My philosophy: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert tells Julian Baggini why philosophy is waste of time

Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert

“I was thinking before you came, if philosophy hadn’t existed – apart from Aristotle – what would we not know? The answer is that it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference.”

I had gone to see the biologist Lewis Wolpert in his North London home expecting to be told the subject at the heart of my work was total rubbish, and he did not disappoint. I first came across his uncompromising views back in 1992 when I saw him give a lecture at University College London. He had nearly finished a captivating talk about his book, The Unnatural Nature of Science, when, almost as an afterword, he briskly dismissed all philosophy of science as having nothing useful to say.

What he said must have stuck because when, a few years later, I was putting together a dummy of what tpm would look like, I included in the contents an interview with Wolpert. It took over a decade, however, before I actually got around to conducting it.

Over that time, Wolpert’s star as a public figure has risen tremendously. His book on depression, Malignant Sadness (1999), was a breakthrough success, combining a thorough overview of all we know about what depression is with some very personal sections dealing with his own battles with it. The book spawned a television series, and in 2006 his book on the evolutionary origins of belief, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, was a popular science bestseller.

Now 78, Wolpert has not exactly mellowed when it comes to his hostility to philosophers. He is personally charming, but when we got to philosophy, the phrases “totally unintelligible”, “no use whatsoever” and “gobbledegook” were bandied around with a vigour that was somewhere between irritation and zest.

We got off to a good start when I asked him when he first came into contact with philosophy.

“It was probably in relation to the philosophy of science, and I can’t even remember where it was, but it was quite late in life. I did read Popper’s book, and I hated it. I once wrote that it was the most over-rated book in the last 500 years.”

Wolpert had first-hand experience of how scientists worked, and simply found Popper’s ideas about the scientific method had nothing to do with that, and no one else he has come across since has been any better.

“Nothing in Popper or in any other philosophy of science has anything relevant to say about science. I don’t know of any scientist who takes the slightest interest in the philosophy of science, although I do think Peter Medawar was quite keen on Popper, to my surprise.”

A lot of people who claim philosophy is a waste of time can be tricked into conceding at least something by being drawn into an obviously philosophical discussion about the value of philosophy. With commendable consistency, Wolpert repeatedly rebuffed attempts to open up that kind of dialogue. So, for instance, when I challenged his view that philosophy of science is irrelevant by saying that it surely depended on what it was supposed to be relevant to, he retorted, “It’s not relevant to anything.”

But then came a small concession: “I’m not talking about political philosophy, I’m talking about the nature of the world.” But as if he had already granted too much, he added, “It’s clever, but totally irrelevant. Most of it seems to me just nonsense, it’s very hard to know what they’re talking about.

How then does Wolpert explain the fact that so many great minds over history have been seduced by a subject which he claims is totally irrelevant?

“That’s a very good question, and I think it’s a bit like religion. I’ve just been to a meeting on science and religion and I can’t understand what most people are talking about. They’re not unclever, they’re clever people but it just seems gobbledogook, babble.”

Wolpert is clearly not lacking in self-belief, but what makes him so confident it’s a failing of philosophy rather than himself that he finds it gobbledegook?

“Because it wouldn’t matter one hoot – science has done very well without any philosophy whatsoever. Take biology over the last 100 years – philosophy has had zero impact.”

Aren’t there people who think it might help at least with theoretical physics?

“I don’t think that it’s philosophy that will solve it in any way whatsoever, because it’s all about language and words, not science, and physics is about science.”

I couldn’t resist pointing out the contrast with the person interviewed in this slot last issue, the physicist Alan Sokal, who was rather more generous about the contribution philosophers make.

“I’m not at all generous about philosophy,” says Wolpert. “I think they’re very clever but have nothing useful to say whatsoever.”

Nothing useful for the practice of science by scientists, perhaps.

“No, nothing useful for the practice of anything,” he insists. “Perhaps morals politics and things like that, that may well be. John Stuart Mill and justice and so on, that’s important stuff, but about the nature of the world, absolutely nothing to say whatsoever.”

What about the nature of knowledge itself?

“Absolutely nothing useful to say at all.”

So the questions that are asked don’t need to be asked? They’re just interesting puzzles for clever people?

“That’s exactly what they are. They’re something for philosophers to dabble in.”

Wolpert is an immoveable object who clearly believes philosophy is an eminently resistible force. His most fiery response came when I suggested to him that his dislike of philosophy may be just a temperamental matter: philosophical problems just don’t turn him on.

“No it’s an intellectual rejection!” he says, sounding quite offended. “It’s certainly not temperament.”

No bait that I offer him is taken. For instance, I told him how I had been caught up in an ongoing exchange with a Christian about belief, one which has forced us to consider what knowledge is.

“Well I will not get into such a discussion,” he says. “I think there’s no meeting between religion and science whatsoever.”

But in order to make the claim that there is no meeting between religion and science, isn’t he forced to do some philosophy to justify that?

“Absolutely not. There’s no evidence for the existence of God, and that’s all there is to it. You just provide me with some evidence. As for the evidence from the Bible, all the studies that have been done show that no one who wrote bits of the Bible was there at the time. I’m not against religion and I have a moderately religious son, as long as religious people don’t interfere.”

I try one of my more involved attempts to draw Wolpert into philosophy’s net. He says that you don’t need philosophy to discuss religion because you simply ask where the evidence for the existence of God is, you find there is none, and it’s the end of the story. But what if a clever theologian or philosopher of religion comes around and says that Wolpert is demanding a scientific form of evidence for something that is not scientific? So he’s not really saying there is no reason to believe in God, he’s saying there is no scientific reason to believe in God. To answer that objection, doesn’t he have to go into philosophical questions as to whether or not scientific reasons are the same as reasons in general and so forth?

“No, I think I’m already asleep, because it’s really about evidence. I usually say to people that if I tell people I have found a fish that speaks Afrikaans – I’m South African – they would want to get some evidence that this fish actually exists. It’s the same with God, I’d have to bring some evidence.”

But isn’t the question of what makes something reasonable evidence a philosophical one?

“I don’t think so, no. Funnily enough I’ve just looked it up in Ted Honderich’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word ‘evidence’, which gets about six lines.” Touché.

However, somewhat surprisingly for a man who thinks everything hinges on evidence, Wolpert himself is a theoretician. “I’m hopeless in the lab. I’m good at getting other people to work – that’s my skill. I like using the results of experiments but I don’t like doing them myself.”

Despite the bluster, there are corners of the philosophical world which Wolpert does have time for. He thinks that Aristotle’s logic “was very important for science”, although “his science was terrible.” However, even when we do find some common ground, Wolpert seems determined to stamp all over it: “What I’m curious about is that, unlike science, I’m not sure how much progress there’s been in philosophy. I wonder whether if Aristotle came back, not much would have changed.”

Wolpert also “fell in love with David Hume at one stage, although I disagree with him about causality, but on religion he is just wonderful, describing how no miracle should be believed in unless it is so miraculous you couldn’t avoid belief.”

He also has some nice things to say about John Rawls in The Unnatural Nature of Science. “Ethical issues, and issues related to the law and justice, I think that’s where philosophers really can make a contribution. I’m a bit hostile to bioethicists, but that’s another matter altogether. Some of them are very good and ask perfectly sensible questions. But a lot of them really are looking for problems rather than trying to solve them. We’ve got this bill going through parliament now, and I think there are really very few ethical problems there. You’ve got to have ethical committees for experiments relating to human beings and if there are philosophical issues involved there I have no problem whatsoever.”

More surprisingly, he says he likes Thomas Kuhn. “When I met him briefly I felt he was a relativist and I was rather disappointed. But I think his original thing about different paradigms and their influence on how one did scientific research was important to the historian of science. Maybe he made people slightly aware that you’ve got be careful that you are really in the right paradigm for thinking about how things work.”

But such concessions are the exception, not the rule. Of Feyerabend he says “He’s terrible,” Against Method being “absolute junk”. Worst of all, “I hate relativists of course. Those people are just terrifying, people who say science is just a social construct. I think it’s striking that’s there’s only one science, there aren’t different sciences around the world. Those relativists are just stupid.”

If Wolpert seems rather broad-brushed in his dismissal of philosophy, it is not because he hasn’t thought about some of the more specific ideas in the philosophy of science. For example, there is the famous underdetermination thesis, which states that the evidence always leaves room for multiple theories which explain it.

“I don’t think there is much in it,” says Wolpert. “I don’t know of any other theories in biology that will explain the available data. There may be occasionally a couple of theories which do and there is nothing to choose between them, but they’d be so similar that I don’t think they would be different theories. Underdetermination is a very rare phenomenon, in the sense that there are many theories that can explain the same thing; no, I don’t believe that.

“I think philosophers are probably quite jealous of science and this is why they come up with all this nonsense to try to show it’s not as reliable as people like to think it is. Look at how successful science is – philosophy is not successful – it’s achieved nothing.”

Wolpert also has specific criticisms of Popper’s idea that science works by coming up with theories that it then tries to falsify.

“That’s where Popper is wrong. When we scientists are working with something we’re not trying to falsify. We might on occasion. We’re really trying to see whether we can show that the theory is right or wrong.”

Wolpert believes the whole enterprise of trying to codify the scientific method is misguided.

“The essence of the scientific method is really quite simple: you have your observables, you mustn’t have any logical contradictions, and the theory must fit with the facts, and you don’t worry particularly in biology about what the facts are. Now your facts can be wrong – there is no question that you can make errors and they get discovered. So I don’t think knowing philosophy of science helps you in any way whatsoever.”

He thinks scientists learn this method mainly by working with other scientists. There are some other lessons worth learning to do science well, but you won’t be surprised to hear that Wolpert doesn’t think they come from philosophers.

“Peter Medawar said that science is the art of the soluble – you must choose a problem that can be solved. There’s no point in choosing too difficult a problem. You’ve got to define the problem in such a way that you think it can be soluble.

“Sydney Brenner – one of my heroes, a fellow South African, Nobel prize winner – said the way to make progress in science is not to know too much about the subject you’re working on, because you’re already constrained. So you need to come into a field where you don’t know too much, but you must know a lot about fields outside that, and then you should question the fundamental idea of the field that you’re moving into.”

Given Wolpert’s acceptance of moral and political philosophy, I make one last attempt to get him to concede there might be some value in other areas of philosophy. Let us allow that science deals with all those matters concerning the nature of the physical world. Let us also allow that since one cannot determine what the right or wrong thing to do is in a scientific manner, but that one has to make rational decisions about these things, we also have ethics. Between the two aren’t there questions about what is knowledge and so forth which are not scientific, but as curious rational beings we find ourselves asking questions about them?

“No we don’t have questions about what is knowledge!” insists Wolpert. “This is a cup, I have no doubt that this is a cup, and I think some of my theories in science are right, and others are hypotheses, and there may be beliefs that are much less reliable, but nobody struggles with those.”

But what about when it comes to other types of knowledge? Does Jack know Jill loves him?

“They’re not scientific issues.”

They are issues though.

“Yes, but neither philosophy nor science helps you very much.”

This piques my interest because of Wolpert’s interest in and experience of depression. Although some of that is down to chemical imbalances in the brain, pure and simple, couldn’t philosophy perhaps be useful in coming to terms with the issues and questions which lead to depression?

“Well it’s the way one thinks, it’s one’s negativity. My argument is that depression is malignant sadness, it’s sadness, which is a normal human condition, becoming extreme. Now how that becomes extreme is complex and to pretend that we understand depression is simply wrong.”

Whether philosophy can help is something he remains agnostic about. “I don’t know, it’s tricky. If it helps. I’m for it.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Wolpert is actually good friends with some philosophers, such as Ted Honderich and AC Grayling. “They’re very nice people and I like them.” But how does he maintain good relations with people whose subject he views as a waste of time? “I don’t think we ever discuss philosophy.”

Perhaps his irritation at philosophy’s lack of contribution to the sum of human knowledge misses the point. After all, one could say the same of poetry, which he would say has some value.

“Well it’s a good point, I’ve never thought of philosophy as poetry, philosophy as impenetrable poetry. If people enjoy it, and there’s no question that philosophers enjoy it and a lot of people like philosophy enormously. I’ve got a grandson who’s very keen on philosophy at the moment, he’s fifteen, loves it.”

Maybe Wolpert could agree with Wittgenstein, who thought that philosophy had no instrumental use but should only ever be pursued for its own sake, because one is gripped by a philosophical problem. The thing is simply to not pretend it has any instrumental value and just get on with it, as you might paint a picture or write a poem.

“Yes,” he agrees, “but then it shouldn’t be in universities.”

I wonder what else might be removed from universities if we head down this road. Literature departments?

“No, I think literature is important. Maybe philosophy doesn’t do any harm – we could keep a very small philosophy department. But if it’s just like poetry I don’t want them in university, no.”

But the political and moral philosophers would be allowed to stay?

“Oh, absolutely, and then you’d probably need the others there anyhow, because they have the same techniques, so I’d leave the philosophy there because you probably need the moral, political and legal philosophy.”

Perhaps that’s a good point to end on: when it comes to talking philosophy with Lewis Wolpert, that counts as quitting while you’re still ahead.

Julian Baggini‘s latest book is Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?

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  1. The failure of philosophers to acknowledge the radical difference between philosophy and science is responsible for all the abuse to which philosophy is being subjected. Philosophy cannot, and is not meant to, give us knowledge of the world, but it gives us new eyes with which we see the world in a new dimension. But Professor Wolpert’s just and justified resentment of the claim of philosophy to contribute to knowledge overshoots the mark.

    Human beings, as human beings, live, work, and think within a determinate world-view, a particular universe of discourse. When one lives exclusively within one’s particular universe of discourse one is, strictly speaking, incapacitated to sympathize with the world-view of others. Existing exclusively within the confines of his scientific world-view, Wolpert is perfectly right and perfectly consistent in his views as far as they go. He is simply incapable of seeing anything with philosophical eyes.

  2. Wolpert is, as the previous commenter points out, half right and entirely wrong.

    He’s half right in that philosophy of science has almost nothing to offer working scientists, and I can fully understand why scientists are irritated by the pretensions of Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend et al to sit in judgement on them.

    He’s entirely wrong because his “popular science” writing is in fact philosophy, and most of it is very bad when judged by that standard. I gave up on “Six Impossible Things” halfway through the chapter where he claims that animals don’t have minds because they don’t make plans or use tools, then gives many examples of animals planning and using tools and explains that they don’t count because they are being done mindlessly. Basically he’s a Cartesian – animals can’t have minds, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. At least Descartes had the excuse of being a devout Catholic. The book is littered with that sort of simple error of reasoning.

    It strikes me he’s in the same state as a humanities graduate who picks up a book of biochemistry and announces that because he can’t understand it (and won’t make the effort to try to understand it), it must be nonsense. And who then resorts to tetchily repeating “no, it’s nonsense” when a biochemist gently tries to explain that it isn’t.

  3. He reminds of a woman friend who swears that only money has value.
    When I ask what she means by “value”, she answers: “money”. Even if philosophy hasn’t contributed to what he considers to be the sum of human knowledge, it certainly is as much a valuable part of our culture as art and music are. Our lives would be poorer without Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, even Heidegger.

  4. Science has a criterion of success. It tests its hypotheses by prediction, finding what the hypothesis suggests should happen under given circumstances, and testing it against the real world. Philosophy is only of practical value when it does the same thing, in which case it is being scientific. But Wolpert surely must accept that philosophy ought to be studied at least historically for its place in the evolution of science. He accepts Aristotle as important. Science as observation gave rise to mathematics and that is directly related to logic which is philosophy but is essential to science as Wolpert also accepts. We read poetry as an aid to literacy, why not read philosophy as an aid to reason. Philosophers like to say their aim is to clarify thinking, and that is doubtless true, though often, as Wolpert says, what they write is anything but clear to thee and me. Even so some philosophers, perhaps they are the best ones, explain what they are about pretty well. Many however do seem to write gobbledegook. Would Wolpert agree that studying philosophy, some at least of it, is helpful in improving thinking?

  5. Thank you, Mr. Wolpert, for the insight into your views. I found your apparent philosophy of the irrelevancy of philosophy in science interesting, to say the least. In the best traditions of Plato and Socrates your position seems to be well crafted towards inciting challenge. You make a very good gadfly indeed, sir, and I am happy to take your bait.

    Your position that philosophy has contributed has not contributed, in any way, to the sum total of human knowledge is equally valid to my own that science, apparently, has yet to contribute one single advancement to our understanding of the universe. I confidently make this statement based on one simple premise; the moment you ask what a particular set of data means as opposed to an amalgamation of observed events you have engaged in philosophy. It is not the work that is done but the conclusions that we draw from them that matter. Personally, I use people like you in the same way you use those others who actually do the science. That is, to gather information on observed events that I can then begin to slot into a meaningful philosophy of the universe.

    There are two points about the above paragraph I would like to highlight. First, my statement is based completely upon the logic you, yourself employed. I simply increased the scope of the observation. Therefore either they are both valid or they are both rubbish. Personally, I believe both statements (even though I provided a more logical basis for my position)are inherently rubbish. I believe no one of achievement can reside in one house or another.

    As for your statement that philosophers are jealous of scientists… please, sir, lets move this debate off the playground. To me that is like saying that I, being fully sighted, am jealous of a blind man because he has better hearing than I do. Science is about drawing lines around ideas (aka defining the scope of an experiment) and pretending that they stand alone. For me, I can not pretend things I believe in, like thermodynamics, Elliot wave theory or quantum mechanics, and when I examine an idea, even if it a matter of psychology or economics, those beliefs must be re-validated or to me I have a flaw in my thinking. A scientist simply disregards anything beyond the narrow scope of his/her study.

    The best example of this is how scientific community absolutely ignores the fact that Einstein demonstrated Aristotle was correct after all. A ball with higher mass will have a slower local time in relation to one with less mass and, if both are dropped at the same time as defined as the local moment that occurs at the mean distance between the two, the more massive ball will “consume” less local time in it’s journey to the ground then it’s less massive companion. Since distance and speed are equal between the two the more massive ball reaches the ground in less time. So, either Aristotle was, in part, correct or Einstein was wrong.

    This forum, however, is not all that convenient for a true discourse on the role science plays in the greater discipline of philosophy. So, Mr. Wolpert, I will extend to you the opportunity to make your point in another way. I will be happy to debate this subject with you in any forum you choose within the continental United States in front of a panel of judges of your choosing. I am quite confident that, in the end, you will come to a new conclusion regarding the essential role of philosophy in all aspects of understanding.

  6. I would also suggest to Mr. Wolpert that if philosophers such as Socrates and Spinoza hadn’t done the spade work (and the more dangerous work) in establishing the role of reason over tradition and faith, he would not be sitting in his comfortable armchair spouting nonsense about the superiority of science.

  7. Julian, you must be a saint of patience and temperament. If I were a philosopher I’d have been at Wolpert tooth and nail, but as it is, being only a fledgling student of philosophy, I couldn’t help but enjoy his views on the subject.
    Lot of interesting side issues, e.g. Brenner’s view that it’s not good to know the subject you’re working on too well. I believe the reason behind that remark is similar to why almost all great mathematics is done by young mathematicians.

  8. It’s a pity that Wolpert slags off Karl Popper as being a waste of space. I wonder which book he read, with such disdain? If it was ‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery’, then I can understand his frustration, as this is difficult and intricate. But I found, e.g. the first chapter of “Objective Knowledge” thoroughy illuminating and quite unpretentious. Indeed one of Popper’s great virtues is to write modestly and with great clarity. As a social scientist I was abolutely stunned by Popper’s arguments showing that (i) the search for certainty in science is misguided, (ii) that we don’t progress by collecting facts and then interpreting them with a theory, and (iii) that the thing to try to do is to make a bold falsifiable conjecture and then test it. Popper was not writing a handbook on how to do science; he was pointing out what was of enduring value in the scientific method. The logical assymetry between the weakness of amassing positive examples (“every swan I’ve ever seen is white, so all swans must be white”) and the power of devastating negative examples (the very first black swan I see falsifies the rule: “all swans are white”)remains important, it seems to me. It might not have done it for Wolpert but for me, Science was never the same again.

  9. What a waste of time…. : LikeItHateIt - pingback on November 8, 2009 at 9:21 pm
  10. Tales from the Tubes – 19/10/09 | Young Australian Skeptics - pingback on January 1, 2013 at 12:59 am

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