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.