Lawrence Krauss Doesn't Know What Philosophy Is


Lawrence M. Krauss is the kind of pop-star scientist who often says things like "science makes philosophy obsolete," and it seems due that his bubble of intellectual superiority get burst.


What he has no clue about is what philosophy or science are, it seems, to make such a ridiculous statement. For a Ph.D. theoretical physicist, he has an astonishingly small grasp on what "science" is, much less "philosophy" as a whole.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Science is the result of a field of thought called empiricism, a way of looking at the world which demands physical explanations for things rather than simple thought experiments. Most of modern science is built from there. Indeed much modern thought in general stems from empiricism, the easiest mode of thinking in my opinion - if there's no physical evidence, that's the end of the discussion.

What people like Krauss fail to understand is that there are entire fields of philosophy where empiricism and the scientific method have no meaning. How do you use the scientific method to verify that Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto is one of the greatest pieces of music written in the first half of the 20th century?


Some people like to confuse "logic" with "science" in their vocabulary and this, too, is false. Logic, science, and math, are all separate, yet related, fields of thought. Science relies on the scientific method and empiricism - you can't get around the requirement of empirical data and evidence in science.

Mathematics is grown from logic - a field of philosophy - in which you take symbolic logic and use it to study the relationships between numbers and calculations. The axioms of basic mathematics were defined using symbolic logic and remain some of the most important, fundamental documents in the history of humanity, and they are philosophical documents, written by logicians and philosophers.


Logic, meanwhile, while it is used by many scientists, and is core to mathematics, is entirely different.

Logic started as simply the way of thinking about how to think. How do you know that what you said is actually correct? How do we analyze what we say and think, to make sure it is not containing errors? This is logic. Some people who are ignorant of philosophy will try to state that science is applied to philosophy in the sense that many philosophers try to be logically consistent and consistent with what we know of nature thus far, but that is not science overturning philosophy or making philosophy obsolete - that's the application of logic, which is itself a field of philosophy.

If science - the method of analyzing natural phenomena and gathering physical evidence and data, and arriving at the best conclusion that is supported by the physical evidence - has made philosophy obsolete, then please demonstrate the physical phenomena or evidence that determines the objective value of Rachmaninoff's piano concerto. There's no scientific reason we should care about music - it's not scientific to want to have better emotions, or to want to be nice to people, or to have a desire not to die. Those are purely emotional or subjective, philosophical positions. Science has nothing to say on them. Science can tell you that if you PRESUPPOSE that you value life, killing yourself will likely go against your interests, but it can't tell you to value life, nor can it tell you why you SHOULD value life.


The scientific method is a tool - a fantastic tool - to explain how nature works and how it is put together, and the relationships between different physical systems, objects, and energies. It's amazing and I love it.


The scientific method has nothing to do with value judgements or philosophical inquiry into ethics or morality, on what should be right or wrong and why, on normative or metaethics, nor does the study of how physical objects interact tell us anything about the abstract value of musical work or other forms of art - it can tell us the physiological effects music has on an individual with rigorous testing, but suggesting that "value" means "the sum of physical effects on the system" is itself a philosophical statement that is NOT reached scientifically. Moreover we can't say necessarily what is a GOOD or BAD effect on our physical bodies - "good" and "bad" are philosophically charged words! If I listen to music or a performance that makes me sad, is that bad? Who says so? What if I want to listen anyway? What is the standard for "good" and "bad" in music? Is it relative? Can I make others listen to my music and claim it is "good" with any degree of certainty? What if they disagree? Who's right?


Philosophy is so relevant to every part of our lives and none of us even stop to think about it, and yet we're stuck here with a man who is literally paid to do nothing BUT think and teach - and he tells us "philosophy is obsolete," encouraging people to STOP thinking deeply on these kinds of things.


He is on record as saying, remarking on the relationship between philosophers and physicists, ". . . this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't." What arrogance. Philosophy doesn't advance?

If philosophy hadn't advanced we wouldn't have the concept of civil liberties that we currently do, or the notion of individual justice, or many modern criticisms of religion that Krauss is so fond of.

It's almost like Krauss is angry because his field, theoretical physics, is so new to the world, he can't help but lash out at his intellectual big brother - philosophy - for still being around at all. "Step aside, I got this," he says from his chair of wisdom, unaware that philosophy is studying completely different things in many cases.

What a travesty of human understanding, that we praise these kinds of sentiments. This is a level of foolishness I can scarcely hope to ever achieve, no matter how hard I try. Krauss has won the gold medal in nonsense.

6 comments:

  1. Historically, logic came after math. Math originally was about number and geometry. Logic developed as an abstraction and idealization of this math. My mathematics colleagues almost never think about mathematical logic (see: “The ideal mathematician”, Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh,
    http://people.maths.ox.ac.uk/bui/ideal.pdf,
    for what is simultaneously the funniest and most profound description of mathematicians!!).
    Mathematical logic is almost never taught in mathematics departments—it’s taught in computer science departments and philosophy departments—and, when it is, it is taught in a purely technical way with no concern for history or philosophy. Mathematicians still live in Cantor’s paradise—or even Eilenberg’s paradise—in spite of Russell’s paradox; they simply learn not to make certain moves that lead to trouble (as long as the referee doesn’t complain, what, me worry?). The various formalizations for avoiding Russell’s paradox also prevent one from making certain moves which are usually safe and powerful. So mathematicians work informally and have always done so; there is almost no trace of mathematical logic in most of the history of modern mathematics!! I’m not saying that mathematicians are aware of what I just said; most are totally unaware of these issues and simply working in a successful research tradition.

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    1. This is fantastic information - thank you for correcting me! I will look at the pdf you linked here as well.

      I indeed learned some basic relationships between logic and math while I was studying computer science (I am likely to switch to a philosophy major however), I had assumed - erroneously perhaps! - that mathematicians are taught relationships between mathematics and the development of logical systems during their education.

      As I have not yet completed a university degree you are obviously more educated on these things than myself, but how is it that mathematicians can work informally and mathematics can develop differently than logic? I always saw the two as intertwined.

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    2. It actually looks like the PDF at http://people.maths.ox.ac.uk/bui/ideal.pdf can't be reached, is that the correct URL, Professor Edwards?

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  2. This one works: http://babel.ls.fi.upm.es/~pablo/Jumble/ideal.pdf

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  3. For informal mathematics see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proofs_and_Refutations

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    1. I will be getting that book - thank you very much!

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