Academic Standards in Philosophy of Religion

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 6, 2010 in Philosophy of Religion 101,Worldview Naturalism

I mentioned earlier that Keith Parsons and John Beversluis have given up doing philosophy of religion. Parsons writes:

I’ve had it. I’m going back to my real interests in the history and philosophy of science and, after finishing a few current commitments, I’m writing nothing more on [philosophy of religion]. I could give lots of reasons. For one thing, I think a number of philosophers have made the case for atheism and naturalism about as well as it can be made. Graham Oppy, Jordan Howard Sobel, Nicholas Everitt, Michael Martin, Robin Le Poidevin and Richard Gale have produced works of enormous sophistication that devastate the theistic arguments in their classical and most recent formulations. Ted Drange, J.L. Schellenberg, Andrea Weisberger, and Nicholas Trakakis have presented powerful, and, in my view, unanswerable atheological arguments. Gregory Dawes has a terrific little book showing just what is wrong with theistic “explanations.” Erik Wielenberg shows very clearly that ethics does not need God. With honest humility, I really do not think that I have much to add to these extraordinary works.

Robert Gressis of CSU Northridge comments:

[I] wonder how often this phenomenon occurs. Are there a substantial number of atheists who dabble in philosophy of religion and find the best theistic arguments and defenses so wanting that they decide, “no, not for me. These people [e.g., van Fraassen, Plantinga, van Inwagen, Adams, etc.] are smart, but they leave their brains at the door when they do philosophy of religion”? Personally, I doubt this; or at least, I doubt that it happens after they read the aforementioned authors, as most of the atheists I know have never read any of van Inwagen’s, Plantinga’s, etc.’s, philosophy of religion.

To be sure, most atheists have never read Plantinga or van Inwagen. But I don’t know any atheist philosophers of religion who haven’t read Plantinga’s and van Inwagen’s work on the subject.

I suspect many atheists do think something like, “That van Inwagen is a smart fellow when it comes to metaphysics, but he leaves his brain at the door when he does philosophy of religion. It must be the faith factor.”

I’m not sure that’s correct. In my experience, high-level philosophers of religion do the same kind of work that high-level philosophers do in other fields of philosophy, and they do it according to the same general standards. The problem is not that philosophy of religion has lower standards than other areas of philosophy do. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy in general are (compared to those in science) relatively low.

Now, let me be clear. Standards in analytic philosophy seem to me to be higher than those in continental philosophy, in theology, in literary criticism, and in many other academic fields. But they are not as high as standards in science.

We need not look very far for examples. Consider the mainstream arguments in philosophy of mind about the possibility of zombies. David Chalmers argues that because he can imagine a world with all the same physical facts but no qualia, therefore physicalism is false.1. And this argument is highly respected and hotly debated in philosophy of mind, where many of the smartest people in philosophy do their work.

Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of “Come back when you have evidence!” But standards are considerably lower in analytic philosophy, and such arguments are taken seriously and widely debated.

Or, consider arguments for moral realism. These usually consist of (1) attempts to shift the burden of proof to those denying moral truths and (2) arguments that certain things have intrinsic value just because this is taken as an axiom of moral thinking or because we really feel that some things are right and wrong.

Does that sound like typical argumentation in philosophy of religion? You bet. Again, such arguments would be laughed away at a scientific conference, but they are taken seriously in analytic philosophy – and not just in philosophy of religion.

So yes, I think the standards in philosophy of religion are generally as high as standards in other fields of analytic philosophy. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy are lower than they should be.

In fact, one way to see the naturalistic project in philosophy since Quine is that naturalists want to raise the standards of argument and evidence in philosophy. We’ve noticed that the high standards in the physical sciences help make them so productive, and so we want to raise the standards in philosophy so that they are as close to the standards of science as possible. Thus, strict naturalists pay close attention to arguments that are roughly scientific in structure and rise close to the same standards of argumentation and evidence, and we pay less attention to arguments with lower standards, such as those that typify, say, theistic philosophy of religion or moral realism.

  1. Of course, the zombies argument is not Chalmers’ only argument for the irreducibility of conscious states. But his zombies argument from conceivability is well-respected enough among philosophers to make my point. Concerning those other arguments in chapter 3 of The Conscious Mind, note that arguments #2 and #4 are also conceivability arguments, and arguments #3 and #5 are also not the kind likely to be taken very seriously at a scientific conference. But they are beyond the scope of this short post. []

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{ 111 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I should have been clearer: what I meant was not that most atheists, period, haven’t read top-notch philosophy of religion; that, of course, is to be expected and not lamented. What I meant is that most atheist philosophers are atheists but have never read Plantinga, et al. on philosophy of religion. Or at least, they have read very little (I say this because of how often I’ve met atheist philosophers who think Mackie successfully disproved theism in his 1955 article “Evil and Omnipotence”). That said, atheist philosophers of religion have certainly read a fair bit of the biggies.

As for the lower standards in philosophy than in science, I don’t quite know what to think about this. It may be true, but strangely, good to great scientists often make terrible philosophers (I’m thinking here of Dawkins, Heisenberg, P.Z. Myers (who I assume is at least a good scientist), etc.). If scientists are so used to reasoning at a more constrained, higher level than philosophers, why do they so often go off the rails when they do philosophy?

As for your Chalmers example, I don’t suppose that Chalmers has never heard that response before. I suspect, in fact, that he *has* heard it, and has responses to it. For one thing, he may have a different modal epistemology from you, and for another, he may be able to defend the propriety of his modal epistemology from your criticisms (if you ever have him on your show, you should bring your criticisms up to him and see if he’s able to respond).

Another note on the Chalmers example: I’m not sure what scientists would say about Chalmers’s example. Perhaps they’d laugh him out of the room; but perhaps not. He has, after all, collaborated with cognitive scientists like Christoph Koch before. I suppose I’d want to see the empirical evidence that back up your supposition before I agree to it.

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Garren September 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm

@Robert Gressis

“For one thing, [Chalmers] may have a different modal epistemology from you, and for another, he may be able to defend the propriety of his modal epistemology from your criticisms (if you ever have him on your show, you should bring your criticisms up to him and see if he’s able to respond).”

That’s just the thing. Careful analytic philosophy seems, at times, chiefly effective at defending just about any basic position by employing sufficient nuance or assumption shifting. It’s a process of refining conflicting philosophical views, rather than resolving the broad conflicts.

At any rate that’s how it seems when I’m feeling cynical.

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cl September 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Great post. Cold as ice.

Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference…

You would think, but that’s exactly the gist I got from Carroll on Hawking’s new book. It will be interesting to see what the argument actually amounts to, and if “we can imagine” is indeed an accurate paraphrase of it, I can’t wait to see the general reaction from the (a)theist and scientific communities. It sounded like the ontological argument for the universe, and, for the reasons you allude to in resisting the zombie argument, I’ve never been persuaded by the ontological argument.

I’m going to pick up a copy of The Grand Design tomorrow. I expect it to address science, but I suspect it addresses a good amount of philosophy, too.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Robert,

Yes, I suspect most atheist philosophers outside the philosophy of religion have not read much Plantinga or van Inwagen on philosophy of religion. Your example of the Mackie article is a good one; I see that all the time. I think I recently ran into a post by Massimo Pigliucci which implied that theism had been defeated by that paper!

Why do scientists often make terrible philosophers? For the same reason they are often terrible at drawing conclusions in other non-scientific domains. In science, they are forced by peer review to adhere to the standards of science. When spouting philosophy, they are not.

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Patrick September 6, 2010 at 4:02 pm

“The problem is not that philosophy of religion has lower standards than other areas of philosophy do. The problem is that standards in analytic philosophy in general are (compared to those in science) relatively low.”

I’m not sure you’re in a position to reliably judge this, being a young, mostly self-taught blogger about philosophy, religion, etc. (much less what goes on in or what methods or standards are employed in academic science, which many historians and philosophers of science spend their lives researching, and remain perplexed about). That’s, of course, not to say you’re wrong.

“Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of ‘Come back when you have evidence you idiot!’”

This may be too strong. (Consider the work of a scientist like Poincaré, such as his thought experiment of the scientists on the sphere world.) As a long-time reader of your blog and listener of the podcast, I’ve had the sense that you’ve taken a turn toward oversimplification in the past few months. These last few paragraphs of this post are a good example.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Patrick,

My posts are always vastly simplified. Some are more simplified than others. This is a very short post.

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JS Allen September 6, 2010 at 4:46 pm

Heh, I wonder what Parsons and Beversluis would think of the idea that their careers were made possible by “low standards”?

As Parsons readily admits, his own arguments weren’t really the best anymore, and Beversluis appears to have stopped trying 20 years ago, so it’s kind of funny that both would protest their detractors as having poor arguments, after they themselves coasted on poor arguments for so long.

And I’m not sure we can make sweeping generalizations about entire fields based on a single example like Chalmers. Although I mostly agree with Dennett on zombies, I can at least see where Chalmers is coming from, and I respect the people who disagree with Dennett.

On the other hand, Quine begat the Churchlands, and most normal humans would consider them certifiably insane, based on empirical observation. Can we judge the whole of naturalist philosophy to be defective by looking at the Churchlands?

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ildi September 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Why do scientists often make terrible philosophers?

I would argue for the same reason why MDs often make terrible researchers. They think there’s nothing to it that one graduate course can’t cover.

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Alex September 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Patrick: “I’m not sure you’re in a position to reliably judge this, being a young, mostly self-taught blogger about philosophy, religion, etc.”

That is the silliest thing I’ve read in a while, the argument from authority in a setting of *philosophy* standards where even formal definitions are ever chased and argued. Lukeprog may not be steeped in academia, and yes, he might be young, and by golly, he does blog, but who the fuck cares when the argument itself is what should get the attention? In fact, I dare say, you need to define what you mean by “reliable.” Reliable to whom? And how?

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Mark September 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm

“I can conceive of P being true, therefore P” is what would be laughed out of a scientific conference. But Chalmers’ is (roughly) the inference “I can conceive of P being true, therefore P is possible.” He uses completely separate philosophical machinery to go from the possibility of p-zombies to dualism.

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Mark September 6, 2010 at 5:10 pm

I would argue for the same reason why MDs often make terrible researchers. They think there’s nothing to it that one graduate course can’t cover. ildi

That’s a really good way of putting it.

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Patrick September 6, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Alex,

After I said that silly-thing, I added, “That’s, of course, not to say you’re wrong.” Not an argument that’s Luke is wrong, but some skepticism about whether he is in a position to know what he is claiming. What would it take to know if the standards of some discipline are weaker or stronger than some other discipline? Quite a lot about those two disciplines I’d say, esp. considering the amount of debate in the history and philosophy of science over just what the methods and standards of professional scientists in fact are.

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Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Alex,

I was under the impression that Luke was saying that the standards in philosophy are lower than the standards in natural science. I figure that in order to be in a position where he could accurately judge such things, Luke would have to be familiar with the standards of both philosophy and natural science. Since Luke is not all that familiar with the standards in either philosophy or science, I think it’s fair to say that he’s not well-positioned to make such a judgment. You could call that an argument from authority if you’d like, but I think it’s a non-fallacious one, as familiarity with the standards of two discipline is, I think, an important prerequisite for comparing those standards to one another.

Now, of course, if you think Luke *is* familiar with the standards of both philosophy and natural science, then you should probably take his judgment on the matter to be about as reliable as mine (at least when it comes to philosophy; I wouldn’t trust my intuitions about the standards for natural science). In that case, Luke and I can have a discussion about whether Chalmers is in fact a good test case for Luke’s contention that philosopher doesn’t have high standards. I would, for example, ask Luke what he thought was deficient about Chalmers’s arguments for his position on conceivability as found in, say, “Conceptual Analysis and Reductive Explanation”, Philosophical Review, vol. 110, no. 3, pp. 315-360, July 2001 or “Materialism and the Metaphysics of Modality”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 59, no. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 473-496.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 5:46 pm

JS Allen,

But I hold the Churchlands to be paramount examples of good philosophers. :)

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James Gray September 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Luke,

“Or, consider arguments for moral realism. These usually consist of (1) attempts to shift the burden of proof to those denying moral truths and (2) arguments that certain things have intrinsic value just because this is taken as an axiom of moral thinking or because we really feel that some things are right and wrong.”

This is a straw man argument.

What arguments for moral realism say that “things have intrinsic value just because this is taken as an axiom of moral thinking or because we really feel that some things are right and wrong?” None that I know of and I have spent considerable time studying the issue.

I already replied to your post on the axiom issue and it also sounds like a straw man argument. I’m not convinced that it was part of an argument for moral realism.

You are being dismissive and condescending of meta-ethical philosophy, and I don’t think you know enough about it. I think that arguments for intrinsic values are more like arguments that minds are real. We know that minds are real despite the fact that you can’t directly observe my mind for yourself.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Robert Gressis,

Obviously, you’ve read (and understood) more philosophy (and perhaps science) than I have. That does not, of course, make one of us right and the other wrong.

As for Chalmers’ papers, I have the first one but not the second. He argues for a great many conclusions in that paper. Did you want to hear my take on any one of them in particular?

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Patrick September 6, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Uhoh, there are two Patricks now. …I’ll start posting under something else, if I remember.

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Alex September 6, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Patrick : “After I said that silly-thing, I added [...]”

Yes, I read what you wrote. I, too, could have written “not that that makes you therefore automatically wrong”, but I find such statements idiotic because you *do* have intent with what you write, and I *do* mean that you’re automatically wrong for saying stupid stuff like that. Out of some bizarro respect for my fellow man, after I first wrote “stupid” I changed it to “silly”, as I gave you the benefit of doubt.

As Stewart likes to say: “No disrespect, but you’re mama’s a whore.” No disrespect, indeed. When you write things like “you’re too young, to inexperienced, just a blogger”, then what the fuck do you expect? How are we supposed to interpret that kinda phrasing? Pussyfooting it with “not that you therefore are *wrong*” is just bullshit, it is exactly what people who write this kind of tripe mean. You meant that people who blog, who are young, and who aren’t certified philosophers, should be scrutinized more for being just that.

Why skeptic of whether he is in a *position* to say what he says in the first place? What the hell does that even mean, position? And what does “position” in philosophy mean, for Pete’s sake? You have to be of a certain virtual rank to give authoritative metaphysical statements on things imagined, now? He’s saying something, so deal with the words that are coming out of his mouth instead of “being skeptic” about whether he’s standing up or kneeling down; it’s irrelevant to the argument. Don’t tell him he’s wrong, tell him *how* he’s wrong, otherwise you’re not part of the argument.

Next, the amount of debate in the history and philosophy of science? What? Pardon me, but as much as I love both philosophy *and* science and dabble in both, how anyone can disagree with the rigidity of science vs. the fluffiness of philosophy is beyond me, but then, I’m pretty sure I’m in no position talk about philosophy *reliably*. Whatever that means.

And I don’t really mean to be snarky, but I am, so that’s how I come across.

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JS Allen September 6, 2010 at 6:01 pm

@Luke – That’s why I said “most normal humans” :-) The esteemed folks who agree with the Churchlands are not exactly “normal”, by any empirical measure.

Dennett, I can understand, but I find the Churchlands a little bit crazy when they talk about reason, intentionality, and agency. Probably because I’m too normal.

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Bill Maher September 6, 2010 at 6:09 pm

cl,

are you aware of cosmology? Hawking has provided non-philosophical, scientific answers for fine-tuning and the existence of the universe already.

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a Nadder September 6, 2010 at 6:11 pm

While I don’t find Chalmers’ argument convincing I think it’s a strawman to treat it as if he’s just claiming something exists because he can imagine it

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Alex September 6, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Robert: “Since Luke is not all that familiar with the standards in either philosophy or science, I think it’s fair to say that he’s not well-positioned to make such a judgment. ”

I don’t know much about either of you two, but for the one to claim any lack of familiarity of the standards of two open subjects (or inter-operable) such as this on behalf of the other, makes my spidey-senses tingling. This is the kind of stuff I think Luke is *actually* pointing out; mincing words and definitions to a point where they win arguments and brownie-points, instead of dealing with the merits of the argument. I’m sure you can argue that Luke hasn’t got some aspect of either subject’s standards down pat, but that in no way deals with his argument. He can have little to no knowledge of philosophy, and still be right. All that’s important is the argument.

As to Chalmers, I don’t find ontological arguments for anything very convincing no matter how *interesting* they are, but I find him extremely interesting and fun. Still, he might be wrong, and as a more evo-devo kinda person, I think he is himself wrong of for example putting consciousness and feelings into different categories. But that’s a different discussion.

What we’re now talking about is a more rigid definition of high and low standards than Luke was operating with, I think. However, this is Luke’s argument, and he’s defined those terms on a scale from science, analytical philosophy, and further down. I suspect we all can argue back and forth what even high and low means in this context, but there’s a common sense of rigidity the higher you climb the ladder, rigidity involving things like testing, evidence and facts and outcomes, things that can be tested without *bias*. And philosophy will not and cannot be tested the the same rigidity as evidence-based science, it will probably never be able to rid itself with the burden of language and bias. Thinking otherwise is just pure madness. Surely this is not controversial?

Btw, I find Luke’s attitude towards established philosophers at times far too humble. :)

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Bradm September 6, 2010 at 6:23 pm

As others have pointed out, why should anybody listen to you about the supposedly low standards in philosophy when you can’t even take the time restate Chalmers’ argument correctly. And you are aware that at the end of his section (in his book The Conscious Mind) on the logical possibility of zombies he quite clearly says that many people “find conceivability arguments difficult to adjudicate, particularly where strange ideas such as this one are concerned” and then he goes on to say that every point he makes with his zombie argument can be made with other arguments and then he goes on to make those other arguments?

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ShaneSteinhauser September 6, 2010 at 6:48 pm

I know this is kind of off topic but can anyone point me in the direction of some atheist message boards that are not overly populated by mythicists?

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Bradm,

There, I made a footnote, just for you.

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Anonymous September 6, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Shane Steinhauser,

Are you looking for a comment thread that reads like a lovefest of atheists who have checked their brains at the door? Go play with the PZ Myers crowd. They’ll pat you on the back and rub your feet for you.

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Hermes September 6, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Shane, I’m not aware of a site that focuses on Jesus as mythic position as a topic; I encounter the mythicist angle only as a counter when Jesus is promoted as a historic figure.

I usually ignore either angle as Jesus is largely irrelevant. If you find a place that seems to benefit from a different take on the issue please drop a note about it.

[ I have no idea what Anonymous was getting at beyond a slam on PZ's commenters. ]

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 8:22 pm

a Nadder,

Chalmers isn’t arguing that zombies exist because he can imagine it, and that’s not how I represented his argument, either.

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a Nadder September 6, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Sorry by something I didn’t mean zombies but a non-material consciousness, I didn’t make that clear.

However, based on your explanation below, it still seems like a misunderstanding about his argument:

David Chalmers argues that because he can imagine a world with all the same physical facts but no qualia, therefore physicalism is false…Such an argument from “what I can imagine” would be laughed out of a scientific conference with jeers of “Come back when you have evidence you idiot!”

Perhaps someone presenting a brain-in-a-vat scenario might be laughed out by a scientist saying “come back when you have evidence you idiot” but then it would be that scientist who’s wrong.

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Bradm September 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Luke, you got his argument wrong. You restated it incorrectly. See Mark’s post above.

In any case, I think you are confusing “lower standards” with “different standards.” The standards to show that something is logically possible are different than the standards to show that something is actually the case. Scientists deal with the latter while Chalmers – in the zombie argument, at least – deals with the former.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 9:47 pm

JS Allen,

Which claims of the Churchlands do you find to be “crazy”?

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a Nadder September 6, 2010 at 9:55 pm

And yet I would expect a good, completed theory of consciousness to sound crazy to most normal humans, in which case it would be yet another step in science’s “so much the worse for normal humans” march which now includes evolutionary theory, cosmology, quantum physics, cell biology, relativity etc.

(Yes I’m not addressing the fact that you’re implying that it’s their personality that testifies against their case because I’m not sure how to address that.)

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 9:56 pm

Mark and Bradm,

If you read the actual content of my post, you will see that I left out the “machinery” that gets Chalmers from the possibility of p-zombies to dualism. I didn’t misrepresent the argument, I summarized it. Everything on this blog is summarized. Get over it.

Also, look at what I did to moral realism! How unfair! But obviously I don’t think I’ve refuted moral realism with the above short paragraph. (Especially since I am a moral realist.) Instead, I just skim by these examples to illustrate the point I’m making, not because I’m actually engaging these arguments seriously.

If you think I’m engaging dualism and moral realism seriously with one paragraph each, then I could see how you’d be upset. But that’s not what I’m doing.

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Zeb September 6, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Isn’t Nick Trakakis a Christian? Is it not odd that Parsons cites Trakakis’ “unanswerable atheological argument” as part of his reason for getting out of philosophy of religion? Does Trakakis not have an answer for his own argument? I’ll have to go back and listen to that CPBD – it was one of my favorites anyway.

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Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Hi Luke,

Actually, I got my cites wrong. The essay of interest is Chalmers’s “Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?”, pp. 145-200 of Conceivability and Possibility, eds. Tamar Szabó Gendler and John Hawthorne (Oxford, 2002).

My suspicion is that you and I probably have similar conclusions on modal epistemology. I agree with van Inwagen’s “modal skepticism”, the view that we can know “everyday” modal claims (e.g., I could have chosen not to type on this computer; my cat could have jumped to the second level, rather than to the top level, of his tree) to be true but we can’t know more esoteric modal claims (e.g., there could be a three-inch thick sheet of iron that is transparent to visible light; there could be a world with minds but nothing physical) simply through conceiving.

That said, I imagine what we disagree about is the relative rigor of Chalmers’s argument for the conceivability of zombies. I don’t know enough about natural science and its standards to know about whether philosophy is *as* rigorous, but unless you stipulate a definition of rigorous, I’m not sure you do either because, frankly, I’m not sure the comparison is sensical. My hunch is that the kinds of issues dealt with in philosophy are dealt with in a fashion about as rigorously as they can be dealt with. Now, they often can’t be experimentally confirmed, but I’m not sure it follows from that that we can make comparative judgments about the relative rigors of science and philosophy. For instance, in writing Ulysses was James Joyce as rigorous as Murray Gell-Mann’s work in formulating the hadronic model of hadronic resonances? I don’t know; I’m not even sure what an answer to that question would look like.

But if you want to discuss Chalmers’s “Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?” on this blog, fine. I’m not sure that either of us is particularly qualified to have much of interest to say, though.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Zeb,

Trakakis’ defense of Rowe’s argument from evil is pretty strong, but Trakakis thinks it’s not quite strong enough to rule out theism. Parsons probably doesn’t accept Nick’s reasons for retaining theism despite the argument from evil.

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Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Trakakis is a Christian, but his theism, last I heard, was a bit shaky. That said, he doesn’t think there is a good answer to Rowe’s argument if you restrict yourself to the kind of evidences that most analytic philosophers of religion find to be permissible. However, if you engage in continental ways of thinking, he thinks there is something to be said in the face of Rowe’s argument.

I confess, I don’t really know what he means about how continental approaches can make headway that analytic approaches can’t, but I gather he’s still working on that.

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Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 10:39 pm

BTW, in case anyone is wondering, my one-sentence summary of Gell-Mann’s work was taken from Wikipedia. It’s not like I have any fluency with his work.

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lukeprog September 6, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Robert,

I’d rather talk about how philosophical methods can be “more rigorous” and “of higher standards,” by which I roughly mean “more similar to the methods of our most successful knowledge enterprise: science.” Of course, discussions of this abound in naturalistic literature – two recent examples include Bishop & Trout, Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment and Wimsatt, Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings. Does that help explain where I’m coming from?

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Robert Gressis September 6, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Hi Luke,

It may be clearer–I’m not sure–but either I don’t understand how to make the answering of certain philosophical questions more like the methods of natural science (how does one make conceptual analysis more scientific? Are we talking about doing experimental philosophy? But then what about trying to improve upon ordinary language concepts? Similarly, how do you make the answering of normative questions more akin to the methods of natural science?) or I simply don’t agree with you that we ought to make the methods of philosophy more like those of natural science.

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cl September 7, 2010 at 1:53 am

bill maher,

Hawking has provided non-philosophical, scientific answers for fine-tuning and the existence of the universe already.

That’s entirely besides my point, which had to do with his new argument.

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Jacopo September 7, 2010 at 2:12 am

Seems to me that at least two questions are running parallel here.

One is, are the people doing philosophy just putting in less effort than those in the sciences? In terms of the amount of time researching and reading etc. then I’d guess it’d be somewhat equal, especially given the super-competitive worlds of both areas of academia. If I compare someone like Graham Oppy to the obsessive evolutionary biologists and ecologists I studied under, they look pretty similar in work-rate and output to me.

The other, is philosophy that uses non-empirically based arguments or starting assumptions such as conceivability, intuitions &c. worth doing? Then it all boils down to your underlying epistemology, I suppose. Certainly, for people who are more impressed with empirical accounts of knowledge, abstract argument is going to be generally unconvincing.

I suppose one way of answering Robert Gressis’ comment

I don’t understand how to make the answering of certain philosophical questions more like the methods of natural science

Would be to demand that philosophy takes into account fully all the relevant scientific knowledge before talking about certain problems. The psychology of human judgement and biases before doing epistemology. The fact of evolution when talking about human nature. The current state of knowledge in physics when talking about ontology. The discoveries of neurology when talking about the philosophy of mind.

Sure, there are plenty of questions that won’t be settled or anything close to that just by knowing the empirical data. And that doesn’t make philosophy like the natural sciences. But it at least brings it in line with them in so far as, wherever you draw conclusions, they have to be supported by the evidence.

I guess the curse of trying to make philosophy more scientific is that that’s already been done for centuries. Those philosophies which let you do that have spun off already and become sciences. Those that don’t remain in philosophy, and are guided mostly by inconclusive rational arguments. In a way I agree with Gressis. I’m reminded of Dennett’s remark that many non-believers (misguidedly) try and refute theism as if it’s a rival scientific theory. That same idea could be applied to many other philosophical controversies.

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Rob September 7, 2010 at 3:05 am

Do philosophy papers submitted to major journals go through anything like the peer review process for scientific papers? Not that the peer review process is perfect, but at least it is a first layer filter that captures the obvious crap before it gets published.

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Jacopo September 7, 2010 at 3:37 am

Philosophy papers in good journals are peer-reviewed.

I think if anything it’s harder to get philosophy published than some other subjects. Some of the better dissertations from my bachelors degree were published in evolution and ecology journals. I don’t think that’s so common among philosophy students. It’s probably harder to think something genuinely new and interesting, than it is to persevere with a study someone else hasn’t had the time to do yet.

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Pedro Amaral Couto September 7, 2010 at 4:37 am

Alvin Plantinga and the Modal Argument

Robert Lawrence Kuhn does not understand Platinga’s argument. Why?

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Bill Maher September 7, 2010 at 5:44 am

cl,

I could be wrong, but the new book just looks like it is a compilation of current cosmology, not an argument in the philosophical way.

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lukeprog September 7, 2010 at 7:05 am

Robert,

Fair enough. I’m sure I’ll eventually right some things about why and how to make philosophy more like science.

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Bill Maher September 7, 2010 at 8:24 am

cl,

I was right. The book is more or less a sequel to a Briefer History of Time. It shows all of the advances in modern cosmology and how they leave to room for God. Virtually no philosophy (he does go over what a good explanation is, that is about it).

If you are used to reading philosophy and not popular science books, you may be a bit bewildered by it.

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cl September 7, 2010 at 10:26 am

Bill Maher,

Have you read the book? Or, is this just someone else’s summary? Just curious. I’m picking up my copy today [after all, it just went on sale this morning]. I’ll wait until I’ve read it to say what it’s about. Like I said, I loved Black Holes & Baby Universes, even if I think Hawking oversteps his bounds at times.

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Daniel September 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

One more ‘argument from authority’ …

“It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. (Aristotle, Nic. Eth., 1094b24)

I don’t imagine this to be any sort of argument, really, but I post it because it does – as my students would say – beg [sic] the question: is the philosopher more like a rhetorician or more like a mathematician?

Luke, it would seem, would like to say the philosopher is or should be moving more towards the mathematical (or, rather, the naturalistic/scientific/empirical) end of things.

It seems to me an interesting meta-debate can be had here about the purposes of philosophy, and what it might mean for philosophy to be ‘scientific’ … The debate has a very long history bound up with the modernist project in philosophy [Descartes] and perhaps even beyond, stretching back to Aristotle’s concern with demonstrations and what constitutes a good argument in, say, Ethics as opposed to Physics.

Obviously, what Luke means now when he sets this out as a desideratum is different than what someone like Kant meant when he wanted to establish the scientific (wissenschaftlich) character of philosophy. But it’s a debate that has been raging for a long time, on different levels and from different perspectives.

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anti_supernaturalist September 7, 2010 at 1:33 pm

…the god(s) of the philosophers bear scant resemblance to the god(s) of antiquity or to their atavistic equivalents used today to subvert the US Constitution or enforce state totalitarianism in Iran. Nonetheless, some conceptions favored among the ancestors for saving the phenomenon of “God” must fall away as invalidated.

Certainty is a chimera

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.– Einstein

Like language, mathematics manipulates abstract conceptions through manipulating symbols. Neither language nor mathematics uses symbols or statements or expressions found “in the world,” since there are no concepts in the world to find. No god taught an Adamic language. No god excogitated the universe through mathematics. All concepts are cultural artifacts.

Sciences make empirical models of the world using math. The “fit” between model and world is never perfect. Mathematics provides testable models which Einstein notes “are not certain”. Models are not unassailable descriptions of nature. Nor do models provide ontologically irreplaceable explanations of nature. There exist no universal empirical statements and there are no irreplaceable scientific theories. That is, there exist no “laws of nature” in nature. Nature is silent.

Mathematical theorems supply so-called irrefutable truths which “are certain” only since they follow from distinct, coherent, and finite axiom sets. For example, Euclid and Riemann differ over the famous “parallel postulate.” There is no quasi-religious creed at issue concerning the axiom sets.

Axioms, unlike creeds, give rise to sane outcomes. As internally consistent alternative geometries, Euclid and Riemann live and let live. But they cannot both be “telling the truth” about space-time. (They can, however, both be false.) They present incompatible models of the world. No “necessary truth” ever comes along for the ride from math to lab.

God-the-Geometer arises before Plato in Pythagorean geometric number mysticism. Theologized xianity and western philosophy have always sought a marketing halo effect from alleged sources of universal certainty.

the anti_supernaturalist

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Hermes September 7, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Anti_supernaturalist — welcome & well said!

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JS Allen September 7, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Which claims of the Churchlands do you find to be “crazy”?

Well, if I’m not mistaken, they’re still both eliminativist with respect to intentionality, and I think that’s just crazy, especially since Dennett gave them a way out.

I agree with them that folk psychology is limited and error-prone, but I think that actual empirical observation at the behavioral level (like what Doris cites, or what Tversky and Kahneman, etc. do) is the right idea. I can’t find the reference, but I recall the Churchlands arguing that we can start with neurons and build a new model from the bottom up that may be completely foreign to humans but would be more accurate. I find that really crazy.

It reminds me of the discussion over “provably correct software“. It’s true that the vast majority of software isn’t written to be provably correct, but that’s not such a big deal. Making provably correct software is extremely hard. And in the case of “folk psychology” the scope of that task is enormous — even bigger than creating a neuron-based model of a raw human brain. IMO, it’ll be more than 100 years before we can even plausibly begin to empirically test their thesis, so it seems as if they are just staking out an unfalsifiable position of faith that won’t be able to be tested in their lifetimes.

And they claim that folk psychology is a theory of “retreat, infertility and decadence”, claiming that people say things like “angry sea” because they’re getting tricked by folk psychology. I find that ridiculous. It’s like the semi-autistic kid who doesn’t understand poetry declaring that poems are mental delusions. They complain that folk psychology is roughly the same since the Ancient Greeks (as if it needs to change to be good), and seem completely ignorant that Aristotle gave a much better explanation for things like “angry sea” in “Poetics”

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cl September 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Bill Maher,

FWIW: Reviewing The Grand Design, I

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Bill Maher September 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm

cl,

I have read the book. I bought it this morning. It is nothing new, just Hawking summarizing current cosmology. I don’t know if you have read Kaku, Greene, Krauss, Caroll. If you have, it may not be worth the money unless you like Hawking a lot.

This is more of an intro book. So if you really want detailed cosmology, you may need to get educated on the subject and read his (and others) more technical work.

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Alex September 7, 2010 at 6:02 pm

JS Allen: “I recall the Churchlands arguing that we can start with neurons and build a new model from the bottom up that may be completely foreign to humans but would be more accurate. I find that really crazy.”

Why is this crazy?

Taking a step back and re-evaluate your entire model based on some fundamental shift seems very wise to me. It doesn’t follow in philosophy that models evolve over time and that the useful things hang around to become foundation for other models. Quite often the drift from free-will in a religious model to determinism in a naturalist model is so fundamentally different that they cannot have the same fundament. Why would anything pertaining to eliminativists be any different, intentionality or otherwise? (I seem to recall that the argument is that intentionality is based in free-will, which has been eliminated along with qualia … :)

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cl September 7, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Bill Maher,

Well aren’t you quick on the draw! I’m familiar with a few of the writers you mention.

So if you really want detailed cosmology, you may need to get educated on the subject and read his (and others) more technical work.

Thanks, I appreciate the assumption that I haven’t ;)

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JS Allen September 7, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Taking a step back and re-evaluate your entire model based on some fundamental shift seems very wise to me. It doesn’t follow in philosophy that models evolve over time and that the useful things hang around to become

Granted. But Churchlands seem to be assuming that a better model won’t look anything like folk psychology, will be severely reductionist, and will be feasible sometime in the foreseeable future.

Maybe they’re right, but it seems like wild speculation to me. We use higher-level human-friendly abstractions to explain many other important things, and I don’t see why the same won’t be true of consciousness. Darwin’s theory sounds a lot like a fiction about competing tribes of people, told in human-friendly terms based on direct observations of animals. Darwin didn’t need to drop down to some reductive layer like neurons, DNA, sperm, or whatever.

Again, this doesn’t prove that Churchlands are wrong, but I think it’s significant that there is no way to prove them right or wrong in the foreseeable future. In contrast, the cognitive researchers and people like Kahneman and Tversky are making real, measurable progress today.

Pat Churchland once remarked that progress is made when two extremes challenge each other and bang against each other like eggs (I think she said eggs). So maybe that’s what they’re doing: taking an extreme opposite position to encourage progress. But I don’t really think that the people making real progress are all that motivated by a desire to debunk Churchlands.

foundation for other models. Quite often the drift from free-will in a religious model to determinism in a naturalist model is so fundamentally different that they cannot have the same fundament.

I don’t think this is right. Several great Christian theologians, including John Calvin. Martin Luther and (I think) Augustine have argued that determinism or compatibilism is a necessary conclusion from belief in God. Compatibilism is influential in modern Islamic theology (at least the stuff I’ve read). Buddhism rejects libertarian free will, and I’m not sure what Hinduism says.

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Robert Gressis September 7, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Just to back up JS Allen, a lot of contemporary Christian philosophers are also compatibilists: Paul Helm, Lynne Rudder Baker, John Hare, Robert Adams, Marilyn Adams, Robert Audi, and Hud Hudson, off the top of my head. Indeed, Derk Pereboom and Nick Trakakis are even Christian hard determinists.

Also, about the Churchlands: I recall once reading Paul Churchland claiming that one reason to abandon folk psychological explanations is that they make terrible predictions. I could be totally wrong about this–I think I read it ten years ago, in his 1988 book, Matter and Consciousness–, but if I’m right, that seems to me to be a pretty outrageous claim. Sure, folk psychological predictions often predict wrong, but they predict a lot correctly (e.g., if you steal someone’s car, she’s probably going to be angry at you).

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lukeprog September 7, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Robert,

The original argument from Churchland is in “Eliminative Materialism and Propositional Attitudes.” I have an upcoming post that quotes from it heavily so that I can explain why I am both an eliminative materialist and also a desirist.

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Alex September 7, 2010 at 9:01 pm

JS Allen and Robert Gressis: I guess I’m in the camp of stating that compatibilism is just a futile attempt by religious people to reconcile two incompatible models, that their version of free will is at odds with (and I kinda made it explicit) realism free will (bordering on libertarian, but not quite there :).

But I do understand why they do this in order to be compatible with the omnipresence of their god, however I’ve seen quite an amount of bad exegesis on this trying to make free will into something that it clearly can’t be. Even Kant told them off for it, and I don’t think compatiblists are any better today from what I’ve seen. (However it seems to be something that isn’t talked about much, either)

Allen: “But Churchlands seem to be assuming that a better model won’t look anything like folk psychology, will be severely reductionist, and will be feasible sometime in the foreseeable future. [...] Maybe they’re right, but it seems like wild speculation to me.”

Again, why? If the model for decisions goes from absolute free will (for example) to hard determinism, then anything that has ever been thought of will by definition have to be revised. Paradigm shifts in popular mentalities have always brought anything from small re-write to complete ones. Of the latter, I’m sure we can say there were a blacksmith psychology for the basis of technology, or a pre-DNA notion of what inheritance meant that completely changed the way we now view it. The discovery of the bacterium changed not how we view biology, but health.

I don’t find complete re-writes all that speculative. We do have them from time to time, and they also seem to always happen at the sharp end of the science spear. Why not philosophy, too? These days it’s easy to reject folk psychology because even though it used to look like the truth, it turns out it simply isn’t. This “looks like” is what makes us cling to our old ideas, until they crumble, usually at the discovery of something new.

Neuroscience is totally fascinating to philosophy buffs for this very reason; we’re digging into the actual physical representation of the folk term “the mind” / “consciousness” and discovering chemical reasons for what used to be anything from free will to demons. If we can point to chemicals giving you a given feeling, is there any point in arguing if that feeling exists outside the boundaries of the physical? I’m not even sure, but some would see it not as a feeling in the traditional sense but as a chemical reaction. And the further down the rabbit hole we go, the more physical feelings will become. If we soon can describe our emotions, not through poetry, but through chemical notation, then what? We can less and less use our old concepts for what we have used them for for ages. Notions such as truth compared to a delusion might well be physically measured, and *will* play a great deal in, say, future court cases and the odd philosophy discussion. :)

Does anyone seriously dispute that the extended knowledge of our physical brain will have no impact on our fundamental understanding of how it works? No. Why doesn’t it follow that our understanding of how we think (or use it) won’t follow, of how we think and create these things called emotions, decisions, notions, categories, languages, and so on? And then why doesn’t it follow that this will change philosophy dramatically?

We personally have epiphanies, like when I discovered the Satir model of system change, our world views just flip around. These flips are hard in established models (like science and philosophy and religion) but seems to be reasonably easy for us humans. No, the world isn’t flat, it’s like a ball. Whammo!

If we have spent thousands of years building a philosophy on a foundation that is not rooted in a discovery made today (because technology has taken this long to get to that point, so obviously fair enough), why shouldn’t it crackle and even fall down? Why shouldn’t this new model look completely different from the old? (Or is it the time scale you think is crazy?)

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TaiChi September 7, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Leiter Reports now discussing this.

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lukeprog September 7, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Keith DeRose’s comments on the Prosblogion thread are quite interesting.

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Robert Gressis September 7, 2010 at 9:34 pm

@ Alex,

Alex,

First of all, 59% of philosophers are compatibilists. Since 72% of philosophers are atheists, it’s not right to say that compatibilism represents an attempt by “religious people” to do anything. Instead, compatibilism is the dominant view regarding free will held by most philosophers.

Second, I literally don’t understand what you write when you say that “compatibilism is just a futile attempt by religious people to reconcile two incompatible models, that their version of free will is at odds with (and I kinda made it explicit) realism free will (bordering on libertarian, but not quite there :)”. What are the two incompatible models with which religious people’s version of free will is at odds with? What is “realism free will”? What is it to border on libertarianism but not be quite there?

Third, the examples you give to support the plausibility of the Churchlands’ speculation do not persuade me. Even if people come to accept hard determinism, this would (i) not obviously be a very novel development, as (from what I gather) hard determinism was the dominant view among Calvinists for a time, and is (from what I gather) the dominant view among Muslims and adherents of eastern religions, and, more important (ii) wouldn’t reflect anything about the nature of consciousness. Even if turns out to be true that no one has free will, it doesn’t follow from that that no one has propositional attitudes, which is what eliminative materialists claim. (Also, what is “blacksmith psychology”? Folk psychology is the view of the mind shared by the folk in every culture throughout history, and so has a much greater claim to be hardwired in us for, say, evolutionary reasons than “blacksmith psychology”, whatever that is.)

Fourth, you write, “These days it’s easy to reject folk psychology because even though it used to look like the truth, it turns out it simply isn’t.” Your language that “it turns out [folk psychology] simply isn’t [the truth]” suggests that folk psychology has already been overturned by neuroscientists. But I doubt this very much. From what I gather, most neuroscientists are reductive materialists–they think that attitudes like fear, hope, joy, etc., are real attitudes; it’s just that they happen to be identical to brain states. Eliminative materialists think that there is no such thing as hope, fear, joy, desire, or belief–no such thing as any propositional attitude at all, in fact. Instead, all these propositional attitudes are part of a defective folk psychology that we shall eventually see to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Fifth, you ask “If we soon can describe our emotions, not through poetry, but through chemical notation, then what?” I don’t think I understand the question. I gather that you’re saying that there may come a future time where we can replace “I’m in pain” with “there is a C-fiber firing”. But from what I can tell, this is a reduction, not an elimination. Why should we say “there is a C-fiber firing” instead of “I’m in pain” unless saying “I’m in pain” doesn’t map onto any physical terms in any clear way?

Sixth, you ask, “Does anyone seriously dispute that the extended knowledge of our physical brain will have no impact on our fundamental understanding of how it works? No. Why doesn’t it follow that our understanding of how we think (or use it) won’t follow, of how we think and create these things called emotions, decisions, notions, categories, languages, and so on? And then why doesn’t it follow that this will change philosophy dramatically?” Well, to me, it’s one thing to say that neuroscience will enrich our language; it’s quite another to say that neuroscience will force us to drop the most used concepts in our language because we become convinced that there’s no physical correlate for them. To me, it sounds like this: “it turns out that lightning bolts aren’t thrown by Zeus; instead, they’re the equal and opposite discharge of electritcity between the earth and the sky; therefore, there are no lightning bolts”. It would be odd, at least to my ears, to conclude that there are no lightning bolts because our initial understanding of what they are turned out to be fallacious; similarly, it strikes me as odd to conclude that there are no thoughts should it turn out to be that thoughts aren’t what we thought they were before the neuroscientific revolution.

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Alex September 7, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Robert Gressis: “9% of philosophers are compatibilists. Since 72% of philosophers are atheists”

My goodness. And, uh, where did these numbers come from? And what is a philosopher? It’s not that I dispute the numbers (well, I do), but we need to keep in mind that religious philosophy has been the dormant and most important player in the field of free will, hands down, (Ie. they need it more than others) and they are the definers of the ontology used (making it harder to fit new meaning into old terms)

“What are the two incompatible models with which religious people’s version of free will is at odds with?”

The two models which compatibilism deals with; determinism and free will. Let’s put it this way; the (spooky) free will that religion wants puts the mind in the realm of the supernatural (or they put it there to make it spooky), while realism which (casual) determinism pursues cannot have it there. Compatibilism is an attempt to put it there, solving “free will” by putting it into the spiritual realm (IMO) where reality can’t touch it.

“Even if people come to accept hard determinism, this [...] wouldn’t reflect anything about the nature of consciousness.”

Seriously? The underlying paradigm shifts, and you think it’s unimportant or doesn’t tell us anything important about what the paradigm shift changes? Surely you jest?

“Even if turns out to be true that no one has free will, it doesn’t follow from that that no one has propositional attitudes, which is what eliminative materialists claim”

No, that’s simply not true (your conclusion), there’s different opinions about that in several shades of gray from rejection to acceptance, but I could in this context state that the attitudes are (IMO) simple states as well, there’s no need to defend propositional attitudes which, for me, mostly is an ontological argument about free will; I don’t think you can even fairly discuss them outside of folk psychology.

“Also, what is “blacksmith psychology”?”

Sorry, I should have been clearer. I was playing on technology being a current platform, a current foundation, where blacksmiths were that platform until the car changed the paradigm (so blacksmith psychology is a pre-paradigm-shift mode of operation). It didn’t change the fact that we still traveled around, but it changed everything we know about how to deal with the travelling (including losing all the knowledge the blacksmith culture had built up) with speed, safety, efficiency, infra-structure, technology, and so forth.

“Your language that “it turns out [folk psychology] simply isn’t [the truth]” suggests that folk psychology has already been overturned by neuroscientists. But I doubt this very much.”

Granted, perhaps my assertive language here in the comments field can’t and shouldn’t be so over-confidant, but I don’t think the many years and several serious philosophers attempts at debunking folk psychology is a sign of this being something only neuroscientists believe, nor something emerging, nor something not gaining traction. As with most of these things it is about shifting the definitions around, and I think most reductive materialists are saying that the words (with their traditional meaning) needs serious revising. And I would agree with that. “attitudes like fear, hope, joy, etc.” certainly can be reduced to chemistry states and that at the “free will” level they resemble the language used in folk psychology. However, I don’t agree that eliminative materialists are what you claim them to be, I think they are just more assertive that the ontology needs serious revision which a lot of non-materialists will oppose to.

“I gather that you’re saying that there may come a future time where we can replace “I’m in pain” with “there is a C-fiber firing”. But from what I can tell, this is a reduction, not an elimination. Why should we say “there is a C-fiber firing” instead of “I’m in pain” unless saying “I’m in pain” doesn’t map onto any physical terms in any clear way?”

No, you’re using very simple language to create a bit of a straw man. Take rather the sentence “I’ve got a broken heart, I feel the pain so bad.” There is no C-fiber firing pain signals, there might be a whole complex set of chemical modes representing what is being described, and nothing has got anything to do with the ontological pain.

However, I wasn’t saying that we *will* stop writing poetry and just do chemical notation. I was alluding to the question of how far removed from the word “heartache” do we go before you’re happy to call it an elimination and not a reduction?

About point 6; “To me, it sounds like this: “it turns out that lightning bolts aren’t thrown by Zeus; instead, they’re the equal and opposite discharge of electritcity between the earth and the sky; therefore, there are no lightning bolts”.”

Well, up until your conclusion I would agree, but I wouldn’t say therefore lightning bolt don’t exists, because, well, that would be stupid as the language used doesn’t actually conflict with the new knowledge. There’s still lightning bolts, you’ve just changed their origin and / or purpose. Some paradigm shifts will change the underlying ontology in quite dramatic ways, like “heaven” which took a heck of a lot of exegesis and doctrinal change over the eons to go from the physical firmament above us to a magical, unseen, unknown place of spiritual goodness.

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Robert Gressis September 7, 2010 at 11:18 pm

“My goodness. And, uh, where did these numbers come from?”

I got the numbers from David Chalmers’s survey of philosophers. See this: http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl.

“And what is a philosopher?”

What is a philosopher? For the purposes of Chalmers’s survey, it is an academic who has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is employed at a university or a graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in a department of philosophy.

“It’s not that I dispute the numbers (well, I do)…”

Why do you dispute the numbers? Do you think the survey was done wrong? Or do you think the people surveyed aren’t representative of philosophical opinion? Or some other reason?

“…but we need to keep in mind that religious philosophy has been the dormant and most important player in the field of free will, hands down, (Ie. they need it more than others) and they are the definers of the ontology used (making it harder to fit new meaning into old terms)”

First, I take it you mean “dominant”, not “dormant”, right? Assuming this is right, what do you mean when you say it has been the dominant and most important player in the field of free will? Is this because up until about the 19th century, most philosophers were religious? Why do you think religion (by which I assume you mean theistic religion, or possibly Christianity) needs free will more than “others” (by which I take it you mean secular philosophies)? Don’t many others want free will for the purposes of securing moral responsibility? Don’t a lot of people have a pre-philosophical belief in free will, or do you think this is predominantly the result of religious inculcation, such that if religion had never been invented people wouldn’t have believed in free will? As for religion being the definer of the ontology used, well, “religion” is a pretty amorphous institution. And as JS Allen mentioned earlier, there have been lots of different religious perspectives on free will–Calvin and Luther were hard determinists, Leibniz was a compatibilist (as were, arguably, Aquinas and Augustine), Reid was a libertarian (as were, arguably, Aquinas and Augustine), Kant was a compatibilist with regard to the phenomenal world, and a libertarian with regard to the noumenal world, etc.

In my previous post, I asked, “What are the two incompatible models with which religious people’s version of free will is at odds with?” You answer that the two models with which “religious people’s version of free will” (which I take to be libertarianism, but which I shall call “religious free will”) are at odds are “The two models which compatibilism deals with; determinism and free will.” So religious free will is at odds with determinism and religious free will is at odds with … free will? The second conjunct confuses me. What do you mean that religious free will is at odds with free will?

Going on, you write, “Let’s put it this way; the (spooky) free will that religion wants puts the mind in the realm of the supernatural (or they put it there to make it spooky), while realism which (casual) determinism pursues cannot have it there. Compatibilism is an attempt to put it there, solving “free will” by putting it into the spiritual realm (IMO) where reality can’t touch it.”

I’m not sure I understand what you take compatibilism to be. It appears that you take compatibilism to be the view that determinism is true of the physical realm and free will holds in another realm, the “spiritual” realm. To the best of my understanding–and I’ve read a fair bit of literature on free will–this is not what compatibilism is. If I have you right, the view you describe as compatibilism is closer to Kant’s distinctive view of free will, and Kant was not a compatibilist in the traditional sense. Compatibilists traditionally believe that free will is compatibile with determinism; that is, they usually understand free will to be something like this: “P acts of his own free will when he acts on his desire, and he desires to have the desire he acts on” or “P acts of his own free will when he acts on his strongest desire” or “P acts of his own free will when he acts on a desire that flows from his character”. In each of these cases, acting of one’s own free will is compatible with determinism (e.g., imagine that you are predetermined to have character C by forces beyond your control; nevertheless, some compatibilists would happily say that you nonetheless act of your own free will when you act on a desire that flows from C).

Anyway, maybe we’re talking past each other; examples of compatibilists I have in mind are Harry Frankfurt, David Hume, and John Martin Fischer. Who are some examples of compatibilists you have in mind?

I see this post is too long, and it’s past mid-night, so I’ll try to get to the rest of your points later.

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Richard Wein September 8, 2010 at 12:31 am

Good post, Luke. I would say that science, analytical philosophy and history are all part of the broad project of empirical investigation of the world. Their fundamental inductive principles are similar, and there is no clear line of demarcation between them. But they focus on different types of empirical questions, requiring different types of evidence and different specific methods.

I think many philosophers don’t sufficiently recognise this contiguity between different fields of empirical enquiry, with some trying to draw a hard demarcation line between philosophy and science. Richard Dawkins seems to use the word “science” to refer to all of empirical enquiry, which is a useful way of drawing attention to the contiguity, but probably leads to more confusion than it’s worth.

It’s not surprising that scientists often make bad arguments about philosophy if they haven’t studied the subject. But they don’t need a knowledge of philosophy to make good judgements on some of the questions which are typically put under the rubric of “philosophy”, such as the existence of God. Scientists’ general understanding of the world and experience at making empirical judgements qualifies them to make better judgements about the existence of God than non-scientists generally. I would say that’s why disbelief is much higher among scientists than among the general population. I think Dawkins has good reasons for rejecting the existence of God. But he’s not so good at saying what those reasons are (though I think his arguments are in the right ballpark).

I’d agree with you that–in certain senses–standards are lower in philosophy than in science. There is some very good philosophy, but also a lot of misguided philosophy. The lack of consensus among philosophers makes it much more difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff than it is in science.

To be fair, philosophy is a very difficult subject, more difficult in some ways than science. Much of philosophy concerns the human mind, which is the most complex system we know of. And philosophical hypotheses tend to be less testable than those of science. That’s almost true by definition: if hypotheses about a subject are readily testable, scientists will start testing it and it will probably come to be seen more as a matter of science. Another difficulty of philosophy is that it challenges some of our deepest beliefs about ourselves, such as those concerned with free will, morality and personal identity.

Much of philosophy turns on the meanings of words which we usually take for granted, but which turn out to be highly problematic on closer inspection, words like “moral”, “justified”, “knowledge”, etc. Words get their meanings from the ways people use them, so establishing the meanings of words is a matter for empirical enquiry. Unfortunately some philosophers don’t seem to appreciate that that, which leads to a lot of problems. You recently linked to a very good post by Julia Galef which discussed this problem. I would say that desirism commits just the sort of error that Julia warns of. (I don’t want to get into another discussion of desirism, but I thought that was worth a brief mention.)

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Paul King September 8, 2010 at 12:49 am

@Pedro Amaral Couto

The jump from conceivability to possibility in the sense of modal logic is simply invalid. Yet it is essential to Plantinga’s argument. I think that Kuhn had a much better grasp of the strength of Plantinga’s argument than Plantinga did. It’s really not a strong argument at all.

(The argument also fails to address the idea that conscious mind is primarily a process which could conceivably be implemented on different “hardware” – a view which would still be compatible with materialism but is not refuted by Plantinga’s argument.)

So maybe this is an example of low standards in philosophy.

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Richard Wein September 8, 2010 at 2:24 am

@Robert Gressis

It may be clearer–I’m not sure–but either I don’t understand how to make the answering of certain philosophical questions more like the methods of natural science (how does one make conceptual analysis more scientific? Are we talking about doing experimental philosophy? But then what about trying to improve upon ordinary language concepts?

Hi Robert. I’d like to reply to that last question.

It seems to me that this idea of “improv[ing] upon ordinary language concepts” causes a lot of problems. You are either speaking the natural language (in which a word has its ordinary meaning) or you are speaking a technical language (in which you’ve stipulated a new meaning for the word). If philosophers have adopted an “improved” meaning for a word, then they are now speaking their own technical language, and it’s vital not to conflate that technical meaning with the ordinary meaning.

In what sense can the new meaning be an improvement? Surely only in the sense that it’s useful for philosophers when talking among themselves. But in that respect it plays the same role as technical senses of words in any other technical field, including science.

Some philosophers seem to think that they can stipulate an “improved” meaning for a word, and then use it in place of the ordinary meaning. That leads to conflation between the two meanings, the kind of error that I mentioned at the end of my last comment.

(Perhaps some philosophers are concerned not with explaining reality but with changing it. They may feel they can improve society by getting ordinary people to use an existing word in a new “improved” sense. I have a feeling that might be the desirist programme, though I’ve never been able to understand what desirists really mean.)

Similarly, how do you make the answering of normative questions more akin to the methods of natural science?) or I simply don’t agree with you that we ought to make the methods of philosophy more like those of natural science.

I would say that there are no answers to strictly normative questions (such as the thinnest moral questions), because there are no normative facts. I’m a moral anti-realist, and an anti-realist towards normativity generally. However, many propositions have both normative and descriptive elements, an example being “thick” moral propositions. The descriptive element of such propositions can be truth-apt.

I think Luke would give you different answers to these questions.

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Alex September 8, 2010 at 2:53 am

Robert Gressis: “Why do you dispute the numbers?”

Oh, only because we’re talking about subjects which are really hard to pin down. I might for example be a eliminative materialist without falling into some specific bucket as a whole (or, often, clumped into certain areas of that bucket), so I can agree with most parts except a few gray areas, yet the survey deals with (mostly) very hard edges. The thing that I think I have the biggest problem with is if the respondents all have the same idea of what the question entails, and I doubt that very much. Even hardened philosophers can disagree on fundamental definitions or some philosophical work.

Btw, it’s interesting to see the figures changed based on affiliation, especially on compatibilism (down to 45% on no affiliation, 41% amongst undergrads, to 55% with faculty). And we can’t tell if that’s because they agree more as they learn more.

“what do you mean when you say it has been the dominant and most important player in the field of free will?”

Yes, in the western world religious philosophers have been the main actors, but also that within religion (again yes, more specifically within Christianity) there is a deep need for free will (for example in the problem of evil; if there’s no free will but there is a God, then God is responsible for that evil. Calvinists especially have struggled with this concept); it’s the basis for original sin, and for the choice of salvation. The point is that these philosophers have more or less shaped the ontology for what free will means, and this is (probably) still the biggest constraint to the debate; determinism is in my eyes more formal than free will, if for nothing more than the number of people who deal with the issue of free will. For example, free will as a term is part of their doctrine, whilst atheists will want to talk about terms that are remote from doctrine. I see it as a translation problem between two ontologies that looks eerily similar but aren’t.

Anyway, getting very late here as well, so I’ll continue in the morning. And I’ll try to be clearer. I’m as you’ve probably guessed not a formal philosopher, only a papparazzi wanna-be who never made it through journalism school …

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Bill Maher September 8, 2010 at 6:31 am

cl,

It wasn’t intended to be an insult. most people do not have a formal education in physics outside of high school. Instead, most people in sights like this have read a book by Craig or some other apologist on the subject.

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JS Allen September 8, 2010 at 9:46 am

@Alex – In addition to what Robert said, I’ll add that many prominent atheists are compatibilists, including Dennett, Drescher, and Luke :-)

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cl September 8, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Bill Maher,

I didn’t take it as an intended insult. No harm, no foul.

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PhysicistDave September 14, 2010 at 4:37 am

Luke,

I take it most of the commenters here are philosophers. I am a physicist (Ph.D. from Stanford, 1983).

From my perspective, it seems not so much that philosophers have low standards, in the sense that they just need to raise their existing standards, but rather that the entire method of philosophy, going back two-and-a-half millennia, is simply a proven failure.

It was plausible in Classical Greece that if one thought carefully about one’s ideas, made plausible assumptions, and then drew out from those assumptions plausible conclusions, one could learn a significant part of the truth about reality.

That has failed.

A few centuries ago, the early scientists hit upon a radically different model: Assume that nature is radically different than what is revealed by common sense. Assume that the truths of nature are hidden in apparently insignificant little details (the anomaly in Mars’ orbit studied by Kepler, the detailed fossils present in sedimentary rocks, etc.). Come up with a detailed, non-robust model (i.e., one that is, in principle, vulnerable to further detailed observations) that explains the tiny details and try to shoot it down with further detailed observations. And, suppose that nature is “mechanistic”: mindless, soulless, valueless, reductionist, made up of tiny, simple things interacting in simple ways that, in aggregate, can produce apparent complexity.

On the face of it, that scientific mode of thought sounds like a paranoid obsessive-compulsive: the fascination with humanly insignificant details, the belief that Nature’s secrets are hidden in those details, etc.

But it has worked.

When I read almost anything written by philosophers, I am deeply bemused that none seem to have gotten the message that “argument” in the classical sense is a proven failure. Ayer, Plantinga, Moore, Quine, etc. seem pretty much all the same to me: all pursuing a very strange mode of thought that was proven to be unsuccessful many centuries ago.

I earned my Ph.D. nearly three decades ago, and, I will confess, the way philosophers “argue” seemed less strange to me in my youth: after all, the philosophical modus operandi is closer to ordinary human thought than the scientific method is.

But, I am nowadays constantly bemused that philosophers can take each other at all seriously: haven’t they heard that the Middle Ages are over?

Dave Miller in Sacramento

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 7:34 am

PhysicistDave,

I don’t think argument as a method has failed altogether, but in broad strokes I agree with what you wrote, which is why I’m a naturalist. Philosophers have spent most their time thinking that they need to justify why science is so successful. But that’s just wrong. Science justifies itself. Philosophy is what needs some justification!

I think most of the best philosophy is probably being done right at the border of science.

But, what do you think of man’s attempts to answer questions that are not scientific in nature? Are not the (relatively) clear and precise methods of the analytic philosopher a better way to get at some truth about matters of ethics or meaning than folk reasoning? If science could answer those questions, that would be great, but it can’t.

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Robert Gressis September 14, 2010 at 7:46 am

Luke, I don’t understand these two claims: (1) “Philosophers have spent most their time thinking that they need to justify why science is so successful” and (2) “Science justifies itself.”

With (1), do you mean that philosophers have been trying to figure out what it is about the scientific method that delivers such powerful predictive and explanatory results? Or that philosophers have spent a lot of time trying to understand what science has shown us about the world? If that’s what you mean, then I agree that philosophers, perhaps even most philosophers, have spent a lot of time on that. But surely those are really good questions to ask with non-obvious answers that don’t admit of a scientific approach, no?

With (2), are you trying to say something like “the fact that science has delivered such impressive predictive and explanatory results means that we ought to accept everything it says”? But if that’s what (2) means, then that’s an odd way to express it–surely, the best way of putting *that* claim would not be “science justifies itself” but rather “the fact that science produces so many useful things for us justifies science”?

I conclude that I have totally missed your point.

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PhysicistDave September 14, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Luke wrote to me:
> I don’t think argument as a method has failed altogether, but in broad strokes I agree with what you wrote, which is why I’m a naturalist. Philosophers have spent most their time thinking that they need to justify why science is so successful. But that’s just wrong. Science justifies itself. Philosophy is what needs some justification!

Yeah, that is my basic point.

I am *not* claiming that philosophers are all morons (though some are!). Colin McGinn, to take one example who happens to be a Web acquaintance of mine, is quite bright, possibly brighter than most physicists. And, to use your example, I think Chalmers is very bright.

What strikes me is not philosophers’ stupidity, since many philosophers are obviously not stupid, but the aridity of the philosophical method over the centuries. If anyone here can give me a half-dozen interesting, non-trivial propositions on which nearly all professional philosophers of the past half-century agree, I would be interested to see that list. It would of course be easy to give such a list for natural science (plate tectonics, the atomic theory, special relativity, evolution, the heliocentric theory, the Big Bang, DNA to RNA to protein, etc.) and quite trivial to do so in math.

It seems to me that philosophers more or less took an intellectual method that worked well in ancient (and modern) mathematics, tried to transfer it to other areas, and, alas, failed spectacularly.

I’m not sure why the analytic method works so well in math, and so poorly everywhere else, but that seems to be the case by very simple measures – e.g., the inability of philosophers to convince most of their colleagues of almost anything.

Luke also wrote:
> I think most of the best philosophy is probably being done right at the border of science.

I agree. But, even bright guys like Chalmers, as you point out, spend an awful lot of time on arguments that would seem absurd to people in intellectually successful fields (and I am more sympathetic than you to his conceivability argument – I am not trying to deride Chalmers, whom I do respect).

I really am bemused by the fact that most philosophers seem not to recognize that a method that has been followed, in broad outlines, for thousands of years happens, as an empirical fact, to have yielded almost no fruit.

Dave

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a Nadder September 14, 2010 at 7:45 pm

If anyone here can give me a half-dozen interesting, non-trivial propositions on which nearly all professional philosophers of the past half-century agree, I would be interested to see that list.

One interesting thing is that I consider statements like these to be a kind of philosophy too, so even when someone mounts an argument for the superiority of science they are stepping back and using the language of philosophy.

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 7:51 pm

PhysicistDave,

If you have discovered any way to drive home the point of your last sentence to people, please share it. I spend so much time talking about this and they don’t get it. They still think Medieval speculative metaphysics or Parmenidean inference-from-how-we-use-language is a successful way of getting at truth! Gah!

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PhysicistDave September 14, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Robert Gressis wrote:
>With (2), are you trying to say something like “the fact that science has delivered such impressive predictive and explanatory results means that we ought to accept everything it says”? But if that’s what (2) means, then that’s an odd way to express it–surely, the best way of putting *that* claim would not be “science justifies itself” but rather “the fact that science produces so many useful things for us justifies science”?

Robert, it is broader than that.

Consider the following propositions about science, which are, I think, all obviously true:

1. Science has repeatedly made non-trivial, non-obvious predictions about future observations that were ultimately proven correct.
2. Science has provided an extremely detailed, precise, broad, and coherent explanation of natural phenomena that ranges across an incredible variety of domains, from neutron stars to viruses to plate tectonics (I emphasize the detailed aspect – not just vague generalizations, but incredibly detailed descriptions and explanations never imagined by “common sense”).
3. Science has produced an awful lot of useful stuff – antibiotics, weather satellites, the Internet, etc.
4. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists on most of the basic facts and principles of science – “heresies” and “schisms” do not occur in science with the frequency and magnitude that happens in religion (or politics, philosophy, pop culture, etc.).
5. Non-scientists who bother to devote the effort to seriously investigating the evidence and reasoning behind scientists’ conclusions generally come to share those conclusions.
6. Science transcends the divisions among human cultures: science is the same in Delhi as London, in Beijing as in LA. Pascal’s aphorism, that what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is falsehood on the other, does not hold for science.

I assume that anyone reading this blog understands that these six reasons cannot absolutely, logically, rule out the possibility that we are “brains in a vat” and that all of our scientific knowledge is a delusion fostered by those who control the brain-vat system. But, by any ordinary standards of judging, these six points make an awfully compelling case for the position that science is, to a substantial degree, correct. And, of course, science has well-known techniques for correcting its errors and sharpening its results as we move forward.

The point you mentioned, my point number three (“the fact that science produces so many useful things for us justifies science”), may in fact be the most salient point for most non-intellectuals about science, but it is actually one of the less significant of these points intellectually.

Of course, the main point is that none of these six points are true of intellectual endeavors outside of science and math – philosophy, the social sciences, religion, art criticism, etc.

I’m not quite sure why this is – but surely this is the elephant in the living room. Everyone knows that science has been stunningly successful by pretty much any reasonable measure as compared to other intellectual enterprises, even though it is often considered gauche to loudly bluntly point this out.

One other point: it is often claimed that whether science is intellectually successful is a “philosophical” question, so that philosophy still gets the final word.

I frankly cannot, for the life of me, see why anyone would swallow that bit of intellectual imperialism. Given the stunning success of science, obvious to pretty much everyone, and the stunning failure of philosophy, even though philosophy has been a going concern for nearly five times as long as natural science, it seems obvious that science should be judging philosophy, not the other way around.

And, as I have emphasized, judged by empirical standards, philosophy is a horrible failure. We have run the experiment, for more than two thousand years, to find out how fruitful the philosophical method is. We have the result.

Dave

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lukeprog September 14, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Everyone please read PhysicistDave’s latest post. :)

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PhysicistDave September 14, 2010 at 10:09 pm

a Nadder wrote to me:
>>[Dave]If anyone here can give me a half-dozen interesting, non-trivial propositions on which nearly all professional philosophers of the past half-century agree, I would be interested to see that list.
>[a Nadder] One interesting thing is that I consider statements like these to be a kind of philosophy too, so even when someone mounts an argument for the superiority of science they are stepping back and using the language of philosophy.

That is an example of the extraordinarily bizarre philosophical chutzpah that I mentioned to Robert.

My statement was surely not “philosophical” in the sense of exploring the meaning of words, elucidating the essential meanings of concepts, or any of the other typical activities and methods pursued by philosophers over the millennia. On the contrary, it proposed to employ the empirical method of science in judging philosophy.

However, philosophers have foisted not just on philosophy students but also on many members of the general public the bizarre idea that everyone simply must accept that philosophy itself is the final umpire, the last court of appeal, in any judgment of philosophy.

If philosophy had something to show for all its efforts over the millennia, that might make some sense. But it does not have anything to show for all those efforts, and we all know it does not. Anyone who knows anything about philosophy knows it does not.

The criteria I suggested for judging philosophy (and science) are not some abstruse rules dreamed up by Copernicus or Galileo or Newton or Darwin to unseat philosophy and religion. They are just obvious points we would all use to judge the stability of a building or the quality of a plumber or a carpenter.

I’m sorry, but your statement that “I [a Nadder] consider statements like these to be a kind of philosophy too,” while all too common among philosophers is just really, really weird.

Again, the whole point here is the elephant in the living room that any even modestly educated person is aware of: science has been a stunning success, successful beyond almost any reasonable expectations, while philosophy has been a stunning failure.

Declaring that observation to be a “kind of philosophy” changes nothing: it is in fact a simple empirical observation that no educated person seems able to honestly dispute.

Dave

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JS Allen September 14, 2010 at 10:11 pm

@PD – it was Max Planck (father of quantum physics) who said, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Science has a long history of failures, just like anything else with a long history.

And maybe I’m missing something, but the philosophy I read tends to be informed by the empirical evidence, often drives new areas of empirical inquiry, and revises itself based upon the empirical results. Your characterization of philosophy as being opposed to, or alternative to science doesn’t ring true to me.

FWIW, Planck also said several other pointed things about atheists who claim that science is one triumphal progression overthrowing religion or philosophy.

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a Nadder September 14, 2010 at 10:27 pm

I’ll see your chutzpah and raise you a chutzpah if you think that “exploring the meaning of words, elucidating the essential meanings of concepts” exhausts what philosophy does (and if you somehow think philosophy specifically includes only what has nothing to do with the empirical).

As for what philosophy has to show, what kind of answer are you expecting, because I’m getting the feeling that all the examples from actual history you’d preclude from being philosophy in principle. I mean do you count the evolution from divine right of kings to the idea of democracy with rights as something that is not an actual outcome since it did not result in scientific predictions?

I’m genuinely having a problem making sense of some of these claims.

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PhysicistDave September 15, 2010 at 1:01 am

a Nadder wrote to me:
>I mean do you count the evolution from divine right of kings to the idea of democracy with rights as something that is not an actual outcome since it did not result in scientific predictions?

1. I would not count it as something that resulted from the work of philosophers. As far as I can tell, the acceptance of democracy by most philosophers came after democracy was rather widespread: philosophers in general came to accept it not for philosophical reasons but simply because most people accepted it. If you wish to claim that democracy was something generally established and accepted among philosophers in general *before* it became a political fact in a number of countries (e.g., the USA and France), I’m genuinely interested in seeing the evidence for that. I’m interested in the history of political philosophy, and I am pretty sure that did not happen.

2. I consider this evolution to be an evolution from one set of absurd myths to another: the “people” do not actually rule in the USA or any other country – I think the empirical evidence for Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy” is extremely strong. Of course, if the ruling elite get a sufficient number of the common people angry enough, the people can indeed force a change in any political system – in that sense, democracy always exists, even in monarchical or totalitarian systems (just ask Louis XVI or Gorby).

3. I think the point is largely irrelevant to this discussion which was, I thought, about the success of philosophy in actually describing reality – the democratic dogma is a prescription for how things should be rather than an attempt to describe reality as it is.

As you might suspect, the empirical/scientific view I try to take is not terribly kind to the religious, political, or cultural beliefs that are generally held among the human species.

To put it bluntly, the truth hurts.

a Nadder concluded:
>I’m genuinely having a problem making sense of some of these claims.

Evidently.

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 15, 2010 at 1:18 am

JS Allen wrote:
>it was Max Planck (father of quantum physics) who said, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Science has a long history of failures, just like anything else with a long history.

Planck is right, you are wrong.

What you call “failures” are in fact spectacular successes: e.g., Planck’s resolution of the black-body problem did not invalidate the huge successes of Newtonian mechanics or Maxwellian electrodynamics, as shown by the fact that both are still required parts of the physics curriculum. Planck and his successors’ work rather extended and magnified the power of science even beyond the heights achieved by Newton and Maxwell.

I know the pop-science approach likes to pretend that Einstein slew Newton, etc., but any competent physics student knows otherwise.

You don’t believe me? Fine, respond to my simple challenge above:
> If anyone here can give me a half-dozen interesting, non-trivial propositions on which nearly all professional philosophers of the past half-century agree, I would be interested to see that list. It would of course be easy to give such a list for natural science (plate tectonics, the atomic theory, special relativity, evolution, the heliocentric theory, the Big Bang, DNA to RNA to protein, etc.) and quite trivial to do so in math.

I listed several very impressive results in science that have been almost universally accepted among scientists and scientifically educated laymen for many decades.

Show me the same impressive results in philosophy that have been generally accepted among philosophers for many decades.

You can’t.

The testimony against philosophy comes not from me but from philosophers themselves.

You want to see an utterly devastating critique of pretty much any philosophical view or proposition? Don’t come to me: it should be quite easy to find quite a few philosophers who have shown that your chosen philosophical view is nonsense.

Again, this is the elephant in the living room that all educated people know: the only success of philosophy is the showing by various squabbling philosophers themselves that almost all philosophical views are nonsense.

I did not create this situation. I did not even discover it. I am pretty sure everyone here already knew that it is true.

I am just the poor guy who is sufficiently lacking in the social graces that I am willing to say out loud what we all know: i.e., that the emperor is naked.

Dave

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Richard Wein September 15, 2010 at 2:06 am

Dave,

Interesting to hear from you. Although I’m critical of much philosophy too, I think your criticism is too sweeping. Some philosophers do take a scientific attitude to their subject, and one of those you selected for criticism, Quine, is particularly known for being a proponent of naturalized epistemology. I think the relative lack of progress in philosophy is down to

(a) the difficulty of the subjects that philosophers study; and
(b) the amount of misguided philosophy, which means the good philosophy never achieves a consensus among philosophers. Without a consensus there is no solid basis to build from, and philosophers continue to go back over the same old ground.

One of the reasons philosophy is so difficult is that much of it is concerned with high-level emergent phenomena of the most complex system we know (the human brain), phenomena like meaning, explanation and belief. Not only are philosophers trying to explain a supremely compex system, they are sometimes trying to do so using the very phenomena that they are trying to explain (e.g. they’re using propositional language to explain propositional language).

Another (but related) reason philosophy is so difficult is that it’s difficult to generate much in the way of testable hypotheses about the subjects that philosophers study. If it was much easier, those subjects would probably have been considered matters of science, not philosophy, in the first place. In the case of studying the mind/brain there’s room to study it from two directions. We can crudely think of these as bottom-up and top-down. The former tends to be more testable (and therefore more the work of scientists) than the latter, but the distinction is a fuzzy one, and progress in each direction can benefit from work done in the other.

I think some philosophy is misguided because some philosophers fail sufficiently to see philosophy as a field of empirical enquiry, contiguous with science. Another major source of error is a failure to appreciate how words get their meaning or to pay sufficient attention to semantic issues. This leads to fallacies of equivocation and other semantic errors. Our own Luke (as a desirist) is one of those who commits a serious fallacy of this sort, which for me makes his criticism of philosophy a little ironic.

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PhysicistDave September 15, 2010 at 2:32 am

a nadder,

I jumped over to your website, out of curiosity, to further understand why, in your words,
>>I’m genuinely having a problem making sense of some of these claims.

Here is an example of what I found:
>Our minds are not just physical brains with separate atoms. We are all connected in one fabulous wave function — and all our thoughts are entangled in a way that cannot be explained by materialist scientism. (See any elementary quantum physics text.)
>And yet we arrogantly go on, as if all our actions occur in our vacuum.
> For decades we’ve tinkered with the DNA of crops — the foundation of our existence — in an attempt to increase crop yields. All the while forgetting that the plants have become entangled with our arrogant thoughts. Is it a surprise that people continue to go hungry as Gaia rebels?
> For decades we’ve tinkered with the atomic nucleus — the very seat of entanglement — in an attempt to power our vain video gadgets and trivial websites. All the while forgetting that the atom itself has become entangled with arrogance. Is it a surprise that hundreds of millions of people still live without power, that we’re in a world power crisis that threatens us all?

Etc.

With all due respect, this is pseudo-religious nonsense, not at all what one will find, as you claim, in “any elementary quantum physics text.”

I am now not at all surprised that you are “having a problem making sense of some of these claims.”

Science is about the real world, not about the psuedo-poetic, mystical riffs you may choose to pretend are science as illustrated above.

Yes, this is the point I am making – your way of thinking was indeed prevalent, even honored for thousands of years. Science is very, very different.

Dave

P.S.. No, I do not have a solution to the “mind-body” problem; for that matter, I cannot solve superstring theory (neither can any other physicist – yet). But, I am certain that your description of the mind is wrong – that is *not* what “any elementary quantum physics text” that I have ever seen claims. Care to tell us of one that does?

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PhysicistDave September 15, 2010 at 4:01 am

Richard Wein wrote to me:
> Although I’m critical of much philosophy too, I think your criticism is too sweeping. Some philosophers do take a scientific attitude to their subject, and one of those you selected for criticism, Quine, is particularly known for being a proponent of naturalized epistemology.

You know, I read some Quine many years ago at the urging of a college friend, and I cannot recall a single thing in his writings that even resembled the scientific method. The fact that he was a proponent of a “naturalized epistemology” does not show he pursued a scientific approach; perhaps, a naturalized epistemology is not what one would get from a scientific approach.

Richard also wrote:
> I think the relative lack of progress in philosophy is down to
> (a) the difficulty of the subjects that philosophers study

Philosophy is harder than quantum field theory or the Wiles-Taylor proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem? Somehow, I’d guess that only those ignorant of QFT or the Wiles-Taylor proof would claim that!

Richard also alluded to:
> the amount of misguided philosophy, which means the good philosophy never achieves a consensus among philosophers. Without a consensus there is no solid basis to build from, and philosophers continue to go back over the same old ground.

I suppose almost everyone would agree with that. But *why* is there no consensus among philosophers as to what counts as good philosophy in the way that there is a very broad consensus among scientists as to what counts as good science?

I do not think it is plausible that the vast majority of philosophers are simply morons who lack the IQ to distinguish good work from bad work. Could it be that the methods pursued by philosophers simply are not adequate to produce such a consensus, whereas the methods pursued by scientists are?

Richard also wrote:
> One of the reasons philosophy is so difficult is that much of it is concerned with high-level emergent phenomena of the most complex system we know (the human brain), phenomena like meaning, explanation and belief. Not only are philosophers trying to explain a supremely compex system, they are sometimes trying to do so using the very phenomena that they are trying to explain (e.g. they’re using propositional language to explain propositional language).

Except… scientists (e.g., neuroscientists) who use the scientific method, rather than the methods of philosophers, have had successes in these fields that philosophers have not had.

Richard also said:
> Another (but related) reason philosophy is so difficult is that it’s difficult to generate much in the way of testable hypotheses about the subjects that philosophers study. If it was much easier, those subjects would probably have been considered matters of science, not philosophy, in the first place.

That’s my point: when the methods of philosophy have been used in any field (except math), no progress. But, in field after field after field, when philosophical methods were abandoned and scientific methods adopted, enormous progress was made – alchemy vs. chemistry, cosmology vs. religion, paleontology vs, mythology, you name it.

Historically, intellectual failure does not seem to be intrinsic to the subject of inquiry but to the methods used: philosophers fail, scientists succeed. (The major exception is math, where empirical investigation seems irrelevant, except as inspiration. Neither approach has been successful in the social sciences, of course.)

Richard also wrote:
> Another major source of error is a failure to appreciate how words get their meaning or to pay sufficient attention to semantic issues. This leads to fallacies of equivocation and other semantic errors.

Actually, philosophers pay a *huge* amount of attention to such issues, and scientists pay almost no attention at all. If your suggestion were correct, philosophy should be much more successful than science! It’s not.

Whatever the cause may be, I think it would be desirable for philosophers and non-philosophers alike to admit to the fact of that elephant in the living room: there is essentially nothing at all that philosophers can point to as positive results in philosophy that are generally accepted within the field. Even astrology is not in quite that bad of a shape intellectually. By and large, philosophers have no idea of what they are talking about, *as judged by their own peers.*

If that were admitted openly and freely by philosophers themselves, in philosophy textbooks and journals, etc., the standard of honesty in philosophy would be substantially improved, even if it did not lead to any higher levels of achievement.

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 15, 2010 at 4:16 am

Richard,

I hope I have made it clear, but it probably bears repeating, that I am *not* claiming that all philosophers are morons or that no philosopher has ever presented thoughts that are interesting and true. On the contrary, I like and respect Colin McGinn, whom I know personally, and I also respect a number of philosophers both living and dead whom I do not know personally – e.g., Dave Chalmers, Ernest Gellner, Alan H. Goldman, and many others.

The problem is the discipline as a whole: there seem to be no results that are generally accepted within the discipline, and, indeed, even the good philosophers, when trying to address their colleagues, spend a huge amount of time, energy, and effort on “arguments” that are quite pointless, if not insane, by the standards employed in successful intellectual disciplines.

I know the philosophical arguments that claim that this sort of approach is necessary to achieve good, solid philosophical results. But, if that were true, why has philosophy failed to attain such results that are generally accepted by most philosophers, whereas, so many disciplines that eschew the philosophical style of argument have succeeded so brilliantly?

Dave

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a Nadder September 15, 2010 at 6:16 am

PhysicistDave

What I have yet to understand is what you mean by science and what you mean by philosophy and what counts as a particular enterprise being successful — all I have are assertions that imply that you only mean “that which I don’t think is useful”, excluding all else. I guess to you logic either has not contributed anything to human thought or is not part of philosophy by definition.

As for your quote, I’m flattered that I was quotemined so blatantly! But the fact that you ignored almost 200 posts espousing a pro-science and pro-rationalist view to go straight to the single April Fool’s post without scrolling down to the comments area speaks volumes. It’s actually quite hard to believe that someone could honestly not have realise this but I take the principle of charity quite seriously. What with all the empirical experiments that have proved that it’s worthwhile and all…

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Richard Wein September 15, 2010 at 6:23 am

Dave,

You know, I read some Quine many years ago at the urging of a college friend, and I cannot recall a single thing in his writings that even resembled the scientific method. The fact that he was a proponent of a “naturalized epistemology” does not show he pursued a scientific approach; perhaps, a naturalized epistemology is not what one would get from a scientific approach.

Well, I must admit that I haven’t read Quine at first hand. But the basis of naturalized epistemology, as I understand it, is to follow the example of what’s worked in the past. And since science is the method of explaining the world that has been most successful in the past, proponents of naturalized epistemology look to science for guidance. Surely that’s a scientific approach. I don’t see how you could be any more scientific at that level.

Of course, they might not have followed their own advice from that point on. But that’s another matter.

Perhaps the problem is that you’re associating a scientific approach with experimentation and testing. But at the level of basic epistemology there’s not a lot of testing you can do. You can’t set up a parallel scientific community based on a different epistemology and see which one works best.

Though the scientific approach is at its best when it uses testing–and particularly controlled experiments–that’s not all there is to science. Science is also about making inductions from whatever data you can find. In areas of empirical study where the possibilities for testing are limited, that may be all you can do. But to say that doesn’t resemble science is to take a very narrow view of what science is.

Physics is the most precise and testable field, because it mostly deals with simple phenomena. Of course I don’t mean by that that physics is easy! But studying the movement of planets provided one of science’s early great successes because planets act as unitary objects with few factors affecting their movement. Even within science there’s a spectrum from physics to biology to the social sciences, with the phenomena under study becoming more complex, chaotic and emergent, all the way up to human behaviour. And beyond that there are fields of empirical enquiry that we wouldn’t call science, such as history and philosophy.

I suppose it’s not surprising that to a physicist, whose work is at one end of the spectrum, the other end of the spectrum looks like a different world.

Except… scientists (e.g., neuroscientists) who use the scientific method, rather than the methods of philosophers, have had successes in these fields that philosophers have not had.

What successes are you referring to? Have neuroscientists explained meaning, justification and belief? I don’t think so. Neuroscientists are studying the brain at a lower level. Of course, I would fully agree that philosophers should take account of the findings of neuroscience.

The problem is the discipline as a whole: there seem to be no results that are generally accepted within the discipline…

We agree on that. But it doesn’t follow that the better philosophers aren’t using the right sorts of methods for the task at hand.

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Richard Wein September 15, 2010 at 8:12 am

On reflection and further reading I think my first paragraph above, characterizing naturalized epistemology, was very poor. Please ignore it. Better to say, I think, that compared with traditional epistemologists, proponents of naturalized epistemology put more emphasis on explaining how we come to the beliefs we do and less (perhaps none) on explaining how beliefs can be justified. In that respect they want epistemology to be descriptive rather than normative, and so more science-like.

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JS Allen September 15, 2010 at 9:14 pm

it was Max Planck (father of quantum physics) who said, “science advances one funeral at a time”. Science has a long history of failures, just like anything else with a long history.

Planck is right, you are wrong.

What you call “failures” are in fact spectacular successes

I’m not sure you understand what Planck was saying. The quote I provided is a popular paraphrase. The full translation from German is:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it

Scientists are no more likely to be “convinced” to abandon an erroneous theory than philosophers are. Time moves on, and the obviously wrong theories are left by the wayside. Science has a great many obviously wrong theories that were left behind. This is equally true for philosophy as for science.

You yourself brought up alchemy and mythology as examples of “philosophy”. If you’re going to do this, it appears you are committed to acknowledging that philosophers, like scientists, leave behind obviously wrong theories and move on.

Furthermore, you haven’t defended your claim that philosophy is opposed to, or alternative to, empirical research. The fact that you see these as opposed, tells me that you know very little about philosophy. A 30 years-old Ph.D in physics may qualify you to talk about physics, but I don’t take you to be an expert on philosophers’ methods.

Planck had another famous quote about the scientific method as an avenue to truth:

New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.

His point? Empirical research doesn’t operate based upon consensus, free from any philosophical discord. The philosophical debates often frame and motivate the empirical research. I don’t see how any honest person could deny this.

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PhysicistDave September 16, 2010 at 2:26 am

a Nadder wrote to me:
>What I have yet to understand is what you mean by science and what you mean by philosophy and what counts as a particular enterprise being successful — all I have are assertions that imply that you only mean “that which I don’t think is useful”, excluding all else.

With all due respect, I do not see much difference between your “April Fool’s” post and your other comments on your blog or here. Based on your blog, I honestly do not think it is possible for anyone to explain to you what science is.

Some people are simply ineducable.

The simple fact that I have pointed out, that philosophers have nothing to show for the last two thousand years of work has not been seriously challenged here. Surely, two millennia of failure should be enough to admit that this approach is not working!

If anyone disagrees, again, I have offered a straightforward way to show I am wrong:
>> If anyone here can give me a half-dozen interesting, non-trivial propositions on which nearly all professional philosophers of the past half-century agree, I would be interested to see that list. It would of course be easy to give such a list for natural science (plate tectonics, the atomic theory, special relativity, evolution, the heliocentric theory, the Big Bang, DNA to RNA to protein, etc.) and quite trivial to do so in math.

No one has, and I am pretty sure no one can, answer that rather simple point.

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 16, 2010 at 2:59 am

Richard wrote to me:
> Well, I must admit that I haven’t read Quine at first hand.

Well… I have, and I was just addressing the specific point of how Quine himself reasoned – pretty much like most philosophers do: i.e., rather lacking in empirical content. (Again, I hasten to add that I know Quine had an high IQ. I respect his work in set theory, “New Foundations.” And, yeah, he did raise some interesting points about how we know logic is true, though I do not think he had very credible answers.)

Richard also wrote:
> Perhaps the problem is that you’re associating a scientific approach with experimentation and testing. But at the level of basic epistemology there’s not a lot of testing you can do. You can’t set up a parallel scientific community based on a different epistemology and see which one works best.

Well, actually, in a sense you can, and perhaps that is my central point: we have had intellectual communities going back a very long time that do practice *very* different epistemologies than science practices. I guess what I am really proposing is that this is very real empirical data about varying epistemologies that should be taken seriously.

Take math, for example, which follows an approach rather similar to philosophy – start with some very simple ideas, try to be crystal clear about the concepts and terminology surrounding those ideas, and then draw out the implications of those ideas ad infinitum.

It has worked very, very well in math. A rather similar approach has been taken in philosophy: I think that Plato intentionally modeled his approach on that of math, which, prima facie, seemed like a good idea.

But, for some reason, while that approach was a stunning success in math, it has failed for two millennia in philosophy.

I’m really not sure why, but I think the contrast is obvious to almost anyone who knows anything at all about philosophy and math.

Have you ever had a discussion with Christians who find marvelous meanings in the Bible that are not quite obvious to us skeptics? Again, their approach seems quite reasonable to them, and it is rather difficult to explain to them why their epistemological approach is worse than the approach followed in science or the approach followed in math.

In the end, about all one can do is point to comparative religion and show that their approach yields a whole lot of mutually contradictory results (but, of course, such people tend not to be real big on comparative religion).

a Nadder’s constant requests that I explain what I mean by science and philosophy give another example. He’s probably sincere in his own way. But, of course, there are standard meanings to those words that are clear enough that he could try to respond to my repeated request to show me wrong in a very specific way if he wished to do so. But he has a way of mental functioning such that he will not do that.

Richard also wrote:
> Better to say, I think, that compared with traditional epistemologists, proponents of naturalized epistemology put more emphasis on explaining how we come to the beliefs we do and less (perhaps none) on explaining how beliefs can be justified. In that respect they want epistemology to be descriptive rather than normative, and so more science-like.

Yeah, I agree. Phil Johnson-Laird, for example, has been doing that, with real empirical research, and has some very interesting results. I’m certainly not sure that approach will solve all the problems of epistemology, but it certainly seems worth a shot.

What I find rather surreal about this discussion, and similar discussions I have had on various occasions over the years, is that so few people are willing to consider the possibility that philosophy is simply a failure per se. It is really a religious sort of response: I suppose we all know a lot of Christians who, no matter how many contradictions they are shown in the Bible, no matter how many contradictions they are shown between their beliefs and modern science, still tenaciously cling to the faith that *somehow* their religion can be saved. A lot of people have a similar faith in philosophy’s somehow producing some results of value, despite two millennia of evidence to the contrary.

I have no magic key to unlock all the questions of philosophy. I rather suspect that a lot of those questions are pseudo-questions, and it may also be the case that some of the real questions are beyond humans’ ability to answer.

I’m merely trying to point out that, in two millennia, philosophers have come up with no answers at all that convince most of their own colleagues. That really does suggest that some method different from that followed by philosophers might be worth a try.

Two millennia of failure seem like enough.

Dave

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lukeprog September 16, 2010 at 5:51 am

Denentt has a quote about how philosophy is supposed to clarify the questions at hand and then spin them off to the appropriate science, if one is available. If it can perform that meager task, it has succeeded. I wish I could remember the actual quote and where it’s from. What do you think of that role for philosophy, Dave?

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Robert Gressis September 16, 2010 at 7:29 am

I suppose I shall respond to PhysicistDave’s (here on out: Dave) challenges at some point, though there is so much to say that it will take me quite a while and will take me away from my work. Nevertheless, a couple of quick points: (1) I don’t think that, for philosophy to be a success, it has to pass Dave’s challenge. (2) Here are three propositions, off the top of my head, about which almost all professional philosophers agree: (i) there are necessary a posteriori truths; (ii) knowledge is not merely justified, true belief; (iii) the deductive argument from evil is a failure.

I think these are pretty interesting results, and I think nearly all philosophers who have looked into them agree, but of course not all do, and I’m not sure what is supposed to follow from the fact that not all do. After all, plenty of the things Dave has said here plausibly fall into the category, “philosophical propositions that are controversial”, and Dave nonetheless thinks that they are true. But I’ll have to get to that later. Hopefully today.

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 12:39 am

Robert Gressis wrote to me:
>Here are three propositions, off the top of my head, about which almost all professional philosophers agree: (i) there are necessary a posteriori truths; (ii) knowledge is not merely justified, true belief; (iii) the deductive argument from evil is a failure.

Thanks for proving my point for me.

Your point number iii is not a point about the real world: it is merely a claim to have proven other philosophers wrong. As I said above, this seems to be the only thing philosophers do manage to get right – i.e., prove that each other are full of it. The same is true of your point ii.

As you know, your point i has been *extremely* contentious for centuries: surely, many empiricists would dispute it. Perhaps you believe it, but many, many philosophers have certainly denied it. It can be claimed as a generally accepted result within the discipline of philosophy only if one tendentiously excludes a lot of philosophers from the discipline.

If that is the best you can do – and I really think it is – you confirm my point better than I could by anything I could write myself.

Dave

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Richard Wein September 17, 2010 at 1:26 am

Dave,

Well, actually, in a sense you can, and perhaps that is my central point: we have had intellectual communities going back a very long time that do practice *very* different epistemologies than science practices. I guess what I am really proposing is that this is very real empirical data about varying epistemologies that should be taken seriously.

Well, I think good epistemologists do look at the evidence of which epistemologies have been successful in the past.

I’m all in favour of philosophers applying the methods of science to the questions of philosophy as far as they are applicable, but I suspect you have an unrealistic idea of how far that is.

Take math, for example, which follows an approach rather similar to philosophy – start with some very simple ideas, try to be crystal clear about the concepts and terminology surrounding those ideas, and then draw out the implications of those ideas ad infinitum.

Maths is not even a field of empirical enquiry. Its problems are completely different from those of philosophy. If anything, I think one of the problems of philosophy has been too much attempt to be like maths, with too great an emphasis on deduction from supposedly obvious premises and not enough on induction from empirical evidence.

Though I’ve emphasised the underlying contiguity of all fields of empirical enquiry, it’s also necessary to see that different fields address very different questions, requiring significantly different methods. You would presumably expect the methods of historians to be very different from those of physicists, but you don’t seem to accept the same of philosophers.

What I find rather surreal about this discussion, and similar discussions I have had on various occasions over the years, is that so few people are willing to consider the possibility that philosophy is simply a failure per se.

Well, I’m in the middle here, criticising both much of philosophy and those who would reject all philosophy. So please don’t tar me with the same brush as philosophy’s more enthusiastic defenders.

I agree that philosophers as a group have failed to reach a consensus on anything much, and therefore they have no authority to preach to outsiders (as some unfortunately do). But, once again, it doesn’t follow that no good work is being done by any philosophers.

If you’ve found nothing of merit in the philosophy you’ve read, then I can understand your induction that all philosophy so far has been misguided. But I for one have found some merit in some of the philosophy I’ve read, so my conclusion is different. Perhaps we can say no more.

I rather suspect that a lot of those questions are pseudo-questions, and it may also be the case that some of the real questions are beyond humans’ ability to answer.

Is this the same person who laughed at me a little way back for suggesting that the questions of philosophy are relatively difficult ones? ;)

And I would agree that some of the questions have been badly-formed. But part of the work of philosophers is to clarify the questions. Naturalized epistemology is an example of that. It argues that traditional epistemologists have been asking the wrong questions.

I’m merely trying to point out that, in two millennia, philosophers have come up with no answers at all that convince most of their own colleagues. That really does suggest that some method different from that followed by philosophers might be worth a try.

There’s no single method of philosophy. Good philosophers (like good scientists) use whatever methods seem best suited to the problem, and develop new ones as they go. I would agree that philosophers need to be particularly radical in developing new methods, and that’s one of the things that makes philosophy difficult. But some are being radical. And how do you think philosophers are going to develop new methods (new tools of thought) other than by using existing ones? No outside agent is going to deliver new methods on a silver platter.

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 2:20 am

Luke wrote to me:
> Denentt has a quote about how philosophy is supposed to clarify the questions at hand and then spin them off to the appropriate science, if one is available. If it can perform that meager task, it has succeeded. I wish I could remember the actual quote and where it’s from. What do you think of that role for philosophy, Dave?

Yeah, I’d generally agree. I’m not suggesting that human beings should simply shut up about the various questions philosophers have raised over the centuries. I certainly do not know exactly how consciousness is connected to the brain or exactly how humans acquire knowledge, and I agree that it would be interesting to know the answers to such questions.

I just think it’s about time that philosophers stop pretending that *they* know how to answer such questions.

I’ll give a specific and, I think, rather typical example: Again and again, I have seen philosophers dismiss Cartesian dualism as surely wrong on the grounds that they, the philosophers, cannot envision how an interaction could occur between the mental and physical substances.

Well… I doubt that very many philosophers can envision how the interaction occurs between leptons and quarks. That proves nothing except that most philosophers have not bothered, as I have, to learn elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. The fact that philosophers, who have extremely limited knowledge of reality, cannot imagine something matters about as much as the fact that a chimp cannot imagine that thing.

Indeed, I am quite certain that no one imagined how quantum mechanics worked until the theory was discovered in the 1920s; certainly, no one envisioned the non-locality/entanglement phenomena involved in violations of Bell’s theorem, etc.

Yet, that is how the world works, as confirmed by detailed empirical observations: I myself learned this stuff about quantum mechanics over three decades ago, and I still have trouble believing the experimental results are what they are.

But reality trumps my imagination (or lack thereof).

I’m not claiming that Cartesian dualism is true: I don’t know what the truth is concerning the mind-body problem. I simply find it bizarre that so many philosophers have claimed to decisively resolve that question when they really have no evidence for their proposed answer at all.

Similarly, Robert’s claim that philosophers have successfully shown that “(i) there are necessary a posteriori truths” strikes me as simply bizarre. Anyone familiar with the debate on such subjects since Kant (the “synthetic a priori,” etc.) should know that it is debatable that “necessary” and “a posteriori” even mean anything at the level of abstraction occurring in that debate. At least, if they do mean anything, philosophers have certainly had endless difficulties convincing their own colleagues that their proposed meanings are reasonable or meaningful.

And, if we were to grant Robert that this statement is meaningful, well… the lack of concrete evidence to determine the truth of that statement one way or another is just breathtaking.

Again, I am not suggesting that anyone take my word for this: just look at what philosophers themselves have had to say about their fellow philosophers’ proposed solution to this and related “problems.”

Yeah, if we could cure guys like Robert of really taking stuff like this seriously, then he might be put to some useful purpose as you suggest. For example, Alan H. Goldman, in his book, “Empirical Knowledge,” suggests that the only way to avoid “grue” type paradoxes is to acknowledge that there are “naturally salient properties” about the world that leap out at humans whether we like it or not (and “grue” does not seem to be among these naturally salient properties). That does raise real questions about what those properties are, how invariant they are across human beings, what the source of the invariance is, etc. And, of course, some such research has already been done: e.g., on cross-cultural correlations in color terms.

So, yes, I agree that philosophers can sometimes raise real questions that can lead to real investigations, by non-philosophers, that can get real answers.

But, Robert has shown nicely that the best answers philosophers themselves have managed to get are of the sort “there are necessary a posteriori truths.” And philosophers’ own colleagues have been doubtful over the years as to whether such answers mean anything at all.

Obviously, the situation is radically different in natural science, which is my main point.

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 3:28 am

Richard Wien wrote to me:
>[Dave] I rather suspect that a lot of those questions are pseudo-questions, and it may also be the case that some of the real questions are beyond humans’ ability to answer.
>[Richard] Is this the same person who laughed at me a little way back for suggesting that the questions of philosophy are relatively difficult ones? ;)

Yep. There are questions in superstring theory that are way beyond current humans’ ability to solve. Or take the continuum hypothesis in set theory: there is a rigorous proof that it cannot be resolved on the basis of the current axioms. I was objecting to your suggestion that philosophy is harder than math or physics.

That’s absurd. Again, a simple empirical test – how much do math and physics majors struggle in intro philosophy classes vs. how much do philosophy majors struggle in math or physics courses.

Richard also wrote:
> Maths is not even a field of empirical enquiry. Its problems are completely different from those of philosophy. If anything, I think one of the problems of philosophy has been too much attempt to be like maths, with too great an emphasis on deduction from supposedly obvious premises and not enough on induction from empirical evidence.

Exactly, Richard – that is my central point.

We have a name for philosophers who follow your advice and try to pursue “induction from empirical evidence”: *natural philosophers* AKA scientists.

You can find numerous places where philosophers claim they can judge the philosophical quality of other philosphers’ work (see the discussion on Robert’s entry on his blog, for example). There clearly is some commonality in the methods that philosophers find valid.

And the methods they find valid strike most of us technical people as bizarrely, almost insanely, absurd.

That does not prove we are right, of course: in fact, I strongly suspect that it largely reflects the fact that we have been “socialized” to different modes of thinking, different “epistemologies,” if you like.

But, the fact that we have different epistemologies does give us a chance, as you yourself suggested in an earlier post, to run an empirical test on the efficacy of those different epistemologies.

That test has been run, as I keep pointing out. The comparative record at understanding reality, *as judged by philosophers themselves when judging the work of their colleagues over the centuries* is quite clear-cut.

Philosophers lose.

Again, I find it quite surreal that anyone would debate that. (Frankly, I doubt that one would find much dissent on the subject at a trucker’s gathering spot or at a convention of construction workers: “Quick now — who knows more about the real world – scientists or philosophers.”)

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 3:29 am

Robert,

I just bumped into the following comment by you on your own blog:
>One of philosophy’s distinguished practitioners, Peter van Inwagen, has recently written that there is no example of a successful argument for a substantive, controversial philosophical conclusion. So you’re in good company.

Thanks for making my point once again.

My knowledge of Inwagen’s work is limited, but it’s nice to know that there is some basis for my feeling that he is an okay guy (at least as philosophers go).

Dave

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Robert Gressis September 17, 2010 at 6:29 am

I haven’t read the latest six comments, so my remarks are going to be limited to the first 100 or so comments.

Anyway, as far as I understand matters, Dave’s main claim was this:

“the entire method of philosophy, going back two-and-a-half millennia, is simply a proven failure.”

What does Dave understand “the” method of philosophy to be? And what does Dave mean by saying that the method of philosophy is a “proven failure”? And what is Dave’s evidence for the claim that the philosophical method is a proven failure?

(1) THE METHOD
I believe what Dave understands the method of philosophy to be is exemplified by this quote: “if one thought carefully about one’s ideas, made plausible assumptions, and then drew out from those assumptions plausible conclusions, one could learn a significant part of the truth about reality.” In other words, there is a single philosophical method–or, more charitably, there is a dominant philosophical method–and it is this: you begin with certain ideas; those ideas rationally allow you to make plausible assumptions about other things; you use certain rules of inference to draw certain conclusions from those assumptions; and you have good reason to believe that those conclusions accurately describe the world in a way your initial ideas didn’t reveal to you.

(2) THE METHOD IS A PROVEN FAILURE
Dave claims that the philosophical method is a “proven failure”. How so?

It is a proven failure because “there is essentially nothing at all that philosophers can point to as positive results in philosophy that are generally accepted within the field.” In other words, for the philosophical method to count as a success, it would have to have arrived at positive, generally accepted results, at least by its own practitioners. Moreover, if we accept Dave’s six points about science, then what would show philosophy to be even more successful is if it were such that “[n]on-[philosophers] who bother to devote the effort to seriously investigating the evidence and reasoning behind [philosophers]’ conclusions [would] generally come to share those conclusions”. Since these things haven’t happened–since there are no generally accepted results within philosophy, and since non-philosophers don’t generally get convinced of philosophical positions by reading the reasoning behind professional philosophers–it follows that the philosophical method is a proven failure.

(3) EVIDENCE FOR THE CLAIM THAT THE METHOD IS A PROVEN FAILURE

Dave’s main evidence for his claim that the philosophical method is a proven failure is that there is a lack of consensus among professional philosophers about what their field shows. The fact that “the analytic method [i.e, what I, Robert Gressis, am calling the philosophical method] works so well in math, and so poorly everywhere else” is demonstrated by, for example, “the inability of philosophers to convince most of their colleagues of almost anything.”

(4) CONCLUSION ABOUT DAVE’S CLAIMS

Assuming that I have his argument right, it seems to me that Dave is making the following assumptions:
(a) there is a single or dominant philosophical method [call (a) "the Single Method Assumption"];
(b) the main goal of this method is to reveal (non-obvious features, presumably, of) the nature of the world; [call (b) "the Single Purpose Assumption"]
(c) if the method were a good method, then it would yield conclusions that are both non-trivial and uncontroversial; [call (c) "the Good Method Assumption"]
(d) it hasn’t arrived at conclusions that are both non-trivial and uncontroversial [call (d) "the Depressing Result Assumption"]

(5) MY RESPONSE

I’m skeptical about all of the assumptions enshrined in (a)-(d). Below are my reasons why:

(5.1) Doubting the Single Method Assumption

It’s really difficult to determine whether or not there is a single method that all philosophers use. That said, there is an immediate counterexample to Dave’s description of the philosophical method: experimental philosophy. Experimental philosophers make sure to test their intuitions under psychological conditions in order to see whether or not they are, in fact, common assumptions. Maybe, though, Dave doesn’t think this counts as philosophy. I do, though, and so do experimental philosophers themselves, so if Dave thinks that, then we already have a philosophical controversy over what the philosophical method is. I suspect, however, that Dave wouldn’t say that; instead, I suspect that what Dave would say is this: experimental philosophers are doing both philosophy and psychology. To the extent they do psychology, they’re not doing philosophy; to the extent they do philosophy, they’re not using a good method to arrive at knowledge. In that case, I take it, he would say that the experimental part of X-Phi is fine, it’s simply the interpretation of the significance of the results that philosophers give that’s problematic. I.e., the relevance they think these results have. If that’s what Dave thinks–and I’m really unsure that Dave will think–then I guess we’ll have to look at the actual interpretations people like Knobe, et al., give, and see what’s problematic about it.

(5.2) Doubting the Single Purpose Assumption

I don’t have too much problem with the Single Method Assumption. I think it’s vague, but Dave wasn’t trying to write a peer-reviewed article. That said, I think I have much bigger problems with the Single Purpose Assumption. In particular, I think the Single Purpose Assumption doesn’t apply to much of philosophy nowadays, and there are large swathes of past philosophy to which it doesn’t apply.

So, here’s one kind of philosophy that the Single Method Assumption works for: traditional metaphysics. Thus, you have people like William Lane Craig who say that it’s inconceivable that something could come from nothing, so therefore something cannot come from nothing; you have Spinoza, who, beginning from a Cartesian assumption about the nature of substance, argued that there is only one possible world; you have David Lewis, who, in the hopes of explaining how it could be that there are true modal statements, concluded that there is an uncountably infinite number of possible worlds that exist in just the same sense as our own actual world; and so on. It really looks like these people are all drawing large conclusions about what reality must be like just by starting with commonsensical or intuitive-to-them assumptions and then using rules of inference.

But there’s a bunch of other ways of doing philosophy. Here, for example, is Robert Nozick:

“What useful purpose do philosophical arguments serve? Do we, trained in finding flaws in history’s great arguers, really believe arguments a promising route to the truth? Does either the likelihood or arriving at a true view (as opposed to a consistent and coherent one) or a view’s closeness to the truth vary directly with the strength of hte philosophical arguments? Philosophical arguments can serve to elaborate a view, to delineate its content. Considering objections, hypothetical situations, and so on, does help to sharpen a view. But need all this be done in an attempt to prove, or in arguing?” (Philosophical Explanations, 4-5)

“There is a second mode of philosophy, not directed to arguments and proofs: it seeks explanations. Various philosophical things need to be explained; a philosophical theory is introduced to explain them, to render them coherent and better understood.
“Many philosophical problems are ones of understanding how something is or can be possible. How is it possible for us to have free will, supposing that all actions are causally determined? … How is it possible that we know anything, given the facts the skeptic enumerates … How is it possilbe that motion occurs, given Zeno’s arguments? … The form of these questions is: how is one thing possible, given (or supposing) certain other things? (Philosophical Explanations, 7-8)

So, there’s one response: philosophy is not about revealing truths, but about explaining what they might mean for other things we believe. Here is another response: philosophy is not about revealing, but about making the truths discovered by science consistent with one another or with common sense. Here’s another: philosophy is not about–or at least, is not good at–discovering what is the case, but is about–or should be–what ought to be the case. And I’m sure there are more responses.

(5.3) Doubting the Good Method Assumption

If the philosophical method were a good method, then it would yield non-trivial, uncontroversial results. Should we believe this? Well, Dave thinks we should. But that’s, of course, a normative statement. We ought to agree with Dave about this. What if we don’t, though? What if *lots* of people don’t agree with Dave? How should Dave respond? I think Dave will want to know a person’s reasons for disagreeing with him; and if the person gives her reasons, and Dave doesn’t find them any good, I think Dave will conclude that that person is just wrong. I don’t think Dave will conclude that his desire was, after all, a desire for something that makes no sense or is impossible or principle, or whatever. But I don’t in fact know how Dave will responsd to this, or whether he will. So I’ll just wait and see.

That said, imagine Dave thinks the person who disagrees with him is just wrong. That means that Dave is endorsing a non-trivial, but also controversial result. And that seems okay to me. After all, couldn’t it be the case that, if someone were reasoning well, then he would reach a particular conclusion C, but because he doesn’t reason well–either because he’s not smart enough, or because he has various epistemic vices, or because he’s suffering peer pressure, or whatever–he doesn’t reach C? If this were so, then this could explain why pretty much all non-trivial philosophical claims are also controversial; simply because a large number of philosophers aren’t reasoning well, for a variety of reasons.

It could also be that philosophy is too hard for most of us to be good at. The subject matter that philosophy tries to get a grip on–making sense of how everything in reality relates to each other, or figuring out how people ought to think or ought to live, or discovering possibility relations among various claims–is more intrinsically complex than the subject matter of the natural sciences. After all, on at least some ways of construing the subject matter of philosophy, it includes, not just the subject matter of physics, but also that of biology, chemistry, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, economics, … you get the idea. It reminds me of the story told by Paul Krugman on page xi of Peddling Prosperity:
“An Indian-born economist once explained his personal theory of reincarnation to his graduate economics class. ‘If you are a good economist, a virtuous economist,’ he said, ‘you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.’
“A sociologist might say that this quote shows what is wrong with economists: they want a subject that is fundamentally about human beings to have the mathematical certainty of the hard sciences. … But good economists know that the speaker was talking about something else entirely: the sheer difficulty of the subject. Economics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.”

Finally, it’s not clear to me that philosophy’s results are, indeed, non-trivial. Gary Gutting has called the tendency to think so the “Philosopher’s Fallacy”. Here’s what he writes about it:

“In contrast to the natural sciences, philosophers ignore the knowledge they have achieved because of what we might call the Philosopher’s Fallacy: the assumption that all genuinely philosophical knowledge must involve ultimate, final understanding — through a perfect definition, an explanation that itself needs no explanation, etc. Given this assumption … it follows that we have achieve little or no philosophical knowledge. But once we give up this assumption, our discipline turns out to have produced a great deal of knowledge.” (What Philosophers Know: Case Studies in Recent Analytic Philosophy, 89)

In other words, philosophers have, in fact, done a lot that is uncontroversial: they have shown lots of arguments to be failures; they have shown that the aspiration to have ultimate, complete knowledge of the world through what Dave has called the philosophical method doesn’t work; and they have deepened and precisified their vocabulary for talking about a lot of interesting things, such as free will, the mind, logic, obligation, and so on. They’ve probably done even more than that, but even if they haven’t, I don’t find that trivial.

(5.4) Doubting the Depressing Result Assumption
At the end of (5.3), I gave some reason (I hope!) for thinking that philosophy’s results haven’t been non-trivial. But even if you think philosophy’s results as Gutting has described them are trivial, I’m not sure that’s so depressing. I mean, I don’t get depressed by it. But of course, “depressing” was my word, not Dave’s. So what has Dave called philosophy? A failure. Maybe it is a failure. Certainly, it hasn’t told us near anything about the natural world that science has. But what’s supposed to follow from that? Neither has art criticism (to use one of Dave’s examples of a discipline that is a failure according to scientific standards), or literature, or economics, or … well, nothing has revealed as much about the natural world as natural science has. So by that standard–the standard of revealing things about the natural world–everything is a failure, except for natural science. So let’s say that: besides natural science, everything is a failure. What is supposed to follow from this? As far as I can see, the most that follows from this is the conclusion that things that purport to reveal truths about the natural world and that aren’t natural science should probably stop saying they reveal truths about the natural world.

Fair enough. But I’m still going to see “The Town” tonight.

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JS Allen September 17, 2010 at 8:49 am

Yeah, I’d generally agree. I’m not suggesting that human beings should simply shut up about the various questions philosophers have raised over the centuries. I certainly do not know exactly how consciousness is connected to the brain or exactly how humans acquire knowledge, and I agree that it would be interesting to know the answers to such questions.

I’m glad you feel that way. And let’s not forget all of the questions that philosophers have raised in recent years, in collaboration with the latest empirical research on neurobiology, artificial intelligence, anthropology, genetics, behavioral science, and more.

We’ve learned a tremendous amount of interesting scientific information, directly motivated by these philosophical questions.

I just think it’s about time that philosophers stop pretending that *they* know how to answer such questions.

I think it’s about time that you stop pretending that any such thing is happening. Repeated assertion is no argument.

Where is the evidence for your claim that philosophers believe that philosophy is opposed to, or superior to, empirical observation?

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 2:20 pm

J. S. Allen wrote to me:
> Where is the evidence for your claim that philosophers believe that philosophy is opposed to, or superior to, empirical observation?

Look, Joshua, I am generally not replying to you because you keep putting words in my mouth and I am not interested in playing word games with you.

I did not say that all philosophers despise empirical work: most do not, I imagine. (A few really do: the late John Robbins, for example. But, then, it was fairly obvious that Robbins was more insane than even the average philosopher.)

I did say that many, many philosophers have very strongly claimed to have reached certain true conclusions that many other philosophers have (rightly) derided as obvious nonsense. We have an example right on this thread from Robert:
>(i) there are necessary a posteriori truths

If you are not aware of the fact that there are many hundreds (thousands?) of other examples, throughout the history of philosophy and among contemporary philosophers, spend a few hours at any decent university library looking through philosophy books and journals.

I am not going to waste my time on you: you are not either an honest or an intelligent person. (Anyone who doubts my judgment of Joshua – and everyone should doubt my judgment! – should jump over to his blog and read his comments on salvation, sin, his supposed reasons why we non-believers refuse to accept salvation, etc. The prosecution rests.)

Dave

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Robert wrote to me:
> What does Dave understand “the” method of philosophy to be?

It doesn’t really matter, now does it?

Suppose you know an auto mechanic who has spent forty years working at repairing cars. And suppose every single car he has worked on has never run again after he worked on it.

You don’t really need to discuss what his method is to know that somehow it is just not working, now do you?

Robert also wrote:
> But there’s a bunch of other ways of doing philosophy. Here, for example, is Robert Nozick:
>>“What useful purpose do philosophical arguments serve? Do we, trained in finding flaws in history’s great arguers, really believe arguments a promising route to the truth? Does either the likelihood or arriving at a true view (as opposed to a consistent and coherent one) or a view’s closeness to the truth vary directly with the strength of hte philosophical arguments? Philosophical arguments can serve to elaborate a view, to delineate its content. Considering objections, hypothetical situations, and so on, does help to sharpen a view. But need all this be done in an attempt to prove, or in arguing?” (Philosophical Explanations, 4-5)
>“There is a second mode of philosophy, not directed to arguments and proofs: it seeks explanations. Various philosophical things need to be explained; a philosophical theory is introduced to explain them, to render them coherent and better understood….”

But, of course, “Philosophical Explanations” was an unintentionally funny book, offering “explanations” for things that were not unexplained in the first place – silly stuff, if I recall correctly, such as the “ship of Theseus,” which is, after all, not confusing to normal people not bewitched by the silliness of philosophy.

Wittgenstein, as crazy as he was (even crazier than the average philosopher, I suspect), did have a point: good philosophy is, at best, a cure for the mental illnesses created by most philosophy.

Robert also wrote:
> In other words, philosophers have, in fact, done a lot that is uncontroversial: they have shown lots of arguments to be failures; they have shown that the aspiration to have ultimate, complete knowledge of the world through what Dave has called the philosophical method doesn’t work…

Perhaps the only point on which we agree. As Hume said, let us burn all the books that do not relate to math or to empirical information about the real world (it was a metaphor, folks – neither Hume nor I really want to burn books!). But we can keep a half-dozen philosophy books – a few from Hume himself, perhaps, and maybe Dave Stove’s “The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies,” just to warn future generations about the insanity of philosophy.

Robert also wrote to me:
> If the philosophical method were a good method, then it would yield non-trivial, uncontroversial results. Should we believe this? Well, Dave thinks we should. But that’s, of course, a normative statement. We ought to agree with Dave about this. What if we don’t, though? What if *lots* of people don’t agree with Dave? How should Dave respond? I think Dave will want to know a person’s reasons for disagreeing with him…

Oh no, Robert, you misjudge my motives entirely. I do not care in the slightest what your reasons are: after all, I already know – you have to make a living somehow, and the philosophy scam is how you do it (at my expense evidently, since I am a California taxpayer and you work at a California state school).

I have no intention of playing the philosophical language game with you or other philosophers. I do not want you to produce “reasons” for your absurdities.

I would no more play the game of “argument” with philosophers than I would try to convince astrologers that their nonsense is indeed nonsense. They would, after all, demand how many horoscopes I have cast, what my expertise in astrology is, etc. (zero and none, of course). I simply stand aside from astrology and urge sane people (i.e., non-astrologers) to note that astrology is a con game.

Similarly, I have no intention of proving that I can do the philosophical equivalent of casting horoscopes in your field. I merely want sane people to realize that they can and should view philosophy exactly as they view astrology or palm reading – i.e., as a con game.

I have the same attitude towards religion, incidentally. Anyone who knows the uncontested facts about the Bible (e.g., the obvious contradictions, which, curiously, most Christians honestly do not know about), the history of the Bible, etc. and still believe in its lies is beyond any worthwhile “intervention.” I merely urge sane people to treat religion with the contempt and derision it deserves. I do not attempt to “argue” with the true believers.

As you can see, I have a rather dramatic lack of respect for those contemporary American mores that insist that we pretend to respect utterly absurd beliefs held by our fellow citizens.

I think that all sane people can and do dismiss whole fields of inquiry as obviously deranged nonsense *without* plunging into those fields themselves but rather by using the obvious sort of external tests I have proposed for philosophy or for the hypothetical incompetent auto mechanic.

In short, I am simply doing my little bit for intellectual public hygiene by urging people who are not already insane to look at publicly incontestable facts about philosophy and draw the obvious conclusions.

You make a living off this stuff. You are no more likely to acknowledge the truth than Oral Roberts was likely to admit that God did not really threaten to “call him home” if his followers did not cough up the cash.

C’est la vie.

Dave

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JS Allen September 17, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I am generally not replying to you because you keep putting words in my mouth and I am not interested in playing word games with you.

Dave, you’re very wordy and screechy, but I’m pretty sure I quoted you word-for-word.

From your posts here and from your blog, it is clear that you are smarter than the whole world. Your writing style reminds of Joe Stack. Lots of sweeping, bombastic, unsubstantiated generalizations; practically incoherent; and a desperate bluster born of isolation. I’m not talking about you of course; I’m talking about Joe Stack. Who you sound like.

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Robert,

The thread has taken a turn that consists of your and poor young Joshua’s trying to convince me to engage philosophy internally, from within philosophy itself (which would of course mean that I was implicitly acknowledging some value to philosophy – clever rhetorical ploy if I fell for it!) vs. my insisting that philosophy, and most other fields of intellectual endeavor, can be sensibly dismissed from an externalist perspective, per my auto mechanic example.

That debate is of course interminable: I am too wise to fall into an internalist debate that would concede your point, and you and Joshua are incapable of looking at philosophy from the outside and concluding that it should be dismissed per se.

However, what I think is the more interesting point is the broader question of whether whole intellectual “disciplines” can be dismissed from this sort of externalist perspective. In practice, everyone does so, as the examples of astrology and palm reading illustrate. Yet, curiously, very few people are willing to acknowledge explicitly that this is sensible and to discuss when and why it is sensible. I think this refusal shows a strange cultural pathology in the intellectual world and in American society at large. Of course, this is the point at issue in the original discussion about Parsons: is Parsons right to dismiss philosophy of religion per se? A lot of the discussions in various fora seemed to assume that of course Parsons was wrong to dismiss the whole discipline *unless* he could justify doing so on the basis of the standards internal to the discipline itself: this included various snarky comments stating that Parsons was not really very good at PoR, again, of course, by the internal standards of the discipline, neglecting the fact that he was questioning those standards themselves.

This also connects with what is, I think, the most interesting issue raised here, by Richard: how can one compare and evaluate competing “epistemologies”?

In a sense, I think this may be the one legitimate question for the philosophy of religion, and I think there is a straightforward answer: do so empirically – by their fruits shall ye know them.

The epistemologies of math and philosophy are rather similar, but, for some reason, math’s has succeeded while philosophy’s failed. Natural science has a very different epistemology, which has succeeded spectacularly. We now have the data on those differing epistemologies.

So, perhaps, what I am really advocating is the replacement of philosophy by the empirical science of historical comparative epistemology.

I somehow got onto this thread because I am reading your colleague Ed Feser’s “The Last Superstition,” which is an attack on the “mechanistic philosophy” at the base of science from the perspective of Thomism. Feser is quite loopy in some ways (and quite ignorant of science in many ways), but he does make a valid point that you cannot have both full-bodied Thomism and scientific mechanism.

Similarly, a few years ago, I was on a Web forum with a crazy guy who had developed his own bizarre Bible code. For months, I, and a number of other folks, tried to convince him it was completely nuts, all to no avail. There was no point of contact between our competing epistemologies. As far as I can tell, the only way of viewing his approach was to stand outside it and see how it worked vs. normal empirical historical-critical approaches in Biblical criticism. As it happens, by that standard, he loses, since, according to his Bible code, the Messiah should have transformed the universe now, by the current date. Not that I think this failure has stopped him, but, from an external viewpoint, he lost. (Incidentally, if you talked to him about current geopolitics, the situation in the Mideast, etc. – he lives in Cyprus – he was quite sane and lucid.)

So, that I think is my answer to the Thomist Feser, to my old Bible code pal, and to philosophy in general – empirical comparative historical epistemology, along the lines suggested earlier by Richard.

Lest Richard get all the credit, let me add that I think this was implicit in much of the work of Ernest Gellner, e.g., “The Legitimation of Belief.” No doubt Gellner does not count for much among his fellow philosophers, but then he was also an anthropologist, which is, perhaps, the right discipline to study philosophy.

Dave

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JS Allen September 17, 2010 at 4:31 pm

The thread has taken a turn that consists of your and poor young Joshua’s trying to convince me to engage philosophy internally

I’m not young, I’m certainly not poor, and I never asked you to “engage philosophy internally”. Are you pretending to be stupid?

I’ve already acknowledged that you’re smarter and wiser than the whole wide world, and I was simply suggesting that you work on your rhetorical style, since you sound like Joe Stack or Ted Kaczynski.

It’s great that you’re out there soldiering for homeschooling of kids to protect them from the pernicious effects of wider society. I mean, if nobody else stands up against the whole wide world and encourages separatism, those fundies wack-jobs will get their way. Because you’re definitely not a fundie.

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PhysicistDave September 17, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Joshua S. Allen,

Well, Joshua, I was tempted to just write back and point out that you were acting like a jerk, but no doubt many would view that as an ad hominem attack. Anyway, your words speak for themselves.

You wrote:
>I mean, if nobody else stands up against the whole wide world and encourages separatism, those fundies wack-jobs will get their way. Because you’re definitely not a fundie.

My dear young boy (and you do seem to be a young boy – I’ve never met a guy as old as me named “Joshua”!), I have no idea what you are talking about. Personally, I like fundies; I have lots of friends who are fundies. I do think their mode of thinking is misguided.

And, no, I have no sympathy for Kaczynski, who was an environmentalist and an anti-capitalist: I am neither. Who the hell is “Joe Stack”? One of your friends?

Your blog speaks for itself. I really do urge anyone who is skeptical of my judgment of you to click on your name and go and read your blog in detail. They can make up their own minds. I do not know how to be more fair than that. Surely, you are proud of what you have written on your blog? Not my words about you, but your own words on your own blog.

My main point here has been that there are radically different modes of thought (“epistemologies,” as Richard says) between, on the one hand, scientists such as myself, and, on the other hand, philosophers, religious believers, and other adherents of traditional ways of thinking. The split is not 100 percent: some philosophers – Gellner, perhaps Keith Parsons – are on my side, and, of course, there are some scientists (though very, very few among top scientists – see the famous Larson-Witham study, for example) who are true religious believers.

Your blog is a nice illustration of my point.

Thank you most sincerely for helping to prove my point.

And sorry I hurt your feelings – couldn’t be avoided. I’m afraid I am a very mean person, always saying things that hurt people’s feelings, by showing my lack of respect for the intellectual modes of functioning of so many of my fellow human beings. The truth hurts. Again, can’t be helped.

All the best youngster,

Dave

P.S. Guys as old as me (I am, alas, closer to 60 than to 50) rather like being called “youngster.” The fact that you don’t pretty much shows that you are indeed a youngster.

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