Friday, April 25, 2008

The silliness of philosophy

In Peter Unger's Beyond Inanity, he makes a point of saying that the claims he's attacking are guilty of being insubstantial, not silly. However, it strikes me that an awful lot of what gets done in philosophy is silly. I've even suggested that philosophy is so silly, that an obviously silly paper is actually an improvement over one that tries to hide its silliness.

What, exactly, is the problem? I can think of at least two things:

First, there's a tendency to want to be rigorous, sophisticated, and scientific, and this leads philosophers to invent technical concepts and apply them in situations where they serve no purpose. Take, for example, the concept of a possible world. A possible world is basically a possible situation, except that its emphasized that it is a "maximal" situation, including or excluding every detail that the world might possibly have. Sometimes, it's a useful concept. Sometimes you want to imagine a hypothetical world exactly like ours, except for a short list of very specific changes. Or sometimes, you want to imagine a world with a very small number of objects and nothing else. That's all okay. (Or at least not as bad as what I want to complain about here.)

However, philosophers have fallen in love with the concept of possible worlds, and begin invoking the concept in situations where it's useless or counter-productive. Situations where, most importantly, they aren't really concerned to have every detail fixed. For example, last semester in philosophy of mind we encountered a theory of the relationship between mind and matter (I think it was called "global supervenience") that was explained in terms of possible worlds. It turned out that an immediate consequence of the theory was that the position of a hydrogen atom in a distant galaxy might be vitally important in determining our mental states (thanks in part to possible worlds emphasizing the idea of every detail being fixed). And this is a theory which philosophers had seriously put forth. They never meant to say something so absurd, but did so because they got using technical concepts when they didn't need them.

Another example in this problem is adequately summed up in the second quotation in this post. Basically: philosophers wasting a lot of time on the nature of a certain claim, when all that mattered is whether it's true.

The other thing that's silly about philosophy: philosophers taking themselves way to seriously. For example, in the metaphysics class I'm taking right now, we basically spent over a week discussing the transporters from Star Trek. This was done with minimal self-awareness and irony. Now, debates on Star Trek message board about what this or that piece of technology would really be like can get quite heated (or so I've heard). However, Trekkies are at least capable of keeping the MST3K mantra stuck somewhere in the back of their minds, even if it's at the bottom of a chest in the attic of their brains, with the path to said chest blocked by a pile of lamps, coat hangers, and bicycles. The point is, it's there, they know it's just TV. In philosophy, however, there is no equivalent to the realization that it's just TV. It's serious business. And that makes all the discussions feel very off.


Preston said...

Ok, a few things.
Firstly, I think your criticisms are somewhat spot-on. But there are a lot of philosophical problems which I think you would not take at all seriously which I would...I am getting this from your general attitude in this post and others, but not from anything explicitly said.
Second, about your claim of "philosophers wasting a lot of time on the nature of a certain claim, when all that mattered is whether it is true." --Well, a lot of analytic philosophy is language, and the logic of language, so the nature of all claims is of importance. I think the reason this isn't so bad is because picking apart the nature of a certain claim, though seemingly unimportant at a certain moment, can become important. Don't you think it was this type of attitude that discovered the de dicto/de re distinction, for example?
Third, on philosophers taking themselves too seriously--well, you must be hanging out with the wrong philosophers. Because the professors and students I know realize the absurdity and irrelevance of many philosophical arguments. The only field I've gotten in a seriously emotional argument about was ethics, and, well, that makes a lot of sense.
To anticipate an objection: "If so many philosophical arguments are absurd and irrelevant, why are we wasting our time on them?" --Well, because philosophy helps us think and approach problems in new ways, discover the logic of our language, how to express what we mean in a more precise way, avoid fallacious inductions and lines of reasoning, gain a healthy skepticism, etc. etc.
And you often bash thought experiments...but it was a thought experiment that sprang the theory of relativity. My point is that thinking critically and precisely about things may not have an immediate positive consequence, but it can't hurt.

Preston said...

Oh yeah, fourthly--Publish or perish. That probably explains a lot of the silliness of many philosophical debates.

Hallq said...

Well, you're almost certainly right about publish or perish.

I'm curious to know what kind of claims you think are worth taking seriously, but I'd be unlikely to take seriously.

Did you read the quote linked under "this post"? And how well do you know the literature on the problem of evil? The question in that case was whether a premise in one formulation of the argument from evil was a necessary or contingent truth, when there was no clear reason to think it anything but a red herring. I suppose I should note that you could have a number of theories about what's wrong with the current philosophy of religion literature--another might be that people have shown a willingness to flock anyone who says something novel using technical ideas, whether or not it's that substantiative or relevant to anything (I'm thinking of Plantinga, mainly, which is indeed a whole long 'nother story).

Last, I'm glad you know philosophy students who don't take themselves too seriously. I don't see it in most of the stuff I've read--some of it, but not enough.

kldickson said...

How big is the publish or perish problem in philosophy as compared to other fields?

Preston said...

The first thing that pops to mind when thinking of things you may think irrelevant that I think is very relevant are modal arguments about philosophy of mind. For example, Kripke's argument against physicalism, or the zombie argument. I don't really know if they are right or not (I waiver back and forth), but it seems to me a physicalist must address them.
I just scientism is a little out of control among the academic community, and philosophy is a good check on that, for example. Science is wonderful, but when people start saying things like "Science has proven there is no God", or saying things which assume verificationism, there becomes a problem to me.

Hallq said...

I've done some sparing with Richard Chappell over modal arguments for dualism, a fair amount of it at his blog. My biggest worry about those arguments has to do with whether we should trust intuitions for exotic modal claims, not anything about silliness per se. However, some critics of physicalism sometimes seem to suggest more straightforward arguments against it, along the lines of "physicalist theories of mind are forced to ignore subjective experience, with which we are very directly acquainted." The fact that this argument is largely neglected in favor of convoluted modal arguments strikes me as a bit silly.

Hallq said...


I just saw on your blog where you express skepticism about Kripke's modal argument in spite of being a dualist. In light of this I have to ask: what do you think the best arguments for dualism are?

Preston said...

As I said before, I waiver back and forth on the Kripke argument. I think its better than the zombie argument, because of some of the implications of the zombie argument. I think the "What Mary didn't Know" argument and the inverted spectrum argument both have a strong pull to them.
I'm not completely convinced, because I share your worry that certain exotic modal arguments can confuse the intuitions--nevertheless, I do think they are arguments that can't be ignored by the physicalist.
Really, I think the best 'argument' for dualism is that all forms of physicalism seem fatally flawed. Of course, that seems to be true of dualism as well, so maybe that doesn't help things.

kldickson said...

preston - how do all forms of physicalism seem fatally flawed? I could say 'fatally flawed' of dualism, in light of neuroscientific knowledge.

Preston said...

Again, as I said on another thread. You seem to have a confusion between the correlation problem and the essence problem. Even if we have a correlation between two events (e.g. a brain process and a conscious state), we don't have proof of identity between those two events. Even if it is true that the grass is wet if and only if it is raining, doesn't mean the grass being wet is identical with it being raining.
Its the difference between equivalence and identity. Does this make sense?

kldickson said...

preston -

It is very difficult to prove identity, but there is sufficient research in, for example, the visual system to tell us that when we see beer, the light reflects off it just so to make our rods say 'that projects certain wavelengths of color in various patterns over time', which goes through our retina to our superior colliculus, which interpreted by our brain tells us 'That is brown and fizzy and in a beer bottle', and those of us who know what beer is say 'IT'S BEER'. This stuff has been looked at down to minute detail.

If you see the rain fall on the grass and then touch it, it's wet. You apparently don't see the causation there.

I mean, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, because for all we know the idiots at Exeter are probably wrong about thinking my mother was consuming very little calories and THAT was what made a sperm with an X chromosome combine with an egg instead of a sperm with a Y chromosome and produced me. They have not examined the vaginal environment pre-coitus, they have not examined the uterine environment, and they have not examined the biochemical mechanisms of this on sperm.

But bloody hell, grass gets wet when it's rained on, and it is entirely ridiculous to still be claiming 'But you can't PROVE it!' when it has been researched quite well that all the phenomena that you philosophers philosophize about - self-awareness, emotion, metacognition - have been researched in-depth for the past hundred years by neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists, and other scientists, who actually make EMPIRICAL observations on these things and scrutinize them toward every last detail, are not caused by anything other than the brain. Try reading some of the literature sometime, you might be surprised. There is no evidence, beyond any even remotely reasonable doubt, for anything dualism claims.

Really, that's some sophistry you're pulling right there if you already know what research has been done, and if you don't know what research has been done, start reading some.

Preston said...

Dualism is the claim that there are non-physical properties. So to say that obviously brain processes and consciousness are identical because we don't see any causation between the two is begging the question. Obviously we aren't going to be able to see a brain process cause something that doesn't take up physical space!
What I am saying is that even an ideal completed neuroscience could not answer the question philosophers of mind are asking, because neuroscience only studies correlations between brain processes and reported conscious states. Don't get me wrong, it is an awesome project which is illuminating in probably a lot more practical ways than philosophy of mind is, but unfortunately they are just separate projects. And you don't seem to understand that.
You are making the same fallacy as someone who claims science has proven there is no God, on the grounds that there is no empirical evidence of Its existence. Most theists believe God to be by definition non-empirical, so science can't touch it. Its a philosophical problem. And philosophy of mind is the same way.
To put my point in a different way, if you were right about neuroscience explaining consciousness, there would be no problem of other minds or problem of knowing at what level of complexity in animals they become conscious. If this latter point is confusing just disregard it, I'm just trying to bring out my point in a different way.

kldickson said...

*drags out Russell's teapot*

There is a mighty low chance of finding conclusive evidence that the brain is separate from the mind, just as there is a mighty low chance of finding conclusive evidence of the existence of any presumed deity.

Why does ANYONE presume the existence of a presumed entity to be non-empirical in the first place, and why do people think there are non-empirical things in the first place?

It makes no sense.

Preston said...

Precisely my point. Mind-brain identity and existence of God is not a matter for science. Its a philosophical issue.

On the burden of proof issue, yes, that is a good point. Nevertheless, it is a philosophical point. Myself, I see no reason to accept or reject the idea of non-empirical objects, therefore I am agnostic.
To claim that non-empirical objects can't exist because they can't be empirically discovered is absurd, and you know that.

I am not saying physicalism is false. I am not saying God exists. I'm just saying they are philosophical issues that scientists can't even touch with empirical methods. Can we agree?

kldickson said...

Oh for the love of reason - how is the mind-brain identity NOT a matter of science? It's the same tired assertion you dualists fall back on all the time.

You're making assumptions here. Classing the two topics you refer to above as non-empirical is an assumption. The notion that non-empirical things can exist is an assumption. You have nothing but your own flawed human rationalization to even attempt to support your views - psychology has a virtual Mons Olympus of evidence that human logic is flawed by nature. Therefore, unless you can produce evidence that is independent of your assertions, I'm going to call bullshit, and I have a mountain of evidence on my side already.

You will continue to say that science does not apply, that non-empirical things can exist, and that there are things outside the realm of science. This is a gigantic logical quagmire in addition to being, as I said, merely an assumption (if you are agnostic, were you formerly religious?), and it astounds me that anyone who calls themselves a competent philosopher would use arguments that have not only poor logic but are, and I will be blunt, sophistry.