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Thoughts about Philosophy · 11:12pm January 30th

Thanks to everyone who has read: This Is How a Unicorn Talks. It was nice to see one of my stories in the feature box again, and great to read all your comments and questions.

I’ve written plenty of posts about particle physics, but given the short description that I wrote for that story, I thought this week I should try to write something about philosophy, with apologies to any philosophers out there.

Philosophy is about trying to make sense of the universe. This is a very worthwhile thing to do. However instead of going about it in the best way (that is by accelerating proton beams to close to the speed of light and smashing them together in the biggest most-awesome detector technology ever built), philosophers take a different approach, and try to decipher the universe by thinking about it.

But we mustn’t dismiss philosophy as fluffy humanities-student stuff. They use some very complex and rigorous logic. They think really hard. Philosophy isn’t a science. They don’t do real experiments. Instead they test their theories using logical reasoning, like mathematicians.

Debates between academic philosophers can get very heated. Many students have been taken aback by the ferocity of the questions to the speaker after a philosophy seminar. However, I have been told that this is exactly what philosophers expect and want from their colleagues. Any new idea must withstand academic scrutiny and be vigorously tested it to see if it is robust. If their presentation is not met with aggressive interrogation from the audience, a philosopher would feel their ideas were not being taken seriously. As if a boxer stepped into the ring to face an opponent gently throwing mock punches and saying that they don’t want to hurt anyone.

This all applies to academic philosophers, but they way I used the term in How A Unicorn Talks was in the rather more general way by used publishers of popular non-fiction and organisers of ‘festivals of ideas’, which includes literature, art, science and politics, with a focus on Big Questions. This type of philosophy is perhaps better illustrated by the characters Vroomfondel and Majikthise in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

If anyone has ever tried to pitch an idea for a popular science book, you will have learned that agents and publishers want books about Revolutionary Ideas and Great Paradigm Shifts. Something that will start a debate and get readers thinking and posting about it on social media to encourage their friends to buy the book. Best of all is something sufficiently controversial and half-baked that creates a full Twitter storm with thousands of people denouncing its absurdity and another side promoting its brave insight.

However, scientists setting out to write a popular book usually just want to write a fun account about working in their field and why it is so interesting. While they might be tempted to spin the story a little, they generally don’t go too far for fear of looking like a crackpot to their serious academic peers. The art of science communication is to find a way to do that which engages the audience without misrepresenting the science.

Comments ( 7 )

I still think The Whole General Sort Of Mish Mash is a great idea, not only because it makes so much sense, but annoys so many people who demand the universe works the way they say it does.:pinkiecrazy:

I think all research groups should have a simple poster.

The Universe doesnt care what you think.:trixieshiftright:

A bunch of my friends are academic philosophers.

All I'm gonna say is, you don't want to be with a group of them out at night trying to decide on a restaurant.

I wonder if philosophers ever admit that frames of reference might influence their observations and conclusions just as much as they would a classical physicist. (Cultural frames of reference, that is.) Anthropology vs. Hippology, for instance. :twilightsmile:


(Human beings fascinate me, being just the way they are!)

If you can get past that stage, they are often nice people to have dinner with. Most academics just talk on and on about their research. Philosophers ask questions.

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