Interview with a Philosopher

After having discussed the possible relationship between Science and Philosophy in the last blog entry, we asked a professional philosopher about his opinion. Prof. Peter Kuegler teaches at the Leopold-Franzens-University in Innsbruck, Austria. He is specialized in epistemology, logics, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and philosophy of science. Prof. Kuegler is author of a number of books and very much appreciated as a teacher who can convey difficult problems in a clear and comprehensible way.

Prof. Kuegler, how do you see the relationship between science and philosophy these days, both as it is and as it should be?

Today many philosophers try to stay very close to science. They give interpretations of scientific research and apply scientific results to philosophical problems. This holds, for example, for the philosophy of mind and brain science, where some philosophers even engage in empirical research projects. On the other hand, there are philosophers who do not notice science at all; some deal with it only superficially or, even worse, in an incompetent way. Science has a very bad standing in some philosophical schools. There are those who think that science is wrong or incomplete, because it does not acknowledge God and the soul; others think that science is just one way of seeing the world among others, on a par with, say, art, astrology and religion. Of course, it also depends on which branch of philosophy you are working in. As a political philosopher you need not know much about brain science, but you will be expected to have knowledge of the social sciences. I think more work should be done in the field between the two extremes of blind adoration and equally blind ignorance or rejection of science. Philosophy certainly goes beyond science, but it cannot dispense with it completely. For me, there is no doubt that science can give us more, and more reliable, knowledge about the world, including human beings, than any other branch of culture.

Can philosophy, in your opinion, complement science beyond mere methodological considerations?

Yes, this is one of its principal duties. However, I don´t think that philosophy can complement science in such a way that it provides definite answers to questions that cannot be answered by science. Philosophy must deal with those questions, of course, but the best it can do is sketch possible answers. This is why Bertrand Russell called philosophy “the science of the possible”. He thought that a question that is conclusively answered is no philosophical question anymore; it turns into a scientific one. For example, philosophers of previous centuries wondered how human memory works; they asked whether the mind is like an empty sheet of paper at birth, or whether it contains “innate ideas”. Modern biology and brain science tell us much more about these problems than any philosophy of the past. In another, non-Russellian sense, philosophy is the science of the possible because it envisages possible ways of living. For example, philosophers analyze the concept of justice and make suggestions as to how a just society would look like and how it could be brought about. They ponder the place of science and technology in society and how their harmful consequences could be diminished in the future. Ethics helps to shape our decisions about values and matters of life and death. Here, again, we face a cooperation of science and philosophy. Biology describes the life of the embryo, how it develops and what properties it has at which stages. But whether an embryo at a particular stage is a being that has the right not to be aborted is a different question that belongs to ethics. Philosophers tell the public how concepts like “person” could be understood, what it means that an embryo has a certain “right”, and so on. It is not up to them to decide these issues, but what philosophers can say about the good and the bad is usually better founded than the statements coming from religion or politics.

Is there such as thing as progress in philosophy, as this is clearly the case in science?

Well, some philosophers doubt that this is “clearly” the case in science; but I am with you. As to philosophy, that depends on how you measure progress. I think you can look at the issue from three sides. First, history shows that philosophy discusses the same problems over and over again without coming to a definite conclusion. The way the problems are posed changes as the cultural conditions change; there are shifts in terminology, rhetorical style and theoretical fashion, but the continuity between philosophical problems of different historical periods is quite obvious. Philosophers of the 17th century had strange ideas about how the soul as the bearer of consciousness is related to the body. Today the soul is out of fashion, we know that consciousness is produced by brain processes – but how? Something seems to be missing still, and again there are some strange theories. Second, as I have indicated before, philosophical problems tend to become scientific problems; entire fields of philosophy, like cosmology and psychology, have turned into empirical science. We could measure the amount of progress in philosophy by its role as a medium in which new problems, concepts and scientific research fields grow. Third, although it is true that the philosophy of today is haunted by age-old problems, we learn more and more about these problems, and we are able to state our theories in more sophisticated ways. There is still a lot of disagreement; for any philosophical issue you will find at least two eminent philosophers with different opinions. But we know more about our disagreements; we know why we disagree and how we  disagree, and that it is possible to look at any issue from more angles than philosophers of the past have expected. This is particularly obvious in ethics. This creation of plurality is also a kind of progress. I should add a fourth point: philosophy is the only rational enterprise that deals with things that we cannot know or cannot even talk about. What I like most of philosophy is that it delineates the limits of understanding.

Prof. Kuegler, thank you very much for this interview!



Science and Philosophy

Why do I like science? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! Why do I like philosophy? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! “All men by nature desire to know” is the first sentence in Aristotle’s legendary and influential “Metaphysics”! He didn’t start it like “Man seeks for survival and therefore needs to know something about his environment and himself” or “Man seeks for reproduction and therefore needs to know the means by which he can increase his chances to do so”. No, he starts by simply stating that man enjoys and finds happiness in seeking knowledge. He finds proof in this notion by notifying the enjoyment of pure sense data (“An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves”) but man doesn’t stop with senses, he goes on speculating, he tries to find patterns in nature and eventually, he comes up with ideas and hypotheses about the world that surrounds him. This is where everything starts and this is what the Western world shaped, we simply want to find out what is going on in this world!
So how do Science and philosophy differ? After all, according to what I just said, they don’t seem to have different goals, they both want to “know”. Well, I guess there was a time when philosophy was science and science was philosophy. Let’s not forget that Newton, for example, called his revolutionary work about gravitation “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, “The mathematical principles of natural philosophy”. Or take Kepler whose work was entitled “Harmonice mundis”. That doesn’t sound strictly scientific to me, it implies a notion of the world that is harmonic like a piece of music and indeed, Kepler was deeply fascinated by the thought that the world follows a music-like harmony, a thought which has first been brought up by the infamous mystic-philosophical circle of Pythagoreans. What does that tells us? That science is grounded in philosophy and since philosophy, in its origins, is built on highly speculative grounds which later became known as “metaphysics” that everything is grounded on speculation, even, and in particular, modern day science! That’s just natural, we have to start somewhere and the earliest philosophers -in the classical sense (I am talking about the ionic natural philosophers)- started their journey on grounds that were built upon mythological fundaments. They questioned these fundaments but you can never completely destroy them, otherwise you lose the grip. So, in general, the point at which a philosopher starts to question things is always grounded in normal life. He or she starts asking something like “How come that everything is in a process but that there’s still some stability?” or “What is it that makes one statement true and another false?” or “What is reality?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What happens with me when I’m dead?” or “What acts are just?” or “Do I have a free will?” and so on! You can see, there are a broad range of questions. This is philosophy: Questioning things and being surprised and amazed! And what is science? Science is nothing else than giving a set of answers to particular questions that arose in the process of philosophical reasoning! But if you follow the line back to its origins, it all started in questioning normal day life. And all its underlying assumptions (the conditions that make science possible in the first place) are, eventually, speculative! Like what? For example, that nature can be grasped with reason due to its law-like behavior, that there are fundamental objects, that there is causality and so forth! These are all things that can easily be questioned! For instance: we can know a few things about nature by using our reasoning but nature itself is not reasonable at all! Why is it that we are born, live for a couple of years (in astronomical relations not even a milli-second), suffer, enjoy and eventually die? Is there a “reason” for that? Additionally, reason is a trait of our minds and projecting this trait into nature tastes dangerously like anthropomorphism. Further, what do we mean when we talk about objects or substances (by the way, the concept of “substances” was introduced by Aristotle)? Is an atom more substantial than an organic individual (is the concept “Mario”, for example, less real than the atoms he is made of)? Is there really causality or is it not that all we can detect is a mere process of events that follows a certain pattern and that’s it (famously brought into discussion by David Hume)? These questions remain unanswered within science and most of the time, we are not even aware that they are left unanswered! We just assume that objects do exist, that there is causality and that we can grasp the world with our reason! Undoubtedly, these assumptions have been very successful but success is not necessarily a sign for truth, if anything, it is a weak indication that we are on the right track. But simply following these assumptions without questioning them keeps us from seeing all the mysteries that remain! And this is where philosophy is helping us to look over the edges of our little black boxes (so, unlike what Stephen Hawking claims, philosophy is not dead, on the contrary, it’s alive and its very core and essence is to be alive amongst humans!) because this is what philosophy always does, it questions our fundaments and thereby opens our minds for the world’s wealth, variety, mystery and strangeness. This way, we will be able not only to produce and work on hypotheses to get a functional understanding of the world and ourselves (which is mainly what scientists do) but we will also be able to let the world come to us, to look at it with different eyes. After all, that’s what the greek word “theorià” means: “to look”!
So let me summarize: while science helps us to understand the world in a certain framework, philosophy helps us to see this framework, it therefore broadens our view of the world. It helps to destroy our conceptual limitations and, this way, not only conveys tolerance but understanding! Hopefully, we will then be able what Aristotle tried to achieve: to be happy simply by seeing!

Comment on “Arsenic instead of Phosphorus: the extreme adaptation of living creatures.”

Despite the heavy critique the authors of a paper that one of Mario’s most recent blog entries referred to currently face (see and irrespective of the public attention this discovery receives (I usually mistrust what the public’s attention attracts most), I really enjoyed hearing about this new paper and the way the authors carried out science. It encouraged me in my notion that considerate findings can still be revealed by having clear and uncomplicated ideas and by doing basic and (relatively) simple experiments. Usually when people hear the word “science”, they think of formula, extremely complicated theories, statistics and the like which only experts or nerds can understand. And I have to admit: very often when I scan through the scientific literature, I find it hard not to be intimidated by the often strangely sounding titles. And yes, very often you just have to be a specialized specialist to understand the sub-specificities of a tiny speciality that constitutes a small part of a certain discipline to take the most out of a discovery and to understand its consequences. But the biggest attention is usually paid to discoveries that are more generally comprehensible (even if it is only because of mentioning the possibility of extraterrestial life….). And not rarely, they are also the ones that have the power to initiate so called paradigm changes (a term introduced by the American philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn).

Another reason why I liked that paper was the methodology behind, it seems to follow the logics of the “creative leap” article, brilliantly brought forward by Davide: someone had an idea by challenging the concept of a limited amounts of elements constituting all living things on earth and decided to confront it with reality. After having found a bacterial strain that could survive in the presence of high concentrations of Arsen, they had a closer look to see if it actually used this chemical compound to integrate it into its cellular constituents. And when they found some evidence that it did, they further tried to explain the fact why a bacterium would rather use Arsenate than phosphate since the former is much less stable than the latter by referring to the environmental conditions these bacteria were found in and in which a less stable chemical molecule might be more advantageous to drive fundamental cellular reactions (see the video Mario put in). Of course, since this discovery is so new and comes so surprisingly, many questions still remain: were the techniques used the right ones? Were the questions the authors asked fully answered by the experiments they carried out? What other tests need to be included? Etc. etc. I think it’s absolutely right to ask these questions, in the end that’s what science is all about. And maybe future tests will prove the authors wrong. Having said that, I still think this paper was interesting in so many ways, for me the most attractive aspect was the methodology and the way science was done and lived! Just look into the eyes of the passionate first author (see video) and the way she promotes her discovery and you know that everything they have done was right, despite the possibility that they were completely wrong!

Ethical issues related to stem cell research

Oviduct with an ectopic pregnancy (tubal pregn...

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I want to start this entry in a controversial way and claim that in my opinion there is no major ethical issue related to stem cell research. Of course, there are ways to exploit this field in a bad way but who could give me an example of a research field where this is not the case. Where there are people, there are issues that need to be dealt with, without any exceptions.  As always, we just have to be reasonable! But that is, of course, easier to say than to do. So let me just list some of the reasons why I do not think that stem cell research confronts us with an exceptional bunch of extraordinarily new ethical issues:

–        When it comes to embryonic stem cells, people are concerned about messing with something that could potentially become a complete human being. One has problems to deal with something as “divine” as the embryo. But let me clarify something: a single cell or a clump of cells are not the same as a human being! And being worried about potentials means to be overly sensitive and scholastic. We are always confronted with potentials. Every step we take in daily life is a reduction of potentials and the creation of new ones. So why do we see embryonic stem cell research only as a destruction of a potential human being, rather than the creation of new potentials if all that we are doing is to deal with actual problems, such as the regeneration of a whole organ for a suffering individual? Who’s got more rights? The potential human being whose existence is in no way guaranteed even if the embryo was not touched at all or the actual human being lying in front me that would do anything to improve his condition?

–        Consider the following situation: a child suffers from incurable leukaemia and requires an appropriate bone marrow/stem cell donor to get a last chance to live. Would it pose a big ethical problem if the parents decided to undergo IVF by pre-selecting embryos that perfectly matches the needs of the sick child in order to obtain a perfect donor (given that the whole process of donation is rather harmless and does not represent a major risk for the donor )? I understand that many people would probably feel uncomfortable to immediately give “no” as an answer.  The reason for that might be due to the feeling that the yet unborn child was only meant to be living to serve the needs of another child. But is that really a necessary corollary of the whole situation? People usually have got all kinds of “reasons” to get a baby, some are better and some are worse. But that does not really matter, I think, as long as they do their best to take care and educate their child in the best way they can when it entered their lives. Pure love between a couple might be the noblest reason we can think of to get a child, but the noblest love cannot compensate for the neglect a child has to cope with as soon as the original passionate love fades and the grand idea of getting a child suddenly seems to have been a big mistake. On the other side of the spectrum, getting a child due to purely practical reasons, such as the need for a stem cell donor, does not preclude the amount of love and care a child can experience when born. What I want to say is that no one can ever monitor the love and care that every newborn child actually deserves from their parents, no matter under which conditions it is conceived. In the end, we all have to proof and somehow rely that we are responsible and moral human beings that carry the heart at the right spot! But no ethical system can guarantee that these conditions are ever fulfilled.

I discussed two arguments/scenarios that can be frequently encountered when dealing with ethical issues around stem cell research. There is, of course, much more to discuss but I just wanted to give a short introduction. Our world develops continuously, we have to deal with new situations constantly and therefore it is natural that we find ourselves before situations that raise difficult questions. But this is the case for everything! No two situations are exactly the same. Our moral standards, however, should somehow be stable. What a fruitful discussion should be about is to cover all aspects that need to be taken into account to finally be able to make a good and sensible decision.

Let’s play

Let me quickly tell you my ideas about the blog: how I imagine it to be, why I want to keep a blog and what science/philosophy means to me.

I want to pursue 2 different interests with our project e-ducereX (name of blog):

1. The first reason why I want to discuss different topics is simply because I am enjoying it. Too often we tend to ask: what purpose does it serve, why should I invest time in certain things, what output do I get, how do I profit, etc. What I want to say is that too often we are aiming to “achieve “ something, be it in our profession or even in our hobbies (“Why are you doing sports?” “Because I need to stay healthy/good looking…!” etc.). This tendency has led our culture to invent the idea of “holidays” and “recreation centres” where we can all take a break from being “effective” and just lay back. But even then it can occur that we feel bad about doing nothing. We keep thinking at least to read a book, explore some touristic sites or do something for our health. After these few thoughts, let me again ask the question: why should we keep a blog? My answer will not be: because it serves a good cause, it serves to educate ourselves and to inform people, it trains our communication skills. My answer will be: because it’s fun and it’s good! First and foremost: it does not serve any specific purpose, it is a purpose by itself (one might argue, it serves to make us feel well, therefore the purpose is our well-being; but “good” is a transcendental term [in the Kantian sense] that guides our general behaviour; all our behaviour is driven by the idea of “goodness”, even the behaviour of murderers; it is something different if the actual outcome is not as good as expected! Therefore I would go with classical ancient philosophers and say that doing the good makes us feel well and therefore just doing it is the actual purpose we are aiming for and not that we are doing the good because it serves a different and better purpose which is to make us feel well! A complex matter and worth a discussion on its own). Of course, as a very positive and most welcome side effect, we do educate ourselves and we will be able to inform people and maybe we can also train our communication and argumentation skills. But it should not be our first goal! We should use this platform as a playing ground, dealing with scientific and philosophical topics like toys. This is our internal impulse and every good pedagogue will tell you that this is the best way to education: doing it because you enjoy it. Let’s finish this part with a quote by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), a German poet and philosopher: “Man is only human when at play.” So let’s play!

2. I consider myself to be the philosopher in our blog. That does not mean that I am wise or that I know an awful lot about philosophy, I just enjoy studying it, reading it, thinking about it. Socrates once said (see Platos “Apology”) that he considers himself to be a bee that keeps stinging the big horse Athens to keep it awake. Why did he feel the need to do that? Because people were not radical enough to ask questions and to admit that they actually knew very little about themselves, the world they are living in and other basic questions of life. They lived in a very advanced culture, they were intelligent and successful but that made them also too self-confident. I think Socrates is a historical phenomenon! He dared to question things radically and we should take this spirit and carry it on. Why now and why here, in this blog? I think science is a very powerful tool to explain lots of different things, to deal with our surrounding and to provide stability in a world that is actually not stable. We live in a constant thermo-dynamical imbalance, both strictly physically but also metaphorically, viz. culturally spoken! But science is just one approach to this world, it is, so to say, one-sided, despite its beauty and versatility. Its success is also its danger! Let’s not forget: the whole big world still consists of one big question mark! I critically observe that scientists tend to forget that, they are very often too self-confident about what science can achieve (see Richard Dawkins who claims that god does not exist or Stephen Hawking who thinks philosophy is dead). I see my role as a bee stinging scientists to reconsider their position. Philosophy, for me, is an admiration for the big riddles of life. When I am in a proper philosophical mood, I always stand completely stunned before this world. This mood very often comes with passionate discussions. It can be scary but it instils you with a deep respect for all that is in this world which can never be fully embraced by science. I want to infect people with this mood and therefore I am very motivated to work on e-ducereX. Let me close this part with two theses stated by Karl Popper, an Austrian philosopher of the 20th century:

First thesis: We have a fair amount of knowledge. Moreover, we know not only details of doubtful intellectual interest, but also, and more especially, things that are not only of considerable practical importance, but may, in addition, provide us with deep theoretical insight, and with a surprising understanding of the world.

Second thesis: Our ignorance is boundless and sobering. Indeed, it is precisely this overwhelming progress of the natural sciences (to which my first thesis alludes) that continually reminds us of our ignorance, even in the field of the natural sciences themselves.