Metaphysics and epistemology of science

Tomislav asked:

Are metaphysics and epistemology keys to interdisciplinary approach in science?

This is my line of reasoning. Science does experiments and experiments generate data. Data itself has no value, in the sense that to gain knowledge we need to interpret that data and see how it ‘fits’ in the existing knowledge. Also, to make an experiment we need to make some assumptions, both metaphysical and epistemological.

For example, to investigate the nature of subatomic particles, we need to make a metaphysical assumption that ‘the outer world’ exists and that such particles exist. Furthermore, we need to make an epistemological assumption that ‘the outer world’ is knowable and that experiments are a knowledge-generating method. So, philosophy can act (or acts?) as the first and the last step in scientific method.

Since philosophy can engage itself into answering a question from multiple perspectives (read multiple science disciplines) and philosophical assumptions are needed to do science can philosophy act as a glue that enables interdisciplinary approach? Also, is philosophy inherently interdisciplinary? Can we use this for better understanding of interdisciplinary?

Answer by Danny Krämer

As always I am trying to answer this question from my naturalist perspective. I think, you have first to distinguish two different stances towards the relationship between science and philosophy. First, there is the view I will call the ‘Foundation View’. If you hold this position you try to deliver a extra scientific justificatory foundation for the scientific method. The foundation cannot be got by scientific method itself because that would be circular. For example, you are haunted by sceptical objections to science and you want to find some common ground by a priori investigation. You use your philosophical methods to establish the foundation. It is a two step: First you do philosophy and then you can do science. You can have these theories both anti-naturalistic or naturalistic.

On the other hand there is the view that I will call ‘Proper Naturalism’. As a Proper Naturalist you cannot see any method to come to true theories that is outside of science. So you also see no method to establish any foundation for the scientific method. All you have are the good old methods that are reliable and take you to true believes and these are the same as science uses. To be clear: There is just no philosophical method. So is the proper naturalist a sceptic? And should we just stop doing philosophy? Neither. Where the sceptic wants a justification of our ordinary methods to come to true believes that is extra scientific and more certain than this methods, the proper naturalist admits that he cannot deliver such a justification. But he also sees no need for that. He knows a scientific story how we come, for example, to perceptional knowledge but he cannot give a extra scientific story why this story is true. All he can do is tell another scientific story.

What is left to do for the proper naturalistic philosopher? A lot! He can do exactly what you are talking about. The data of science do not come with their interpretation on their sleeves. Even though the naturalist does not see any reason or motivation to answer question like ‘Does the external world exist?’ she wants to know what the nature of our physical world is and how this fits with common sense objects or with the mind. So for the proper naturalist there is no hard line between common sense, science and philosophy. Science is prolonged common sense and philosophy is prolonged science.

So if you mean by ‘interdisciplinary’ that philosophers need to know physical theory if they want to know what the nature of the physical world is, then you are right. If you want to do philosophy of physics you need to know physics. If you want to do philosophy of mind you need to know Cognitive Science. But do scientists need philosophy? There are a lot of scientists that deny that. But I think they are wrong. Philosophy can and does help to form a bigger picture and to ask the right questions. Philosophy can bring an informed perspective from outside a specific field of scientific inquiry and can so help to improve the inquiry in question.


Cartesian mind-body interactionism revisited

Jennyfer asked:

Hello, I have a question about Descartes’ dualism. A lot of people have argued that with his dualism view comes the problem of interactionism: How can the mind have an influence on the body since it is a non-extended substance?

I was wondering how Descartes has defended his opinion when facing these criticisms. Did he consider that the union of the mind and the body (lying in pineal gland)was the reason of this interactionism? How did he explain that?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

You refer explicitly to how Descartes tried ‘to explain the dualism’. Juergen Lawrenz answered to that. I would like to add some light to the matter itself. If you listen to, say, a piano sonata: Where would you put the ‘beauty’? Is it in the sound-waves? Is it in the piano? No, it is in your feelings, i.e., in some neuronal states of ‘good feelings’. But at the same time, people are debating ‘the nature of beauty’. Thus you have three different aspects here: The material ‘sound waves’ and ‘neuronal excitements’, then the ‘feelings’, and finally a formal theory which is neither on sound waves nor on feelings, but on some formal descriptions. But the formal descriptions appeal to our understanding. Thus there seems to be only one ‘substrate’ (‘matter’) — the neurons — but two different immaterial ‘concepts’ — the feeling and the evaluation. So even the concept of ‘mind’ is in this picture split in two — the feeling mind and the evaluating mind. The evaluating mind surely is not in the pineal gland, but is commenting on the feelings, since if there were no feelings there would be no concept of beauty either. And if there were no sound waves there would be no feelings.

And what did Beethoven hear when he was deaf — writing his great last sonatas and symphonies?

Your question is a historical one: ‘what did Descartes think?’. My answer added some modern considerations on the problem underlying his question. We still tend to ‘substantialize’ formal things. Beauty is a form, not a substance, and evaluation is a process, not a matter either and not a form. To cover both immaterial ‘things’ — beauty and evaluation — people invented ‘the soul’. The concept of the soul is even more complicated than that, since some people claim an ‘immortal soul’ which is neither ‘feeling beauty’ nor ‘evaluating beauty’. But I leave it at that.

This is just a hint at how complicated things look when we try to put names to experiences. This is what Descartes tried to do: Make sense of the strange experience of a dualism. There is much more to that of course. I did not even touch emotions and the will etc., which too belong to ‘the soul’.


Answer by Craig Skinner

Substance dualism is the weakest point in Descartes’ philosophy — the ‘ghost in the machine’ view of the mind-body relation. as Ryle described it.

How the two substances could possibly interact is unexplained by Descartes or by anybody else. It makes little difference whether the interaction is considered to be in the whole body or in part of it, such as the brain or the pineal gland.

Descartes chose the pineal as the seat of the soul because he thought it was unique to humans, and it had no other known function. He was far less keen on it when he later learned that dogs, for instance, also have pineals: he considered that dogs (and other animals) had no thoughts.

The last serious attempt at a substance dualism explanation was by the famous neurophysiologist Eccles some 40 years ago. Instead of Descartes’ mind influencing animal spirits flowing through pipes and pores in the pineal, Eccles had the mind influencing impulses flowing through neurones, and transmitters crossing synapses, but neither man could explain how the immaterial mind could do this.

How did Descartes defend his view? As best he could — unconvincingly.

His attempt is nicely illustrated in the 1643 letters between Descartes (D) and his very astute distance student, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (E), a kind of 17th Century sustained Ask a Philosopher exchange.

Here are selected sequential comments from the correspondence (trans. Jonathan Bennett, online at

"E. Given that the soul of a human being is only a thinking substance, how can it affect the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions?

How a thing moves depends on how much it is pushed, the manner in which it is pushed, and the shape of the thing that pushes. The first two require contact, the third that the thing be extended.

Your notion of the soul excludes extension and an immaterial thing can’t touch anything.

D. How do we think the weight of a rock moves the rock downwards? We don’t think that this happens through contact. But we have no difficulty in conceiving how it moves the body, nor how the weight and the rock are connected. I believe that this notion was given to us for conceiving how the soul moves the body.

E. I don’t see how the idea about weight can guide us to how the soul can move the body. The old idea about weight may be a fiction produced by ignorance of what really moves rocks toward the centre of the earth.

D. The soul is conceived by the intellect, the body by the intellect aided by the imagination, the union is a very dark affair when from the intellect aided by the imagination, but bright when the senses have a hand in it.

People who never come at things in a theoretical way and use only their senses have no doubt that the soul moves the body and that the body acts on the soul. What teaches us how to conceive the union is the ordinary course of life and conversation, not meditating or studying things that exercise the imagination.

It seems to me that the mind can’t conceive the soul’s distinctness from the body and its union with the body clearly at the same time, because to conceive them as one and at the same time two is contradictory.

E. The senses show me that the soul moves the body, but as for how it does so, the senses tell me nothing more than the intellect and imagination do."

As you can see Descartes appeals to dubious analogy, alleged common sense, and inconceivability.

In his 1648 correspondence with Burman (B), he simply begs the question:

"D. Nature teaches me — through these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst and so on — that I am not merely in my body as a sailor is in a ship. Rather, I am closely joined to it — intermingled with it, so to speak -so that it and I form a unit.

B. But how can this be? How can the soul affect and be affected by the body when their natures are completely different?

D. This is hard to explain: but here our experience is sufficient, because it declares the fact so loudly that we simply can’t deny it."

Had Descartes not tried to defend substance dualism, we might have paid more attention to his other views on cognition and emotion, because his discussion of connectionism in the pineal anticipates modern ideas such as Hebbian learning (‘cells that fire together wire together’) and distributed representation, while his views on the passions anticipate modern views on embodied cognition. Descartes was a pretty good scientist as well as a great mathematician and philosopher.


Trusting our senses and our reason

Nawd asked:

If it is possible that you’re being deceived by an evil demon (or, aliens, evil robots, or whatever), what does this mean about what we can or can’t know? Is there anything you could still know even if you couldn’t trust your senses?

Answer by Helier Robinson

This was Descartes’ whole point about his hyperbolical doubt. He wasn’t being sceptical, like Hume, he was trying to find out if anything was indubitable. If he could find such an indubitability then it could be a reliable starting point for philosophy. And, of course, he discovered that his own existence was indubitable, since he had to exist in order to doubt. But that is not such a very good starting point because it might just mean that your own existence is all that exists, and solipsism is true. Descartes tried to get beyond his own existence, indubitably, by proving that God exists, and his best argument for this (in my opinion) was the ontological argument. Its validity has never been settled, one way or the other; but how else would you prove that anything exists outside your present consciousness?


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

If it’s possible that I am being deceived by evil scientists — or benevolent aliens — then I can and should use my senses to discover any discrepancies that would indicate a deception. One thing often forgotten in these sci-fi scenarios is that no-one is perfect, errors can happen even if you are a super-intelligent alien being. Descartes would say that this was a case of the refined use of sense perception.

For example, in the ‘deja vu cat’ scene in Matrix, a hasty and less than perfect job is made of changing the 1999 model to trap Neo and his friends. On this occasion, the Machines slipped up. They failed to conceal the ‘splice’. No machine that depends on the laws of physics is infallible. The few seconds of warning are enough to give Neo the chance to escape although Morpheus is captured.

However, if evil scientists or benevolent aliens is the only worry, then at least I know that space and physical things are real (as in the Matrix). I’m just wrong about which things are ‘physical’ and which are merely part of a false ‘reality model’ created in my mind.

The evil demon scenario is very different. Apart from being ‘evil’ (supposedly it’s only fault/ weakness) the demon never slips up. Or maybe it isn’t so ‘evil’ (Berkeley’s ‘God’ is hard to distinguish from a Cartesian evil demon). The question here is whether there is any way to make coherent sense of a ‘world’ that isn’t physical and never was. That is something I doubt, although a diehard idealist might disagree.

If my senses cannot be implicitly relied on, I still have my capacity for reason — or do I? I don’t know about you, but my capacity for reason is definitely fallible. I don’t trust it at all. Then what is left? — Simply making the best job of what we are given, putting forward theories and testing them, then comparing the results of those tests with the same tests performed by others. In short, science. Two heads — or two pairs of eyes — are better than one. Four are better than two, and so on.

According to Descartes, science (what I have just described) is impossible unless God exists. In the world of the evil demon, apart from the fact that I am the only person who exists, the laws are all haywire. — My response would be that the God and evil demon hypotheses are equally absurd. They are not theories on the table. The only ‘trust’ or ‘distrust’ that are relevant to knowledge are the trust and distrust that real human beings exhibit in real-life situations.


Heidegger on the entity-ness of an entity

Avid asked:

What does Taylor Carman mean (in his foreword in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’) by ‘Yet the entity-ness of the entity is just what possession of the property was supposed to explain.’ It is prefaced by ‘What would an entity be without the property of existence? Nothing. And what could have such a property? Only an entity.’ I understand that Carman is stating an entity is that which has the property of existing and that Heidegger classifies Being as a separate characteristic of an entity and existing. But the sentence explaining it (see above) is rather wordy and confusing. I fear I am missing vital info by simply glossing over this information. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

This is not a test or essay question, (I mean its a pretty obscure line to have a prompt based off of) but I am going to be taking Heidegger courses in the coming fall and wanted to get a good grasp on the subject before diving in. I have already read ‘Question Concerning Technology’ and now want to read Being and Time but this line is really getting me! Hoping there are some fellow Heidegger aficionados on this site, ones with better knowledge/experience than I currently have.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I’ve not read Carman; but from your quotation I can see what bothers you — the doubling up of concepts where there is only one. An ‘entity’ is after all a word that includes its predicate, which makes the attribution of the property ‘existence’ completely redundant.

The problem here is, that Heidegger’s philosophy entails a repudiation of our normal ontological (i.e. scientific) approach of taking the existence of things for granted. It is not at all self-understood, as our perennial search for ‘final substances’ and ‘ultimate particles’ indicates. The thrust of his thinking is aimed precisely at showing that taking for granted deprives us of real insight into the nature of existence. So his insistence on separating an existent from existence must not be read in terms of properties, but in terms of understanding existence as a feature shared by all existents, but not equally, nor in the same way.

He is predominantly concerned with the form of existence he calls ‘Dasein’. Hence the importance of enquiring into this form of existence is, that it evidently differs in some way from the form of existence of a nugget or a flintstone. It also differs, less dramatically, from the existence of vegetation, insects, animals etc. It differs, finally, from the existence of those things which did not arise spontaneously from the mere aggregation of molecules, but were fashioned by a human will to a human purpose.

When you look at this, you should recognise four forms of existence, where traditional philosophy (and science) knows of only one.

The only one these which is self-evident is the last. A hammer comes into existence because some people have a need for a hammer. So a tool’s existence is a derived existence, and no further questions need to be asked.

But we have never asked the question of the conditions that must prevail to explain the existence of the other existents. Heidegger’s point here is, that we did not ask, because we assumed that coining such concepts as ‘final particle’, ‘substance’, ‘hypokeimenon’, even ‘God’, were sufficient to pre-empt our unasked question. However, assumptions stand or fall by their demonstration; and Heidegger’s claim is that none were ever successfully demonstrated to be what they were proposed to be — because they are in fact indemonstrable.

Instead, his own proposition is tantamount to the question: Is there a kind of ‘residual existential potential’ in the universe, or at least on Earth? This is the gist of Heidegger’s breaking up of apparent synonymity — to break through to a more authentic conception of the existence of conscious, self-reflexive agents, i.e. existents having ‘Dasein’.

This ‘Dasein’ is not an abstract concept, though non-specific in itself (and after all a perfectly commonplace non-technical word in German). So Heidegger employs the expedient of anthropomorphising it, in order to draw its specific features and aspects into the light of our understanding, so that we can grasp and absorb the meaning of our individual ‘Dasein’, what it involves and implies. Important to remember that Dasein is NOT an existent in itself: it is a mode of human life and experience.

I will stop here, as I believe I’ve answered your question. There is more baffling terminology waiting for you in his text. But at least on this one issue, I hope you will be in the clear now.


Real and nominal definitions revisited

Marc asked:

My question concerns real vs. nominal definitions.

In brief: is it possible for real definitions to be either true or false?

For example, let’s assume I fix the denotation of the term ‘tiger’ (as I point to a large, four-legged cat). Then, I give a real definition of ‘tiger’: an eight-legged invertebrate.

Would it be reasonable to say that the real definition of ‘tiger’ I have given is false? Assuming the earlier denotation of ‘tiger’ I gave by pointing to actual large, four-legged cats?

Answer by Hubertus Fremerey

I feel uneasy with your concept of ‘definition’. What you call a ‘real definition’ is only a ‘labeling’, attaching a label to some object.

Any definition has to be a ‘nominal’ definition, but even this is a bit misleading: To define something means to show its ‘boundaries’ (‘de-finire’ verbally means to delimit, to draw the boundaries). Thus you cannot define a human without showing what a human is NOT! A human is not an ape, is not a robot, is not a god nor demon etc.. But even if you say ‘a human is not an animal’ you will get into trouble. A human IS an animal, but a very special one. So to define a human you cannot just point at a human and say ‘this is a human’. What about a cripple? It doesn’t fit the standard picture of the anatomical atlas, but as a child of human parents, it is a human. This too is a definition: to be a child of human parents. As you know, a walfish is not a fish but a mammal, and the jellyfish is neither a fish nor a mammal but a quite different sort of animal. In this case, fish is just a label of ‘animals living in the sea’ as different from ‘animals living on the dry land or flying around’ etc..

What’s an electron? Nobody has ever seen one! This does not mean, that there are no electrons, but you cannot point at them. They are — like photons and neutrinos — ‘required objects’ in the context of ‘particle physics’. They are in this sense ‘real — but unobservable’. You can write books on the properties of those electrons, photons and neutrinos without ever seeing any of them — and without becoming mystical in any way. You define them by their effects, but not by visibility — which is only one of man possible effects.

And what about ‘liberty’ or ‘justice’ or ‘sin and grace’? They too are ‘real’ in a sense, they point at something, but once more they are not ‘things’ you could point at but ‘theoretical constructs’ like ‘class struggle’ or ‘Oedipus complex’. All those ‘objects’ exist in some way, they are related to experiences, but they are defined by theories. Without Marxism there is no ‘class struggle’, while there are still social conflicts.

Thus even to call a definition ‘nominal’ is besides the point. You should call it ‘theoretical’. It’s not nomina but theories that define the object. And every religion has a different definition of God anyway — including the paradoxical definition that God cannot be defined because He — if He exists — is without any limits.

Thus my definition of ‘definition’ would be: A method of bringing some order into the boundless chaos of experiences — sensual and intellectual. The whole concept of ‘real definition’ is a misnomer, and even ‘nominal definition’ is. What you have as primary givens are experiences, and then you first attach labels to them and if needed you re-define the (sensual or rational) objects in the context of a theory. Because all theories are changing, the ‘objects’ defined by those theories have to be re-defined again and again according to the theories defining them. And if Christianity as a theory is vanishing, then the Christian experiences of ‘sin and grace’ are vanishing at the same time.

BTW: The notion of ‘definition’ is strongly related to the notion of ‘concept’: The tiger is — like you — a bunch of complicated molecules. For the neutrino the tiger — like you — is transparent. Thus for the neutrino there are neither tigers nor humans. You see the rainbow — but where is a rainbow save in your brain? The rainbow in a sense is ‘real’, since you even can take a snapshot of it with your camera, but you cannot grab it and bag it in to take it with you. You only can have memories and dreams of the rainbow. So how do you define the rainbow? The rainbow is at the same time virtual and real like a hologram.

If you are confused now it is a good state for a philosopher to be in and to start wondering and pondering.


Should I be worried that the world is not as it seems?

Nawd asked:

Descartes, drawing on the success of the Copernican system, believes that many of his former beliefs must be false. How worried should we be about the fact that the world is not exactly as it seems?

Answer by Helier Robinson

Philosophy begins with the discovery that the world is not exactly as it seems. This is not a worry (unless you are deeply committed to your common sense beliefs) but it must be a concern, philosophically. One of the things about beliefs is that each one carries a piggy-back belief, a belief that the first belief is true. Everyone might say that ‘Other people have false beliefs but I do not, because all my beliefs are true: I would not believe them if they were false’. But if, rationally, you try to get away from this naive egocentricity, how do you decide which of your beliefs are false? The answer seems to be that you need to study both science and philosophy; you need both because scientists tend to be philosophically naive and philosophers, these days, tend to be scientifically naive (particularly with regard to the mathematical sciences). That’s quite a lot of study. Good luck!