Leaving philosophy

M-T-CiceroIt’s official: At the end of the semester, I’m leaving the philosophy program at Notre Dame. I’m going back to UW-Madison as a special student, to prepare for applying to graduate school in neuroscience.

To some of my friends and almost all readers of this blog, this will sound like something out of left field. It’s not. If you had asked me about my graduate school plans late in my junior year, I would have told you I was considering both philosophy and neuroscience graduate school, and that my philosophy interests were mainly in philosophy of mind.

Two big things made me rethink the decision to go into philosophy, one negative and one positive. On the negative side: I came into Notre Dame not thinking it was the perfect place to pursue my phil. mind interests (I hadn’t gotten in to the perfect place), but thinking it was an OK place. During my first year at Notre Dame I slowly began to suspect that even that was a mistake. Finally, this semester I was told flat-out by one of the phil. mind people here that if I was interested in that, I should go elsewhere.

(Note to philosophy grad school applicants: before accepting any offer of admissions anywhere, insist on interrogating any professors you think you might want to work with, so that they tell you that stuff sooner rather than later.)

On the positive side, last summer I attended a meeting of The Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and couldn’t help but think, “this stuff is so much cooler than anything I’ve studied at Notre Dame in the past year.” I honestly feel like I’d be wasting my talents if I didn’t get involved in that kind of research.

I emphasize that these are my main reasons for making the switch, but they’re not the only ones. One, which I mention only because I know I’ll end up writing about it later: I’ve gotten increasingly skeptical of the worthwhileness of philosophy.

Notre Dame didn’t make me skeptical, I had my doubts before I got to graduate school. But they’ve gotten more serious over the past year or so. To put it very briefly: while almost all philosophers would admit that philosophy gets few settled results, I think philosophy gets even fewer real results than the meager results that philosophers have sometimes claimed.

I’ll go further than that: If a philosopher tells you that philosophers have discovered x, this is reason to be very, very skeptical of x. Such claims all too often covers weak arguments. In a similar vein, I’m frankly embarrassed by the flimsy justifications that some philosophers give for dismissing what non-philosophers have to say on topics like religion, ethics, and reason.

I won’t elaborate on these points here. I just want people to have a heads-up for where my writing may be going in the near future.

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11 Comments.

  1. It’s interesting than you cite Gary’s book: my first reaction to this post was to recommend it!

    Anyways, we haven’t gotten to known each other well while you’ve been here, so I can only comment based on what you’ve written here. And my comment is that you’re probably making the right decision. Notre Dame isn’t a good place for phil mind that’s heavily influenced by neuroscience. We were much better a few years ago, but we’ve since lost some key faculty (and, consequently, one or two really promising grad students).

    I’d also suggest a qualification: the sorts of problems taken on by mainstream philosophers (both Analytic and Continental), and the methods they use (including dismissing non-philosophers), lend themselves to the failure you identify. Other subdisciplines (philosophy of science, cough cough) tend to (not always, mind!) adopt more tractable problems and more empirically-grounded methods. I wouldn’t say that this makes these subdisciplines more successful at producing knowledge, but it does make them more fruitful, interesting, and practically relevant.

    If you are considering sticking with philosophy at all, you should check out IU’s History and Philosophy of Science program. I understand they have close ties with the neuroscience department.

    Best of luck, in Madison and in wherever you end up after that!

  2. Out of curiosity, could you name some of the issues philosophers take as settled but you think aren’t?

  3. You find far more agreement among scientists about what sorts of facts science has discovered than among philosophers about the facts philosophy has discovered. This is not a reason to suppose that science is somehow privileged. The two simply ask vastly different sorts of questions. Philosophy is bolder, it takes less for granted, and finds answers more elusive as a result. Science restricts its analysis in ways that make results easier to come by and avoids topics where empirical experimentation seem likely to be ineffective. The result is that science claims to arrive at a lot of facts, but they tend to be rather dry: When neurons over here fire, the subject’s arm moves. At the Earth’s surface, objects accelerate at 9.8m/s^2. Philosophy struggles to establish facts, but the ones it seeks are tantalizing: How should I act? What constitutes the best human life?

    The question you presumable have already asked yourself is, “Do I want to spend more time thinking about things like what happens in the brain when such and such neuron fires or about questions that escape the boundaries of purely empirical experimentation?” Not that choosing to study either field limits you to one of the other, but that is beside the point.

  4. @Evan: First, I’m not sure what you mean by “privileged.”

    It certainly seems true that philosophy and science ask different kinds of questions. But it isn’t at all obvious how to characterize that difference.

    The tendency of philosophy people to assume, without little to no argument, claims like “philosophical questions escape the boundaries of purely empirical experimentation” is one of the things that annoys me about how much philosophy is done.

  5. I’m not sure, unlike Evan, that philosophy and science ask different questions. I think they do seek different results, though. Not that this difference is much easier to characterize, but, if it could be characterized precisely, I think it gets us three useful things.

    First, an account of why and how some philosophical questions became wholly scientific ones. Aristotle on the makeup and behaviour of animals, for example, looks highly anachronistic (for the most part), and not just because he was wrong. The sorts of results philosophical methods obtained just weren’t suitable for the question. It’s a question that screams out for empirical investigation and careful testing, not broad theorizing. It’s not the only one, either — a lot of the concerns of the ancients and the medievals have become scientific ones.

    Second, an account of why some philosophical questions resist scientific absorption. Debates about whether realism is true and, if so, which form, for example. It’s the contrary problem, where scientific methods yield results unsuitable for the questions. No empirical study could tell us whether some sort of quasi-Platonic realism was correct, or some sort of Kantian empirical realism, or some kind of quasi-Protagorean subjectivism. Again, I don’t think it’s the only problem that has this feature.

    And, third, on all other questions — that is, those which aren’t removed from philosophy, or unremoveable from philosophy — it seems to follow that philosophy and science are complementary approaches, not in conflict, but mutually supporting. It would be impossible to study the mind fully without both philosophy and science, just as it’s impossible to fully study ethics, politics or law (and many others) without accounting for both perspectives, both sets of methods, and both sorts of results.

    I think the original post, Chris, might be conflating philosophy and philosophers. There’s unquestionably a lot of philosophers out there who are dismissive, arrogant, insular, and a whole lot worse. You’re not the first escapee from philosophy grad school I’ve heard express this sort of concern. But, I think it’s not a problem for philosophy so much as the academic version thereof. (Which is, if we adopt a historical point of view, obviously a weird aberration from the way philosophy has been conducted.)

  6. Chris Hallquist

    I’m not sure it makes sense to define philosophy independent of living philosophers.

    If you try to define “philosophy” in terms of everything that’s been called philosophy for the past two and a half millenia, of course that’s going to include a lot of stuff we’d normally classify as science.

    So when I talk about philosophy, I usually mean something like, “what the people from Kant onwards who we usually call philosophers have been doing.”

  7. Great decision. I escaped with my masters in philosophy, left into neuroscience for my PhD, and never once regretted it. Do you know what area of neuroscience interests you (e.g., molecular, systems, cognitive)?

  8. I knew you were a science guy BDK – didn’t know you had a masters in philosophy.

    You know, if you’re ever in the Midwest, I would love to have a beer with you.

  9. I think you’ve probably made the right choice, now. :)