Krauss about Philosophy (1 of 2)

Posted on 2012/04/30


Feature Image - Krauss about Philosophy

I am one of the 1.3 million people (as it stands today) who have viewed Lawrence Krauss’ lecture ’A Universe From Nothing‘.[1] And, on first watching in 2009, I was left unable to forget some of his wonderful turns of phrase.

In reference to supernovae, he remarks how rare these events seem to us. Yet, on a universal scale, supernovae are rather banal. They only appear rare, given our limited vantage of the cosmos. “The universe is big and old, and rare things happen all the time.”

Continuing this theme, Krauss explains how our atoms must have been assembled during supernovae – exploding stars – since only hydrogen, helium, and lithium resulted from the Big Bang. The rest of us – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so on – were made in other suns. The hook: “Forget Jesus; the stars died so you could be here today.”

Watching that video reminded me of Krauss’ third book – ‘The Physics of Star Trek‘ – which I had read ten years earlier as a school child.[2] The perfect gift for a thirteen-year-old boy interested in science, sci-fi, and reading. The book lead me to seek out other popular science books from my local library and got me interested in Einstein’s relativity.

In retrospect, I think the editors must have tried to assist its timid target audience, creating a hyper-reflective cover surface to distract bullies from the red-rag title:

And more recently, I was very glad to read Krauss’ book on Richard Feynman (called ‘Quantum Man’) which brilliantly communicated Feynman’s abilities as a brilliant communicator.[3]


Lawrence Krauss was certainly an influence upon my decision to study physics, and to try and teach it.

Nevertheless, as you might now have suspected from the unusual number of compliments, I am about to criticize Krauss’ view of philosophy.

In promoting his recent book, based on the lecture mentioned above, Krauss has been very critical of professional philosophy. Even when ‘apologizing’ for previous comments, he has continued to speak of philosophy as a useless exercise that is gradually rendered redundant by the advance of scientific knowledge.

This is a view held by many people besides Krauss, and is indicative of most present-day popularizers of science who hazily view philosophy as the secular counterpart to theology.

While many of Krauss’ comments are specifically about the definition of ‘nothing’ – central to the thesis of his book – I would like to address the more general view he and other scientists have about the worth of philosophical investigation.


Wittgenstein and Science

During Krauss’ April 2012 interview with Ross Andersen at the Atlantic:

Andersen (Interviewer): (…) [Y]ou were recently quoted as saying that philosophy “hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.” But computer science, particularly research into artificial intelligence was to a large degree built on foundational work done by philosophers in logic and other formal languages. And certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?

Krauss: There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics—it’s not talking about things that have affected computer science, it’s mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that’s generated in other areas.[4]

Krauss is quite incorrect about Wittgenstein.

Of course, to quibble about Krauss’ ignorance of the Wittgenstein biography would be to miss the point. However, Wittgenstein presents an apt example of a philosopher who’s approach was distinctly non-scientific, yet he produced work of great value.

Firstly, it is worth noting that Wittgenstein was a man who abandoned his research into aeronautics because he thought philosophical questions were more interesting. In 1911, he quit his post-doctoral engineering studies at Manchester University to work at Cambridge under Bertrand Russell: a like-minded man who, in a similar fashion, had given up studying mathematics to pursue philosophical matters.

Also, Wittgenstein was by no means a ‘mathematical philosophers’ as compared to contemporaries such as Alfred Tarki or Giuseppe Peano (or, indeed, his mentor Russell).

When a philosophy of science called ‘positivism‘ emerged in Vienna, partly influenced by Wittgenstein’s writing, he was rather disinterested with their work. Moritz Schlick, the leader of this ‘Vienna Circle‘, frequently asked to meet Wittgesntein. After about three years of letter writing, he was finally given the opportunity to be disappointed by his hero. The biographer Ray Monk writes:

To persuade Wittgenstein to attend these meetings Schlick had to assure him that the discussion would not have to be philosophical; he could discus whatever he liked. Sometimes, to the surprise of his audience, Wittgenstein would turn his back on them and read poetry. In particular – as if to emphasize to them, as he had earlier explained to von Friker, that what he had not said in the Tractatus [his book] was more important than what he he had – he read them the poems of Rabindranath Togore, and Indian poet much in vogue in Vienna at the time, whose poems express a mystical outlook diametrically opposed to that of the members of Schlick’s Circle.

Monk continues, this time quoting Rudolph Carnap, another member of the Circle.

In contrast to the members of the Circle, who considered the discussion of doubts and objections the best way of testing an idea, Wittgenstein, Carnap recalls, ‘tolerated no critical examination by others, once the insight had been gained by an act of inspiration’:

I sometimes had the impression that the deliberately rational and unemotional attitude of the scientist and likewise any ideas which had the flavour of ‘enlightenment’ were repugnant to Wittgenstein.[5]

The confusion about the Tractatus lies in that its subject is the logical limits of knowledge, yet was researched more like a creative novel. It was written to resemble a proof in formal logic, but each step reads like a mysterious aphorism.

Wittgenstein famously abandoned his first philosophy, realizing that a purely ‘analytic’ approach to language and perception was inadequate. His following writings were published posthumously, and have been keeping philosophers busy for decades.

It is thought that one of the problems Wittgenstein found in his later work is the so-called ‘rule-following paradox‘. It demonstrates that supposing ‘meaning = symbols + rules‘ leads to paradox where it seems impossible to learn any rule or language at all.[6]

Until Wittgenstein, this intuitive scheme was implicitly assumed in: education; computer science and AI development; the psychology of language; and many other fields.

After Wittgenstein, many branches of human investigation were forced to address this previously unconsidered assumption.


When Krauss says philosophy ‘hasn’t progressed in 2000 years’, he is importing a scientific expectation that assumes the worth of a field is measured by its direct contribution to the ‘growth of knowledge’.

To impose the same requirement on philosophical investigation as scientific inquiry is to define it into redundancy. We clearly don’t need two fields that aim for the same goal.

If philosophical investigation has made any ‘progress’, then it is perhaps to reveal the accumulating unnoticed assumptions behind human knowledge - to unpick the knots that lead to greater advance. This is a worthy venture – and necessitates a group of specialists just as much as any branch of scientific inquiry does.

To pretend professional philosophy is useless is to be very short-sighted about the growth of human knowledge.


[In the next part, i'll review Krauss' comments about the worth of The Philosophy Of Science, and the work of Karl Popper.]



[2] Krauss, Lawrence (1995) ‘The Physics of Star Trek‘ HarperPerennial

[3] Krauss, Lawrence (2011) ‘Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science‘ W. W. Norton & Company


[5] Monk, Ray (1991) ‘Ludwig Wittgentein: The Duty Of Genius‘ Vintage Books pp 243-244

[6] Luntley, Michael (2003) ‘Wittgenstein: Meaning and Judgement‘ Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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