Why dismissing philosophy threatens the integrity of science

Bust of Aristotle, second century AD.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.
It has become sadly common for science popularizers to dismiss philosophy as an empty, altogether useless discipline consisting of circular abstractions. Even scientist Stephen Hawking went as far as to declare philosophy dead. I believe this public dismissal of philosophy, rather than reaffirm science, brings harm to its integrity.

To substantiate this claim, I must first discuss the differences between science and philosophy. Of the many areas of philosophical investigation, two are particularly relevant to science: ontology—that is, the study of what things are in and of themselves—and epistemology—that is, the study of what we can know about them and how we can know it.

The scientific method rests fundamentally on empirical observation: we can theorize all we want, but it is by comparing our theories with observations of nature that we can confirm, discard or refine these theories. However, from an epistemic perspective, all we can know from observing nature is its appearance and behavior. Let me unpack this.

Observation, by definition, only gives us access to how things appear to us—through the mediation of measurement instrumentation, as the case may be—not to what they are in themselves, independently of observation. For instance, when you observe another person, her facial expressions may often seem to betray a range of emotions you’ve had before. But you cannot access her emotions in and of themselves, as she feels them, independently of your observation (unless, of course, you become the person).

Because it is fundamentally based on how nature presents itself to our observation, the scientific method provides no direct insight into what things are in themselves. Indeed, assuming that a thing’s appearance directly implies what it is in itself overlooks a host of possibilities and questions, as I shall discuss shortly.

Even when we use giant particle accelerators to smash matter down to its most basic building blocks, all we can access is how the resulting debris appear to us via our measurement instruments. Since we cannot become a quark, a lepton or a boson, the universe as it is in itself—insofar as it is constituted by quarks, leptons and bosons—remains fundamentally inaccessible through scientific investigation.

More specifically, science concerns itself exclusively with the behavior of nature as presented to observation. Scientific theories are predictive: given a sufficient characterization of a system, a good theory anticipates what the system will do next. For instance, if I know the relevant characteristics of a billiard table, balls and cue stick, I can predict what will happen after I strike the cue ball. But predicting what will happen is a foretelling of the system’s behavior, not a direct insight into what the system is.

Available on amazon.
Doing science consists in systematically observing and modeling the patterns and regularities of nature’s behavior, so it can next be predicted. It is this ability to predict how nature will behave that enables the development of technology: if one puts some materials together in a certain way, a certain useful effect can be reliably expected to follow.

Indeed, the key carriers of the value of science for our civilization—and perhaps the key reasons it has accumulated so much cultural currency—are the technologies that address pressing human needs and desires. Analogously to how one can play and win video games without any understanding of the underlying hardware or software, these technologies can be made to work even without insight into what nature is in itself.

But for there to be natural behavior as revealed through appearance, there has to be something that behaves and appears to begin with. In other words, there has to be nature-in-itself. The problem is that comparing behavioral predictions to empirical observations cannot reveal nature as it is in itself, for many different hypotheses regarding the latter are consistent with the same behaviors.

This is why crucial questions cannot be answered by science alone, such as: Are the fundamental subatomic particles merely abstract entities whose nature can be exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms? Or do they have intrinsic qualities, such as color, flavor and smell? Are the fundamental subatomic particles the external appearance of conscious inner life at a microscopic level, analogously to how your brain is the external appearance of your conscious inner life? Is all matter in the inanimate universe the external appearance of universal conscious inner life? Or are both matter and consciousness different aspects of a third, more fundamental category, which appears as matter or consciousness depending on perspective? No method of acquiring knowledge based on behavioral appearances can, on its own, tackle such questions of being.

That science gives us insight only into appearance and behavior is the conclusion of an epistemic analysis: an eminently skeptical, meta-cognitive critique of what can actually be known, so we don’t inadvertently take mere belief for knowledge. An attempt to investigate what nature is—as opposed to how it behaves—requires, in turn, the philosophical method of ontology, which is based on principles of internal logical consistency, empirical adequacy and categorical parsimony. This is how philosophy complements science, attempting to address issues that fall—fundamentally—beyond the scope of scientific investigation.

When science popularizers dismiss philosophy, they are making one or more of several mistakes, amongst which: (a) being unaware and uncritical of the intrinsic boundaries of their preferred method of knowledge acquisition; (b) taking one particular ontology—usually, mainstream physicalism—for the self-evident truth, thereby projecting an unexamined belief system onto nature; (c) extending the scope of science beyond what is justifiable by its method, thereby putting the integrity of science itself at risk. All these are errors that can easily be avoided with a minimum investment in self-education.

Just as science needs philosophy to address more fundamental questions about the nature of being and the boundaries of knowledge, philosophy also needs science: any viable ontology needs to be informed by, and accommodate, the patterns and regularities of nature’s behavior discerned through the scientific method. Any theory about the world-in-itself that contradicts—by implication—these observed patterns and regularities isn’t empirically adequate and, therefore, must be discarded.

There is thus a crucial bridge between science and philosophy. On one side of this bridge, there is a method based on observation, modeling and prediction of behavior; on the other side, a method based on explicit, clear, meta-cognitively-informed reasoning. The bridge allows for productive commerce between the two, which—when suitably leveraged—can lead to remarkable conclusions about the nature of reality, such as those discussed in my new book The Idea of the World and very briefly described in the video above. However, negating this bridge and attempting to tackle all questions with one method alone can only overextend and rob this method of its integrity.

Nothing short of pathetic: The Skeptical Inquirer's "review" of my ideas

Sometimes it's difficult to know whether to laugh or yawn.
It has been brought to my attention that the Skeptical Inquirer magazine is publishing a "research review" of my ideas in its January/February 2019 issue, which is already available. I did a search online to learn more about this magazine and, according to Wikipedia, recognizable figures such as Isaac Asimov, Martin Gardner, Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, Daniel Dennett and Steven Weinberg are counted amongst its past and present fellows.

It's hardly a secret that I am highly critical of some of the figures above, but I have much respect for some of the others too. So I assumed that the "review" would at least provide a thoughtful look at my work and offer substantive criticisms I haven't faced or addressed before. I thus decided to pay the required fee and download it. What I then saw made me concerned not for my work, but for the good name of science itself. Allow me to elaborate on this apparently exaggerated claim.

The "review" focuses solely on a Scientific American essay I wrote with two psychologists, which offers a very brief summary of how psychological dissociation could provide a solution to the so-called 'decomposition problem' in philosophy. It is a brief overview of a much more extensive academic paper published in a leading journal.

It's abundantly clear from the Skeptical Inquirer "review" that its author did not read the academic paper. The main problem, however, is that he didn't properly read even the short Scientific American essay itself. For instance, he claims that "it wasn't long before quantum physics [was] tossed in." Our essay, however, doesn't touch on quantum physics at all; the word 'quantum' never even appears in it. The Skeptical Inquirer author seems to have entirely hallucinated it out of thin air. He also seems to assume that we were endorsing panpsychism, while our essay is in fact highly critical of it.

He proceeds to criticize a third-party academic paper on Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), published in a highly respected journal, which we cited in our Scientific American piece. The criticism, however, centers on a basic issue of experimental design that is certain to have been considered during the peer review process. Going further, the author then criticizes another third-party study we cited: one in which researchers realized that, when a blind dissociated personality was in control of an MPD patient's body, the visual cortex activity normally associated with vision would disappear, even though the patient's eyes were wide open. The author tries to dismiss the "patient's subjective claims of blindness" as mere "functional blindness" or "conversion syndrome," both of which are psychological conditions of a subjective nature, related to suggestibility, stress and inner conflict. He seems to have somehow entirely missed the one point of our claim: that objective EEG measurements were performed, which failed to detect visual cortex activity when a blind personality was in control, even though the patient's eyes were open. These same EEG measurements then detected the appropriate visual cortex activity the moment a sighted personality assumed control. Somehow the significance of this result seems to have completely flown over the author's head, even though it's rather obvious to any mildly attentive and educated reader, this being the reason why the result received significant media attention (see e.g. this extensive Washington Post report).

Clearly, what the author thinks we claim in our essay—and now I have to stop myself from laughing as I write these words—is that one has to have MPD in order to understand life, the universe and everything! No, really, this is nothing short of hilarious. Not even an average high-school student would have misunderstood our point so pitifully.

Be that as it may, most of the "review" is dedicated not to attacking the original ideas discussed in our essay, but third-party, peer-reviewed research on MPD instead. This may have to do with the fact that the author is some retired psychiatrist from Iowa, but the dissonance between claim and substance is striking. As a matter of fact, the author never actually even says what our original ideas are, or how they relate to MPD! Dedicating a single sentence to it was apparently considered unnecessary in an article that claims to review my philosophy.

Interestingly, the author does find it worthwhile to dedicate a significant part of his "review" to emphasizing that MPD patients suffer severely from forms of cognitive impairment and emotional distress. This, according to him, "contradicts the foolish notion that MPD would ever help anyone make sense of life, the universe, and everything" (the title of our Scientific American essay is "Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?"). Clearly, what the author thinks we claim in our essay—and now I have to stop myself from laughing as I write these words—is that one has to have MPD in order to understand life, the universe and everything! No, really, this is nothing short of hilarious. Not even an average high-school student would have misunderstood our point so pitifully.

To his credit, the author himself confesses to not having understood our Scientific American essay: he writes that "several paragraphs ... could only be described as incomprehensible" (for such a short essay, several paragraphs means that he didn't understand perhaps most of it). I can only point out that, if something is incomprehensible to him, it doesn't necessarily make it incomprehensible to the rest of us, attentive and educated readers. (On a side note, what kind of psychological disposition makes one feel entitled to publicly criticize something one has admittedly not understood?)

If the author is reading this post, let me take the opportunity to help him out a bit: Sir, the point of the title of our essay is that MPD, as an observable psychiatric condition, provides hints to something in nature that could help one address the so-called decomposition problem in philosophy. A philosopher who studies MPD is thus in a better position to solve the decomposition problem, without necessarily having to suffer from MPD themselves. Clearer now? You're welcome.

How can a magazine with ambitions to "promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason" publish this kind of juvenile garbage? Where were the editorial controls? This "review" does no harm to me, but to the magazine, its readers and science in general (more on this below).

Here is someone who obviously has no clue of what he is talking about, and yet talks about it proudly. What a peculiar spectacle; what a dramatic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

What makes the profound ignorance betrayed by the "review" even worse is the conceitedness and pretentiousness that oozes through it. The cognitive dissonance between the two makes the "review" come across as somehow both hilarious and sad; maybe 'pathetic' is the right word. The conceited tone seems to be an attempt to 'play to the crowd,' appeal to some kind of mob mentality by throwing bones to what the author seems to assume are his readers' gullible prejudices. He talks of an "illogical leap into New Age Philosophy" when we argue that MPD can be literally blinding, even though we substantiate our claim with peer-reviewed research. He talks of 'consciousness,' 'panpsychism,' 'cosmopsychism' and 'idealism' as if these terms referred to woo (I am sincerely curious about what goes on in the conscious mind of someone who thinks that 'consciousness' is woo), instead of ontologies discussed in some of the world's most respected academic journals. Here is someone who obviously has no clue of what he is talking about, and yet talks about it proudly. What a peculiar spectacle; what a dramatic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

If I were a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, I would feel offended by this "review." I'd feel that it treats me as someone who has surrendered their personal capacity for critical thinking to mob mentality. I'd feel that it treats me as a gullible participant of a political rally, eager to blindly cheer to shouted slogans, as opposed to someone who expects substantial and informed analyses.

Needless to say, the "review" reflects very poorly on both its author and the magazine that published it. And yet, one might point out that there are countless other examples out there of people proudly—though cluelessly—displaying the limitations of their intellects for the world to see. So why make an issue of this one instance?

Well, if this were all there is to it, I wouldn't have bothered to publish this post. But here we have a magazine that publicly associates itself with some of the most recognizable figures in science. At the very least, these figures are allowing this to be done and, by implication, allowing the image of science itself to become associated with such publications. To me, this is a serious problem. If the public begins to associate science, reason and critical thinking with the kind of "review" I've commented on above, we risk blurring the crucial difference between science, reason and critical thinking on the one hand, and the lunatic ravings of the fringes of our culture on the other. Once that crucial boundary is blurred, we're lost as a civilization.

My ideas may be controversial from the perspective of the current cultural ethos, but they are carefully and exhaustively substantiated. I have published many academic papers in respected journals elaborating on every facet of them. And now, I am publishing a 312-page book painstakingly making my case from an academic perspective. Let this work be my reply to my "critics."

Why the world is imagined: A summary

To mark the release of the Uniform Reprints of my first six books—a major consolidation of my work—I want to summarize below, in language accessible to anyone, the key points of the philosophy explicated in much more detail in those books. So here we go.

According to the mainstream materialist paradigm, the world out there is made of subatomic particles and force fields outside and independent of consciousness. This world allegedly has no intrinsic qualities—such as color, flavor, smell, etc.—consisting instead of purely abstract quantities and mathematical relationships. The qualities of experience, according to this view, are created inside our skull by our brain: living organisms capture abstract stimuli from the external world through their sense organs, and then their brains supposedly translate these stimuli into the experiences that constitute their entire lives.

The notion that all colors, flavors, smells, etc., exist only inside our heads—instead of in the world beyond our heads—is profoundly counterintuitive. The motivation for believing it is the need to make sense of at least two facts: (a) there are strong correlations between patterns of brain activity and inner experience, which seems to implicate the brain in creating experience; and (b) we all seem to share the same world, so if experience is created by our individual brains, there must be something out there that isn’t experiential in nature, but which nonetheless modulates the experiences of different people through their respective sense organs. This non-experiential ‘something’ out there—that is, subatomic particles and force fields—allegedly is the world we all share.

The problem is that an increasing array of evidence seems to contradict the notion that experience is somehow created by patterns of brain activity. If this notion were correct, one would expect richer experience to always correlate with increased metabolism in the neural correlates of experience. Yet, the opposite has been observed.

The Uniform Reprint Collection
Indeed, psychedelic trances, which represent unfathomable enrichment of experience, are accompanied only by reductions in brain metabolism. Similarly, it has been observed that the brain activity of experienced mediums is reduced during the process of psychography. Patients who have undergone brain damage due to surgery have also been observed to have richer feelings of self-transcendence after surgery. Pilots undergoing G-force-induced loss of consciousness also report “memorable dreams,” even though blood flow to their brains is reduced. Teenagers worldwide play a dangerous game of partial strangulation, because the reduction in blood flow to their head leads to rich experiences of euphoria and self-transcendence. The list goes on, but the point should be clear: there are many cases in which brain function impairment correlates with enriched awareness, which seems to contradict the mainstream materialist paradigm.

To resolve this dilemma, one simply needs a subtle shift in perspective, a different way of seeing what is going on. Consider, for instance, lightning: Do we say that lightning causes atmospheric electric discharge? Certainly not: lightning is simply what atmospheric electric discharge looks like. Similarly, flames don’t cause the associated combustion: they are simply what the combustion looks like. Finally, a whirlpool in a stream doesn’t cause water localization in the stream: it is simply what water localization looks like.

These images—lightning, flames, whirlpools—say something about the process they are an image of: for instance, we can deduce many things about combustion from the color and behavior of the associated flames. More generally speaking, we say that there are correlations between the process and its image, for the latter is a representation—incomplete, as the case may be—of the former.

Returning to the whirlpool example, notice also that there is nothing to a whirlpool but water. You can’t ‘lift a whirlpool out of the water,’ so to speak. Yet, the whirlpool is a concrete and identifiable phenomenon: one can delineate its boundaries, point at it and say: “There is a whirlpool!” Images of processes can, after all, be very concrete indeed.

I thus submit that the brain—in fact, the whole body—is merely the image of a process of localization in universal consciousness; a localization of experience that, from a first-person perspective, makes up our private inner lives. The body-brain system is like a whirlpool in the stream of universal experiences.

The brain doesn’t generate experience for the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water. Yet, brain activity correlates with inner experience—the localized contents of the whirlpool—because it is what the latter looks like from a second-person perspective, just as lightning is what atmospheric electric discharge looks like from the outside.

The brain isn’t the cause of experience for the same reason that lightning isn’t the cause of atmospheric electric discharge, or that flames aren’t the cause of combustion. Just as flames are but the image of the process of combustion, the body-brain system is but the image of localized experience in the stream of universal consciousness.

In the same way that there is nothing to a whirlpool but water, I submit that there is nothing to a living body but universal consciousness. Yet, just as one can delineate the boundaries of a whirlpool and say “there is a whirlpool,” one can delineate the boundaries of a living body and say: “There is a body!” This explains the felt concreteness of living organisms under the hypothesis that all there is to them is universal consciousness.

The above is but a teaser of a much more elaborate theory of reality that is discussed in the six books of the now-available Uniform Reprints. I invite interested readers to peruse these books if they find the teaser above intriguing.