Monthly Archives: December 2012

Science Vs. Philosophy

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Sewickley, PA

Over the last year or so, there has been a very public intellectual skirmish between some eminent physicists and philosophers.  At one point it did degenerate into name calling.  Someone from the philosophy dept. threw sand in a scientists face…and the scientist took his toys and went home.  Sad.  A catalogue of the skirmish has just appeared in the Ny Times Blog:  Ny Times Blog

Here is a little background – some of which can be found in the articles.  Things got started when Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and Director of the Origins Institute at Arizona State University, published a book “A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.”   These days, popularized science books about cosmology, physics, and quantum mechanics usually get good reviews and not much else is said.  And that’s why I was quite surprised to read an incredibly negative review about the book in the NY Times by David Albert, a philosopher from Columbia University.  Krauss was interviewed by the Atlantic – the link is in the Stone blog above.  In defending his position, Krause labeled philosophy “useless” and referred to his opponents as  “moronic philosophers.”  More recently, evolutionary biologist Austin L. Hughes joins in the fray in a piece in the New Atlantic.  The list of people in this fight also include Freeman Dyson and Stephen Hawking.

The entire affair is quite silly.  The notion that science holds the answer to all of our questions is simply not true.  Still, philosophy as a discipline must deal with its identity crisis.  A crisis that began in the early part of the twentieth century and continues to this day.  At some point I may offer more on this topic.

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The Past and its Value

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Glencar Waterfall
Leitrim, Ireland

Recently, I spoke to students about the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Scrolls, discovered in 1947 on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea (in a series of Caves), represent the oldest versions of the Hebrew Bible.  From the time of their discovery, the scrolls have been in the possession of various institutions.   And since their discovery, scholarly consensus on some important questions related to the scrolls has proved elusive.  Who wrote the scrolls?  Why were the scrolls places in Caves?  Five theories exist to answer these questions.  The most dominant theory is the Qumran-Essene theory that postulates the Essenes from Qumran hid the scrolls in the cave during the Jewish Revolt (66-68 AD).

In my comments, I acknowledged the archeological interest in the scrolls and their general historical importance for Judaism.   I also indicated that the examining the theories related to the scrolls constituted a good intellectual exercise for students.

Nevertheless, I went on to say that at some point historians must draw a line as to where the research agenda must come to an end.  And as for further inquiries into the origins of the scrolls and the reason for their placement in the caves…well, who cares?   The reason the research should end is that aside from some additional discoveries that somehow answer these questions, all we have is further speculation without evidence.  Indeed, even the existing theories contain a fair share of inference…in the absence of evidence.  (I’m not certain what current efforts are underway to augment our understanding of the scrolls.)

In response to my comments, a student emailed me stating that what I said about the scrolls could be said about almost anything in the past.  The student stated that it’s not the facts about a historical topic that change but how they are viewed or what facts are selected for a theory that shapes our understanding of history.  It’s almost an interesting point.  But wrong.

If we accept the student’s premise, we place all historical topics in a state of equivalence…and admit that interpretations must go on ad infinitum because a new view of the facts may surface.  But this is only true for events and topics with a considerable amount of primary source material.  And the problem with the Dead Sea Scrolls is that we’ve just about run out of new discoveries in this area and period.  It is true that on many historical topics, views change over time.  Facts are reconsidered in a new light.  But with a limited set of facts about a specific set of objects, theories run dry soon.  Historical study should be limited to interpreting topics that inform our present or guide us into the future.  The value of history is not in ruminating over something for its own sake, but in explaining why something is the way it is for our sake.

Physics, Zombies, Elements, and Crowdfunding

Some Phd. students at CERN have made my weekend.  These bright bulbs put their brains together and made a zombie film at CERN.  It’s low budget, the acting is sketchy at times…but I can attest to the fact that the film is much better than many low-budget zombie flicks I’ve seen in recent years.  And it’s free to watch!  Decay Film

Another interesting site this weekend is 94 Elements – a global filmmaking project that explores lives through the lens of elements.  This project is linked to a global funding platform Indiegogo that has me thinking about all sorts of projects.