FTL Research, Philosophy, and Starship Congress 2015

FTL Research, Philosophy, and Starship Congress 2015

Stephen Hawking, speaking at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in the UK said:

Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.

There’s a lot of criticism like that from the top of the physics community, claims that philosophy doesn’t collect experimental data, that it’s useless to the working physicist, and so on.”

While people tend to hang on Hawking’s every word, I recall a particular lecture in which he explained with absolute certainty that the cosmological constant was somewhere between 0 and 1. A philosopher who criticized this certainty would not have been taken seriously. We will never know the decades and careers lost from failing to error-check such things.

Not suprising really… given the that The First Law of Philosophy is that for every philosopher, there is an equal and opposite philosopher. The Second Law states: …and they’re both wrong.In 2012, physicists Lawrence Krauss claimed that “…science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”, and Neil deGrasse Tyson infamously echoes such opinions.

Lots of high profile physicists make dead wrong claims about a subject in which they are not experts, repeating misperceptions even after philosophers keep correcting them.
This is like listening to creationists repeatedly mischaracterizing evolutionary biology, when biologists keep correcting them. They say it takes two creationists to change a light: one to change it quickly, and one to point out there were no transitional forms;

I tend to think creationists are Mother Nature’s way of lying about her age.

Scientists can be as wrong about fields outside their area of expertise as anyone, and in fact, the confidence they have from being an expert gives them an arrogance which prevents them from using caution which we all should have when stepping outside our specific discipline. Scoping the domain of a science is related, but not an internal part of the science itself. If our goal is maximizing success, criticism of philosophy or domain scoping should come from experts in those fields.

A current example of expert overreach is the popular claim that The /\CDM (Lambda cold dark matter) or Lambda-CDM model “is the simplest model that provides a reasonably good account” of the properties of the universe. The problem is that physics experts on these models are not experts in model assessment and selection. Thus, such claims should only be made with either solid evidence, or reference to a consensus of experts in model assessment and teasing out what is actually is meant by criteria like “reasonably good account”.

Sean Carroll

Physicist Sean Carroll points out scientists are not experts on this: “The quest for absolute clarity of description and rigorous understanding is a crucially important feature of the philosophical method.” “Science often gives us models of the world that are more than good enough in terms of getting answers that fit the data within the error bars, even though they might not be completely coherent or well-defined. But that’s not really what drives us to do science in the first place. We shouldn’t be happy to do “well enough,” or merely fit the data – we should be striving to understand how the world really works.”

Contrary to popular perceptions in science departments, philosophy has made tremendous progress in the study of knowledge, in understanding the nature of scientific cognition, and various aspects of scientific concepts and methods.


If we want to explain the rules by which astronomy is a science and astrology is a pseudoscience, we cannot appeal to either astrophysics or a zodiac chart because our question is about the proper categorization of the discipline, not their contents. We recognize that science is a set of tools, and whether they are appropriately used is a different question than how to use them.

We should be aware that science is a tool which fits within the definition of an information system. It converts data into knowledge that is usable, even if that use is only to delight our intellect and fire our imagination.


Project management relies on clarity because expert clarity is needed to ensure efforts to accomplish goals succeed. Project management also functions to detect failure early and minimize downside costs while maximizing whatever benefits can be saved. 
One of our most important principles to maximize success is progressive elaboration. This principle is based on the fact that in the beginning of any project, we have only vague ideas of what our end result will be, but over time that vagueness is replaced as we think, plan, and discover more.

 Historians and philosophers of science study the practices and norms of science that work best and are most successful over the long term. We are well advised to learn from their research if we want to focus our resources in ways proven most successful in the past.

Our current vagueness about what path to follow to develop faster than light capability means casting a wide net, and making good guesses about what direction to go. Very soon we are likely to wade into deep waters regarding science, physics, mathematics, and if testing our ideas is expensive and time-consuming, we don’t want to be headed in the wrong direction. Good plans will need clarity on what we mean by “reality”, spacetime, and so on in order to navigate those waters competently. Reviewing mainstream physics literature does not give any sense this is a priority.
For now, we are going to begin simply by recognizing that success and failure of the past provide the best clues to avoid risks and improve our chances of success. For that, philosophers and historians of science and physics are the experts.
To help our community succeed in this, the next Starship Congress will include an introduction to the history and philosophy of scientific revolutions, their structure, distinguishing features and some key factors that can reasonably be expected from any FTL enabling physics model.
In the next post in this series, we will look at a historically unique agreement between philosophers of science and physicists: that a revolution in physics is needed… and exactly what developing FTL capability will require…if nature allows it.
See you then,