Monday, February 10, 2014


Science is fun!
Do you wrestle with dreams? Do you contend with shadows? Do you move in a kind of sleep? Time has slipped away. Your life is stolen. You tarried with trifles, Victim of your folly.

— Dirge for Jamis on the Funeral Plain, from “Songs of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan
— Frank Herbert, Dune

I learned a very interesting fact today, O Dearly Beloved. Apparently, if you select a random entry from the online encyclopedia of human knowledge known as Wikipedia and click on the first linked term in the top entry and each linked entry thereafter (aside from italicized preambles and parenthesized definitions), there is a very strong likelihood that within a finite number of links you will arrive at the Wikipedia entry on “Philosophy.” Some intrepid soul has actually scrubbed the Wikipedia data and determined that this interesting phenomenon obtains almost 95% of the time. By comparison, the next highest source link incidence (at less than 2%) is what is known as a “red link,” or a link which leads exactly nowhere within the Wikipedia database.

This is a strongly suggestive result, and in my opinion it carries interesting implications for those public intellectuals who would like to assert that philosophy is dead, or at least meaningless, in comparison, say, to the ineluctable juggernaut which is Science. This, attentive members of my audience will recall, is a topic of some little interest to me.

Therefore, as a public service to you, My Loyal and Esteemed Readership, I decided to perform my very own small experiment in this regard to check this provocative hypothesis against the facts of the matter. In order to summarize my results, I have defined a specific terminology and notation to represent the structural remove of any Wikipedia entry from philosophy. This concept I hereby label the Wikipedia Degree of Remove from Philosophy, and I designate it with the notation Pwn, where n is the degree, or number of clicks on first entry links it takes to get from the Wikipedia entry in question to the one on the Philosophy.

First, as a sort of control, I investigated the primary Wikipedia link tree of Professor Stephen Hawking, that indisputably accomplished physicist and cosmologist who has asserted more than once that philosophy is dead or worse, irrelevant. My working hypothesis was that Herr Doktor Hawking would have a very high degree of remove number, given his brilliance and success in the realm of science. The empirical link tree results were as follows:
  • Stephen Hawking —> theoretical physics —> physics —> natural science —> science —> knowledge —> fact —> proof (truth) —> necessity and sufficiency —> logic —> reason —> consciousness —> quality (philosophy) —> property (philosophy) —> modern philosophy —> philosophy
which gives our esteemed subject a WDRP of fifteen, or Pw15. Of course, this gives our intrepid philosophy denier quite the benefit of the doubt, for if we stopped our degree of remove calculation at the first instance of a specifically philosophical entry—viz., “quality (philosophy)”—Dr. Hawking’s figure would rather be Pw12. But who are we to split hairs in such an investigation? For all we seek, Dear Readers, is the undeniable empirical truth.

Then I attempted to calculate similar WDRPs for a not-quite random selection of other Wikipedia entries, just for comparison. My results were as follows:
which is sort of odd, when you think about it. For it means that the crowdsourced experts of Wikipedia classify one of the most renowned theoretical scientists of our age at the same remove from the general topic of philosophy as an eggplant, and closer to same than a banana, romantic love, or kiwifruit. The only random entity in our limited sample set closer to philosophy in Wikipedia’s taxonomy is author, New Atheist, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, which is also intriguing given his rejection of great swathes of the discipline in favor of a concentrated scientific reductionism. (I presume none of us will be confused by the result that Glenn Beck is several orders further removed from philosophy than a banana or kiwifruit.)

Now, I admit these are highly selective and tendentious data points, and I am sure our committed devotees of scientism and reductionism will reject them out of hand as not dispositive. However, I would note such skeptics might find their naive and touching faith somewhat shaken were they to replicate the research above themselves, for they would then find every single one of those entries leading inexorably, through no matter how many Glenn-Beckian twists and turns, straight to the core Wikipedia entries on “Knowledge” or “Natural science.” From which it is but a hop, skip, and a short jump to the realm of philosophy.

But anyone not blinkered by their expertise should not be surprised at this result. The Wikipedia entry on Philosophy lays it out as clearly as can be:
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.
Philosophy is a foundational discipline, which underlies and transcends all forms of human knowledge, including that practiced by petty intellectual tyrants swanning about in lab coats. To claim that science does not depend upon philosophy, in at least an epistemological sense, is to claim that science stands outside the realm of human knowledge and thought itself. That it cannot be judged, analyzed, criticized, or challenged except on its own terms and with its own tools.

Which strikes me, at least, as a remarkably stupid and unempirical thing to say.1

Related reading:
A Foolish Consistency (February 5, 2014)
Our Glassy Essence (October 17, 2013)

1 The cleverer among you might object to this semi-serious diatribe with two points. First, the nature of Wikipedia begs the question, since its own editing conventions encourage article authors to set the stage for each entry with foundational definitions; that is, defining entities and concepts in the most general terms and context. In other words, the structure of Wikipedia itself is foundational and hence, in a very deep sense, philosophical. Therefore, linking down through foundational statements should naturally lead to the core concept of philosophy. Wikipedia itself is a form of philosophy. To which I answer: Correct. You have confirmed my concluding remarks. Second, you might say Messrs. Hawking and Harris’s structural Wikipedian proximity to philosophy shows that in fact they are offering their own form of philosophy. To which I again answer: Correct. That they are, but they themselves deny it. Who’s a blinkered idiot now?

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