Philosophy is dysfunctional

Note: what you see below was originally going to be just the first half of a very long blog post. However, my computer is acting up, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to finish writing it… but possibly, my original plan was something too big for one post, and needed to be broken up anyway. In any case, expect a follow up as soon as I can manage.

I’m now convinced that, as an academic discipline, philosophy is dysfunctional. The source of the problem is that, as Peter van Inwagen once said, “Philosophers do not agree about anything to speak of.” (Some philosophers might not agree with him about this, but from what I’ve seen, van Inwagen is right–see also some hard data here).

When I say this causes problems, I don’t mean that for philosophy to become functional we need to force philosophers to agree somehow. That would do more harm than good. But the lack of agreement among philosophers still causes problems. Most obviously, it makes philosophy not so useful to non-philosophers, since they can’t figure out what to believe based on expert consensus. But it also encourages perverse behavior by philosophers.

Here’s why: while philosophers pride themselves on caring about producing good arguments and getting at the truth, if they don’t agree what arguments are good or what the truth is, they can’t reward each other for doing either of those things. So philosophers aren’t under any pressure to get anything important right, and I don’t think they’re under any significant pressure to actually produce good arguments. What they are under pressure to demonstrate cleverness, and demonstrate being in tune with philosophical fads and cliques.

Pressure to be clever is a problem because clever does not equal right. Clever can be the enemy of right. As a very wise contributor to Less Wrong once said: “Any idiot can tell you why death is bad, but it takes a very particular sort of idiot to believe that death might be good.” So if you’re worried about being mistaken for just any idiot, take the position that any idiot can see is wrong.

Consider an example that seems too silly to be real. If I hold up two fingers and ask “how many fingers am I holding up?” saying “two” will not demonstrate cleverness. It only shows that you are conscious, speak English, and can see straight. If you want to be clever, you might say something like, “I don’t know how many fingers you’re holding up, because who really knows anything, anyway?”

Not that that’s actually a very clever answer. It’s sophomoric. But consider this answer: “The problem of external world skepticism has yet to be adequately addressed by philosophers. Many contemporary philosophers simply dismiss it, but I think these dismissals fail to adequately grapple with it, or even understand the real nature of the problem. However, I also believe that recent work in philosophy has made considerable progress towards solving the problem.” There, now we’re talking. So much better than just saying “two.”

The problem is especially bad when it comes to publishing. As one of my professors at Notre Dame once remarked, there is no such thing as the journal of one-sentence dissents. So, you might be able to publish a paper that develops a complex argument premised on the claim that p, even if your only support for p is to claim that there’s a philosophical consensus that p. However, there is no place where you can publish a short paragraph that says, “here are some prominent philosophers that think not-p, so there’s hardly a consensus and p needs some other support.”

In other words, it is sometimes easier to publish a complex argument with one glaring flaw, than it is to publish something that succinctly and decisively points out the flaw. And because “publish or perish” is the rule in academia, this means philosophers have an incentive to spend more formulating complex arguments that may or may not have real merit, and not much incentive to point out obvious flaws in other people’s arguments.

Incidentally, this also you can’t trust major philosophy journals to have all the best arguments on both sides of a philosophical issue. For example, many of contributors to this book and this book do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with William Lane Craig’s moral argument, but you’ll never see those criticisms in a “serious” journal article, because they’re so utterly obvious. For the same reason, you can’t assume that the academics who’ve published on an issue are the ones you should listen to.

Now, Craig isn’t the best example, since the specific flavor of terrible that is his moral argument is unusual in philosophy. So instead, let me quote something I said in a blog post written more than a year ago about respected philosopher Lawrence BonJour (note that in retrospect, I think this post was the beginning of the end of my career as a philosophy grad student):

In his book on the subject, In Defense of Pure Reason, he surprisingly only devotes a couple of pages to what he calls his main arguments. This was accompanied by a bold declaration that his arguments are so obvious that he doesn’t understand why they haven’t been more influential. In the precis of the book he wrote for the Philosophy and Phenomenological Research symposium on it, he summarizes his arguments in a couple of paragraphs that don’t quite match the arguments presented in the original book, and finally in his response to criticisms made by contributors to the symposium, BonJour admits he didn’t initially have a clear idea of what he was trying to say.

Again, the trouble is that there’s no glory in pointing this out, while BonJour’s book manages to be fairly impressive in spite of the main arguments being muddled. Meaning, this is a case where “good arguments” and “will enhance a philosopher’s status” fail to correlate.

Though I’m less sure about this, I suspect the lack of any real consensus among philosophers explains some of the cliquishness of contemporary academic philosophy. Lack of agreement creates a vacuum to be filled by cliques that seem to think only their own opinion counts when determining the verdict of enlightened philosophical opinion. That, and showing you’re hip to this fad or that clique’s shibboleth is another way of showing cleverness.

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  1. “Ask any five year old child, and ey can tell you that death is bad. Death is bad because it kills you. There is nothing subtle about it”

    And that which kills you is bad because if it kills you then you’re gonna be dead, amirite?

  2. Can you say more about Is it the best alternative?

  3. Interesting post.

    I think I’ll withhold most of what I want to say until you add your follow-up.

    But here’s something.

    You say that we shouldn’t get philosophers to just agree on stuff, but then you say that that lack of consensus possibly leads to the “cliquishness of contemporary academic philosophy.” I’m curious to know what you think an alternative solution might be.

    Looking forward to the follow-up!

  4. It’s hard to decide which is more ridiculous, philosophy or religion. Philosophy is a mere game for idle minds. Don’t waste your time worrying or writing about it.

  5. Bernard J. Ortcutt

    I fail to see how clever and wrong is ever respected. I’ve never heard a philosopher lauded for coming up with a clever theory that is flatly contradicted by the evidence.

    I feel like people have this attitude of “Why haven’t you just answered all these problems by now?” Philosophy is hard, and serious analytic philosophy has only been going on for 80 odd years. (I’m of the opinion that most of the history of philosophy is a grotesque waste of time.) There are philosophical consensuses on certain topics. Contemporary philosophy is overwhelmingly naturalistic. Dualism is overwhelmingly rejected. Some kind of token Identity Theory of Mind is believed. Compatibilism is widely believed. I don’t know whether projecting a unified front for outsiders is really that important, but there certainly does exist a loose consensus on multiple fundamental positions.

  6. I got some philo-flak for my “Show me the sausages” blog post on a related issue to this. Things are worst in that bastardised alleged sub-discipline of philosophy known as “theology”, but the fact that asinine twaddle like William Lane Craig’s gets past peer review surely flags a problem.

  7. Hi Chris,

    An interesting and well-written piece. I hope to see the sequel soon. My take is a little different: I think the turning point for philosophy came in the early 20th century, when Wittgenstein and others demonstrated that philosophy was not about the world at all, but about how we describe the world. In other words, language is a functional construct, and while it makes sense to talk about how useful any particular linguistic convention is, you can’t go from the fact that a noun (e.g. ‘thoughts’) exists in English to claiming that there are ‘things’ or ‘objects’ in the real world corresponding to that noun.

    That was a tremendously influential idea at the time, but what seemed to happen is that philosophers took a close look at it, realised that if they embraced it they would all be out of a job, and rapidly retreated to the kind of vacuous debates you have described so well. Meanwhile people who are really interested in finding out about the universe have gone into cognitive science, artificial intelligence, physics or cosmology. In a way the decline of philosophy over the last fifty years mirrors the decline of theology over the preceding fifty, and for much the same reasons: it’s no longer where the action is.

  8. @William Very interesting philosophy!

  9. Chris Hallquist

    @Connor: I don’t claim to have a magic solution. I think a letters page in philosophy journals would help a bit. A system for submitting short, anonymous comments at philosophy conferences might help a bit. Other than that, I don’t know.

    @Bernard: But it’s rare for any view in philosophy to be quite “flatly contradicted by the evidence.” On the other hand, there are lots of people who think David Lewis is the greatest metaphysician of the 20th century, even though almost everyone thinks Lewis’ views are crazy.

    So for example, I once had a professor tell me, “Lewis’ views sound pretty crazy, but he’s so much smarter than me and his book On the Plurality of Worlds had some really impressive arguments that I don’t know how to refute.” I’ve read On the Plurality of Worlds and thought the arguments were pretty muddled, but somehow the book managed to impress some people.

    Interestingly, David Lewis has something in common with Alvin Plantinga, in that most analytic philosophers think they were wrong about something huge, but they both managed to impress a lot of their colleagues. And they both impressed their colleagues by saying things about modality at a time when modality was sexy. Now that I think about it, the fact that they are both big names may say a lot about the amount of influence philosophical fads have.

    As for naturalism, compatibilism, etc., these may be majority views, but there’s a difference between “majority view” and “consensus.” Go click on the second link in the OP – on none of the questions you mention did the majority view get more than 60% of the votes, even when you include the “lean towards” votes.

    To put it more concretely: I’m a compatibilist. I’ve chatted with Paul Draper, a libertarian, on free will. I know that arguments that I find really convincing don’t convince him. And even though according to the survey <14% of philosophers are libertarians, I'd still feel ridiculous coming at him with "but there's a consensus!"

    @Jon: Of course, not everyone agrees that Wittgenstein did demonstrate that. And that’s just one example of a larger pattern: every time someone (Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, Eliezer Yudkowsky) thinks they’ve found a solution to what ails philosophy, they always fail to get enough other people to agree with them that it is a solution, and it becomes just another philosophical debate. It’s a part of the stuff I’m discussing here, not some separate thing you can isolate.

  10. I think that philosophers ought to be all working together to abolish all philosophy journals and start publishing everything on a single website. I’ll call this hypothetical website WikiPhilosopy. WikiPhilosophy ought to be subdivided into sections of WikiEthics, WikiEpistemology, and so on. The way it would work is that anyone could email an argument into the website and have it peer reviewed and published. After it was published, we could set up a way in which anyone could email an objection to the premises or conclusion of that argument and that criticism would be peer-reviewed and a link to it would be placed on that argument’s page. I suspect that this would have the effect of allowing for dramatic amounts of progress in philosophy. Of course, the whole thing might sound chaotic to some, and maybe it would be. But think about it: if some lone philosopher publishes a correct and conclusive criticism of virtue ethics, and the paper or book isn’t widely read or known about, and if no one else happens to think of that same objection, then the philosophical community has been robbed of a way of finding the truth that it would have had if this criticism was available to all. Adovocates of virtue ethics would be able to keep up with updates to the wiki, and once this criticism was published they would know about it.

    Do you think something like that would be a good idea?

  11. Daniel Almeida

    Hey, have you seen this review of Stengers book?

    It’s mostly a long boring rant- But he claims that only 23% of scientists are atheists. Have you looked into it?

  12. Daniel Almeida

    * when you hit the link, scroll down his list and find his reviw on “god- the failed hypothosis”.

  13. …every time someone (Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, Eliezer Yudkowsky) thinks they’ve found a solution to what ails philosophy, they always fail to get enough other people to agree with them that it is a solution, and it becomes just another philosophical debate.

    But this point of view assumes that philosophy is a legitimate enterprise which has somehow ‘gone wrong’, which — surprise! — creates lots of job opportunities for philosophers to put it right; whereas my point — following Wittgenstein or not — is that philosophy is something like astrology or phrenology: it is trying to explain real phenomena via a completely invalid theory.

    As soon as we replace philosophical questions like “Do qualia exist?” with linguistic ones like “Is it useful to incorporate the noun ‘qualia’ into the English language?” then all the longstanding problems of philosophy simply dissolve. There’s just nothing left.

  14. Chris Hallquist

    @Daniel: I could probably use Google to find hard data, but I’m too lazy, and the 23% figure sounds about right. What I remember hearing is that US scientists are, on the whole, less religious than the US general population, but the difference isn’t *that* dramatic.

    Given how reluctant most people in the US are to call themselves atheists or even agnostics (even if that’s what they are), 23% of scientists calling themselves that is a pretty healthy percentage.

  15. Daniel- Arizona atheist did a review for that book for what it’s worth. (Sorry, can’t remember the link).

  16. Daniel- the 23% thing seems fishy to me- from what I’ve read, 1/3 of scientists are atheistic, 1/3 agnostic, and 1/3 theistic. So if his stat is somewhat accurate, although it ignores the agnostics (why do christians always ignore them?).
    However, I can hardly see anything wrong with the poll indicating that 70% top scientists are atheistic while only 7% are theistic (the rest are agnostic). Julio criticises it for not asking ALL top scientists their religiosity- but honestly, with numbers this high, I seriously doubt it matters. All in all, despite christianities influences in the sciences, it is nonetheless a more non-theistic feild. And when you really look into it, you realise that MOST major religions have contributed to the sciences. Don’t believe me- this article has everything you need:

    So why don’t apologists point out Islam mathematical contributions and hinduisms philisophical additions to our pool of knowledge? Plus- most religious people consider philosophy above science, remember? You know, philosophy- the feild that is MOST atheistic (70% BTW). :twisted:

  17. Chris Hallquist

    Okay, this is the most relevant section of the Wikipedia page:

    It says that in general, the population of US scientists is about 1/3 atheists and 1/3 agnostic.
    That’s not too far off from the 23% figure, which makes it plausible that some study somewhere did get the 23% figure.

    And note that “top scientists” is different than “all scientists.” So yeah, the National Academy is mostly atheists, but they aren’t representative of the general population of US scientists.

  18. Oh yes- I can imagine that, say, culinary scientists and marine biologists would be more theistic (and thus more similar to the population) since neither of them really pose challenges to the faith. Physics, psychology, and evolutionary biology, on the other hand, may pose said challenges and cause their recipients to doubt (plus, many people who are already atheists are drawn to them).

    And naturally I can imagine that top scientists tend to fall into the later categories rather than the former.

  19. Daniel Almeida

    This part really confused me…

    “He helped author a study that “found that 76 percent of doctors believe in God and 59 percent believe in some sort of afterlife.” and “90 percent of doctors in the United States attend religious services at least occasionally, compared to 81 percent of all adults.” He reasoned, “The responsibility to care for those who are suffering and the rewards of helping those in need resonate throughout most religious traditions.”[78]”

    So 17% of doctors believe in god but no after life. I suppose they could be deists- but than the 90% church attendance figure is really baffling. So what, the rest are christian atheists or deists that go to church at least on occasion for no reason at all?

  20. So what, the rest are christian atheists or deists that go to church at least on occasion for no reason at all?

    My guess? The rest are good-hearted doctors who “attend services” — such as the Anointing of the Sick or in-hospital chapel services — in order to provide emotional support to their patients. And when medicine fails, to the deceased patient’s family.

    I totally agree that modern philosophy has lost its way. It’s no longer a search for Truth, but rather a search for tenure. But I doubt the secular universities can fix this anytime soon, because the stable and enduring tradition of philosophy — the metaphysics of Aristotle — presupposes the existence of God as the author of Truth. Without God as a premise, philosophy necessarily devolves into the perspectivistic, cynical chaos we’re seeing now.

  21. I’m an outsider, non-philosopher, just googled ‘does anyone really know anything’ for the fun of it. But this is an interesting trail of thoughts you have here. For my bit I would go back to the original proposal – philosophy is dysfunctional. I suspect it probably is, as a friend who studied it once told me: philosophy teaches you to philosophise about philosophy.
    However, what I would say is, if it were to be ‘functional’ what would that mean? And i think it can be very functional, and is in fact one of the things that is so sorely missing from the functioning of ‘the real world’. By this I mean: consider other forms of knowledge (philosophy being one of several) like maths, science and art. Each of these, if only applied internally are dysfunctional or non-functional i.e. doing maths equations solely because you like them is the same as doing soduku for fun, doing experiments which are never published or shared in any way does not add to any knowledge base, leaving a rembrandt covered up in a garage makes that art defunct. The meaning, usefullness or ‘function’ of it only comes out when applied in the bigger world of human interactions.
    So where does/would philosophy have it’s applications? In things like medical ethics committees – and I for one would strongly advocate for a political equivalent like a political decision ethics committee. To support things like this it is essential that the academic philosophers refine and refine their understandings so that when applied in things like ethics committees the best available undertandings are there to guide decisions that ultimately affect us all. So for me, philosophy is not so much dysfunctional as not yet sufficiently evident in the ‘real’ world – it is pre-functional