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Has modern philosophy a modern perspective?

  1. Mar 16, 2008 #1
    I ask this question as a non-philosopher whose ignorance of this subject and its history is profound.

    In my ignorance I nevertheless suspect that change in philosophy has over the last few hundred years lagged behind the explosive increase in our knowledge of the natural world, its history and our place in it. Some instances of quite recently acquired knowledge that I suppose may have a bearing on philosophical questions are:

    1. Our species and our large-scale environment were not always as we now find them. Both have been and are subject to punctuated/continuous evolutionary change.

    2. Our origins, and those of the natural world, lie much further back in history than we had supposed. Very much further --- Myrs and Gyrs, respectively.

    3. Until quite recently (50 to 100Kyrs ago) modern man existed in relatively small numbers only on the African continent as one of several (possibly many) species of large African apes.

    4. The intellectual potential of our species has not evolved significantly since some of us left Africa. Partners in Goldman Sachs may be richer than tribal folk, but they ain't necessarily smarter. Memes have evolved more rapidly than genes since those times.

    5. We are evolutionarily advantaged by a set of attributes we happened to acquire (how, we don't know). The set may include an upright posture, speech and the propensity to use tools, chatter and reason abstractly. This has led to the present infestation of this planet with humanity. But essentially we remain just a very successful kind of African ape (if success is measured by numbers, that is).

    6. Most folk find the worlds of the unfamiliarly tiny, unfamiliarly vast, unfamiliarly slow and unfamiliarly quick difficult to describe simply and comprehend fully (as in the quantum, cosmic, geological and relativistic domains of the physical world). Some of these domains can only be described with various dialects of a language evolved over the last five or so Kiloyears, namely mathematics.

    7. There are many aspects of the complex natural world that our languages and understanding do not equip us to model predictively. We euphemistically label these "emergent" phenomena.

    We now seem to know roughly where we are, what we are and how we and the universe came to be as they are (although origins remain mysterious).

    Can the philosophy folk on this forum provide reassurance that this modern perspective is fully taken into account in considering philosophical matters?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 16, 2008 #2
    Its hard to sum up hundreds of years of quite diverse brands of philosophy.... which is why people study it by the way.... in such a forum. But I will try and address some points.

    Evolution, as a science, and as a way of thinking, has had a profound effect on the way we view the world.

    Technology that has made the world smaller, has brought divergent ideas together and mixed them... east and west. It also has changed the way we live.

    Medicine and a more detailed understanding of biology has greatly influenced both philosophy and theology

    The invention of the printing press.... which has lead to widespread literacy... has moved philosophy out of the palaces, castles and monestaries and given people from all walks of life a voice.... and their own particular view on the world, framed by how they live.

    Science and its materialistic, mechanistic, view of the world has both been incorporated into and the basis for rejection of many philosophical ideas.

    One should remember that the sciences and social sciences all come from, and were once considered, different philosophical positions.

    Religion, how it became politicized (protestant reformation), and further how it has taken a backseat to 'empirical and rational' science has had a huge impact on philosophical ideas and positions.

    Also politics itself, especially in the last centuries world wars and cold war in many ways shaped the ideology and philosophy of our current time. The current cold war with islam is no different. The ethics of torture, tolerance and secular morality have been huge subjects of public debate.

    Philosophy doesn't demand ivory towers exist, but in order to delve into the big questions a person needs a certain amount of leisure time.... that used to mean one had serfs or slaves, or a patron.... while these days technology, credit and citizenship substitute nicely. What people believe is very much influenced by how they live.
    Last edited: Mar 16, 2008
  4. Mar 17, 2008 #3
    Thanks for your careful and reasoned summary, which is the kind of reassurance I'm looking for. I agree particularly with your point that:
    Yes indeed, and one's entry into the scientific world is still by earning a Ph.D., or degree in philosophy, albeit metamorphosed via "natural" philosophy into " Science and its materialistic, mechanistic, view of the world", as you put it.

    Part of my suspicion that philosophy has not quite caught up with the modern understanding of our (very humble) place in the scheme of things was aroused by realising that, for example, Solipsism is still alive; it strikes me as an idea well past its sell-by date. Then, in Susan Haack's "Defending Science" I read of views propounded by (philosophy?) folk like Feyerabend and Rorty, which seem to me like amazing foolishness. Even the apparent inability of folk in this forum to agree on whether mathematics is "invented or discovered" seems to me symptomatic of a discipline that has not yet come to grips with questions that should in 2008have simple answers.

    Finally, you said that:
    Nicely put.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2008
  5. Mar 17, 2008 #4
    I know. I've been working with organizations that promote science education and almost everyone I run into thinks 'postmodern' and 'relativism' are demon words. They shouldn't be. The problem as I see it, is that quite a few academic types either don't understand where it all comes from, or have an interest in keeping it muddy. In all disciplines its publish or perish, so a lot of **** gets published, just to keep the ball rolling. And thats not just in the humanities. There are very good reasons peer review is so important in the sciences too. Simply getting published doesn't mean whats on the paper is quality.

    Also, solipsism does have its place. But people have to understand, its place is in philosophy 101 courses. Sadly, that is where many people stop, if they get even that far.

    Solipsism is a thought experiment. If one reads Descartes, for instance, and concludes he is advocating that everything we experience is an illusion, then the point Descartes was making has been completely and utterly missed.

    Solipsism is about 'knowledge' and certainty, people who advocate solipsism as a viable philosophy of 'existence' are idiots.

    Rorty has some substance.
    Feyerabend is a nut.

    I sympathize with 'science' types and their frustrations with the more loopy aspects of studying humanities. On the other hand, the reductionist mentality of many scientists seems to invariably carry over into a complete inability to communicate ideas that non-science types can understand.

    I recently found an interest in the philosopher Wittgenstein, not an easy read. However he makes the point that most of the philosophical problems in history have really been linguistic in origin. I'm very sympathetic to that view, although I do feel there are authentic philosophy problems and complex ideas that can't readily be reduced to simple answers.
  6. Mar 17, 2008 #5
    Why Perception Is The Key 2 Understanding

    I recently found an interest in the philosopher Wittgenstein, not an easy read. However he makes the point that most of the philosophical problems in history have really been linguistic in origin. I'm very sympathetic to that view, although I do feel there are authentic philosophy problems and complex ideas that can't readily be reduced to simple answers.[/QUOTE]

    Philosophy is just a word that defines the actions and words of others, this is what makes it complex, just like the word love, for it has a diffrent meanings depending on the person that defines what it is or what it means, this is also why its not simple for others to understand somone els's philosophy of a concept or a view/perception of life. Mainly due to the fact that we all see the same things but think of them in a difrent way, some may think of them along the same lines but there perception is not exsactly what the other intended or was exsactly thinking. So if you want things to be simple for everyone then you must make things into words that are simple and easy to understand. Other wise you will be making somthing hard and complex, and therefor creating a problem for others, that are trying to read it -.- just remake there concepts of there philosophy into words that everyone know's and shares the same understanding of. But it will allways lead down to the single point that what people say in philosophy is bound by the readers perception of what the writer meant... So what invention that starts with a (T) and ends with a (V) changes people's perception&decevies people world wide and infulences there actions and the things that they buy and eat :) well philosophy is kinda what i just said, a bit confusing because i make it that way, or i just say it that way which makes sense to me but not to others at this time -.-, that was an example how perception is the key to understanding why philosophy seems complex to the reader -.-
  7. Mar 18, 2008 #6
    It's nice to communicate with someone who doesn't mince his opinions. I like these unequivocal comments.

    And possibly a few problems in physics, too?

    Yes, there must be, but I'm such a novice in this area that I can only think of simple questions for which simple answers should in this year 2008 be starting to emerge. For example: what we are, what physics and mathematics are, and what physicists and mathematicians are doing when they physic and mathematic. But perhaps these are non-philosophical questions.

    Could you give a few examples of authentic philosophy problems in these areas for someone who han't done philosophy 101 and certainly couldn't comprehend Wittgenstein to chew on?
  8. Mar 18, 2008 #7
    I think making the distinction would be an essential error.
    Philosophy is the love of wisdom, knowledge as we now refer to it, is part of wisdom.
    Physics is part of philosophy. So in essence that is another problem of words.

    I am not however a physicist, so how and where such a claim would apply 'within physics' is quite beyond me. I find it funny however when physicists refer to things like "string theory" as philosophy, mainly as a way of disparaging it. Its like when creationists refer to evolution as 'just a theory'. It just strikes me as so ironic.

    Even so,
    A wise man once said, there are somethings I don't want to know.
    Wisdom makes limits to knowledge.
    Which of course is simply an acknowledgment of one's own limits.
    What are mine, and where are they.

    Socrates asked simple questions and stumped all kinds of wise men. Children are sometimes the best philosophers.

    I think the problem of induction is still a problem. Science relies on induction, and it works quite well as a form of reasoning, but as Hume put it, its essentially a habit.

    Any honest discussion of ethics is entirely problematic.

    I'd say reductionism presents a problem as well. Complex systems create all kinds of headaches for people. Quite a few of the big problems of philosophy seem to reduce to how we deal with reductionism. When I criticize scientist types for their reductionism, I do not do it lightly or dismissively, its an important issue.

    Wittgenstein was a much smarter man than I. He also claimed at one point that he had solved all the problems of philosophy.... parties over... everyone out.... last person turn out the lights and lock up. I think he backed off that a bit later on.

    I'm still trying to figure out where I agree with him and where I don't, and of course whether I'm quite arrogant enough.... to feel justified in doing so.
  9. Mar 19, 2008 #8
    We may be talking past one another here, owing to my being obscure. By suggesting that physics has linguistic problems, I had in mind its use of the language of mathematics: physicists often attribute to reality the properties of the mathematics they use to describe it --- falsely, in my opinion.

    Reductionism seems to me a practical matter inherited by scientists from the rather natural circumstance that we consider the universe to consist of "things" ... separate distict entities that in turn consist of smaller "things". An example would be to analyse the constitution of a plant, say a tree, all the way down to quarks and suchlike. But in fact "things" are not separate entities -- a tree is intimately connected to its environment in many ways.

    This attitude may stem simply from the fact that we ourselves are "things", namely individuals.
  10. Mar 19, 2008 #9
    Agreed, the beauty in pure mathematics, which lacks the messy, fuzziness of mundane reality can be very compelling, especially to those, who like Plato, viewed the world of ideas as the more true reality.

    I find this similar to the way people prefer the unity and symmetry that stories can have to the asynchronism of historical facts.

    This is what I would call the 'object model' of the universe. We do indeed inherit it, but I think it goes right back to evolved instincts and the advantages inherent in pattern matching.... or more simply recognizing and avoiding predators....

    I find the whole wave/particle issue in physics quite fascinating in this regard. Objects are concepts, its to our advantage to view them as such, but that doesn't mean that is there nature.

    We view something that appears to have borders and we then distinguish it from all else.
    When we view something with a similar pattern, we now have two of those 'things', as you say.


    The elegant simplicity of the mathematical concept allows us to apply it again and again to the mundane world and that in turn leads to a familiarity that can make some more comfortable with the concept.
  11. Mar 19, 2008 #10
    Yes, I agree. In fact a quite similar thought is elaborated on at quite some length by Mario Livio in his popular book on symmetry (The equation that Couldn't be Solved), which I think is illuminating in other ways too. He says we like symmetrical objects, particularly those with a vertical axis, for exactly the reason you suggest.

    I have strong views on this, which I won't bore you with here. But see Elementary Questions in these forums.

    .... And help them to useful elementary arithmetic and the counting numbers, which were probably devised to keep track of assets, like money and domestic animals.
  12. Mar 21, 2008 #11
    Apparently symmetrical facial features are generally found to be more attractive... which may or may not be related, but the book sounds interesting.
    If you mean by 'mathematical dialects' something similar to what some people refer to as paradigms and paradigm shifts then I agree. Its too easy to get locked into a certain way of thinking (about math or physics too) that is based on inferences about what is being described.
    The oldest written records we have, are basically accounting ledgers.
    This is where both math and the written word come from.
    That doesn't mean we haven't evolved in our usage, but it does provide an interesting frame for understanding how we use both.
  13. Mar 22, 2008 #12
    No ... that wasn't quite what I meant. Examples of the "dialects" I had in mind were practical mathematical sub-languages like: Fourier methods; Group Theory; Matrix mechanics; Operator Methods. All of these are separate branches of mathematics with, of course, common linking concepts. But, having chosen wave mechanics to describe say, electrons, one mustn't conclude that electrons are waves. Waves are just a description convenient for certain purposes. We should keep in mind that electrons are entities that inhabit a milieu of "elementary" particles quite unfamiliar to our everyday experience, as I argued in Elementary Questions, and the descriptions we concoct should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

    I suspect that physicists and mathematicians are usually very busy publishing to avoid perishing, and have not enough time to stop and consider the actual nature of the subjects they are so deeply involved with. That's where philosophical folk should by now have helped them clear up such confusions.
  14. Apr 7, 2008 #13
    Yah. Especially in my specialist areas: philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, philosophy of physics.

    It is a sad fact that most philosophers are dopily ignorant of modern science, but when you work in a particular area, you do your homework. Someone like Elliott Sober probably knows more about evolutionary theory than most biologists.

    Here are some of my favourites:

    What is causation? We believe in it, but plainly we can't "see" it directly. All we see is one event after another. So what sort of relations between events are we considering when we talk of "causal" relations?

    What is a law of nature? For example, "all gold spheres weigh less than the Earth," though true as far as we know, is not a law of nature. It's merely a true generalization. So what distinguishes a true generalization from a law of nature?

    How do names refer to objects?

    What is the relation between mind states and brain states?

    Are mind states causally efficacious?

    Are there other minds? Is the idea of "other minds" even coherent? You say solipsism is out of date... it isn't, but, like scepticism, it is a position no one adopts but that nonetheless we would dearly like to refute.

    How can we confirm hypotheses? A green emerald supports the hypothesis "all emeralds are green," but does it not also support the hypothesis "all emeralds are grue" - where grue means "green before 2010, blue thereafter"? Well of course it doesn't, but why not?

    But I don't want to give the impression that philosophers spend all their time wittering on about these old chestnuts. There is great work being done looking at the philosophical status of our best and most current scientific theories.
  15. Apr 8, 2008 #14
    Modern philosophy

    I hope you will indulge me.

    I have recently delved into philosophy as a result of my studies in quantum physics. The 'measurement problem', Bell's inequalities, and generally the necessity of the 'observer' caused me to wonder seriously about "reality" and it's link to consciousness. Many theoretical physicist sound very philosophical when they try to interpret QM research.

    It started for me with Fritoff Capra and now has brought me to Ken Wilber and Eckhart Tolle. Are these not modern philosophers? They all frequently Eastern Philosophy and all, especially Capra, are very knowledgeable in science. And how about Michael Talbot, Amit Goswami and Fred Allen Wolf?

    After 30 years as a rather myopic Christian Evangelist, quantum mechanics turned my world upside down. I found many science writers who seemed to have had the same experience and have as a result pioneered in modern philosophy.

    Am I completely off?

    Last edited: Apr 8, 2008
  16. Apr 10, 2008 #15
    I read a great book on the measurement problem recently called "Time's Arrow and Archimedes' Point - Huw Price"

    Very readable. Price argues for a pretty mindbending (but actually lovely) "backward causation" interpretation - whereby the measurement you take causally influences the state of the system in the past.

    Personally I think the idea that consciousness collapses the wavefunction is mental in more ways than one. I also think the "many worlds" idea is ludicrous.

    I think the view with most currency in Western philosophy is that the theory gives an incomplete picture of the world.
  17. Apr 10, 2008 #16
    Thanks for your reply, LP. It seems to me that it is not so much that
    but that they conservatively spend too much of their time "wittering on about ... old chestnuts" as you put it.

    Now that we (at last) know enough to recognise what kind of animals we are (a naked and chattering species of African ape), and how similarly to our not-so-distant ape relatives we sometimes behave (perhaps you've seen recent video of food protestors in Haiti all waving branches, just like these relatives!), it's time to realise that many of the questions you so kindly listed are excessively anthropocentric, emphasising as they do that humans and their "minds" are something really special to focus attention on.

    A reverse-anthropomorphic perspective might help philosophers clarify for folk like mathematicians and physicists the nature of the subjects such folk work so hard at; extending a language and describing the universe and its contents perhaps?

    Shouldn't such questions concern modern philosophers more than "old chestnuts"?
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2008
  18. Apr 10, 2008 #17
    One reason why they're anthropocentric is that, as far as we know, all philosophers are humans. Isn't it quite interesting, thinking about the experience of being human? Minds are surely worthy of attention.

    But of course different philosophers have different interests. There are lots of philosophers of mind, but also lots of philosophers of science, which seems to be more your thing.

    It sounds like what you're interested in is what scientists and mathematicians do. This is what the philosophy of science is about. Questions like "Are there unknown laws of nature?" "How does scientific inference work?" "Are there natural kinds, or do we always classify nature artificially?" "Does science get to the truth?" "What is the relationship between data and theory?" "What is the structure of scientific progress?" ... these are surely relevant to your concerns. And there's plenty work going on.

    But that doesn't mean philosophers who focus more on questions of mind and language are wasting their time, and there are indeed examples where work in philosophy of mind or philosophy of language turns out to have a dramatic impact on other areas.
  19. Apr 10, 2008 #18
    Hello Lord ping

    If I recall correctly, the many worlds theory is an attempt to explain away the unacceptable Schroedinger's Cat problem. At least with the many world idea we can have the cat both alive and dead rather than the event collapsing into one reality from infinite superposition of all particle when we open the box. I don't like it either, but it does allow for a material realist (one philosophy) to have his constant material reality. The idealist (especially the monistic idealist, which is the opposite philosophy) suggests there is no material reality until a conscious mind manifests it. I'm not a philosopher of science so maybe someone can correct or modify the above.

    Whatever the case, aren't these modern philosophies and do not most scientist at least unconsciously subscribe some kind of philosophy?

  20. Apr 11, 2008 #19
    I agree, provided one accepts assuming that minds are a uniquely human attribute is an idea long past its sell-by date.

    Yes, you're right, it is the philosphy of science and the perspectives it generates on just what the heck scientific folk think they're doing that interests me. This is the reassurance I was looking for, perhaps with a few examples of the work that is going on.

    I take your point --- some examples of such impact would be helpful, though.
  21. Apr 11, 2008 #20
    Yes, I think they do. I'd be worried if they all subscribed to the "many worlds" view though. It would be interesting to do a survey.

    Why not take a look at this lovely book.
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