Last Friday I found myself stuck in a room in a Cambridge college waiting to do a photo job so I took Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations down from a shelf and, as an intellectual dwarf perched on Hindsight the Giant, sneered at it. Certain things he said appear absurd in the light of certain experimental results. As I’ve argued here before, if you’re familiar with the physics and physiology of vision, a lot of his Remarks On Colour is very silly indeed—though, amongst the silliness, it draws attention to some real and interesting questions. Not all of the relevant science was published after he had reached his conclusions however and Wittgenstein had enough scientific training to have been able to grasp it.
I react this way to the work of quite a few celebrated philosophers—and I am talking about the ones worth taking seriously, not more recent comedy “philosophers” for whom imprisonment in quotation marks is perfect justice. It’s a shame that we no longer mean by the word someone who understands what we now call science as well as meaning a thinker in a more general sense. But scientists who think badly can be just as, if not more, wrong.
By coincidence, I read two replies by philosophers to scientists yesterday and, in both cases, the philosphers seemed to me to be right. Norman Geras takes on Paul Davies, whose God And The New Physics was a lovely, clear introduction for the layperson to some exciting physics, but included some lousy arguments for the existence of God. Jonathan Derbyshire takes on Marc Hauser, in reply to Hauser’s reply to Derbyshire’s review of Hauser’s book, Moral Minds, in Prospect.
I have another interest in the latter because Prospect magazine has been paying me to train its staff and to set up its excellent blog. The blog has been excellent because of their hard work. I was holding off recommending it here until Prospect‘s in-house designer had made over its look, but go read it now because, even if the layout isn’t very exciting yet, the content is good. The sort of blogospheric conversation Derbyshire and Hauser are engaged in is, I think, one of the things they were hoping to encourage.