Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The value of philosophy (part 1)

Commenters on my recent post Basic beliefs offer a couple of interesting defenses of philosophy.

Before I talk about their defenses, I want to emphasize the magnitude of the issue.

Imagine if Richard Dawkins were to publish an article in the New York Times saying, "We don't know anything at all about the mechanisms and history of the development of modern organisms. Indeed, the only 'winners' in the field are those who argue that we don't know anything. As best we can figure out, it's all just magic, which is to say we can't figure anything out at all." Imagine if Stephen Hawking were to say the same thing about physics, or James Watson about molecular biology. We would be appalled.

While Gutting is not quite so famous a philosopher, he is writing for the Times. And that's precisely what he's saying about philosophy: we don't know anything, we don't even know what we don't know, and I can interpret his comment that philosophers "have shown that everyday life is based on 'basic' beliefs for which we have no good arguments," only as an appeal to magic.

A anonymous commenter not entirely sarcastically invokes the honesty defense: A lot of academics are just wasting their time (and our money), at least philosophers are honest about it. He or she specifically mentions economics, psychology, history and computer science as fields in which practitioners are as radically ignorance as Gutting asserts philosophers are. First, this looks like a tu quoque fallacy. If it really is the case that there are fields in which we are radically ignorant, then those fields ought to be abandoned as well, or at least not at all funded with public money.

Gutting is making a qualitatively different assertion about philosophy than the commenter makes about other fields. Admittedly, there's a lot we don't know about economics, etc., and a lot of... unsupported speculation... but Gutting asserts not that we don't know everything there is to know, or everything we're really interested in knowing, but rather that we don't know anything at all about philosophy. He asserts not that we don't have all the answers, but that we don't have any answers at all.

And I don't think it's the case that we don't know anything at all about economics, psychology, history, computer science. It is true that economists "don't understand how money works to the point of being able to make accurate predictions," at least about the medium-term and long-term future, but we do know, for example, that we are definitely in a recession, that there is a present failure of aggregate demand, that inflation is too low and there's a real chance of deflation, etc.

To get the same kind of radical agnosticism in economics, we'd have to see Paul Krugman writing in the Times not just that he doesn't know where we'll be in a year, but that he doesn't know anything at all, that "We don't know if we're in recession or the economy is growing; we don't know if aggregate demand is high or low. Indeed, we don't really know what a 'recession' actually is, nor 'demand', 'supply', 'economic growth', 'employment', etc.; all of these terms are pure magic. The only economists you should listen to are those who say we don't know anything about economics." Based on my own not entirely superficial study of economics, I just don't buy this position. We certainly don't know nearly as much as we'd like to, but I would have to see some detailed, persuasive arguments — arguments that do not presuppose Gutting's slavish devotion to deductivism — to believe that we don't know anything at all about economics.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see I sparked another post, even with my tongue firmly in my cheek! To be fair, I didn't mean that other fields are as uncertain as philosophy, although it comes pretty close sometimes:

    Economics: take your pick between macro, which can make predictions about the world but has no concept of money as such, and thus is difficult to use to produce recommendations for direct action, or micro, which starts off with a concept of money but is consistently wrong when it makes predictions and thus simply shouldn't be used to produce recommendations for direct action. Oh, and did I mention that nearly every economist loads their own models with plenty of ideological bias? Some (note that I'm saying "some" and not "all", please!) of Krugman's correct predictions have really been predictions of failures by other economists, which is not the same as making an independent prediction. I would not want to live in an economy governed according to the theory of even the brightest economist, and you wouldn't either.

    Psychology: pretty much everything in psychology falls into one of three categories. There are discoveries from the hard sciences (particularly neurology), which tend to get over- and misused. (Look at ritalin: only provides a non-placebo benefit for a fraction of people for whom it has been prescribed, and does long-term damage to the intellectual abilities to many of the rest.) Then there's research which measures things, but usually provides no useful insight into them. We know, for example, that as of a few years ago, roughly 1 in 20 Americans were sociopaths by the standard definition, but we have no theory to explain why or any recommendations for doing anything about it. And then, there's the voodoo which makes up the rest of the academic study of psychology, full of unsupported assumptions and leaps of faith, and often with an ustated assumption of mind-body duality, a concept which should be eliminated from medicine until someone proves the existence of a soul.

    History: The majority of what is taught about the ancient world comes to us through the writings of people who were terribly gullible from a modern standpoint and often had axes to grind, such as Herodotus or Confucius. (And in many cases had no ethical problem with falsifying facts to emphasize their own points or even to fit a literary trope.) Sources get better (i.e. more skeptical and occasionally some attention to bias) as time goes on, but even in the late 20th century, we only have records of what people thought was important to capture, and anything considered unimportant by today's society or, worse, contrary to prevailing norms stands a good chance of being destroyed long before historians who might be interested get their hands on it. And even film and video can be falsified.

    Computer Science: I threw this one in mostly as a joke, since you mentioned the area in your post. Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth here as well: AI research has dominated academic CS, and yet the best "pure" AI yet is still inferior, when applied to a specific task, to a really well-designed algorithm. And the AI approach will generally require more design time and heftier hardware resources. Plus, I have heard academics admit that this is unlikely to change unless we basically radically improve our understanding of neurology and then start building brain simulators instead of using any current technique. This is a result, of a kind: "it is a waste of time and money to try to build an artificial intelligence by any method which has been considered". (In this sense, one could say that philosophy has had a definite result: "looking for proof of deeper external meaning in the universe using any currently known technique is a waste of time".) But we would have been better off if the quest for AI had been left to hobbyists and other amateurs, and the academics had worked on... pretty much any other aspect of the field, really.

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