The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Holt Misses the Point: Most Ancient Greeks Were Wrong

In today’s New York Times [1], writer Jim Holt gave his opinion on the row initiated by physicist Lawrence Krauss regarding the value of philosophy. You can go read the details of that spat on your own; I’m about as interested in that debate as I am in polo. For the record: I am not interested in polo.

But in Holt’s piece, I found some glaring logical fallacies committed in the name of reconciling physics and philosophy. For instance, Holt quips:

” . . . consider the anti-philosophical strictures of Richard Feynman. ‘Cocktail party philosophers,’ he said in a lecture, think they can discover things about the world ‘by brainwork’ rather than by experiment (‘the test of all knowledge’). But in another lecture, he announced that the most pregnant hypothesis in all of science is that ‘all things are made of atoms.’ Who first came up with this hypothesis? The ancient philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. And they didn’t come up with it by doing experiments.” [1]

Holt misses the point entirely, and actually MAKES Feynman’s point in a weird way. The Greeks did not, as a rule, apply experimental methods to answer their philosophical musings. Is the world made of atoms, or is it a continuous fluid, or is it the substance obtained by combing earth, air, fire, and water (the elements)? The Greek philosophers seemed to care not at all to determine the truth by experimentation, and were content to go about their spectulations. It wasn’t until experiments were actually done and revealed that, by chance, the world IS composed of atoms that the “atomic hypothesis” of Democritus was understood to be correct. Holt must keep in mind that the wild and erroneous speculations of dozens of other bright Greeks were then proved WRONG. It wasn’t until experimentation on the natural world revealed the truth about its structure that the ungrounded philosophical speculations of ancient Greeks were collapsed into circles of truth and circles of error. Experiment, in fact, was the key.

Holt also misses the point on a few other things:

1) Hawking and Penrose are welcome to their philosophy-fueled disagreements so long as, when experiment disproves one or both of them, the loser abandons their position. If they don’t, then they are holding an opinion counter to reality and they have crossed into the land of “crackpot.”

2) Weinberg’s and Hawking’s seeming linguistic disagreement on the word “positivism” is just that – a linguistic problem. It doesn’t change the fact that water turns to ice at zero degrees Celsius under conditions of standard temperature and pressure, or that the electron in ground state of the hydrogen atom can be ionized by supplying 13.6 eV of energy.

3) Physicists who know how to apply quantum mechanics to make testable predictions don’t tend to worry too much about finding an interpretation of quantum mechanics that makes them “feel good.” Now, if a better interpretation led to new knowledge, then it would matter; if that interpretation had testable consequences that distinguished it from a competing interpretation, then scientists care about it. Absent those outcomes, one interpretation is just as good as another if neither can be distinguished in the natural world – they’re really just informed opinions consistent with the facts.

Having spotted little gems like the above, I began to wonder: who the hell is Jim Holt? I searched for him on Google and found his publisher’s blurb about him [2]:


Jim Holt, a prominent essayist and critic on philosophy, mathematics, and science, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.

OK . . . so he’s not even obviously a scientist, according to this blurb. I Google-stalked him and couldn’t find his credentials (if you find anything about him – a bio – please send me the link). He’s a critic without advertised credentials or experience. His last book was about the philosophical reasons that jokes are funny (seriously . . . does anyone else find the idea of metacomedy hilarious, or it it just me?). He writes a lot of reviews of science books, but that doesn’t appear to make him qualified to understand and interpret science for lay people.

It’s for this reason that I again remind you of Alan Alda’s challenge to scientists: be better at communicating science. If you don’t, Jim Holt will do it for you.



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