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Saturday, November 20, 2010

A story about recent trends in philosophy of science:

A bunch of people are sitting in a room discussing the question, whether you can step into the same river twice. Some deny that you can, either because the river is never the same or because motion is impossible. Some say that you can, but only because the river has a defective mode of being. Or that you can, because the form of the river remains while the matter changes; or because being is nothing; or because temporality is ecstasis; or because a river is a set-theoretic construct or a mereological sum of time slices or both; or because that’s the way we use the words “river” and “step,” and if you use them differently you no longer speak for us; etc.

Suddenly someone runs in and says: “Hey guys! Believe me (and you should, because I once spent five years trying and failing to become a fisherman): you’ve all been working with a really simplistic and impoverished version of what a river is. A real river is shallow on the edge and deep in the middle. Sometimes the water is green, sometimes brown, sometimes blue. And there are fish! Not once in all of your discussion do you so much as mention fish.”

Not news, and not helpful.


  1. I find this story mystifying. Not news (and probably not helpful). Are you saying there is a recent trend of saying we have been misconstruing what science is, and that the attempt to flesh it out is replete with details that are not philosophically salient, and therefore not helpful?

  2. There is a trend like that, if you're not familiar with it you might not get the story.

    I've wondered what "fleshing out" is, literally. Is it something an artist does while making a sketch?

  3. According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Idioms, yes. It's on page 133 if you want to look it up, the URL is long and ugly.

    Can you point me to an example of the kind of phil sci that you are criticizing in this story? Does it have a name? Also, is this something that failed scientists who became philosophers do, or are especially guilty of?

  4. Practically all philosophy of science is like this these days.

  5. It could be useful to change the example to "Can you kick a philosopher of science on the same rear end twice?" "Is the rear changing or is it the philosopher?" "You're working with an impoverished concept of rear ends!!"