A Reply To: Questioning Truth, Reality and the Role of Science

Here’s a reply to comments on Quanta Magazine by philosopher of science Michela Massimi in an article entitled “Questioning Truth, Reality and the Role of Science“.


First, let’s start with the disclaimer that this is a limited reply and not a full review of the article in which Professor Michela Massimi reports her vision of the philosophy of science.

I’m not qualified to address many of the questions touched on in the article and will thus focus on what most interests me, how philosophers of science can best serve the broad public.

To start, Massimi says…

“I see the target beneficiary (of the philosophy of science) as humankind, broadly speaking. We philosophers build narratives about science.”

This worthy goal would seem to raise the question of whether philosophy on any subject can be of use to humankind broadly speaking if it insists on using language which humankind broadly speaking can not readily access, which is typically the case.

It seems useful to make a distinction between philosophy, and the philosophy business. The philosophy business requires participants to address sophisticated concepts in largely inaccessible language so as to position themselves as experts. While this is good business, it seems at odd with good philosophy, if that is defined as serving the broad public.

Ok, this point has been made very many times, so let’s keep moving.

Massimi writes…

“But I believe it is our (philosophers of science) job to contribute to public discourse on the value of science….”

Yes, agree enthusiastically, with the condition that “public discourse” is not limited to a philosopher’s professional peers.

Given the central role science plays in our culture, contributing to public discourse of science would seem to be a very important job.

But let’s note, that “contributing to public discourse” does not automatically equal proclaiming the “value of science”. Contributing to public discourse can also include analysis of the dangers presented by science.

Massimi continues…

“In this respect, I see philosophy of science as delivering on an important social function: making the general public more aware of the importance of science.”

More agreement, and let’s keep going to see what she means by “the importance”.

Massimi writes…

“I see philosophers of science as public intellectuals who speak up for science, and rectify common misconceptions or uninformed judgments that may feed into political lobbies, agendas and ultimately policy-making.”

Speaking up for science? Can’t we count on scientists to perform that function?

It seems that the uniquely valuable role that philosophers can contribute on any subject is to explore and challenge the boundaries of the group consensus.

With that in mind, let’s do as Massimi suggests and attempt to “rectify common misconceptions” about science.

More Is Better?

I would argue that the most important misconception and widely held, largely unquestioned, group consensus assumption is that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which served us so well for so long in an era of knowledge scarcity is also the appropriate paradigm in an era of exploding knowledge. This point is made at length on another page of this blog.

The careers of scientists depend upon the public’s continued allegiance to the “more is better” relationship with knowledge, so we can count on scientists to make this case. It’s good that this case should be made, and we already have a large body of well educated professionals happy to make it.

What we need philosophers to do is to argue the other side of the case. We need philosophers to explore beyond the widely held group consensus assumption that more knowledge automatically equals a better outcome.

A claim that more knowledge does not necessarily equal a better outcome is clearly debatable, but we can’t have a useful debate unless we have thoughtful and articulate analysis of both sides of the question.

A philosopher should not have to personally believe that more knowledge may represent a threat just as a good defense attorney can deploy all their skill in making the case for a client that they know is guilty. What the philosopher personally believes is of less importance than whether they can present challenges to group consensus assumptions in a thoughtful and articulate manner.

I’ve never read a philosopher who was not thoughtful and articulate so the question becomes…

Is the philosopher willing and able to challenge that which most people assume to be true? And, are they willing and able to pay the price of social rejection and possible career damage which may occur when they say things that a great many people do not want to hear?

As example, if a philosopher of science were to address a convention of scientists and make the case that the accelerating development of knowledge may be taking us towards civilization collapse, they should not expect to be sincerely applauded because they would in effect be challenging the scientist’s vision of themselves as being cultural heroes who are rescuing us from ignorance.

As example, if a philosopher of science were to address the public and make the case that the accelerating development of knowledge may be taking us towards civilization collapse, they would be puncturing the widely cherished notion that thanks to more and more knowledge our lives will continue to get better and better.

In my view, what defines a good philosopher is the willingness and ability to articulately challenge that which almost everyone assumes to be true, and the willingness to pay the price for performing this very important social function.

One of the important obstacles to philosophers performing this vital function seems to be the philosophy business, which like any business requires a certain amount of approval from consumers in order to obtain the funding necessary to keep the business running.

Massimi writes…

Physicists these days do not necessarily read other subjects at university or get trained in a broad range of topics at school. Large scientific collaborations enforce a more granular level of scientific expertise.

Yes, this is something I didn’t understand for a long time. I kept beating on the door of scientists hoping they would address the big picture of our relationship with knowledge not realizing that 1) that’s not really their job, and 2) the requirements of their enterprise push them away from the big picture and ever deeper in to an ever narrower view.

I have revised the misconception about science I previously suffered from. As I see it now, we hire scientists to develop new knowledge and they do an excellent job of performing the function we are paying them for. That’s all we can really ask of anyone.

And so now I look to philosophers, particularly philosophers of science, to inspect our relationship with knowledge, and challenge widely held assumptions about that relationship. So far I’ve not found what I’m looking for, and hopefully more looking will some day remedy that.

As example, I spent months on a leading group blog by professional academic philosophers hoping to find and contribute to discussion of our relationship with knowledge in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.

I failed miserably, as there simply was no interest in these subjects. Out of what seemed thousands of articles on the blog there was only a one about nuclear weapons, and that existed only because I mercilessly hounded the editor until he finally said something about nuclear weapons to shut me up. As I explored other academic philosophy blogs the situation was no different.

Philosophers are obviously intelligent very well educated people who typically have a gift for language, so that’s not the problem. As best I can tell, the obstacle is that once one turns philosophy in to an income producing enterprise the requirements of business begin to interfere with the important role that philosophers can and should be providing to society, which is…

Saying that which we don’t wish to hear.

Challenging that which we assume to be true.

Hopefully Massimi and other philosophers of science can contribute to my limited understanding of their discipline by pointing me to writing by their peers that challenge my own current assumptions.

I’d love to find more academic discussion of the incredible fact that our “more is better” relationship with knowledge has brought us to the point in history where a single person pushing a single button a single time can quickly destroy most everything that’s been built at such great cost over the last 500 years.

Given that such a predicament typically bores even the most well educated among us, it seems reasonable to question whether human beings really are ready for more and more knowledge delivered at an ever faster pace.

What philosophers of science can contribute is to lead such a conversation.

A Reply To: Machine Learning Takes On Antibiotic Resistance

Here’s a comment I added to an article on Quanta Magazine by Katherine Harmon Courage entitled “Machine Learning Takes On Antibiotic Resistance“.


The author writes…

“It really shows how you can use the emerging technology of deep learning in an innovative manner to discover new chemistries.”

Ok, we want to discover new chemistries to save lives. Somebody else will want to discover new chemistries to take lives. Thus, discovering new chemistries is not automatically a good thing, there are pros and cons, benefits and risks, which have to be weighed against each other.

In the past we could usually confidently plunge ahead in unlocking some new secret and if there were downsides we figured we’d fix that later. And because in the past the new secrets were typically revealed slowly and in a limited manner, that usually worked.

That equation begins to change as we apply powerful new tools like machine based deep learning to projects like discovering new chemistries. The benefits can now be greater, but also the risks. As the tools of discovery become more and more powerful, the scale of the benefits increasingly expands, as does the scale of the risks.

This issue of scale seems all important, because when any risk becomes big enough it threaten to erase all the benefits.

So for example, while one team solves the antibiotic problem, a huge benefit, another team learns how to create highly contagious fatal viruses which can be targeted at specific populations. If the fatal viruses are deployed and escape the control of their authors, then it won’t matter that the antibiotic problem has been solved.

This isn’t alarmist speculation. It’s history.

We unlocked the secret of the atom and developed a significant new form of clean energy, a huge benefit.

And at the same time we made it possible for one person clicking one button one time to erase modern civilization in less than an hour. Should that button ever be clicked, it won’t matter that we have clean energy. And any objective observation of thousands of years of persistent human conflict suggests that sooner or later somebody will probably click the button.

Assuming that safety issues and problems like toxic waste can be successfully resolved, clean nuclear energy could be a great benefit. But is it worth the price that one person can now destroy modern civilization in just a few minutes?

As powerful tools like machine learning bring new knowledge online at an ever faster pace, and as the scale of the new powers expands, the room for error steadily shrinks and odds that one of the new discoveries will bring down the entire system grows.

Thus, what I hope to find on Quanta are thoughtful articles which don’t relate to the development of new knowledge as if it were some kind of “one true way” religion. I hope to meet scientists and others who are willing to take the same kind of detached objective critical scrutiny that they routinely use in their work, and apply it to the future of science itself.

How much power can human beings successfully manage?

I don’t claim to know, but before we assume that the answer is any amount of power, we might recall that we are the species with thousands of hair trigger hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, an ever present self extinction threat which we typically don’t find interesting enough to discuss.

This is who we are handing all these new discoveries too, a species which can quite reasonably be labeled brilliant, but also insane.

If I were a genius with a gun in my mouth, would you hand me another gun?