Ha! Philosophy of Science in the Comedy Club

Ha! Philosophy of Science in the Comedy Club

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Back in 1989, I fell into a doctoral program when I discovered a passion and talent for teaching. Since falling in with Metanexus, I left the tenure-career track and became an itinerant professor, teaching occasional courses here and there—UPenn, Swarthmore, Peradeniya, and CCNY. Over the years, I have found myself in exciting teaching situations in universities and lecture halls all over the world, but none quite as unusual as this semester at the Ha! Comedy Club on Times Square.

I was hired to teach a course on the philosophy of science. The students were all Norwegians here in New York City on a semester abroad hosted by Gateway College Norway, a private company that manages study abroad programs for young Norwegians. The students are right out of Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegone, “where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This was Gateway’s first semester working in the Big Apple, hence some of the rough edges and unusual circumstances—like renting a comedy club as classroom space.

The course fulfills one of three philosophy requirements back home in the Norwegian university system. I had prepared a syllabus using Peter Godfrey-Smith’s excellent textbook, Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). The course also provided me with an opportunity to dig out some material from my own graduate studies and to review and broaden my understanding of philosophy of science. On the first day of class, I was surprised to learn that the students would be reading a Norwegian textbook for exams to be written in Norwegian.

Twice each week I descended the stairs of the Ha! Comedy Club to do stand-up philosophy of science. The basement club was painted all black and smelled of stale beer. The students sat around cocktail tables with their laptops, eager to learn what they needed to know to pass the Norwegian exam. An unexpected benefit of the venue was the lack of cell phone reception, which meant that my students were a captive audience—no texting, no tweeting, and no surfing in class.

I am sorry to report that neither the venue nor the circumstances turned me into a witty and hilarious lecturer. The philosophy of science can be a notoriously dry subject, not unlike studying linguistics. Indeed, the philosophy of science is to the practice of science, what linguistics is to speaking a language. Which is to say that one can be an excellent scientist and know nothing of the philosophy of science, even as one can be a world-class author and know nothing of linguistics. And the fun stuff in both cases—science and language—is mostly in the content and not in abstract philosophizing about the general principles. But whereas most lovers of literature don’t really care about the academic study of linguistics, lovers of science tend to have strong opinions about the philosophy of science, even though few have actually studied the extensive literature in the field.

The modern philosophy of science began as an attempt to distinguish science from nonsense. It turns out to be a devilishly complicated problem to formalize these distinctions philosophically. Heated battles in the so-called “Science Wars” percolate in the background. We argue about the facts, meaning, and interpretation of science in any number of domains—religion, evolution, cosmology, climate change, medicine, feminism, post-colonial societies, postmodernism, bioethics, environmentalism, and transhumanism.

I tell my students to pay attention to the grand narrative of the semester, so they can better track the rise and fall of the field and the sometimes colorful characters who ride this philosophical roller coaster. Enthusiasm for the successes of physics and mathematics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, along with growing opposition to religious and political authorities, led to a desire to promote science as a unified body of knowledge with unique and reliable methods for discovering truth. The truths of science, however, often turn out to be counterintuitive. Remember that the rising and setting Sun is actually stationary, while the Earth zips around it at an average of 30 kilometers per second (or 67,104 miles per hour). Please fasten your seat belts and put on your crash helmet.

Bürgerlich Vienna is the unlikely main stage in this drama. A group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle took the concept of positivism, as first developed by August Comte (1798-1857), and added to it the mathematical formalism of Gottlob Frege, A.N. Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell to come up with a movement known as Logical Positivism. The Vienna Circle was chaired by Moritz Schlick (1882-1936).

Logical Positivists maintained the possibility of a rigorous definition of science that would clearly demarcate science and non-science. Schlick maintained that in science, and in any philosophy worthy of the name, valid statements must be formulated as testable true/false propositions. No other kind of statement can count as true, factual, or scientific. Schlick wrote that:

The content of our thesis is in fact entirely trivial (and that is precisely why it can give so much insight); it tells us that a statement only has a specifiable meaning if it makes some testable difference whether it is true or false (Schlick, [1932/1933] 1991, p. 41)

The verification principle in this view provides critical demarcations between science and non-science. The existence of God, Hegelian views of history, and the passionate pronouncements of Romantics are not verifiable statements, but simply empty, meaningless speculation. Schlick concludes his essay:

The empiricist does not say to the metaphysician: “Your words assert something false,” but “Your words assert nothing at all!” He does not contradict the metaphysician, but says: “I do not understand you.” (Schlick, [1932/1933] 1991, p. 54)

The Logical Positivists were especially impressed with the work of another Viennese philosopher at the time. In 1922, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein published The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, a 75-page analytic reflection on language, reference, and reality (Wittgenstein, 1994). Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was a crazy genius raised in one of the richest, most depressed, over achieving families in Austria. Three of his brothers committed suicide. The brothers, including Ludwig, were all thought to be homosexuals. We introduce him here because:

Punkt 1.1 – Wittgenstein wrote much of the Tractatus in the winter of 1913-1914 in the village ofSkjolden in Norway—this factoid providing a local reference for my Norwegian students and hopefully exciting some additional interest.

Punkt 2.1 – Wittgenstein returned posthumously in 1954 to put another nail in the coffin of the Vienna Circle, when his book, Philosophical Investigations was published (Wittgenstein, 1994). This also provides dramatic foreshowing in my narrative.

Punkt 3.1 – Wittgenstein wrote much of Philosophical Investigations in the winter of 1936-1937 while again living in Norway. Consumption of Aquavit may have been involved.

Punkt 7.1 – “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen./ What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This is the last proposition in the Tractatus and stands in ironic contrast to the many words expended in many lectures in the Comedy Club which my students (and perhaps readers) may be thinking is a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In retrospect, the Logical Positivists appear to be boring and philosophically naive science worshippers, but in their historical context they were progressive universalists troubled by romantic ideologies and chauvinistic nationalism that would soon tear Europe asunder. Unfortunately, Schlick met an untimely death in 1936, when one of his students shot him. The assassin was deranged, as graduate students are wont to be. And as was the fashion of the time, this student was sympathetic with the growing Nazi movement and thought Schlick was a Jew, which he was not. The student served two-years in jail for the crime. The Nazis ironically and tragically guaranteed that what began in Vienna would soon dominate Anglo-American philosophy. Rubolf Carnap, Hans Reichenbach, Carl Hempl, and Herbert Feigl ended up in the United States, where they resumed their work.

Enter stage left Karl Popper (1902-1994) moving to the right. Popper was also from Vienna and, like the others, fled with the rise of Nazism. Popper was a skeptical empiricist in the tradition of David Hume and proposed a falsification theory of science. A hypothesis in this view is scientific if and only if it has the potential of being refuted by some observation. We cannot prove something to be true—only that it is not true. If a statement is not susceptible to being disproven, it cannot be scientific.

The problem is in the distinction between deduction and induction. Deductive statements are true by definition. All female mammals lactate to feed their offspring. All bachelors are not married. Deductive statements are as straightforward as 2+2=4.

Inductive statements, however, are generalizations about a class of things. These are much more complicated as there is no simple logic and proof of inductions. And yet generalizations are essential to science and every other dimension of human life. Garrison Keillor’s generalization about the Norwegians in Lake Wobegone—“all the men are strong, all the women are good looking”—can serve as an example. Keillor’s generalization can be falsified if we find a single counterfactual example of a weak man or an ugly woman among the Norwegian descendants in Lake Wobegone.

From Popper’s point of view, the possibility of falsifying this induction is precisely what makes the statement potentially scientific. As an empirical skeptic, however, he would have to work his way through the entire set of Norwegian descendants living in Lake Wobegone, assuming he could find the fictional town. Popper argued that Marxism and Freudian psychoanalytic theory were themselves fictions, examples of pseudo-sciences, because they were in principle non-falsifiable theories. Freud, we should point out in passing, was also from Vienna and like Popper also ended up in London.

We will soon see problems with Popper’s philosophy of science, but what we should note is that he is still something of a hero for many scientists today. Popper presents science as a noble enterprise in which scientists make bold conjectures, which they then heroically try to disprove. Popper promoted a non-dogmatic ethics of science in which scientists are always tentative and welcoming of new theories and insights that overturn old accepted truths.

When we put it altogether thus far we have what is typically referred to as the hypothetical deductive method, a catechism still taught in high school science classrooms to predominantly bored students. Science begins with observations of some curious phenomena followed by the formulation of a hypothesis as an explanation for those observations, from which a consequence is formulated as a prediction, which prediction is then deductively tested in a controlled experiment, resulting in the corroboration or falsification of the hypothesis.

At this point in the semester, most of my students were pretty bored as well. Time Square and New York City were right outside. Professor Grassie was on the stage in the black dungeon talking about the difficulty of proving that all ravens are black and explaining why they should care about a bunch of dead white guys from Vienna. I was going to have to sing and dance for my supper or mentally euthanize the bunch by inducing a deep stupor. Fortunately, real science came to the rescue.

Real science turns out to be wonderfully messy and exciting. Real science is embedded in history with lots of eccentric and exceptional characters. Real science continued apace even as Logical Positivism ground to a halt. Real science was and is radically changing how we understand the world and how we live in it. Real science was immediately available to each student, though they needed a guide to see it with new eyes in their smart phones, in the biochemical cascades in their bodies, in the North Sea oils that had made Norway such a rich country, and in the headlines of the daily news. But I wasn’t there to teach a general science course. The approaching midterm exam hung over the comedy club like an Aquavit-induced hangover from too much late night clubbing in New York City. So I marched ahead with the narrative, teaching for an exam in a language that I could not read.

What follows in this intellectual theater is the deconstruction of Logical Positivism in the Post-War period and the gradual reconstruction of a more modest and more plausible philosophy of science. To do so, we talked about Thomas Kuhn (Kuhn, [1962]1972), Willard Quine (Quine, [1953]1980, [1969] 1991), and a host of others (Boyd, Gasper, & Trout, 1991), which we will speed through here in order to get back to the colorful Viennese characters around whom I am trying to build a more curious and memorable drama.

The short of the long-winded critiques of Logical Positivism and its Popperian successor is that we need to study real scientists in historical and contemporary contexts in order to understand how science actually works. Scientists rarely test single hypotheses in isolation, as real scientific questions are embedded in complex webs of claims and assumptions. Observation also turns out too complicated, involving complex tools and instruments, the uses of which need to be learned over many years of practice. Many observations are theory-dependent, which means in lay language: “I wouldn’t have seen it, if I hadn’t believed it.” Scientists in practice mostly trust the observations and record keeping of their peers. If every experiment needed to be repeated, science would grind to a halt.

Further more, normal science is different from revolutionary science. Normal science is not a permanently open-ended enterprise; it is actually quite close-minded. It seeks to solve puzzles within a dominant framework and does not waste time questioning fundamental assumptions. If the data does not fit the theory, one does not throw the theory out with the bathwater but seeks instead for where in the experimental apparatus something might have gone wrong and what in the phenomena might have been missed or misunderstood. Normal science is quite rigid and involves a lengthy indoctrination in received knowledge. The discovery of new knowledge, including rare moments of revolutionary new paradigms, only begins after this long indoctrination and often with a lot of resistance from the scientific establishment.

When we study science in context, we discover that science is also involved in politics, powers, and personalities. Science and scientists can be sexist and purveyors of other prejudices. There are economic and professional interests at stake. These interests often guide what questions are asked, what research is funded, and what answers are derived. Philosophy of science should be based on how science actually operates and not on the silly abstracted theories of science promoted under the rubric of Logical Positivism and its successors.

In this narrative, I want to emphasize Vienna and the Viennese characters, so I am going to gloss over Kuhn, Quine, and the others. Instead, let us introduce another crazy Viennese genius, the mathematician Kurt Gödel (1906-1978). Gödel published his infamous Incompleteness Theorems in 1931. In it he mathematically proved that consistent systems cannot be proven within the system, i.e., the rationality of a logical system cannot be complete. This put an end to the work of Frege, Whitehead, and Russell in trying to develop a formal set of axioms sufficient for all of mathematics, whose work had inspired the Logical Positivists to attempt the same for science. Gödel also fled the Nazis and ended up at the Institute for Advanced Studies as a close friend of Albert Einstein.

Let us return to Wittgenstein who rose from the grave with the publication of Philosophical Investigations in 1954. The “late Wittgenstein” rejected much of what he wrote in the Tractatus and thereby helped to further overturn the apple cart of abstracted philosophies of science. Languages, scientific or otherwise, are communities of users with rules established by patterns of usage. Wittgenstein calls these “language games.” Within a language game there are rational and irrational uses. Between different language games there are rational and other-rational uses. One does not move chess pieces in the same way one moves checker pieces. One does not play the language game of particle physics in the same way one plays the language game of animal ethology. The implications of the late Wittgenstein’s thought, like those of Gödel, seem to lead to radical relativism.

And now I can introduce the last of our Viennese characters: Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994) enters stage right moving left. He will be the most comic, most profound, and the most problematic of our philosophers of science. Feyerabend was a teenager at the beginning of the World War II. By the end of the war, he held the rank of lieutenant in the Wehrmacht, had an Iron Cross for bravery, and had sustained injuries that would cause him to walk with a crutch and severe pain for the rest of his life. After a peripatetic course of studies in university, he became a philosopher of science studying with Karl Popper. Feyerabend was then swept up in the Kuhnian revolution in the philosophy of science and the move toward a critical historical approach and came under the spell of the late Wittgenstein. As a professor at UC Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, he was also at the epicenter of the political earthquakes and cultural tsunamis of the era. In Against Method, Feyerabend wrote:

Science may be complex, they say, but it is still “rational.” Now the word “rational” can be used either as a collecting bag for a variety of procedures – this would be its nominalist interpretation – or it describes a general feature found in every single scientific action. I accept the first definition, but I reject the second. In the second case rationality is either defined in a narrow way that excludes, say, the arts; then it also excludes a large section of the sciences. Or it is defined in a way that lets all of science survive; then it also applies to love-making, comedy, and dogfights. There is no way of delimiting “science” by something stronger and more coherent than a list. (Feyerabend, 1975, p. 246).

For Feyerabend, there were no methodological rules that scientists always use. Great scientists are opportunistic. Formalized rules would only stunt the creativity of science. And furthermore, establishing the priesthood of scientists is fundamentally antithetical to democracy and freedom. What was called for instead was theoretical anarchism, which Feyerabend promoted with jokes, insults, and contrarian readings from the history of science and philosophy. For Feyerabend, there is no distinction between science and art, as science is only “aesthetic judgments, judgments of taste, and our own subjective wishes.” Science becomes “an attractive and yielding courtesan” (229). One consequence of abolishing the science/nonscience distinction is that we should view the Bible as an alternate cosmology. Voodoo and acupuncture can be preferable to modern medicine (51). According to Feyerabend, finding a satisfactory theory could depend, for instance, on having a satisfactory sex life (174).

Needless to say, these statements were meant to shock and outrage, but their targets were not so much bench scientists as the tired and failing project of developing a formalized philosophy of science. It bears repeating again: philosophy of science is not the practice of science. Scientific discoveries and inventions continued throughout the decades of these debates and have powerfully transformed the world, our understanding of the universe, and ourselves.

The middle path favored by most philosophers of science today is some blend of critical realism, social construction, instrumentalism, and pragmatism (Tauber, 2009). There are a number of naive holdouts, especially among the bench scientists, but those who simplistically evoke empiricism, rationality, falsification, prediction, and Karl Popper are actually fanning the flames of the science wars by giving ammunition to the enemies of real science.

Perhaps we may yet rescue real science from the philosophy of science. In my recent book, The New Sciences of Religion, I immodestly attempt to offer a new definition of science after an exploration of failed attempts to define science and the seemingly relativistic implications of the hyper-rationalist and fully empirical deconstruction of science as epistemology. I define science as:

(1) different methods for detecting patterned phenomena and explaining causal relationships, (2) applied by communities of specialists (3) in rigorous “dialogue” with phenomena, (4) always implicated in lived historical contexts and limitations, (5) resulting in a self-correcting, self-transcending, and progressive learning process that (6) makes strongly objective truth claims, (7) which facts are pragmatically verified in practical applications (8) and cumulatively related in a unified body of knowledge (9) that can be organized hierarchically by chronology of emergence, scales of size, and degrees of complexity (Grassie, 2010).

Point three requires some explication. If we grant the phenomena an active role in determining how they are to be understood, then the “social construction” of science includes the phenomenon as an active “dialogue” participant in the “conversation” and “construction” about how it is to be understood by the community of specialists. When social constructionism includes the phenomena as something more than a passive object, then social constructionism loses its relativistic implications and instead results in a robust hermeneutics of critical realism. The ethical dimension of science, its commitment to truthseeking as Popper formulated it, is then best summarized in what I call “altruistic fidelity to the phenomena,” which dovetails nicely with the concept of being in a constructive dialogue with the phenomena.

Science, I argue in this book, can no longer be thought of as a privileged epistemology, but it is nonetheless a unified body of knowledge—knowledge that now presents itself as a privileged metanarrative. The new evolutionary cosmology must now replace earlier religious cosmologies. The latter might be interpreted metaphorically and metaphysically, but in no sense can we think of religious cosmologies in a literal sense. Reading sacred scriptures as science textbooks, for instance, is a huge and embarrassing category mistake.

It may be a difficult boundary to police, but it is essential that we maintain a distinction between the facts of science and the interpretation of science. To interpret science responsibly requires that we understand the philosophy of science as well as the cumulative content of many sciences in diverse disciplines. The interpretation of science, in its parts and as an epic whole, is open to numerous strategies, which I hope to explore in detail in my next book.

This is the philosophy of science course that I would much rather teach—one that starts with the whole cloth as science currently understands the magnificent tapestry of our 13.7 billion year old universe and then engages the students in the challenges of critical hermeneutics. It is a course that treats epistemology as trivial and empirically grounded metaphysics as profound, to reverse Schlick’s formulation. It is a course that also leads to general science literacy and a profound understanding of the historical, global, and evolutionary context in which the students live and the challenges that will shape their lives for better or worse in the coming decades (Grassie, 2010c).

This is the lecture that I was hoping to end the semester with, the denouement of the grand narrative, but it turned out that my stint as a stand-up philosopher of science in the Ha! Comedy Club was short lived. Four weeks into the semester, all of the American instructors in Gateway Colleges New York City operation were let go as the management decided to bring in Norwegian instructors to teach in Norwegian for the Norwegian exams. For ille, as they say in Norway. Spøken var på meg. Too bad! The joke was on me.


Boyd, R., Gasper, P., & Trout, J. (Eds.). (1991). Philosophy of Science, The. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.

Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against Method: Towards an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge. London: New Left Books. 

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2003). Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Grassie, W. J. (2010). The New Sciences of Religion: Exploring Spirituality from the Outside In and Bottom Up. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Grassie, W. J. (2010b). Our Common Story: Promoting Big History Worldwide. Retrieved 1/29/2010, fromhttp://www.commonstory.net

Grassie, W. J. (2010c). Reinventing Science Education in the 21st Century. Retrieved 12/2/2010, fromhttps://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10993/Default.aspx

Kuhn, T. S. ([1962]1972). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Quine, W. V. O. ([1953]1980). From A Logical Point of View. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 

Quine, W. V. O. ([1969] 1991). Natural Kinds. In R. Boyd, Gasper, Philip, Trout, JD (Ed.), The Philosophy of Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

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Schlick, M. ([1932/1933] 1991). Positivism and Realism. In R. Boyd, Gasper, Philip, Trout, JD (Ed.), The Philosophy of Science (pp. 37-56). Cambridge: MIT Press. 

Tauber, A. (2009). Science and the Quest for Meaning. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 

Wittgenstein, L. (1994). The Wittgenstein Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.