Philosophy and the Sciences

This was a course run jointly by the Philosophy, Astronomy and Cognitive Science Departments at Edinburgh University. The philosophers took part in all of it. In the first half they linked with astronomers and in the second half with people researching in consciousness and what it is, and interested in developing machine intelligence. It was pretty tough going especially the first half! But I really enjoyed it. It’s on Coursera and you can find the course syllabus here. This is a brief intro…. Click the arrow to start.

As in most MOOCs, there comes a point where you’re faced with a project to submit. There were actually two projects in this course, one on the astronomy input and one on the consciousness / intelligence lectures. I went from being annoyed that I had to write one to being annoyed, after i got going, that I was limited to 750 words! Here are mine:

In what way can philosophy or philosophical thinking contribute to the physical sciences?

In the Past: Scientists and philosophers are curious about the world around them and there have been many helpful interactions between these two fields of thought over the centuries. In the mid-1600s, the Royal Society, a group natural philosophers, began discussing the new philosophy of promoting knowledge of the natural world through observation and experiment, and Locke, a Royal Society Fellow, expanded on empirical philosophy. In 1700s, David Hume threw philosophical light on causality and the judgement of probability. These ideas became central to scientific method. Many philosophers have themselves been mathematicians, engineers, physicists: Descartes, Liebniz, Pascal, Wittgenstein, Russell, Popper.1

What of today’s philosophers? In the field of ethics, philosophers have a great deal to contribute directly to science by asking ethical questions about the direction of scientific research: work on nuclear weapons; embryo research; genetic modification.

Philosophers can also help the sciences indirectly by tackling science-deniers, especially climate science deniers. People who deny science bring their own vested interests into their questions. They make statements but they are closed and biassed in their approach. They pick and choose those facts that suit their ideological agenda. Scientists can of course answer biassed questions and show up any mistaken premises. However science denial, though a relatively recent phenomena, is already powerful enough to harm our wider society. Philosophers could aid not just science but all areas of enquiry by educating people about how to ask open and unbiassed questions of both scientists and science-deniers and how to evaluate their answers.

What of today’s scientists? Historically maths and science were thought to yield an especially safe and certain kind of knowledge and philosophers have examined and helped clarify that belief. But do today’s scientists need any help in evaluating what, how and if they know what they think they know?

Technology enables cosmologists to see ‘back in time’ as well to see into space. Observations of distant regions of space provide external evidence which tests assumptions about uniformity and must help diminish possible anthropic bias. Exploration of our solar system and beyond provides added evidence for our current cosmological theories.

Perhaps the job of philosophy of science has been done?

Falsification: Popper’s contribution on falsification is immensely important. No doubt that scientists already appreciated and practised the basic empirical approach that he defined, but falsification is a powerful methodological tool and definition was needed. Conversely scientists are right to be cautious in accepting the falsity of any body of well-tested evidence. The recent report 2 from OPERA team which seemed to require faster-than-light neutrino motion is a good example of this. Some months later, Special Relativity remains unfalsified and OPERA team are getting themselves a new clock!

The Anthropic Principle (AP) Carter, an astronomer, first formulated it. Barrow and Tipler 3, mathematician and physicist, have expanded it. Their FAP (F for Final) reads:

“Intelligent, information processing must come into evidence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out.”

This could easily be taken as a teleological argument based on perceived evidence of deliberate design in the natural or physical world. 4 The authors of AP may not themselves advocate an intelligent creator of the Universe, but their argument can be misused for that end. Bostrom 5, who is a philosopher, takes Barrow and Tipler to task saying that their FAP is in fact antithetical to the original conception of AP.

Bostrom collaborates with scientists on anthropic bias when estimating various catastrophic events. His 2010 paper 6 on Anthropic Shadow is a good practical example of current philosophical thinking clarifying the interpretation of data on near-Earth Object Impacts, Volcanism and Supernovae frequencies.

Conclusion: Philosophical thinking continues to contribute to the physical sciences. However some of that thinking is carried out by scientists themselves, and only some by philosophers. The scope of modern technology offers an alternative kind of approach to clarifying and testing scientific assumptions.

However Aristotle, often called the first scientist, is still not far off the mark when he tells us ….. “Begin by setting down the appearances and then work through the puzzles that these present us with.”


1 Magee, Bryan: The Great Philosophers, OUP; Talking Philosophy, OUP


3Barrow and Tipler: Anthropic Cosmological Principle, OUP, 1986, p. 21. 4

5 Bostrom; Anthropic Bias, 2002 6


Feedback on the above! Three other people on the course assessed my essay. They followed a marking rubric set out by the course lecturers. Out of a possible score of 21, I got 19    🙂  These are their general remarks:

peer 1 → It gives a clear description of the relation between philosophy and science. Except for giving examples of the relevant lecture material, it quotes books and other information which enrich the content. However, instead of explaining how philosophy or philosophical thinking contributes to the physical sciences, it talks mostly about whether philosophy or philosophical thinking still contributes to the physical sciences.

peer 2 → Well argued with reference to the material. However, expected a deeper grasp of the fundamental philosophical issues impacting science.

peer 3 →  very well structured and elaborated. The arguments continue logically and cumulatively.  There are a lot of arguments that support the idea of how can philosophical thinking contribute to the physical sciences. It might have been best to focus on just one of them. But otherwise, a good overview is fine enough for me too !

In what way can cognitive science inform issues in the philosophy of mind?

The hard problem of phenomenal consciousness and qualia is intriguing: can we study scientifically what is completely subjective? can we ascribe precise physical causation to subjective experience? will we ever be able to bridge the gap between external and internal experience?

Phenomenal-consciousness is experiential, associated with incoming sense data; the total experiential content of an event answers “what is it like”. Experiences of grass, cucumber, limes all share the experiential quality (quale) of greenishness but not the qualia of sourness or sweetness. The external experience is quantifiable. The internal experience is not so quantifiable and sometimes it’s mysterious. (References 1-3)

Moreover not everyone experiences the same event in the same way: no way am I going to pick up a worm. My worm qualia = yeuch. But I’m married to someone whose worm qualia = “wow, he’s cute”. The worm event clearly isn’t reproducible in terms of qualia produced.

Since the same experience can produce such very different qualia, the qualia can’t be a quality of the actual experience alone. There must be something extra involved, presumably an internal quality of individual minds.

Quantifying qualia: When the basic experiment isn’t generally reproducible can cognitive science really help out? But…. experiences are reproducible in the sense that groups of individuals will respond with yeuch and groups with wow. So it’s possible to study groups of individuals and compare and contrast the results. It would also be useful in ascribing cause and effect to observe a range of qualia over a range of related experiences and analyse the emerging patterns, both of reported qualia and associated imaging results.

But however interesting all that is, it still leaves the hard problem: if scientists knew all the workings of the brain, that still wouldn’t tell us why and how a particular experience produces a particular subjective feeling or indeed any subjective feeling at all. (Reference 3)

Even if this problem is true as stated, does it matter?
In weeks 3-4 of this course, cosmologists acknowledged that ideas like inflation, multiverses are in principle unobservable directly. Philosophers asked is it really science when you can’t match theory with observation? Cosmologists responded with an example: although noone is going to go to centre of sun and measure its temperature, none doubts its predicted value of 15million degrees because it comes from physics tested and validated many times over in other contexts.

In other words, science always has some limitations but with confidence in the theoretical framework we can trust inferred conclusions.

How might this help philosophy of the mind?
It is always necessary to consider any underdetermination of a theory and this is in essence the problem of the hard problem. However the wider scientific context for studies of mind and consciousness includes : biology, neurophysics, general evolutionary theory, robotics, artificial intelligence.… If new studies of the physical mind produce results which are consistent with this wider theoretical context, then they deserve weighty consideration, in the same way as cosmologists give weight to theories of dark matter, dark energy and inflation though they not directly observable. Yet. Yet is an important qualifier… further study may well provide the breakthrough or at least give important hints about what the answer to the hard problem might look like.

Bayesian theorem too can help turn prior belief into a probability which can be quantified and developed as more information is acquired. It’s relevant to both cosmology and theories of mind. Since the mind problem involves uncertainty, Bayesian analysis should be able to help significantly especially since computing algorithms can cope with very complex statistics. (ref 4) Bayesian analysis can help measure whether any learning is going on in a mind. It can quantify the likelihood that physical causation is at work rather than merely correlation.

Much thought is given by scientists to the problem of distinguishing between correlation and causation.. This also lies at the heart of the hard problem. Science says: approach it pragmatically and here’s the sort of thing that will help….Ref 5 has a handy list!

Conclusion: Utilising the help available from cognitive science has and will surely continue to help philosophers deepen their understanding of the mind. The experiential gap may not be as hard a problem as it is portrayed. The complexity of the brain is a hugely hard problem to crack. Maybe harder than the hard problem itself. I would bet that the more advances made by cognitive scientists, the less hard the philosophical hard problem will appear.

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Feedback on the above. This included writing feedback from oneself. I think the score on this essay was 16/21.

self → I decided to focus on one aspect of the course – phenomenal consciousness, qualia and the hard problem. I found this a helpful way to deepen my understanding of this problem. I am aware that in doing this, I’ve omitted referring directly to various other ways in which cognitive science addresses the philosophy of the mind. However I have brought in aspects from the first half of the course that I think are relevant to this question.

peer 1 → Using subheading with such a short word-count could be avoided even though it provides some clarity to the reader. A formal essay structure would be more appropriate. Even though references rules were not exactly specified by the tutors, an academic reference structure or using an academic reference system/method (e.g. Harvard. Vancouver, APA) would be more appropriate. Most of the arguments do not address the question being asked. The student abruptly introduces the topic by providing an example: ‘’the hard problem of phenomenal consciousness’’ which is somewhat misleadingly presented as the main topic. This continues through the rest of the assignment. Some examples have been used, however they are not included in the lecture material, while the supportive arguments are not as coherent. This probably indicates not clear understanding of the lecture material or the assessment instructions. Moreover cosmology is not relevant to the topic as it is not a cognitive science. Similarly, discussing the ‘‘underdetermination theory’’ appears irrelevant to the topic .A number of helpful references have been used, however it would be more appropriate to use an original peer-reviewed source instead of Wikipedia which is a public secondary source.

peer 2 → The organizational structure of the essay is very logical, describing phenomenology’s problems and how cognitive science can address that. However, the essay is very disorganized, lacks an explicit thesis, and full of broken sentences that obscures your point somewhat.

peer 3 → Nice connection with the first part of the course. Good realization that although answers seem hard, we can expect to see them get easier. The connection between genetics and embryology required that molecular biology be invented first. Neuroscience has a long way to go, but we shouldn’t despair.

peer 4 → Excellent essay. You show good comprehension of the material and the problems arising from it. You show enthusiasm and imagination. To me, some of the threads seemed not to apply directly to the hard problem. If I were more pedantically inclined, I’d comment on sentence fragments and such.