Sunday, September 25, 2011

Philosophy and Progress

There's some kind of conference at Harvard in conjunction with Australian National University on the topic of progress in philosophy. See here for video of a talk on the subject between Jason Stanley and Carlin Romano and here and here for comments. Romano is not a philosopher but a journalist. Though I think Stanley could have done a much better job at presenting his case, Romano's talk was atrocious. He displayed incredible arrogance and ignorance. His ignorance is understandable for a layman, even one that occasionally dabbles in philosophy as Romano reviews philosophy books for a living. but that coupled with his shear arrogance is what made so many philosophers react to his talk in such a harsh manner (see Leiter's blog for some comments and reactions). It's like the Writer Karl Krauss said Journalists are people with "no ideas and the ability to express them" was made for Romano.

For a while, I didn't think the Romanos of the world deserved responses from philosophers. Such ferocious and recalcitrant ignorance should just be ignored. The literal and figurative mic should just be muted. But I realized that there are so many of these types that the profession of philosophy need to respond to them and take them seriously because policy is dependent on the views of the masses, ignorant ones as well as more informed, more humble ones. If voices like Romano's are amplified and that is what people hear, they will be convinced of philosophy's alleged limitations because they don't hear the other side and if philosophers don't do a good job of defending philosophical practice in the academy, we're the one's that ultimately loose out. That's not to say that philosophy doesn't have any real limitations, all disciplines seeking to acquire knowledge is limited by a host of things or else the human race would have the omniscience of gods. But the criticisms from the Romanos of the world are wholly baseless. What defects there are in reality are not focused on. Instead, false defects are sold to people who don't know any better. That's why I think Stanley's clumsy and flippant response was inappropriate and I think he could have given better examples (to which I will say a little more later) to argue his case in defense of philosophy from the idiotic criticisms of Romano.

Now for my take on philosophical progress. I noticed that few people in the video or commenting on it even tried to make clear what is meant by "progress." Maybe they did but that segment wasn't included in the videos I saw on this conference.

I take what people mean by philosophical progress to be ambiguous between these two main meanings. 1. progress means getting closer to the truth. That is philosophical theories and ideas get more accurate as representations of reality as time goes by (presumably like science does). 2. Philosophy is useful for society. It plays important functional roles.

Now the second meaning, if true, may go some ways to support the first. Consider mathematics. One of the principle arguments that mathematics is true in the robust sense of true and not in some figurative, fictional sense, is that it has proved so useful. It is very applicable to the sciences and thus that goes to show that it is likely true. This is the famous indipensability argument made famous by Quine and Putnam. Because we can not dispense with mathematics and mathematics makes use of existence claims (eg. there is a smallest prime number) a fortiori, there exists at least some numbers Quine and Putnam have argued. Similarly with physics. How do we know relativity theory is true? Well, there's the empirical evidence but also our GPS systems depend on the theory to be true. Same with quantum mechanics. Our technologies depend on QM to be true or at least reasonably accurate a description of the world. I will argue that philosophy also fills indispensable roles in human society much as mathematics and physics.

But first, the claim that philosophy gets closer at the truth. I will answer affirmatively and say that it does get closer at the truth. Philosophical theories become more nuanced as time goes by. Philosophers have a much better conceptual grasp of things, our view of the world become more fine grained, as distinctions are made. This point was made by some speakers including Stanley. By getting more of a detailed and complex picture of our world (conceptual refinements), we are in much better shape to make accurate theories. Philosophy does do that. Philosophy also consistently finds errors in its own thinking by finding assumptions and refuting them. By making conceptual distinctions, we avoid equivocation fallacies and jettison many previous held false beliefs. Take the centuries held belief by philosophers that knowledge is justified true belief. This has been held for centuries by almost all philosophers but since the early 60s, there was almost a consensus formed over night that that notion is either wrong, or at least needs to be refined (which philosophers have done). Now there is still much to do to understand what knowledge is but philosophers no longer make the same mistakes because those mistakes have been exposed since then (by the counter examples given by Gettier in 1962).

Knowledge is one among many many examples one could find.

Now on the to second claim that philosophy is useful. This will be even easier to prove than the direct claim that it gets closer to the truth. I mentioned above that its usefulness is also evidence of its truthfulness so what I will say here may also be added as further evidence that the first claim is true assuming that indispensability arguments are sound.

I already posted on the contribution philosophy has had throughout society here. Philosophy is indispensable for society. Our legal system depend on it. Many jurisprudential journals liberally cite works from philosophers. Philosophy has heavily shaped the legal system in the US and in Europe and also in international law (especially human rights law). Questions of moral responsibility, free will, causation, rights, personhood, etc play vital roles in our legal system.

The abortion and euthenasia debates depend heavily on questions of personal identity. One of the most important decisions in 20th US history was Roe v. Wade. The courts were persuaded to rule as they did largely due to the influence of the metaphysician Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper in defense of abortion (among other philosophical arguments made).

Another far more recent example is the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision. This decision by the Pennsylvanian court struck down the Dover Pennsylvania Area School District's proposal to teach Intelligent Design in its high school. Justice John E. Jones III, in his opinion of the decision argued that the crucial testimonies from philosophers of science Christopher Pennock and Barbara Forrest was decisive in the decision showing that ID was 1. not science, 2. a disguised version of Creationism which has already been ruled by previous supreme court decisions to be unconstitutional when taught in science classes 3. that the motives of the ID proponents are to proselytize. The decision prohibited the teaching of ID in high school science classes and set a huge precedent for the rest of the country.

That's just two examples of some of the most important decisions in the US that have been crucially influenced by philosophical considerations but the examples can be multiplied.

Outside of law, we have the familiar examples I already talked about and also given in Stanley's talk with logic. The electronic and computer revolution could not have occurred but for developments in logic, a branch of philosophy. Also take decision theory which have influence many areas of the sciences such as economics, psychology and even AI. The first decision problem and a decision theoretic treatment of it was the very philosophical problem, Pascal's Wager.

We also have other influences such as the development of modern conceptions of democracy (Rawles being the most influential political theorist in the world for the last 30 years). Modern conceptions of economics (such as the development of the modern science of economics itself from the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith). The development of modern cognitive science (Stanley used this example in his talk) essentially sprung from the debates Fodor, Goldman and Searle had with each other during the late 60s. The scientific method itself, again by philosophy's insights was first developed.

So philosophy's influence on the world is not in dispute. It has drastically influenced our society and will always do so if we are to use the past as a guide.

I think one can find far more examples to support the claims I've made. These examples are off the top of my head. A little research and preparation would add substantially to these examples.

Now my comments on Romano's talk specifically. He seems to give little to no direct reasons, for his claims, that philosophy is "fraudulent." Most of his criticisms are stylistic criticisms (such as claiming that philosophers write in ways that are too hard to understand or that they should not have such a long acknowledgement section in their books). Because this says nothing about the content of philosophy, I will not address it (I think it's simply false, analytic philosophers tend to be quite clear writers for the most part).

As for his non stylistic criticisms, Romano also says that there should be far more collaboration from philosophy departments with other departments. I agree but Romano puts the blame wholly on philosophers for what he claims is the insular and arrogant nature of philosophy departments. In my experience, philosophers are the most likely to want to collaborate with others and are the most open to seeing value in other departments. It is usually the other departments that need to be informed of the value of philosophy.

I mentioned in an earlier post that in most interdepartmental dialogues, the philosophers will almost inevitably know far more about the other disciplines than those in the other disciplines will know about philosophy (see here for an example). This is understandable as there is just about a philosophy of everything. So I agree that there should be more collaboration but I think most of what is prohibiting that constructive dialogue is the arrogance and ignorance seen in people from some other disciplines who don't know a lick about what philosophers are up to. Check out this, this and this just examples from the ignorance of physicists (though in recent years this seems to have started to change among physicists especially theoretical physicists due to the work of philosophers of science on the problem of time, e.g.).

Most telling of all in suggesting that it is Romano that is the problem and not philosophers ability to write or to come up with important insights is this: Romano mentions near the end that only philosophers understand the language they write in. That's an interesting admission. It says that philosophical writing is not by his lights, inherently unintelligible. But if Romano can't understand what philosophers are writing about, how does he know that it is fraudulent?


  1. 1. Is philosophy getting closer to the truth?

    An increase of nuance does not by itself equate to an approach to truth. Much modern analytic philosophy is very nuanced, as you say, but if the whole enterprise is misguided then it's a bit like hoping that making a sandcastle ever more detailed will eventually turn it into a real castle.

    Also, you state that philosophy is now in a better position to put forward accurate theories. Really? Where are they then? The point about scientific theories is that they are testable against reality. They are predictive. I don't see how the a priori theories of philosophy can be either testable or predictive.

    2. Is philosophy useful?

    I agree that in areas such as law, where notions of ethics and justice are central, the work of philosophers has been important in clarifying the issues, and that is not to be sniffed at.

    It is worth noting, however, that despite millennia of effort (Plato, Augustine, Kant, Bentham, Moore, Singer, etc, etc) no philosopher has been able to come up with a definition or formula for clearly picking out the right or just action in any particular case. I don't think we can put that down to the intellectual failings of the individuals involved.

    On the analytic side, philosophy has certainly been influential - far more so, indeed, than most people realise. But that's not the same as being useful. You mention its role in the birth of science, yet science got off the ground not because of the theoretical underpinning that the likes of Descartes tried (and failed) to provide but precisely because it realised it didn't need such an underpinning. The scientific method worked - who cared if we couldn't prove reality existed?

    As for philosophy's (undoubted) influence on cognitive science, I'd be interested to learn of one single clear-cut break-through in neuroscience that has come about because of a philosophical theory. Just one.

  2. Yes, being more nuanced does not necessarily mean that it is becoming more accurate a representation of reality. I meant to further explore this issue. My point would have been that it is not simply getting more nuanced but the reasons why it is that is suggestive that philosophy is getting closer to the truth. I think it is pretty well established that the tools philosophers use to arrive at the truth such as conceptual analysis, questioning assumptions, questioning premises, using counterfactual analysis, etc are used because they help philosophers avoid fallacies of reasoning. Because these tools are applied and concepts are sharpened through these methods of critical reasoning, it follows that conceptual refinement avoids mistakes in reasoning. Avoiding mistakes in reasoning gets us closer to the truth. It is possible that we continue to make further errors but by eliminating previous errors and seeing where we have gone wrong, we not only avoid those errors but those like them.

    "Also, you state that philosophy is now in a better position to put forward accurate theories. Really? Where are they then?"

    I can give you lots of examples. Take a look at the free will debate. It has been stagnant for centuries but over the last 50 years there has been huge progress. Philosophers now know that there are many things we mean by that term and that there are different kinds of freedoms. There are hierarchical conceptions of freedom, reflective capacity conceptions, negative coercive conceptions, dispositional accounts of alternative possibility approaches, meaning approaches and others and each of these has particular kinds of sub approaches. All of these conceptions of freedom captures a little of what we mean by freedom depending on the context.

    I also gave the example of knowledge above. Our conceptions of knowledge have gotten more accurate because of the counter examples of Gettier and Goldman and those that have followed.

    "The point about scientific theories is that they are testable against reality. They are predictive. I don't see how the a priori theories of philosophy can be either testable or predictive."

    They don't need to be predictive to get at the truth. Mathematics does not need to be predictive to arrive at mathematical truth. Another example I could give to see that philosophy have gotten closer to the truth is logic. We now know far more than only 150 years ago about logic. That advances our knowledge and hence progresses philosophy not only in logic but as a whole as these logical tools have been used to analyse issues in modality and metaphysics in general, e.g. Even if mathematics does not get closer to the truth in some robust sense (because there are no such things as numbers, e.g.) math would still progress in the sense that it gets more nuanced and more useful.

    "As for philosophy's (undoubted) influence on cognitive science, I'd be interested to learn of one single clear-cut break-through in neuroscience that has come about because of a philosophical theory. Just one."

    The modularity theory of mind. Arguable *the* single most important breakthrough in all cognitive science in the last 40 years.

    Also there are many other breakthroughs by Searle and Goldman and other philosophjers in cognitive science but modularity of mind has been probably the single most influential breakthrough in all of cognitive science. Computational theory of mind proposed by Putnam and Fodor has been massively influential as well over the last 40 years.

    Searle "Chinese Room Argument" has spurred on research in AI (and hence progressed it) even though most AI experts do not think it is true, it is sometimes considered the principle argument against the foundations of AI. Pat Hayes, an AI researcher has said cognitive science is "the ongoing research program of showing Searle's Chinese Room Argument to be false."

  3. I find this defense of philosophy very valuable and wonder whether you could correct the misspellings of Romano's name so as to make it more readily Googleable.