Nearby Possible “Empty Ideas”

Peter Unger’s new book and recent interview have been in the philosonews a lot lately. Meanwhile, in a nearby possible world…

To start things off, could you say a bit about your book Empty Ideas, and what it’s about?
      Scientists easily get the idea that somehow or other, just by considering things about the world that they glean from observation and experimentation, they can write up deep stories which are true, or pretty nearly true, about what we should believe about these observations, and how we should be in the world. They think they can tell a deep story about how it is that all of this stuff really hangs together, that’s much deeper, more enlightening and more comprehensive than anything that any philosopher can do.
And so scientists proceed to write up these stories, and they’re under the impression that they’re saying something new and interesting about what we should believe and how we should live and organize our world, when in fact this is all an illusion. To say new and interesting things about us and our world, about the nature of belief, about what our scientific observations can show us, what is good and bad, and so on — and that’s very hard, things of any generality I mean, or even anything interesting — you really have to engage with a lot of philosophy. And very few scientists do any of that, at least in any relevant way.

That leads me to my next question. In Empty Ideas, your attack on certain leading figures in physics is pretty—
It’s not just physics, it’s pretty much everything. I’m just concentrating on certain issues. Mostly physics, also some biology, a fair amount of chemistry and engineering. I don’t really go into it, but it all goes down into these theories of how things are — which itself isn’t anything deep, it’s just about how people and things are built.
To me, all this sort of stuff is parochial. People who are signing up for wisdom don’t think they’re going to end up with this kind of stuff. They want to learn something about what it makes sense to believe and why, about how to live, about the nature of our understanding. And when you’re doing science, you don’t have a prayer of offering even anything close to a correct or even intelligible answer to any of these questions…

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