Five important empiricist philosophy books

Most contemporary philosophers and social scientists have little interest and understanding of logic or the physical sciences and  therefore have little to offer to those who want to understand the philosophical aspects of knowledge. The following five books have been written by thinkers who have a great respect for science and the importance of empirical observation. With the exception of one book, no 21st century thinkers are featured to ensure that hype is not mistaken for importance.

(1) Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951) is one of the best 20th century books on philosophy. The author shows how speculative and rationalist philosophy has been gradually replaced by the natural sciences. Writing from a consistent empiricist perspective, Reichenbach proposes that the lack of progress in philosophy is due to philosophers asking themselves questions that could only have been answered by the experimental method and the tools of modern logic. In the chapter about induction Reichenbach answers David Hume’s skepticism about causality and proposes a pragmatic justification of induction.

(2) Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is a classic and accessible exposition of logical positivism (or logical empiricism) by an English philosopher. Logical positivism is a school of thought in philosophy that is strongly shaped by the advances in physics and mathematics and seeks to eliminate metaphysics and meaningless statements from philosophy. Like most other philosophers in this tradition, Ayer kept refining his views throughout his life but always remained committed to the objectives of the original Vienna Circle.

(3) Rudolf Carnap was the most important exponent of logical positivism but his writings are of such an abstract and technical nature that most fellow philosophers and scientists are only familiar with his early popular statements of the positions of the Vienna Circle. A notable exception to his demanding work is his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1966) which is based on a seminar Carnap taught on the philosophy of the physical sciences. This book is not only valuable for its rigorous treatment of the philosophical foundations of physics but also represents a good summary of the views of the late Carnap.

(4) Bertrand Russell is among the most popular philosophers of the 20th century and had little reservations about speaking his mind on topics ranging from atheism to marriage. Unlike most philosophers that work in the analytic tradition, Russell had a great interest in the history of philosophy which would find its destination in his monumental and rich A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell attempts to treat the thinking of most philosophers he discusses with respect but the mindset of a logician and scientist is ever present, making this book one of the few available histories of philosophy from a (sometimes reluctant) empiricist perspective. The book does suffer from Russell’s highly subjective approach in some chapters, notably his rather melodramatic treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

(5) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) is not a book on philosophy but the general approach that informs his book about the role of chance in life and markets is informed by a thorough skepticism about our claims to knowledge. As a “skeptical empiricist” Taleb stands bemused at the urge of humans to seek and detect patterns everywhere and our illusions about control. Taleb’s work received a lot of well deserved attention after the 2008 financial crisis but his distinct epistemological views still receive little attention.

Arthur R. Jensen against politics

At one point in the conversations between Frank Miele and Arthur R. Jensen in the book Intelligence, Race, And Genetics: Conversations With Arthur R. Jensen, Jensen becomes impatient with all the questions about his politics and makes the following statement:

You keep harping on politics. Over the years, I have become increasingly disillusioned about politics and increasingly suspicious of it. What I see of partisan politics and government’s interference in people’s lives these days lends considerable appeal to the philosophy of libertarianism, although I am not a libertarian with a capital L.

It is interesting that when scientists who are routinely identified as “fascist” actually make statements about their political views they are often in favor of limited government. Charles Murray, co-author of the The Bell Curve, even produced a little book outlining his own views called What It Means to Be a Libertarian. Is seems clear that in the case of people like  Jensen and Murray words like “fascist” are not so much used to make cognitive statements  but to intimidate the writer or (potential) reader. Using phrases from historical politics to identify the work of practicing scientists is indicative of how politicized our society has become.

The Unity of Science

From the preface of Michael Munowitz’s Principles of Chemistry:

The wonder of the world is not its complexity, but its simplicity. Given enough color and canvas, anybody can make a mess; that, we do ourselves. More to admire is the artist who makes do with little, the artist whose art is to conceal an economy of form and design. That, nature does unsuspected–in a hidden world from the senses…Start small. Celebrate what molecules and reactions have in common, not what masks their essential unity. Build a foundation. Understand why a university may want to maintain separate departments of chemistry, physics, and biology, but understand also that elementary particles, atoms, molecules, forces, interactions, and the laws of nature respect no academic boundaries. Nature is one.

Further reading on the unity of science: The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle

Hans Reichenbach on evolution

Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy is among the most accessible and illuminating statements of logical empiricism. Although the book can be read as an introduction to philosophy, the central message of the work is that most of what constitutes philosophy is either (outdated) pre-scientific speculation or incoherent reasoning.

One of the most powerful chapters in the book is  about evolution. Reichenbach starts by contrasting the inorganic world, which obeys the laws of physics, with the organic world, which is goal directed. But then he goes on to show that the semblance of design and purpose can be accounted for by an evolutionary explanation, and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to physical phenomena. We do not need two separate sciences to account for non-living and living phenomena and can have a unified science about matter. Anticipating synthetic biology, Reichenbach suggests that future science should be able to create life through purposeful manipulation of inorganic matter.  Then Reichenbach moves from the evolution of the microworld to the evolution of the universe and reviews how contemporary findings in physics and astronomy affect questions about the past and the future of the universe.

Throughout his discussion of the relationship of science and philosophy, Reichenbach presents a number of distinct logical positivist positions:

It has become a favorite argument of antiscientific philosophies that explanation must stop somewhere, that there remain unanswerable questions. But the questions so referred to are constructed by a misuse of words. Words meaningful in one combination may be meaningless in another. Could there be a father who never had a child? Everyone would ridicule a philosopher who regarded this question as a serious problem. The question of the cause of the first event, or of the cause of the universe as a whole, is not of a better type. The word “cause” denotes a relation between two things and is inapplicable if only one thing is concerned. The universe as a whole has no cause, since, by definition, there is no thing outside of it that could be its cause. Questions of this type are empty verbalisms rather than philosophical arguments.

At the end of the chapter, Reichenbach criticizes the widespread view that there are other means of establishing knowledge which can answer questions that science cannot:

The elimination of meaningless questions from philosophy is difficult because there exists a certain type of mentality that aspires to find unanswerable questions. The desire to prove that science is of a limited power, that its ultimate foundations depend on faith rather than on knowledge, is explainable in terms of psychology and education, but finds no support in logic. There are scientists who are proud of when their lectures on evolution conclude with a so-called proof that there remain questions unanswerable for the scientist. The testimony of such men is often invoked as evidence for the insufficiency of a scientific philosophy. Yet it proves merely that scientific training does not always equip the scientist with a backbone to withstand the appeal of a philosophy that calls for submission to faith. He who searches for truth must not appease his urge by giving himself up to the narcotic of belief. Science is its own master and recognizes no authority beyond its confines.

This passage raises the important question of whether the position of logical empiricism is self-applicable. The same issue has been encountered by critical rationalists. One “solution” to this challenge is to make critical rationalism coherent by holding all positions open to criticism, including critical rationalism itself. This approach, called “pancritical rationalism” or “comprehensive critical rationalism,” has been proposed by the philosopher William Warren Bartley in his book  The Retreat to Commitment. Bartley’s solution has been criticized for producing logical paradoxes and its vacuous nature. Hans Reichenbach response was to develop a distinct probabilistic account of knowledge to avoid some of the remaining “rationalist” tendencies in contemporary empiricism.

Logical positivism found itself in the peculiar situation of struggling with its own internal consistency while at the same time seeing many of its basic tenets reflected in contemporary scientific practice.  One of Hans Reichenbach’s projects was to develop a scientific account of philosophy to resolve this situation.

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.