Is studying philosophy beneficial?

From xkcd:

Guy: “I used to think correlation implied causation. Then I took a statistics class. Now I don’t.

Girl: Sounds like the class helped.

Guy: Well, maybe.

The guy’s worry in this comic sounds silly, but it’s actually a fairly good depiction of how I feel whenever someone asks/tells me, “You have a lot of issues with philosophy, but surely you got something out of it, right?” The truth is that it’s very hard to tell. This is something you probably already know, but it’s worth rehashing: correlation does not equal causation.

So, for example, if you observe that philosophers tend to be smarter than non-philosophers, there are at least two ways to explain this. It might be that philosophy helps make people smart. But it also might be that philosophy doesn’t do anything to make people smart, it just tends to attract smart people. Merely knowing that philosophers are smart isn’t enough to tell which hypothesis is right. The same goes for observing that philosophers tend to be more rational, better at spotting fallacies, etc.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that the correlation between studying philosophy and being rational is all that strong. I won’t cite William Lane Craig here, because as I’ve said before he’s an atypical example of a philosopher. But take Peter van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga, who are more nearly typical of philosophers. Van Inwagen has a fairly well-known essay titled “Quam Dilecta” which is full of the sort of stupid fallacies I’d expect out of Dinesh D’Souza. And Plantinga has spent a fair amount of time mistaking his own scientific ignorance for philosophical insight.

On the other end of things, there are non-philosophers who manage to do quite well at being rational without, apparently, any help from philosophy. For example George Orwell’s essays, most famously “Politics and the English Language,” contain better insights into how to be rational than you will get out of 99% of philosophers. And unlike JS Allen, I don’t think PZ Myers is a clown. Indeed I think that on many issues he’s one of the few displaying moral clarity.

In short, while “studying philosophy makes you more rational” is something I’ve heard a lot of people say (perhaps more often than any other pro-philosophy talking point), the evidence seems to me unclear. At least, it’s unclear when I look at my own first-hand experiences and third-person observations of others. Maybe when you look at your life, you become convinced it helped you a lot, but I can’t say the same.

In spite of this, there is one undeniable benefit of studying philosophy: learning stuff about about philosophy as an academic discipline, institution, tradition, whatever you call it. To wit: the fact that philosophers do not agree on anything to speak of is not something you can learn by a priori insight, or by studying a lot of physics.

And that’s a fact worth knowing. To take a recent example, I think Jerry Coyne’s and Jason Rosenhouse’s responses to Ed Feser could have benefited from pointing it out: the problem with Feser’s declarations about what Coyne must do to be “serious” isn’t really the number of books Feser himself tells Coyne to read. Rather, it’s the fact that, because no body agrees on what’s worth reading, if Coyne took every such declaration seriously there really would be no end to his reading project.

On the other hand, I think Coyne and Rosenhouse are being basically sensible. They aren’t walking in darkness for lack of knowledge about the academic philosophy world. And Coyne and Rosenhouse manage to be basically sensible without having gotten masters degrees in philosophy. That keeps me from feeling too proud about all the time I’ve spent doing that.

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38 Comments.

  1. Good post. I think that maybe it’s just “studying how to be rational makes you more rational” instead of studying philosophy as a whole. Though, I suppose even that could be challenged.

    I think studying logical arguments for soundness and validity, and then learning how to think in terms of logical arguments, is important. But I don’t think you need a PhD in Philosophy to do that.

  2. By “clown” I don’t mean people who are incapable of thinking, but rather people who are just putting on a performance and never really intend to understand their opponent’s perspective. It’s all bluster, bluff, swagger, and chest-pounding. They just keep taking random pot-shots trying to go in for the kill without ever trying to understand exactly what their opponent’s weak spots are.

    There may be enough of that to go around in the Coyne/Feser disagreements, but I don’t think that an intelligent observer should take that as a cue to pick sides. Why not just say “I have no idea what Feser is talking about, and nobody can persuade me that it’s relevant?”

    Based on reading Feser’s blog, I picked up “Real Essentialism” by Oderberg and read through it. He doesn’t present a cosmological argument, and I refuse to buy Feser’s book until it’s available on Kindle, so I don’t have an opinion about the cosmological argument. And I’m a materialist naturalist, so some of the “essentialism” stuff feels like word games to me.

    However, the thing I realized is that 90% of the people attacking hylemorphic dualism in recent blog discussions are just blathering nonsense, because they don’t actually understand what it is. It’s like the “Physicist Dave” guy over on Leah’s blog right now who got essences confused with platonic universals, or the people on Feser’s blog who ironically respond to his comment about misunderstanding final causation by — surprise, misunderstanding final causation.

    IMO, those people are complete clowns. If you think that the idea of a final cause is nonsense, just say it’s nonsense and move on. You don’t waste everyone’s time by pretending that efficient cause is the only type of cause and then acting surprised when people don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. There can be many strong challenges against hylemorphic dualism, but Coyne and his followers don’t even bother finding them. It’s always the same ignorant responses.

  3. Was reading up on the teleological argument here:

    http://www.closertotruth.com/blog-entry/Arguing-God-from-Design-by-Richard-Swinburne/17

    Good stuff, but I was kinda surprised by this part:

    “But the only reason they can have for believing in other universes is that the most general laws of our universe are such as to produce other universes, and that means that the multiverse itself—our multiverse (unlike most possible multiverses)—is governed by laws such as to produce, at some time, a human-evolving universe. So the argument takes off from the orderliness of our multiverse rather than just the orderliness of our universe. And my “argument from design” remains an enormously powerful argument for the existence of God.”

    This comment shocked me- since I always thaught the whole idea of a multiverse was that each alternate universe wasn’t supposed to have the same physical laws as this one. Where’d he get this from?

    PS: Too bad he didn’t mention that Carbon based lifeforms aren’t the only type of life forms :sad:

  4. J S Allen wrote:
    >It’s like the “Physicist Dave” guy over on Leah’s blog right now who got essences confused with platonic universals…

    Great Darwin, Josh! Are you lying about me all over the Web, or was it just dumb luck I stumbled upon this lie here?

    I did not even use the words “Platonic” or “universals” on Leah’s blog *at all*, much less get into any confusion about them, as anyone can check! I simply did not address them *at all*.

    I did not even mention something *at all* and yet you claim I was not only talking about that thing but that I was confused about it!!

    What’s wrong with you, man????

    Talk about a lying, mendacious, slimy clown!

    (And, yes, everyone, I have encountered young Josh before, so I have good reason for expressing my contempt at his lying about me.)

  5. Darrekman wrote:
    >This comment shocked me- since I always thaught the whole idea of a multiverse was that each alternate universe wasn’t supposed to have the same physical laws as this one. Where’d he get this from?

    There are multiverses, and there are multiverses, Darrekman: check out Max Tegmark’s multiverse taxonomy (e.g., http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/crazy.html ).

    But, don’t take any of it seriously. I have a Ph.D. in physics, and I’ve known some of the leaders in the multiverse mania: Lenny Susskind was on my thesis committee, and Joe Polchinski and I lived in the same house as undergrads.

    Unfortunately, very little new experimental data has been coming in in the field of elementary-particle physics in recent decades, and so some physicists have been publishing science fiction as physics.

    Now, that the LHC is running near Geneva, most of us physicists are hoping that this will change and that physics can return to being an experimental science.

    All the best,

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  6. Chris, I have not studied philosophy in an academic setting, so pardon if this is a dumb question, but I am wondering what you think about the “continental” philosophers.
    From what I have looked into contemporary analytic philosophy does seem much more wrapped up in word games and cleverness, like you said.

    But, at least in my experience, when I read (say) Camus or Foucault, I get a sense of “Well, THAT’S something to think about” as opposed to reading Plantinga and thinking “Ugh, what the hell do all these terms mean, and why should I care?”
    Just wondering if you get the same impression, or if it’s all borderline pointless. :smile:

  7. “So, for example, if you observe that philosophers tend to be smarter than non-philosophers”

    How do you measure this? I ask because there are examples of people taking courses and then thinking that their skills have improved; yet when tested their skills have not improved, only their perceptions have changed. Could the same effect be happening in philosophy? Since philosophers have invested a lot of time and money into this pursuit, cognitive dissonance would predict that they think it is successful even if it is not. How do we measure this supposed improvement gained by studying philosophy?

  8. Chris Hallquist

    @JS Allen: Even if what you say about the blog commenters is true, they’re a self-selective rather than representative sample. Most non-philosophers do not run around talking nonsense about Aristotle, they know they don’t know much about Aristotle. And you can find nonsense about Aristotle said by professional philosophers.

    @PhysicistDave: Just want to say that while I won’t wade into your argument with JS Allen, I’ve liked your comments here so far and hope you keep contributing.

    @Annatar: I think the last time I read any continental philosophy was when I gave up in disgust on Derrida. I’ve read a little Foucault, but don’t remember being impressed by him. I liked the Stranger, but wouldn’t know where to start with Camus’ non-fiction.

    @Kevin: That’s interesting, but not surprising. Link to the source for that claim?

  9. “Link to the source for that claim?”

    I read it from “Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.” (If you have the book Pg. 145)

    Two of the experiments cited were this one and this one. Basically people trained in spotting deception can’t spot deception at a statistically significant rate, or better than those who didn’t receive training, yet those who received training were more confident in their abilities.

  10. Chris Hallquist

    Oooh, “Mistakes Were Made” is a good book. May have to re-read it in the near future.

  11. @Dave – My mistake, I just went back over the comment threads and realize that I had you confused with “DaveElectric”, who is stylistically similar to you and makes similar arguments on Feser’s post about misunderstanding the cosmological argument.

    The only questionable thing you said about Aristotle on Leah’s post was, “Given the primitive stage of scientific knowledge in Aristotle’s time, I do not even blame him for his mistaken metaphysics: it was an interesting stab at the time. It just turned out to be wrong.”

    As the other commenters there explained to you, you did seem to be confused about essences, and taken with your other comments, you don’t seem like the sort of person who is qualified to declare that Aristotle’s metaphysics was “wrong” and “mistaken”. I think you did much better by just claiming that Aristotle was not relevant to what you do.

  12. @Kevin – The stats show that Philosophy grad students have higher IQs than other grad students before they even start their studies. And it’s likely that the dumbest ones get filtered out of the program at a higher rate than the smart ones, during the graduate program.

    Perhaps the biggest benefit of a philosophy education is that the philosopher develops habits of being systematic and thorough in evaluating arguments.

  13. Or perhaps the process selects against people who don’t have those habits and that there is no benefit to studying philosophy. If we are able to measure this benefit, we can see how much one improves by going through the process. If not, you are just speculating that studying philosophy forms the habit of paying attention to detail.

    Is studying philosophy beneficial? Does it have any benefit over, say, studying a scientific field?

    By the way, I’m aware of the selection effect. I have seen the statistics that referenced quantitative analysis vs. writing/reading comprehension of the Graduate degree applicants, but not ones relating to IQ. I’d like to see how that was measured; link please.

  14. @Kevin – I can’t find the link now, but I think it may well have been related to GRE, and was posted on Tyler Cowen’s blog in the last month or two.

    You raise a great point about selection effect applying even to habits. It could simply be that I find Chris to be a better conversant than someone like Loftus because Chris was already the sort of person who could survive through a graduate program in philosophy. In fact, I’m pretty sympathetic to that idea. IOW, it could just be that I’m expressing a personal prejudice against people who have lower IQs and are bad at arguing, and I’m using “made it through a philosophy degree” as a good proxy for the characteristics I value

  15. Josh S. Allen wrote to me:
    > My mistake, I just went back over the comment threads and realize that I had you confused with “DaveElectric”, who is stylistically similar to you and makes similar arguments on Feser’s post about misunderstanding the cosmological argument.

    Thank you, Josh.

    Josh also wrote:
    > As the other commenters there explained to you, you did seem to be confused about essences, and taken with your other comments, you don’t seem like the sort of person who is qualified to declare that Aristotle’s metaphysics was “wrong” and “mistaken”.

    Well, I doubt that “the sort of person” is relevant: does it matter whether a scholar is shy, assertive, cowardly or courageous, or whatever in terms of the validity of his points?

    And, no, no other commenter at all “explained” anything to me. They just insisted that I must be wrong because they are ignorant of science and have a religious (literally!) commitment to neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.

    The main point I made on that thread is that the mechanistic world-view of modern scientists is inconsistent with, for example, the teleological view of Aristotle. Feser himself admits this in “The Last Superstition,” but tries to argue that we scientists are mistaken in thinking that modern science eschews teleological reasoning. The problem is that Feser’s attempt to argue this are based on huge whoppers about science – though I’ll admit that he is so ignorant of science, that he probably is not completely aware of his errors. (I have gone into great detail about Feser’s scientific errors in other fora that I believe you are familiar with, and I tolerated a great deal of verbal abuse for my pains.)

    So, my familiarity with the “Urtext” of Aristotle’s writings (as good or better than the commenters on Leah’s thread, I suppose!) is irrelevant. I was taking as a given Feser’s presentation of neo-Aristotelianism in “The Last Superstition” and indicating that this neo-Aristotelianism is inconsistent with modern science. (I do think Feser’s presentation of Aristotle is reasonably accurate, but my command of ancient Greek is certainly not good enough to second-guess him on this in detail.)

    The fact is, as any decent text on the history of the Scientific Revolution discusses, that the Scientific Revolution was a revolt against the Aristotelian world-view. The reason is that it did not work. The new mechanistic-empiricist world-view born of the Scientific Revolution does work.

    I am not an uncritical defender of the modern world-view. For example, I agree with Colin McGinn (see his book “The Mysterious Flame”) that it is probably impossible for physics as we know it to fully explain consciousness.

    But to claim that all of modern science is consistent with neo-Aristotelian metaphysics is only possible by treating science with a careless and reckless disregard for the truth.

    That was the only significant point I was making on Leah’s blog, no one seriously challenged it, and it is correct, as any scientifically literate person can find out by reading Feser’s book and seeing the bizarre misrepresentations of science Feser requires to try to defend neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.

    (The two posters on Leah’s blog who explained how neo-Aristotelian metaphysics justifies transubstantiation really proves my point in a cruder fashion than I could have achieved. Anyone who cannot see the contradiction between transubstantiation and modern science is not worth any of us scientists’ talking with.)

    Dave

  16. Well, I doubt that “the sort of person” is relevant: does it matter whether a scholar is shy, assertive, cowardly or courageous, or whatever in terms of the validity of his points?

    Right. At most, we have empirical evidence that people are less likely to believe claims made by someone who engages in mockery and ridicule of his opponents, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the person is actually right.

    I read Francis Bacon around age 13, and Aquinas around 15, and always thought Bacon was obviously right, and Aquinas wrong. It should be undisputed that Bacon’s rejection of Aristotle was very fruitful.

    But I’m looking for something different, like “here are the 10 most powerful current arguments against modern hylemorphic dualism, and why it is inconsistent”. Of course, proving that it’s incompatible with empiricism would go a long way, but I didn’t realize that this had been done.

    The main point I made on that thread is that the mechanistic world-view of modern scientists is inconsistent with, for example, the teleological view of Aristotle.

    OK, I didn’t realize that Feser had said this, since I won’t buy any of his books until they’re on Kindle. It was my understanding that there is no practical incompatibility between the hylemorphic dualism proposed by Oderberg (who Feser seems to like), and materialistic naturalism. After reading Oderberg’s book, like Blue Devil Knight seems to have also concluded, I felt that there is nothing incompatible between the two systems, and it wouldn’t change how anyone does science — and the parts that are different are mainly semantic quibbles about things that have no relevance to scientists.

    I could very well be wrong about this, but it’s tough to find any discussion of the specific points that I think are probably most troublesome for hylemorphic dualism.

    I am not an uncritical defender of the modern world-view. For example, I agree with Colin McGinn (see his book “The Mysterious Flame”) that it is probably impossible for physics as we know it to fully explain consciousness.

    Interesting. I, personally, think that we’ll have a reductionist account of consciousness within 150 years. I guess that makes me “religious”.

    The two posters on Leah’s blog who explained how neo-Aristotelian metaphysics justifies transubstantiation really proves my point in a cruder fashion than I could have achieved.

    Yes, I find it frustrating that these discussions get derailed by people who want to engage in culture wars or promote religious dogma. It makes it almost impossible to pick through and find the logical inconsistencies or see which bullets people are biting, when there are people on both sides who want to shortcut the whole thought process and tell me what I should conclude.

  17. “@Kevin – I can’t find the link now, but I think it may well have been related to GRE, and was posted on Tyler Cowen’s blog in the last month or two.”

    I suspect this is what you were referring to. This is the GRE verbal vs. the math. Philosophy students were the best on the verbal, but were less than spectacular on the math section. Considering the largest factor of improving one’s verbal score on the GRE is learning vocabulary, I wouldn’t necessarily equate rote memorization of words as “Intelligent Quotient.” Incidentally, this is the biggest change to the GRE this year so it will be interesting to see this same analysis on the next version.

    As for the other link. It didn’t work…but it seems like he is referring to how an employer will react to the “overconfidence effect.” Last time I checked, I don’t think philosophy is a desired degree among employers. This would mean that the signal for philosophy degrees has been discounted by employers since it doesn’t accurately reflect the person’s ability. This would show that philosophers tend to be overconfident despite any supposed incentive of insiders to keep the signal credible.

  18. Josh S. Allen wrote to me:
    >Interesting. I, personally, think that we’ll have a reductionist account of consciousness within 150 years. I guess that makes me “religious”.

    Well… My prediction, which McGinn happens to agree with, is that it will not happen, at least not without radical changes in our conception of what physics is. That would not be too surprising to me as a physicist; after all, merely understanding black-body radiation required the most radical revolution in the history of physics. Science adapts.

    Anyway, my and Colin’s prediction is a good scientifically testable prediction: we’ll see what actually occurs. Note that Colin and I both expect *huge* progress in neuroscience in coming decades: I think it will be “the place to be” in science. We just both doubt they will crack what Chalmers calls the “hard problem.”

    Josh also wrote:
    >It was my understanding that there is no practical incompatibility between the hylemorphic dualism proposed by Oderberg (who Feser seems to like), and materialistic naturalism.

    Of course, it is possible to water down neo-Aristotelianism to the point where it says pretty much nothing except that “Things are what they are, behave as they behave, and have the properties that they have, and we just like using Aristotelian jargon to say all that.” No one can seriously quarrel with such a watered-down neo-Aristotelianism except to say “Well, I do *not* like using neo-Aristotelian jargon to describe what is obvious to everyone without the jargon.”

    (By the way, it always annoys me when some philosopher declares something along the lines of “And, so we would like to say…”; I always want to reply “Who do you mean by ‘we’, Kemosabe?”)

    But, certainly at the time of the Scientific Revolution, and certainly among many neo-Aristotelians today, neo-Aristotelian metaphysics has at least a bit more content than that. The different kinds of causality – most notably final (teleological) causality – the substantial relevance of form, etc. – these things are actually supposed to tell us something about the real world aside from being an arbitrary choice of confusing jargon.

    And, whenever, as in Feser’s “The Last Superstition” or the posters on Leah’s blog, I have seen neo-Aristotelians try to explain the relevance of these principles to science, they can only do so by getting the science all screwed up. I’ve been watching this go on for over forty years now: the earliest I remember seeing is the neo-Aristotelians in the Ayn Rand (“Objectivist”) cult, whose knowledge of science is just about as messed up as Feser’s and his epigones’.

    Of course, it is common in most cults – whether Scientology or neo-Aristotelianism – to have an alternation between the weak vs. the strong doctrine: when challenged the line is “All we are really saying is … [the weak doctrine].” But, if you accept the weak doctrine and commit to the belief system, then you are told “Now that you are one of us, you can see that [the strong doctrine] is true.” (See, e.g., Borhek and Curtis “A Sociology of Belief” for some sociologists’ description of how the “onion of belief” works.)

    The switcheroo is sometimes done very rapidly, as happened on Leah’s blog with the switch from neo-Aristotelianism -is-just- common-sense to neo-Aristoteliansm-shows -transubstantiation –is-true.

    And, of course, anyone who objects, whether to Scientology or neo-Aristotelianism or logical positivism, or neo-Marxism, or evangelical Christianity, or whatever, is told that he is just proving he does not really understand or he has not read enough books or he has not read the books with the right attitude or whatever.

    You cannot crack cults like this internally, but it seems to me that they are more than fair game for ridicule and derision.

    Dave

  19. Of course, it is possible to water down neo-Aristotelianism to the point where it says pretty much nothing except that “Things are what they are, behave as they behave, and have the properties that they have, and we just like using Aristotelian jargon to say all that.” No one can seriously quarrel with such a watered-down neo-Aristotelianism except to say “Well, I do *not* like using neo-Aristotelian jargon to describe what is obvious to everyone without the jargon.”

    Yes, that’s basically what Oderberg’s book is, plus an argument for realism and against eliminativism. My interest is in understanding that relatively small set of propositions of “hylemorphic dualism”, to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in hylemorphic dualism until a few Ph.D scientists convinced me that it wasn’t in conflict with scientific empiricism. I only bought Oderberg’s book after seeing what BDK (a naturalist and research neuroscientist at Duke) and Al Moritz (a dualist and Ph.D. chemist) had to say about hylemorphism.

    I’m perfectly comfortable with a Dennett-style eliminativism, but I wanted to understand how realists think. Before watching Moritz and BDK, I didn’t find any realist position that I considered valid. After reading Oderberg, I feel that hylemorphism is a valid stance for naturalists to take while rejecting eliminativism.

    The different kinds of causality – most notably final (teleological) causality – the substantial relevance of form, etc. – these things are actually supposed to tell us something about the real world aside from being an arbitrary choice of confusing jargon.

    I don’t think that these are supposed to tell us anything testable about the real world, in any way that would affect empiricism. Instead, they are just attempts to argue that the real world is, indeed, real. They seem to be attempts to define things in a way that precludes eliminativism.

    I could be wrong about this, but I’ve never seen anyone dispute it when (atheist) Patrick says things like “Why is not a tautology?” or “How could ever be tested empirically?”

    You cannot crack cults like this internally, but it seems to me that they are more than fair game for ridicule and derision.

    Since you mention logical positivism, I wonder if logical positivism really toppled due to ridicule and derision, or because opposing philosophers were able to make compelling cases against it? I’ve always seen the death of logical positivism as a great success case for the philosophical process, but maybe I’m ignorant of the history.

    Perhaps we need to distinguish between the political position adopted by a cult, and the core set of propositions that the cult enlists as justification. For example, “Gay marriage is bad (political) because hylemorphism is true (propositional)”. Or, “Eugenics is good policy (political) because Darwinism is true (propositional)”.

    Mockery and derision can be useful tools to reduce support for a political idea. So these would be good tools against eugenics and anti-gay discrimination.

    Mockery and derision don’t work so well for debunking or defending propositions. Debunking a proposition can force the cult to switch to other excuses to support their politics. For example, mockery and derision didn’t debunk Darwinism, but if Darwinism had ever been debunked convincingly on proper grounds, it would’ve removed Darwinism as a potential argument for eugenics. Likewise, mockery probably won’t establish the failure of hylemorphism, but if the philosophical establishment can nuke it the same way that they nuked logical positivism, it will remove a crutch for the people who use it to justify other things.

    The third option, of course, is to show that the propositions don’t really entail the political position. IOW, show that Darwinism doesn’t support eugenics, whether Darwinism is true or not. Or show that hylemorphism doesn’t have any bearing on gay marriage, whether or not hylemorphism is true.

  20. Josh Allen wrote to me:
    > Since you mention logical positivism, I wonder if logical positivism really toppled due to ridicule and derision, or because opposing philosophers were able to make compelling cases against it?

    As far as I can tell, it fell partly because it is boring (ever tried to read any of them? no fun at all!) but largely because it basically suggested that philosophers should shut up and learn science and math; whereas, philosophy majors (as the GRE scores show) tend to be people who are very, very facile verbally but not so hot at math.

    On the other hand, linguistic analysis is simply tailor-made, like a well-fitting suit, for people whose skills lie in verbal legerdemain.

    Have you read Gellner’s classic “Words and Things”? I think his analysis dovetails with my own.

    An even better test case is late-nineteenth-century absolute idealism. As far as I can tell, no one ever “refuted” their “arguments” (the scare quotes are deliberate) at all. People just got sick of it all. Look at Stove’s hilarious discussion, “Idealism: A Victorian Horror Story (Parts I and II)” in his The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies.

    Of course, I think both logical positivism and absolute idealism are wrong, but for very different reasons than later philosophers gave: I think we serendipitously discovered a radically new mode of investigating reality with the Scientific Revolution, a method that sharply devalued verbal and argumentative skills in favor of a new approach to gathering, analyzing, and predicting data, and that only this radically new mode of thought, not the mode of thought employed by any of the schools of philosophy we have mentioned, is able to reach truths about reality.

    In a nutshell, I think physics killed metaphysics, and that it was a damned good thing!

    Needless to say, very few philosophers, or philosophy students, want to hear this suggestion, and whenever I do suggest it, I tend to get verbal abuse heaped upon me.

    But, in all honesty, this is what most scientists believe, as indicated in private conversations, as well as a lot of educated laypeople: it’s just that everyone (except me, it seems!) appreciates that it is gauche to say this in public, at least if philosophers or philosophy students are within earshot!

    Josh also wrote:
    > Mockery and derision don’t work so well for debunking or defending propositions. Debunking a proposition can force the cult to switch to other excuses to support their politics. For example, mockery and derision didn’t debunk Darwinism…

    Indeed, but philosophers succeed with verbal pyrotechnics (or, to be less diplomatic, verbal bullying), so you can get all sorts of random mutations and gyrations through time, unconstrained by external reality, sort of like teen-agers’ music. Fashion, mockery, and outright bullying can and do reign supreme among philosophers.

    Darwinism is science: it’s different. You do not get an “A” in a science or math course for presenting a brilliantly argued, carefully considered paper that gets the wrong answer. You flunk. Radically different than philosophy. A bit painful for me as a science student – my own verbal scores on the SAT were about the same as my math scores (very unusual for science majors), but, alas, that did me no good: no amount of verbal legerdemain could save me when I had the wrong answer. On the other hand, humanities courses were a piece of cake: I used to turn in my first draft, get an A+, and use that to pull up my low grades from my science labs.

    The proof of the distinction I am making is looking at what some very bright philosophers have written about Darwinism: Popper, many scientists favorite philosopher, said it wasn’t science because “survival of the fittest” was tautological and therefore not “falsifiable.” (He did eventually admit he was wrong.) The always amusing David Stove wrote some horrifyingly idiotic (and not amusing) essays on Darwinism. And, of course, there is the involvement of some philosophers even today in the ID movement.

    Would Darwinism have triumphed if left to the philosophers? At best, it would be one among many “legitimate” positions debated ad infinitum in papers and Ph.D. theses, the criteria of success being one’s verbal skills. But how many philosophers would get out of their armchair and actually collect fossils?

    The same point could be made about J. L. Mackie’s horribly wrong work on relativity, Popper’s laughably pointless book on quantum theory, etc.

    Science and philosophy function in radically different manners, and, without trying to understand those differences and the causes of those differences, you cannot deal with the issue that is plaguing Chris: what is wrong with contemporary philosophy?

    Dave

  21. Chris,

    I think that to understand what is happening today in philosophy, it needs to be put into the context of the last four centuries of “modern” philosophy.

    Descartes, to take the most obvious case, was both intimately involved in the Scientific Revolution and was also involved in the developments in religious thought that were partly brought about by the Reformation but largely by the Scientific Revolution. Locke too was clearly dealing with issues raised by the Scientific Revolution (primary vs. secondary qualities, and all the rest) as well as religion (“The Reasonableness of Christianity”). Pascal and Berkeley may have come more from the religious side, but still in an environment where the Scientific Revolution was deeply impacting religious thought.

    That the same point applies to Hume is obvious. While Hume may have awakened Kant from his “dogmatic slumber,” Kant declared quite clearly (in the famous introduction to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason) that “I therefore had to abolish _knowledge_ to make room for _belief_.”

    In short, early modern philosophers as a whole were trying to grapple with the impact of the Scientific Revolution on previous systems of thought, especially religious thought. And, they were generally not just trying to produce amusing conundrums that could justify journal articles and Ph.D. theses ad infinitum: they thought they had found *answers* to the problems produced by the rise of science. Even Hume thought he had really shown something about the possibility of knowing that miracles had occurred.

    But that approach simply cannot be taught in modern universities.

    Imagine a professor who gives a student an “F” because the student argued that religious knowledge is possible independent of our senses, but the professor insists on a failing grade because we know that such knowledge is impossible thanks to Locke. This would be viewed as religious intolerance, an attack on freedom of religion, etc. So, the very serious activity of the early modern philosophers had to be transmuted into the game-playing, give-us-your- best-reasons, how-well-do -you-argue, any-position-as- long-as you-support-it form of “philosophy” that reigns today. Verbal dexterity necessarily had to replace serious thought.

    It is the only way philosophy can exist in universities that are part of a society that prides itself on giving no generally-accepted-as-correct answer to religious issues. It’s our “social contract.”

    Compare this to a math or physics class. No one gets credit in a math class for arguing that 8 times 6 is really 54, no matter how coruscatingly brilliant his argument is.

    If I, as a physicist, teach a class in which a student uses brilliant rhetorical techniques to argue that E = mc (rather than E = m * c squared) or that F = ma squared, rather than F = ma, I just get to flunk the poor fool: he has no defense.

    We rarely consider how bizarre this difference between philosophy and science courses are. But this difference is the key to explaining why philosophy functions so differently today from how it once did, and this difference is a necessary result of philosophy’s residing in universities subject to our religiously pluralist “social contract.”

    Sorry for rambling on a bit, but it seems to me that all of the issues which concern you just cannot be understood outside of the broader context.

    Dave

  22. @Kevin-

    This is the GRE verbal vs. the math. Philosophy students were the best on the verbal, but were less than spectacular on the math section.

    I was assuming that GRE was roughly like the old SAT, where Verbal was highly correlated to IQ. This post and the meta discussion are interesting, concerning IQ link between GRE verbal and quantitative; it looks like quant may be a better predictor with GRE, although verbal isn’t terrible.

    checked, I don’t think philosophy is a desired degree among employers. This would mean that the signal for philosophy degrees has been discounted by employers since it doesn’t accurately reflect the person’s ability. This would show that philosophers tend to be overconfident despite any supposed incentive of insiders to keep the signal credible.

    Actually, I screwed up in how I presented the signalling theory of education. “Education as signalling” is explicitly not about ability. The theory is that education is used to signal a bunch of other things that have nothing to do with ability — conformity, affiliation, class, etc.

    Additionally, I don’t think we can say that employers are less likely to hire philosophy degrees. That’s an empirical claim, and I suspect that we would find that philosophy grads do well in the market. I think I remember reading somewhere that econ, physics, and philosophy all do relatively well in the general job market. This is probably explained by the fact that these students are cream of the crop to begin with, and their aptitude is useful in many areas.

  23. @Dave -

    As far as I can tell, [logical positivism] fell partly because it is boring (ever tried to read any of them? no fun at all!) but largely because it basically suggested that philosophers should shut up and learn science and math; whereas, philosophy majors (as the GRE scores show) tend to be people who are very, very facile verbally but not so hot at math.

    I’m a little surprised at this hypothesis. It’s true that philosophers often refuse to be persuaded (scientist, too — as Planck said, “science advances a funeral at a time”). But with logical positivism, one of the leading proponents even admitted that it was all wrong. And, of course, the objections raised by opposition philosophers are quite compelling.

    It seems that a simpler hypothesis would be that logical positivism is dead, because anyone who is tempted to become a logical positivist can read all of the compelling objections and realize that it would be a foolish position to take.

    Or are you just offering a hypothesis for why nobody was motivated to stick to their guns and try to overcome all of the compelling objections to logical positivism?

    In a nutshell, I think physics killed metaphysics, and that it was a damned good thing!

    Well, it is a damned good thing whenever the physical sciences take over something that was previously metaphysics.

    I just don’t think physics is all the way there yet. Some of the topics I find personally interesting are:

    1) Libertarian free will vs. compatibilism.
    2) Realism vs. eliminativism.
    3) Math fictionalism.
    4) How folk intuitions about morals relate to our evolved cognition; Sam Harris’s attempt to bootstrap an objective morality.
    5) Speculation about far future threats like Stephen Hawkings “Berserker” theory, hostile AI, and so on

    What’s your advice to people who are interested in these topics?

  24. Josh Allen wrote to me:
    >I’m a little surprised at this hypothesis. It’s true that philosophers often refuse to be persuaded (scientist, too — as Planck said, “science advances a funeral at a time”). But with logical positivism, one of the leading proponents even admitted that it was all wrong. And, of course, the objections raised by opposition philosophers are quite compelling.

    Well, yes. But the objections raised to *all* philosophical theories are “quite compelling,” as the philosophers who raised those objections will be happy to testify!

    The main objections to logical positivism were that the “verification principle” was self-refuting (i.e., it could not be verified in the way it said everything had to be verified) and that the contact between theory and observation was more complex than the positivists assumed.

    Both objections are true, of course.

    But, even a bright undergrad could deal with either objection quite easily: You know:

    A. The verification principle lives at a higher meta-level than the facts being verified.
    B. The verification principle really *can* be verified, contrary to appearances (and then write thirty pages of obfuscating prose confusing the reader).
    Etc.

    As to the mismatch between the verification principle and actual scientific practice, one could just bite the bullet and say that scientists are simply wrong, as I take it some positivists did indeed do for a while.

    Now, I’m not claiming any of these responses are particularly good responses, but they are at least as good as most of the arguments philosophers do manage to get away with. As Chris has said, take Plantinga’s “arguments”: they really didn’t just fire the guy for obvious incompetence?

    On the other hand, the arguments against analytic philosophy were overwhelming and quite convincing from the start, at least as obvious and convincing as the arguments against positivism: e.g., the fact that simply analyzing the use of language almost never tells you anything about anything is utterly obvious from the history of philosophy contrasted with the history of science.

    But despite the obvious fallacies at the root of analytic philosophy, it did indeed replace positivism.

    The explanation is sociological.

    I still have trouble not laughing out loud when I read a philosophy book and see what analytic philosophers consider “good” arguments. (Yes, I know, we are probably into post-analytic, or post-post-analytic, or something philosophy today. It is all much of a muchness.)

    All experience has shown that what philosophers consider “reasoning” works badly, very, very, very badly. This is true whether it is used in philosophy or in related fields such as theology or political thought. Armchair thinking relatively unconstrained by systematic gathering of data has produced nonsense piled upon nonsense, with no cumulative movement forward.

    The fact that you yourself are interested in attempts to resuscitate Aristotelian metaphysics illustrates my point. If Aristotelian metaphysics was so good, why did philosophers abandon it? Haven’t they really made any progress in the last twenty-three hundred years so that the idea of reviving Aristotelian metaphysics is patently absurd?

    You note that *no one* ever considers reviving Aristotelian physics or Ptolemaic astronomy!

    But, try telling philosophers, theologians, political theorists et al. that their whole method of “reasoning” is simply a guaranteed means of producing nonsense, and oh, how they squeal!

    We could argue about why philosophical “reasoning” always fails. I personally think it is largely because it is not really reasoning. Try to take a book on philosophy and translate it into first-order predicate logic. Good luck! On the other hand, this really could be done with most math books (vide the Principia or Bourbaki).

    I think also that human reasoning is really not very powerful, even when done correctly, partly because humans are not all that bright and partly because it is not true that “The rational is the real.”

    But whatever the reason, the “reasoning” used in philosophy, theology, etc. does not work, even as judged by other philosophers, theologians, etc., much less from an external perspective.

    Incidentally, when the same conditions obtain in another field, the same results of course do occur, which is further confirmation of my point. The field in which I got my Ph.D., elementary-particle physics, has spun wildly off into hyperspace (literally!) in the last two decades, because almost no new experimental data has been coming in, and my fellow theorists have therefore been unconstrained by observations of the real world.

    The claims that superstring theory is true but untestable, the claim that its inability to make testable predictions is a virtue rather than a problem (!), the bizarre claims about the multiverse landscape and the anthropic principle… all of this is almost a mirror image of what has gone on for millennia in philosophy. A lot of us physicist have said so, of course, including Nobel laureates such as Feynman and Burt Richter.

    To no avail: the sociology of career advancement and job openings has trumped common sense.

    The interesting thing is now that experimental data is again pouring in (from the finally operating Large Hadron Collider in Geneva), there are signs that the situation is reversing. All of us expect that, in the next year or two, reality is going to bite back good and hard via the LHC results, and all of a sudden physics is starting to look a bit less like philosophy (praise be to Einstein!).

    Of course, nothing like the LHC looms on the horizon for philosophy, so philosophers will not take my advice to simply throw in the towel and learn some socially beneficial skill such as carpentry or plumbing. But I can hope that the non-philosophers will get a glimpse of the truth and simply defund philosophers. If philosophy simply becomes an alternative to World of Warfare, well, that would be an improvement.

    Dave

  25. Josh wrote to me:
    > It’s true that philosophers often refuse to be persuaded (scientist, too — as Planck said, “science advances a funeral at a time”).

    But of course, Planck was just being playful. In my own field of elementary-particle physics, I myself have lived through the quark revolution and the non-Abelian-gauge theory revolution: I was a college student at the time, and studied under some of the people who brought about those revolutions, including several who won Nobel prizes for their contributions, so I got to see those revolutions “up close and personal.” No one had to die. The initial theories were largely speculative, but as the experimental data rolled in and spectacularly confirmed the theoretical predictions, everyone admitted that the new theories were correct.

    Experiment ruled.

    I have similarly lived through the plate-tectonics revolution in geology, although I did not have the good fortune to study with the major players in that revolution (since I was not a geology major). However, again, no one had to die: in a few years, pretty much everyone admitted it was true, due to new observational data (most notably, the paleomagnetic data coming from the ocean floor).

    So, Planck was wrong: as I said, he was just kidding.

    Josh also wrote:
    > I just don’t think physics is all the way there yet. Some of the topics I find personally interesting are:

    >1) Libertarian free will vs. compatibilism.
    >2) Realism vs. eliminativism.
    >3) Math fictionalism.
    >4) How folk intuitions about morals relate to our evolved cognition; Sam Harris’s attempt to bootstrap an objective morality.
    >5) Speculation about far future threats like Stephen Hawkings “Berserker” theory, hostile AI, and so on

    >What’s your advice to people who are interested in these topics?

    I’d tell them to become apprentice plumbers. Seriously. More interesting and more useful. Or take up World of Warfare.

    I doubt that most of these are real questions: I’m not that sympathetic to Wittgenstein, but he did have a point. On the other hand, it is quite clear that “linguistic therapy” to cure philosophers of such concerns does not work. So, they should just try to forget their nightmares and return to the real world.

    To be more specific: Of course, eventually scientific research will produce knowledge that is relevant to some of these points: e.g., neuroscience will shed light on the concerns involved in the “libertarian vs. compatibilism” pseudo-problem. But, historical experience suggests that the real information will not connect much with the philosophical pseudo-problems. No one came even close to anticipating the quantum theory, for example, until experimental data forced physicists into the quantum world.

    As Haldane said, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is also stranger than we *can* imagine, at least until we are guided by the nose by experimental and observational data.

    There has been some real, solid scientific work by Hauser and others in psychology, ethology, anthropology, etc. on human morality. I do not take Sam Harris seriously.

    (CONT.)

  26. (CONT.)
    As to math fictionalism, well, obviously what mathematicians actually do is take operations we can really carry out in the real world – counting, grouping things into sets, drawing lines and circles, etc. – and then abstract and simplify those operations until we can characterize them in very simple ways, and then draw logical consequences from those simple characterizations (*real* logical consequences, not pseudo-logic as philosophers use). Occasionally, this process leads to real logical contradictions (as when Russell showed a problem with Frege’s system) or it turns out that some axioms were missed (as when Hilbert pointed out the need to add the order axioms to Euclid). Then the mathematicians have to backtrack.

    The mathematicians have learned to be careful enough that they usually do not produce logical contradictions nowadays. So, they build very complicated systems derived from these idealizations of actual human practice, these systems amuse many people (well, not *that* many people really, but they do amuse me!), and occasionally they prove to be useful – not too surprising that systems abstracted from the real world do sometimes prove useful in the real world.

    Now, all I did in those last two paragraphs was to very, very concisely summarize the history of mathematics. I doubt anyone familiar with that history would say I got anything radically wrong, although anyone could of course find a few nits to pick.

    What grand questions really lie in the philosophy of mathematics not adequately answered by just telling what mathematicians actually have done as I did above?

    I know a great deal about the philosophy of math, and I do know that any philosopher of mathematics could fill an encyclopedia with supposed questions I did not answer. But are any of those questions about anything real? I rather doubt it.

    Whence, for example, comes the apodictic certainty of math? The answer is that math is not apodictically certain: Wiles’ initial proof of FLT was wrong. Frege’s system was logically inconsistent. Almost all of modern math is based, in principle, on ZFC, but we do not know (and of course cannot prove) that ZFC is consistent. We *think* it is consistent simply because many mathematicians, working for nearly a century, have failed to find an inconsistency. But maybe the inconsistency just lies deeper than in Frege’s system and will take a few centuries to find. No apodictic certainty, just playing the odds.

    I could go on for page after page in the philosophy of math, but I assume you get the point.

    Is math real? Where do math concepts really live?

    Silly questions: How high is up? How smart is blue?

    Of course, philosophers will simply say that I am just doing philosophy. But, in any realistic sense, I am not. At most, I am just summarizing math history and pointing out that that should be (and for most non-philosopher indeed is) enough to see what is going on.

    So, again: what do I suggest to philosophers? If they are deeply interested in such questions, recognize that they are almost certainly the wrong questions, but that, as science advances, science will find the right questions along with some answers.

    So, philosophers should await the advance of science and, in the interim, take up something useful. Like plumbing. Or at least harmless. Like World of Warfare.

    Dave

  27. @Dave – This has been a great discussion. Would it be fair to summarize your position as:

    A) Any interesting question that philosophy might attempt to answer or inform, can better be addressed by empirical physical sciences.
    B) If the question cannot be answered by empirical science in the reasonable future, judgment should be suspended indefinitely.
    C) Philosophy’s success at informing and motivating empirical research is not good, so philosophers shouldn’t bother trying.

    As a prescription for radical humility, I like it. I would note that not many people are good at sticking consistently to these guidelines without applying double standards. For example, I think it’s practically a coin toss as to whether or not this universe was the accidental result of some completely random process, or is something else entirely (and this doesn’t necessarily mean “God”) — but very few people will admit that.

  28. BTW, I wouldn’t dispute anything major you said about the history of math or the philosophy of science. However, I’ll push back a little bit about Planck. I don’t think he was literally saying that people have to die, but he was making an important point. When the empirical data isn’t overwhelming, the entrenched establishment can be pretty difficult to dislodge, and sometimes you just have to leave behind the old guard.

    Just witness the recent drama over kin selection. It’s a great case, because it pits a relatively new mathematician and E. O. Wilson against an entrenched establishment that includes Dawkins. And, ironically, they were attempting to overthrow the establishment view that Wilson himself put in place when he was a young biologist battling a different entrenched establishment decades ago.

  29. Josh wrote to me:

    >This has been a great discussion. Would it be fair to summarize your position as:

    >A) Any interesting question that philosophy might attempt to answer or inform, can better be addressed by empirical physical sciences.
    >B) If the question cannot be answered by empirical science in the reasonable future, judgment should be suspended indefinitely.
    >C) Philosophy’s success at informing and motivating empirical research is not good, so philosophers shouldn’t bother trying.

    Yeah, I think that is a fair summary.

    Now, I should confess that I am not really as dogmatic about all this as I probably sound: Of course, all philosophers are human beings, and some are very smart human beings (only a small minority are *very* smart, but then only a minority of physicists or mathematicians are *very* smart, also). I’m not in the business of shutting up human beings, and certainly not very smart human beings. So, my point is not that you and Chris and all other philosophers should just shut up.

    I do seriously think that it would have been better to sacrifice fewer trees to make paper to produce philosophy journals, since I think most of what is in philosophy journals is published only to get tenure or to stroke the authors’ egos (incidentally, the same is most assuredly true for physics journals). And, I think the same is true of an awful lot of philosophy books, such as those by Plantinga (although I suppose even Plantinga can serve as a useful example for diagnosing pathology of thought).

    On the other hand, I have in fact learned a great deal from reading Ernest Gellner: in some sense, most of what I have written on this thread is just an expansion on Gellner (in particular, The Legitimation of Belief), adding details based on my own knowledge of math and science, which Gellner did not happen to possess (his BA was in philosophy and his Ph.D. in anthropology). And, I have learned things about ethics from Donagan’s The Theory of Morality and J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

    So, there are actually books written by philosophers that I think are very much worth reading.

    But… all of the books I just mentioned have a very different style and approach than most philosophy books and most papers in contemporary philosophy journals. A critic might say, “Yeah, they’re *easier*, Dave, easy enough even *you* can actually understand them, unlike *real* philosophy!”

    But, I think that critic would be wrong. I can understand Plantinga, as much as I’d prefer not to. And one of my major gripes about the philosophy of mathematics is that it is too simple-minded: the really interesting questions involve, for example, issues in advanced mathematical analysis – e.g., analytic number theory, where we get concrete results about actual integers by assuming actually exacting infinities, although many of us doubt there really are any actually existing infinities. How can whether or not infinity really exists control facts about ordinary integers? Now, *that* is an interesting question, one that I am able to understand technically, but one that too rarely seems to interest philosophers of mathematics.

    So, perhaps what I am saying is that anyone should be too embarrassed to philosophize in public *unless* he knows at least as much about the subject he is philosophizing about as the practitioners. For example, don’t philosophize about the integers unless you at least know both the analytic and algebraic proofs relating to the class number for algebraic number fields – something, I take it, any number theorist knows and something I am currently studying.

    In a sense then, philosophizing would become continuous with math and science, and would recognize that the results of math and science are, usually, much, much more solid than anything in philosophy.
    (Cont.)

  30. (cont.)
    In a way, this is what actually happened in the development of mathematics: the development of the concept of the limit, of mathematical logic, and of transfinite set theory in the nineteenth century, and of axiomatic set theory, model theory, etc. in the twentieth century are all, in some ways, more philosophy than mathematics. But that work was done primarily by mathematicians, not philosophers, and therefore most of it was done right and has stood up under further investigations.

    Nineteenth-century absolute idealism is now as dead as a doornail; the nineteenth-century theory of transfinite numbers is still a flowering field of research, and, as far as I know, none of Cantor’s major results has turned out to be wrong. Absolute idealism was done by philosophers. Cantor, though he was aware of the philosophical aspects of his work, was a real mathematician.

    Josh also wrote:
    >However, I’ll push back a little bit about Planck. I don’t think he was literally saying that people have to die, but he was making an important point. When the empirical data isn’t overwhelming, the entrenched establishment can be pretty difficult to dislodge, and sometimes you just have to leave behind the old guard.

    Yes. But that is actually a good thing. I mentioned that Dick Feyman and Burt Richter were both critical of superstring theory. They’re both old dudes (Feynman in fact died not long after he voiced his criticism, and he had admitted that he may have been critical simply because he was too old). But it is *good* that these two old geezers spoke up criticizing superstring theory. A lot of us in the next generation, mature scientists but younger than Dick and Burt, were getting caught up in the hype, and Dick and Burt helped us stand back and realize that maybe there was something wrong here – not only no empirical data, but, in fact, no foreseeable hope of *ever* making predictions that could be experimentally tested.

    Superstring theory is *very* appealing aesthetically, intellectually, and mathematically. There are hints of beautifully complex structures that will require decades to fully understand: sort of a promise of a lifetime career path for theoretical physicists. Very seductive.

    Dick’s and Burt’s skepticism helped a lot of us see that maybe it is *too* seductive: maybe there is nothing really there.

    So, while you and Planck are right about that old-fogey conservatism, we actually *need* this old-fogey conservatism, at least until, as you say, the empirical data really is “overwhelming.” And, at that point, the old-fogies usually do concede.

    Perhaps, philosophy would be a lot healthier of older philosophers could and would fulfill the same role in dampening swings of fashion as the old fogeys do in science. But, of course, again, the real difference is that science is chained down by a very specific manner of using observational and experimental data: we are expected to make predictions that are specific, detailed, and fragile enough that detailed data really might prove we are wrong.

    Incidentally, if anyone is wondering why on earth a physicist is spending his time in this long discussion about the nature of philosophy, the answer, aside from simple curiosity, is that we are homeschooling our kids (obviously, from a secular, scientific perspective), and I am trying to think through the pedagogical issues of how epistemology, ethics, etc. can be or should be incorporated into their schooling, how philosophy should interface with other subjects (if at all), etc.

    So, I actually have a concrete pedagogical interest in all of this, rather like Rousseau’s concerns in Émile or Voltaire’s in Candide. I suppose that would make me Dr. Pangloss.

    Dave

  31. Now, I should confess that I am not really as dogmatic about all this as I probably sound:

    I am trying to think through the pedagogical issues of how epistemology, ethics, etc. can be or should be incorporated into their schooling, how philosophy should interface with other subjects (if at all), etc.

    Yes, I assumed both things, since we’ve crossed paths before. As a parent, I think a lot about these same pedagogical issues.

    I’m not too concerned with teaching kids the “right” way to think, as much as with giving them experience at lots of different ways of thinking. Even with something as clear-cut as math olympiad problems, being able to think outside the box and attack the problem many different ways is key. And if they ever want to be economists or politicians, the need for “creativity” is even greater.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that kids need to be exposed to classical philosophers. Stuff like this can do the job well enough. In fact, I think there is a danger of encouraging chronological snobbery when we introduce kids to the classics that have now been supplanted. As Robin Hanson argues, we are biased to see the ancients as being stupider and more deluded than they really were, so I always want to be careful not to feed that bias.

  32. Josh,

    Sorry for the delay in replying: events in the real world needed my attention. Though I think this thread is winding down, anyway.

    You wrote:
    > As Robin Hanson argues, we are biased to see the ancients as being stupider and more deluded than they really were…

    I’m skeptical that is true. I don’t know of anyone in technical fields who thinks he is smarter than Euclid or Archimedes: indeed, I assume they were a good deal smarter than I am. However, I am certain that I do know a great deal more math than they did, not because I am smarter but because my knowledge is the result of more than two-and-a-half millennia of developments in math, developments that of course go back to Euclid and Archimedes, among others.

    Nor do I think I am smarter than Aristotle (though I honestly do think I am a lot smarter than Feser or Plantinga). Of course, Aristotle was wrong about a whole host of things, but he did not have much accumulated knowledge to build upon, nor was there a developed scientific method he could employ. I imagine that had I been in his situation, I would have done worse than he. That is no excuse for our contemporaries, who do have access to more accumulated knowledge than he did, to make the same mistakes Aristotle made.

    Smarter than the ancients? No. More knowledgeable? Yes, for those of us who have bothered to acquire a modern scientific education.

    Of course, the distinction is less clear in the humanities. A great deal more is known today than in the ancient world about human history, partly because more history has occurred, and partly due to the activities of archaeologists, etc. More is known about linguistics, somewhat more about human moral behavior, a bit more about economics (though much of what is “known” in economics turns out not to be true, as the last three years have so nicely shown!).

    But, clearly progress in the humanities and social sciences has been less dramatic than in math and the natural sciences. So, I do take more seriously Aristotle’s comments on ethics or politics than on physics or metaphysics, where he is known to be wrong. (It is too rarely noted that much of his teleological approach seems to be rooted in his fascination with biology. In a world ignorant of molecular biology and evolution, teleology seemed to make sense in biology. However, it no longer makes sense: molecular biology and modern evolution are rigorously, and very successfully, mechanistic, and anti-teleological.)

    Incidentally, I knew Robin Hanson some years ago: we had several mutual friends.

    Josh also wrote:
    >I’m not too concerned with teaching kids the “right” way to think, as much as with giving them experience at lots of different ways of thinking. Even with something as clear-cut as math olympiad problems, being able to think outside the box and attack the problem many different ways is key.

    Well, yes and no. I know of no scientist or mathematician who thinks that there is one, or even a small number, of ways to solve problems and generate new ideas.
    (cont.)

  33. (cont.)
    I myself once invented a complicated math algorithm based on a skit I had seen on a sitcom: the character had stirred some cake mix too many times, so she “unstirred” it by stirring in the opposite direction. This will not work for cake mix, but something like this happened to work for the algorithm I was trying to develop: a first pass wrecked the symmetry in a huge matrix, but a second pass in the reverse direction wonderfully restored the symmetry needed to make the method work. It was cool.

    But… it was not enough to have the cleverly ridiculous idea that I had gotten from the sitcom skit. You can get ideas in math and science from anywhere. But, you then have to test them, and there you have enormously less freedom. I had to prove that this weird idea would actually work. Fortunately, I was able to devise a proof.

    Similarly, scientists have to subject their marvelously weird ideas to the rigid test of empirical evidence. Most wonderful ideas fail.

    So… freedom in coming up with possible ideas? Yes. Freedom in showing that those ideas are really true? No, not much.

    And, perhaps that is my biggest beef with philosophers. For example, the most common objection I see to substance dualism in the mind-body issue is that two different sorts of substance cannot interact. This is stated as if it is self-evident. It is not. In fact, in general it is not true: there are numerous counter-examples in physics.

    For example, the best-known charged particles, electrons, interact with an electrically neutral particle known as the Z0. These two types of particles differ from each other in about as many ways as one could wish: the Z0 is the quantum of a continuous force field, whereas electrons are forced to be discrete by a fundamental mathematical feature (the Fermi-Dirac anti-commutator), etc. How can these different substances interact? They just do. They do not need our permission.

    In fact, it is worse than that: there is a theorem that electrons cannot directly interact with each other at all; electrons can only indirectly interact by each separately interacting with a very different sort of common intermediary particle such as the Z0. Indeed, what led us to the Z0 was an attempt to have direct interactions among particles like electrons: this turns out to be mathematically impossible, and we found we needed to invent “intermediate vector bosons,” such as the Z0, to mediate electrons’ interaction.

    Of course, after being predicted theoretically, the existence of the Z0 still had to be confirmed experimentally. It was, in the early ‘80s.

    So, does this prove that separate mental and physical substances have to exist and that their interaction, far from being impossible, is a necessary part of nature? Well… I have a nagging fear that some philosopher might read this post and write a paper arguing exactly that!

    But, no, of course it does not prove that at all: of course, I do not know how mind and brain work.

    My example does show, however, that philosophers should stop assuming certain principles to be “obviously true,” when it has long been known that similar principles are definitely false in science.

    Philosophers would do well to acquire much greater knowledge of established facts in science, and of the method pursued in science – full freedom in coming up with ideas, but little freedom in testing those ideas to see if they are true.

    Josh also wrote:
    >And if they ever want to be economists or politicians, the need for “creativity” is even greater.

    It has occurred to me that if one’s goal is to find truth, philosophy is very poor training, but if one’s goal is to deceive, manipulate, and defraud the public – which seems to be the main goal of both politicians and economists – then philosophy may be excellent training indeed!

    Dave

  34. I just wanted to say that studying Philosophy made me a better thinker and a more thoughtful person. I am more inclined to listen to an argument and judge it on its merits (or lack thereof) than simply dismiss it. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today (which IMO is a better person) if I hadn’t studied philosophy.

  35. PhysicistDave:

    How do you explain fine tuning than? Sry, just curious.

  36. Laurence wrote:
    >I just wanted to say that studying Philosophy made me a better thinker and a more thoughtful person. I am more inclined to listen to an argument and judge it on its merits (or lack thereof) than simply dismiss it. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today (which IMO is a better person) if I hadn’t studied philosophy.

    And, I know people who think that drinking beer, smoking pot, etc. makes them a better person.

    At least in some of those cases, most external observers would disagree.

    The point being that people are very, very good at thinking that their choices and life experiences have made them better people. Whether there is any reality to such self-satisfied opinions is rather a separate question.

    Given the astounding failure of philosophy to reach *any* significant result on which philosophers can agree (as opposed to science and math), on the face of it, your self-evaluation is questionable: e.g., philosophers’ concept of the “merits” of an argument seems to be unproductive.

  37. derrekman wrote to me:
    > How do you explain fine tuning than? Sry, just curious.

    There is a good chance “fine tuning” is non-existent.

    I know that some of my fellow physicists have written at length on this, but it is not physics. There has been a paucity of experimental data in recent decades in fundamental physics (due, e.g., to the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider), and some physicists have used that as an excuse to pursue bad philosophy (i.e., the same kind most philosophers pursue). By the way, this confirms the point that you get similarly silly results in any field when the incentive structure of that field is similar to philosophy’s.

    My fellow physicist Victor Stenger has written at length on the “fine tuning” nonsense.

    There are lots of possible answers: Maybe the simplest possible grand theory (which we have not yet discovered, of course) just mathematically has the values of the natural constants we observe. Maybe the multiverse/anthropic principle is true.

    Or something else.

    You say that what I have just written is not science?

    My point exactly!

    The “fine tuning” argument is science fiction (or philosophy), not to be taken seriously. No one did or could have guessed at quantum mechanics before the experimental data forced us to confront quantum weirdness. More than two millennia of experience indicates that chimps like us with oversized brains are just not smart enough to understand reality without a whole lot of help from experimental data.

    Armchair theorizing about so-called “fine tuning” is just a waste of time, rather like armchair theorizing in general, when not guided by empirical data.

    Anyone who doubts my point should look into “Boltzmann brains” (e.g., http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/science/15brain.html ) to see how physicists (and philosophers) go off into outer space in the absence of data: a true reductio ad absurdum.

    Dave