I wish every philosophy book would open with a list of the author’s philosophical positions. This would make the book much easier to understand. Many times, I’ve been confused by a book and set it aside only to find out later that the reason for my confusion was that the author wasn’t using a correspondence theory of truth, or something basic like that. (This is why I often prefer secondary literature to primary literature in philosophy: secondary literature usually makes a greater effort at clarity.)
I’ve noticed this at Common Sense Atheism, too. My readers often leave comments that they are confused by what I’ve said, and it’s because they don’t know the hundreds of prior assumptions under which I’m operating.
Thus, in an effort to be more clear, I’ll try to illuminate my current philosophical positions.
From my epistemology flows everything else.
The continuous failure of intuition, first philosophy, testimony, subjective experience, and authority-based systems of knowing leads me to be highly suspicious of them. These systems are also undermined by recent discoveries about the capabilities and limits of human psychology. In contrast, the massive success of science leads me to suspect that methods condoned by science are the most successful methods of knowing we have discovered yet. This approach tends toward naturalized epistemology: I think philosophy will be most productive when it functions as an extension of successful science, rather than as a kind of “first philosophy” that works “before” or “above” science.1 And of course I endorse fallibilism. Even our best scientific theories sometimes fail.
Most philosophy depends heavily on the intuitions of philosophers, and I think this is badly misguided. I suspect such philosophers are either ignorant of cognitive psychology, or plugging their ears to it. While of course we use mental heuristics (sometimes called ‘intuitions’) along chains of inference, I do not think we should trust our intuitions for basic facts. Our minds do not deliver to us direct truth about metaphysics or epistemology or morals.
In fact, I follow Bishop & Trout2 in rejecting the standard analytic epistemology that currently dominates. I think epistemology should not be the study of whether certain belief tokens count as “knowledge,” but rather the study of which reasoning methods tend to get at the truth. Bishop & Trout’s approach is called Strategic Reliabilism.
(By the way, Strategic Reliabilism should be an appealing epistemological system for skeptics, because it focuses on the same things that skeptics focus on: cognitive biases, how to overcome them, how to not fool yourself, how to develop reliable reasoning strategies, and so on.)
Given my epistemology, I’m left with no good reasons to suspect that reality contains ghosts, paranormal powers, gods, magic, life after death, libertarian free will, or souls. Belief in such things is better explained by human psychology than their actual existence. I’m skeptical enough of folk psychology that it’s probably fair to call me an eliminative materialist.3
Like Kant, I think the external world exists, and causes our experiences, but unfortunately nothing comes to us unfiltered by the mind. That’s why we must test experience from as many angles as possible, and be willing to give up our deeply held intuitions about the categories and nature of reality (as Einstein taught us about space and time) and let the data speak to us as directly as possible. (Alas, all observations are theory-laden.)
I think the problem of universals, like much of metaphysics, results from a confusion about language (damn you, Parmenides!). Does the property of being red exist apart from its instantiations? Not if by “exist” you mean what most people mean when they say tables and ghosts exist. Universals are simply potential patterns of experience. We use these concepts as tools of communication, and this does not imbue them with a higher reality. It can be true to say something is red not because “redness” exists in a Platonic realm, but because that’s how we agreed to use our word-tools to communicate.
Is the universe infinite or finite? Did it begin, or has it existed forever? Are there other universes? I don’t know. I’m hoping physics will tell us, because metaphysicians do not inspire me with confidence on these issues.
Time does not “flow.” Instead, all moments exist statically in a “block universe.” Also, I’m partial to Everett’s interpretation when it comes to quantum mechanics.
I respect a naive theory of truth (the correspondence theory) and a naive theory of identity (as represented here), merely by stipulation: I want to talk about truth and identity in common-sense ways and then talk about whether anything in the world corresponds to our common-sense notions or not.
Non-cognitivism has been empirically falsified. Error theory is plausible, though I have adopted desirism “as a working hypothesis.” Much confusion in ethics comes from the fact that people use moral terms to mean a variety of things – as with love and art and beauty (but not chemistry, for example). If morality is defined as a system involving divine commands or categorical imperatives or intrinsic value or hypothetical contracts, then all moral assertions are untrue.
But it may be possible to construct a semantic theory of morality that captures a great deal of moral discourse and practice, and makes only true claims. In fact, it might be possible to build several such theories, and then we would simply argue over which one best captures moral discourse and practice, or else we would have to specify which semantic theory of morality we’re using, exactly as when we discuss a “good movie” it is helpful to clarify whether one means “good” as in “likely to provide a pleasing experience” or “of high artistic merit.” (I suspect there can be several true theories of aesthetics, too, since we use aesthetic terms in a variety of ways. But I haven’t studied aesthetics much.)
What is my political philosophy? How should society be structured? Such a philosophy would flow from my ethical theory, but these are enormously complex questions. In our state of ignorance, I suppose many systems should be tested. Capitalism and liberal democracy, like other systems we’ve tried so far, possess extreme intrinsic problems, and I’m optimistic that we can do better. Parecon and other systems have been described in detail theoretically, and are ready to be tested in the real world.
My philosophical views today are massively different than they were 5 years ago. They are even massively different than they were one year ago. I have no reason to suspect my views will stop evolving any time soon.
If I compare myself to “most naturalists,” I would have to guess that my views are par for the course when it comes to naturalized epistemology, broad evidentialism, scientific realism, metaphysical naturalism, the B theory of time, and the rejection of contra-causal free will. The positions I hold that are most unusual among naturalists are probably: (1) desirism, (2) strategic reliabilism, (3) Everett over Copenhagen, and (4) eliminative materialism.