitpicking or abstract philosophy. What, in your view, are the biggest philosophical blunders people make about chemistry, biology, and physics today?

  4. Anna O. Morgenstern October 11, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    Oh well said. Though I suppose you’ve had this come up enough that you’ve had ample time and energy to throw at it.
    When I try to say something of this ilk to my “science” enamored friends, I have failed to emphasize well enough how science is not necessarily meaningful outside a framework of interpretation. I think more philosophers need to hammer on this and I hope you will push on this front more and more. I think it might be really really important.

  5. E. Samedi October 12, 2011 at 6:18 am #

    I find this a fascinating topic and hope you will post more about it in the future.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this. That a scientific theory is “philosophically controversial” doesn’t mean that it is controversial among scientists. Besides, it appears to me that very little, if anything, is uncontroversial in philosophy. One of the most amazing and unique things about science is the level of agreement among scientists.

    With respect to the boundaries between philosophy and science I don’t think you mean to imply something like Gould’s “Non-overlapping magisteria”. At least I hope not. Perhaps you can comment on this boundary? It isn’t at all clear to me that there is one.

    • Roderick October 27, 2011 at 7:58 am #

      To oversimplify a bit, the job of philosophy is the conceptual task of figuring out which options make sense, and the job of natural science is the empirical task of figuring out, among those options that make sense, which ones are best supported by the evidence.

      That’s an oversimplification because there’s room in science for conceptual arguments (e.g. Galileo’s argument against the view that heavier bodies fall faster than lighter ones) and room in philosophy for empirical ones. But the overall difference in emphasis is there. And in my view, scientists are often in the position of attempting to assess “evidence” for claims that philosophers have already shown to be nonsensical.

  6. Anon October 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    One of the worst offenders in this category has got to be evolutionary psychology, but I’d also appreciate if you could expand on examples of this you see or refer us to literature on the subject.

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