If there is pseudo-science, is there also pseudo-philosophy?

Figs in Winter
Dec 18, 2020 · 9 min read
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[image: René Descartes, right, with Queen Christina of Sweden, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #256 in my Patreon/Medium series]

Back in 1995, fresh off my postdoc year at Brown University, I moved to Knoxville, TN, to take up my first tenure-track academic position, as an assistant professor of botany and evolutionary biology. I knew next to nothing of Tennessee, except that ads about Jack Daniels whiskey were popular in Italy… I was obviously excited to come to campus and begin setting up my new laboratory, devoted to plant evolutionary genetics. I was looking forward to recruiting graduate students and postdocs. As well as to making K-town, as some of the locals refer to it, my new home.

One thing I hadn’t counted on: Tennessee is the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, a place where close to 90% of the population embraces creationism and rejects evolution. I soon discovered that my neighbors thought I was more than a bit strange and that some of my undergraduate students warned their colleagues that by attending my lectures they were guaranteeing themselves a ticket to Hell. I became sufficiently well known in town — through newspaper articles and occasional appearances on the local television stations — that people followed me in the parking lot of the local bookstore to ask me, very politely, if I had read the Bible. I replied, equally politely, that I had, and counter-inquired about whether they had ever read The Origin of Species. They were shocked by the very idea.

During my second semester there the Tennessee state legislature, in its infinite lack of wisdom, took up a bill that would have mandated “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism in the state’s high schools. When I saw the article I thought “what?!?” The BBC came to campus to cover the story, and several colleagues and I wrote to our representatives to explain what an inane idea they were considering, apparently seriously. The bill didn’t make it out of committee, so the emergency passed. But ever since, I led my students on a summer day trip to nearby Dayton, where the infamous Scopes trial had taken place in 1925. And with the help of a colleague and a group of graduate students we began an annual Darwin Day event to familiarize the public with the nature of science and its relationship to religion. Darwin Day has since become a widely held international event.

The episode marked the beginning of my interest in pseudo-science, which initially manifested itself by way of public talks and writings for a number of magazines, most notably Skeptical Inquirer. A couple of books also came out of this interest: Denying Evolution, about creationism specifically, and Nonsense on Stilts, about pseudo-science more broadly construed.

A few years later, though, I began my transition to philosophy, by enrolling in the PhD program at the very same University of Tennessee. Eventually, this led, in 2009, to switching fields permanently, once I became a professor of philosophy of science at the City University of New York, where I still work. And guess what a major focus of my scholarship has a philosopher has been? The nature of pseudoscience and the so-called demarcation problem between science and pseudoscience. (Two academic books came out of that: The Philosophy of Pseudoscience, and Science Unlimited?.)

The current consensus in philosophy of science is that there is no simple, neat distinction between science and pseudo-science. Rather, the situation looks like a conceptual landscape, similar to the following:

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Let’s orient ourselves: the two axes in the diagram represent a measure of theoretical sophistication (horizontal) and a measure of empirical content (vertical). The idea is that the higher a field of inquiry scores on both counts, the more it is firmly established science. Obvious examples are fundamental physics, chemistry, biology. Conversely, the lower a field scores on both counts, the more firmly it falls into the area of pseudo-science. Examples include astrology, intelligent design creationism, and HIV denialism (the bizarre notion that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS).

This ought to be entirely non-controversial, at least if you live outside the Bible Belt. The more interesting parts of the diagram, though, are the ones in the middle. Some fields are poor in terms of theory, but relatively rich when it comes to empirical content, for instance psychology. Others are very sophisticated as far as the theory goes, but there is little or no evidence to substantiate them, as in the case of string theory in physics. Neither of these examples falls into pseudo-science, but they are not truly developed sciences either.

Then there are situations like the one concerning SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. There the theory is extremely unsophisticated — basically amounting to the hope that ET has a similar psychology and technological history to the human ones — and there is literally zero positive empirical evidence, so far. Nearby we find actual pseudosciences, like parapsychology. They are not as egregious as astrology or creationism, since empirical research has been conducted recently in a number of subfields of parapsychology. But the evidence is scant and the theory next to non-existent.

There is an additional complication, not illustrated in the figure. The conceptual map itself changes through time, which should be represented by a third axis, coming out of the page. Consider, for instance, astrology, or alchemy. There was a time when they were regarded as legitimate scientific endeavors, pursued by the likes of Ptolemy and Newton respectively. But not anymore. Now both fields are firmly established in the pseudo-science zone. Indeed, my colleague and co-editor Maarten Boudry and I refer to this phenomenon as the “pseudo-science black hole”: once a field has slipped into pseudo-science territory it never emerges again to become a legitimate science. At least, we couldn’t find any historical examples of such emergence.

Over the years I began to be exposed to the full range of modern philosophical ideas, not just those pertinent to my specific field of philosophy of science. I found some of them stimulating, other perplexing, and still other just downright bizarre. So I gradually began to suspect that, just as we can reasonably talking about science vs pseudo-science, so we can envision a fuzzy line of demarcation between philosophy and pseudo-philosophy.

My ideas in this latter area are not as developed as in the former one, but hear me out. Let’s begin with sketching a diagram equivalent to the one above, but attempting to illustrate my view of the philosophy vs pseudo-philosophy conceptual landscape. This time the horizontal axis indicates some measure of internal coherence. If a philosophical account is not internally coherent, that is, if it leads to contradictions or inconsistencies, there is a problem. The vertical axis represents what I call “external coherence,” that is, how a given philosophical idea squares with how the world actually is, especially as it is reconstructed for us by science.

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Why should a philosopher care about external coherence? Because I’ve argued at length that philosophy is a hybrid type of inquiry, interested on the one hand in purely conceptual issues, and therefore similar, say, to logic, or math; on the other hand, philosophy is also concerned with how the real world works, and therefore has similarities with science. Philosophy makes progress by way of exploring conceptual landscapes, but such exploration has to be anchored in, and informed by, empirical evidence. For instance, it is interesting to construct alternative ethical frameworks — like virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, utilitarianism — but we better do so with an eye toward whether these frameworks are actually useful to flesh and blood human beings. If they are not, they are not that interesting.

Now, the second diagram is both more incomplete and more tentative than the first one, reflecting the current state of my thinking. Depending on feedback, future renditions may look quite different. For now, though, let us explore it a bit in order to make what I am proposing more clear.

Starting again with the easy cases: on the upper right we find philosophical fields that are both highly internally and externally coherent, like logic, so-called scientific metaphysics, philosophy of science, and epistemology. Philosophical accounts articulated within these areas of inquiry are well thought out as well as well informed by the pertinent science.

At the opposite end, low on both axes, I locate obvious (to me) examples of pseudo-philosophy: Deepak Chopra’s “quantum healing” (or, really, pretty much anything that Chopra has written), as well as clear baloney like “the Secret,” which posits that the universe will reconfigure itself to satisfy your desires, if only you want something hard enough.

As in the case of the science vs pseudo-science diagram, things get more interesting when we look in the middle. For instance, I think that naturalistic approaches to ethics, such as virtue ethics, have a bit less internal coherence, or a more fuzzy, than standard frameworks like Kantianism and utilitarianism. A deficiency compensated by the fact that, again in my estimate, they cohere better with how actual human beings are constituted and behave.

Modal realism, the notion that all logically possible worlds are real in the same sense in which our world is, strikes me as an internally coherent, even beautiful idea, characterized by absolute lack of correspondence with what we actually know about the world. Philosophy of mind is a well developed field, but I think it only partially makes contact with the facts of neuroscience, and perhaps increasingly less so, if you happen to be a bit pessimistic about the endeavor (as I am). Aesthetics does derive a lot of input from facts about what people find beautiful or ugly, but it is marred by a multiplicity of accounts that — at least when seen from the outside, as I do — do not sit well with the empirical evidence.

And finally we come to the big one: “first philosophy” type metaphysics, about which I’ve written before. This is still the majoritarian approach to metaphysics, though one might be excused for having assumed that it died centuries ago, with Descartes. The term first philosophy refers to the fact that the inquiry concerns the basic foundations of reality, and it has consisted of speculating about such foundations on the basis of reason alone. It has a long and distinguished pedigree, from the pre-Socratics to Descartes himself. But Descartes’ famous thought experiment about a demon who tricked him into thinking that he knew things he didn’t actually know revealed that one simply cannot build reliable knowledge of reality without empirical evidence. That’s because there are literally infinite logically coherent possible worlds out there, and the only way to winnow down the choices to the actual one is by observation and experiment (unless you are a modal realist, of course!).

First philosophy died at the very same time that modern science was born (Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo). Hence the development of the above mentioned scientific metaphysics, which occupies itself with making sense of the disparate insights about the world coming from the special sciences, in order to arrive at a single, coherent view of the cosmos and our place in it.

And yet, first philosophy is still alive and well, from David Chalmers’ philosophical zombies — which tell us absolutely nothing about consciousness, to Philip Goff’s entirely fanciful ideas about panpsychism, to Nick Bostrom’s speculations concerning the possibility that we live in a simulation and the desirability of a planet-wide massive surveillance system.

Is first philosophy, or analytic metaphysics as it is often referred to, pseudo-philosophy? Well, if it ain’t, it comes pretty close to it, for reasons analogous to the perilous position in science vs pseudo-science space of SETI and parapsychology. But, one might object, does that mean that metaphysics was pseudo-philosophy all along, from the pre-Socratics to Plato to much medieval philosophy to Descartes? No, in the same sense that astrology was not pseudo-science in the time of Ptolemy, or alchemy in the time of Newton. Nowadays though…

Fields of inquiry evolve. The philosophy vs pseudo-philosophy map also has a third axis representing time. It is obviously a matter of dispute whether first philosophy has already crossed into the pseudo-philosophy black hole. I think it has, or is very close to it. Others disagree and insist that their armchair speculations really do tell us something about the nature of the world. Either way, this is a worthwhile discussion to have, one that cannot fail to enlighten everyone of the participants about the nature of what they are doing.

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Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

Figs in Winter

Written by

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Science and Philosophy

Medium’s center for scientifically-informed content.

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