“Analytic” philosophy of science: some sociological observations

Philosophy of science used to be done by scientists. From Descartes to Poincaré, leading scientists in the classical tradition reflected with masterful insight on their subject. Sadly this is all but forgotten today, for reasons that shall become apparent below. In the 20th century philosophy of science was taken over by professional philosophers. Even so, the field used to be full of excitement back in the lively days of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend, etc. But such days are no more. The “analytic philosophy” movement now has the field in a stranglehold, stifling any creative thought. Sadly, the dogmatic premises of this orthodoxy have reduced this once great field to narrow-minded science-cheerleading. I shall illustrate this here based on some examples from my own experience.

First I must give a nutshell summary of what “analytic philosophy” means. Or rather, more to the point, what analytic philosophers think analytic philosophy is. Basically, analytic philosophers consider themselves to be “good at thinking.” Botanists are good at plants, astronomers are good at stars, and philosophers are good at thinking. Thus philosophy is a kind of “super field” whose natural right it is to meddle in everyone else’s domain. All other fields are ran by a bunch of technocrats, who, though perhaps highly skilled in their particular technocratic task, don’t really know how to think. If you want to really know what’s going on you’re going to need a philosopher, a proper expert in actual thinking, to come in and clear things up. If you don’t believe me that philosophers have really managed to internalise such a self-aggrandising view of themselves, I point you to the first paragraph here for one concise and explicit statement along these lines.

Furthermore, analytic philosophers love science and mathematics, and they believe they are doing something analogous for thought in general: they think their reasoning is exact, objective, rational, progressing toward truth, and so on. In particular they love pedantically using logic and defining the meanings of terms in the manner of a mathematics textbook.

In the eyes of the analytic philosophers, everyone else is not good at thinking. Since they don’t use the supposedly careful and exacting analytic method, they must surely be hopelessly confused all the time, usually without even knowing it. They are not reasoning “analytically,” meaning they fumble with pseudo-intuitive notions, commit elementary logical errors, are led astray by biases, and conflate the meaning of terms (if in fact their terms mean anything at all). So it seems to the analytic philosopher.

The self-aggrandising sect of analytic philosophy arose about a century ago, with the above principles as its articles of faith. The way this sect views science is subordinated to its general philosophical program.

And how would a person who have internalised the above belief system view science? Some answers follow immediately:

1. He would think that science is “the truth” about the world. (Since this was the model and justification for his philosophical method in the first place.)

2. He would think that nothing of real insight has been said about science before 1900. (Since the analytic method of philosophy did not exist then.)

These two principles combine to infuriating effect in many instances, one of which is the scientific realism debate. “Realism” in science means: the things scientists theorise about (such as electrons and so on) are “real,” i.e., they exists in the physical world, they are not just thought-constructions.

Obviously analytic philosophers desperately want to be realists, because of (1). So this is the default position.

Now, of course, history shows that such realism is hopelessly naive, since otherwise successful scientific theories have proved wrong about their postulated ontology time and time again. To any reasonable person this would suggest that no one ought to have been a realist in the first place anyway, as scientists have known for hundreds of years.

But of course to the mind of the analytical philosopher such a line of reasoning makes no sense, because it violates (2). Therefore, to the analytic philosopher, the argument from history that I just outlined is called “Laudan’s pessimistic induction argument,” as if a guy called Larry first thought of it in 1981. This trivial argument had been obvious to all sensible people for hundreds of years, but to analytic philosophers it only entered their consciousness when one of their own said it, in keeping with (2). In this way analytic philosophers remind me of how some religious fanatics insist on referring even the most basic and obvious idea to a passage in their holy text, as if it was a divine insight only available to their own sect.

Anyway, once this obvious refutation of realism has made it through their thick skulls, the problem for analytic philosophers becomes to argue somehow that realism is really right after all, despite appearances to the contrary. This is because (1) is an inviolable article of faith that must be maintained at all costs.

Thus the analytic philosophers have come up with a compromise solution: structural realism. Scientific theories really do describe reality, not literally so in terms the entities it postulates, but structurally so, meaning in terms of its mathematical relations or something. This thesis furthermore has the great advantage that it’s not very clear what it means. So it can generate dozen of papers of pointless hairsplitting about the detailed meaning of terms: that’s the stuff tenure is made of, and exactly what analytic philosophers love above all else.

In conclusion, the whole realism question was fundamentally misconstrued from the outset and only became relevant because of the doctrinal need to maintain (1) and the doctrinal ignorance of (2). It has since degenerated into an even more pointless debate over a thesis that no longer even constitutes realism in any interesting sense, and that no one would find the least bit interesting except those doctrinally committed to defending (1).

A stronghold of structural realism is the philosophy department at the London School of Economics, where I spent the 2008-09 academic year doing a masters degree in philosophy and history of science. This is especially ironic since structural realism is obviously a textbook example of a degenerative research programme in the sense of Lakatos, who was a professor in this department back in the day when it was worth its salt.

More generally, (1) is the all-overriding concern of philosophy of science. Knee-jerk defences of (1) whenever it is under perceived threat is a very large part of what analytic philosophers do. It always takes precedence over discussing things with an open mind or investigating questions that are genuinely interesting.

This is particularly clear in the case of Kuhn’s work on the structure of scientific revolutions. Analytic philosophers are doctrinally incapable of dealing with the interesting questions and themes raised in that work, because all they can think of is how it might be construed as a threat to (1). So they go into religious-fanaticism mode and are incapable of balanced and open-minded thought whenever one approaches such topics.

An embodiment of this attitude is a paper by Masterson arguing that Kuhn uses the key term “paradigm” in over twenty different senses. Analytic philosophers of science absolutely love, love, love to cite this paper. And you can easily understand why: it defends (1) against a perceived attack, and it does so using the analytic philosopher’s most beloved tool, namely hairsplitting about the meaning of terms. Win win! The brilliance and superiority of analytic philosophy personified. Never mind the fact that any term used to describe anything at that level of generality could be subdivided into at least that many meanings, including words analytic philosophers use all the time, such as for instance the notion of a “law” of science. Of course we must never speak of that. Just keep repeating the slogan “over twenty senses of the term!” as if this kind of critique was applicable to Kuhn and only Kuhn.

Another example of the thought-stifling and dogmatic nature of (1) is the question of the role of beauty in science. The entirely predictable analytic philosophy knee-jerk party line is of course to say that any notion that aesthetic considerations play a role in science is a “threat posed to the rationalist image of science,” and to try to concoct ways of explaining away this perceived problem. This quote is from a book by McAllister on this subject, which I have criticised. Of course I got nowhere when I tried to discuss these matters with people at the LSE, since they immediately go into religious-fanatical (1)-defence mode if you try to talk about such things. When I presented my arguments the only reply I could get was: “I’m sure there’s more to it because McAllister is a very careful philosopher.” This is an instance of the fact that “careful” is really a code-speech synonym for “conforming with the party line of modern analytic philosophy,” as I have argued elsewhere.

Above I mentioned the ridiculous habit of ascribing trivial ideas to “great [analytic] men.” Another example of this is the “Duhem-Quine thesis” about the underdetermination of theory by evidence. Again, an idea that had been too trivial to point out for hundreds of years is hailed as a deep insight when an analytic philosopher at Harvard says it. In accordance with (2), of course.

Indeed, analytic philosophers are profoundly incapable of reasoning about ideas that are not defined as hairsplitting variants of something some Harvard professor said in the last hundred years. Case in point: when I was a masters student at the LSE, I handed in this as an essay in my philosophy of science course. I got it back with one and only one comment: “?”. A question mark, in the margin next to my thesis statement. Like the aliens in Mars Attacks whose heads explode if you play the wrong kind of music, analytic philosophers are baffled by anything that is neither Putnam nor Quine.

Analytic philosophers often ask themselves: “Why are so many smart people such idiots about philosophy?” That is to say: Why do scientists often say that philosophy is crap? This is puzzling to the analytic philosopher in light of (1), although he can explain it to his satisfaction by the fact that, of course, unlike philosophers, scientists do not specialise in being “good at thinking,” so it’s understandable that these little technocrats make mistakes when they stray from their narrow domain of competence. It has been my intention in the present essay to offer an alternative explanation.

For some further examples and elaboration of the above themes, see my philosophy of science book reviews.