Saturday, August 07, 2010

The value of philosophy (part 2)

Two commenters offer the defense that philosophy has in a sense spun off actually useful fields of inquiry such as astronomy, economics and empirical science. pleasureandfreedom argues:
You could say philosophy acts as a nest for subjects that can't fly yet. As soon as they learn how they piss off and start sneering from a distance. Doesn't make having the nest any less valuable though.
There are two distinct senses of philosophy. The first is any generally intellectual discourse: scientists, for example, used to call themselves "natural philosophers". In this sense, of course, one cannot reasonably condemn philosophy. But I think this is too broad a sense to be particularly useful.

When I am talking about "philosophy", however, I mean specifically what Gary Gutting alludes to: the construction and criticism of arguments that "logically derive from uncontroversial premises." This deductivist construction of philosophy goes back to Socrates and Plato*.

*Or perhaps earlier; I'm not particularly well-informed as to pre-Socratic philosophy. And at least in the West; I'm equally ill-informed about non-Western philosophical traditions. But I think twenty-five centuries of history in one important human culture is sufficient to pick out a theme.

Just that these scientific endeavors were somehow connected to deductivist philosophy does not by itself established that deductivist philosophy deserves credit for acting as a nest. An atheist, for example, might escape the dogma of her fundamentalist religion, but it would seem odd indeed to actively credit that religion for the development of her atheism, skepticism and naturalism. We need something more than just a temporal connection to establish this kind of credit.

And if the sciences (and science-friendly folk such as myself) sneer at philosophy, is it not true that philosophy sneers at science? Let us turn to Gutting himself. First, Gutting argues that deductivist philosophy cannot establish either the existence or non-existence of God:
Our best efforts to construct arguments along the traditional lines face successive difficulties. The students realize that I’m not going to be able to give them a convincing proof, and I let them in on the dirty secret: philosophers have never been able to find arguments that settle the question of God’s existence or any of the other “big questions” we’ve been discussing for 2500 years. ...

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.
Fair enough. But he goes on to assert that philosophy draws the same conclusion about all of our beliefs, not just beliefs about God:
In various ways, they have shown that everyday life is based on “basic” beliefs for which we have no good arguments. There are, for example, no more basic truths from which we can prove that the past is often a good guide to the future, that our memories are reliable, or that other people have a conscious inner life.
Gutting's admits that these basic truths come not from the study of philosophy but "simply — and quite properly — arise from our experience in the world."

But if we assume Gutting means "properly" in the normative rather than the technical* sense, how are we to understand his condemnation of Dawkins? Dawkins position Gutting argues, "is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments. [emphasis added]" Dawkins' argument (at least in The God Delusion) is simply that if we know anything at all scientifically — and science is based on these basic truth Gutting admits we properly have — we know scientifically that any being with intention and purpose would most probably evolve, and a God that evolved is no God at all. (Dawkins' other arguments in The God Delusion demonstrate only what Gutting stipulates: that traditional arguments for the existence of God fail to be deductively probative.)

*In technical philosophical jargon, a properly basic belief is a belief that is somehow justified just because it is true, without any mediation or methodological process. The belief that I see a tree is properly basic, because seeing the tree directly causes the belief that I see the tree; I don't need to reason my way from seeing the tree to believing I see the tree; in contrast, I do have to reason my way from seeing a tree to believing a tree objectively exists.

In order to consider Dawkins arguments "demonstrably faulty", he must either claim they prove what they cannot or do not prove, they must use some methodology in a demonstrably faulty way, or they must use a demonstrably faulty methodology.

We can eliminate the first: Dawkins claims only that the argument from evolution proves only that there almost certainly is no God: It is not logically impossible to scientifically prove that a complex being with intention and purpose could exist without evolution, but we are confident enough in our understanding of evolution to say that such a conclusion would require a presently unimaginable overhaul of a profoundly well-evidenced and well-understood scientific principle. (And Dawkins makes clear he is talking only about God in the personal sense; he's uninterested in esoteric or empirically meaningless constructions.)

It seems doubtful that Gutting believes that Dawkins has made some scientific error, or that Gutting has the expertise, talent or interest to evaluate scientific arguments at all; the context makes clear that Gutting is not discussing the fine details of scientific inquiry in his article.

We can conclude only that Gutting considers Dawkins' arguments to be "demonstrably faulty" only because they are not deductive arguments: they do not "logically derive from uncontroversial premises." Gutting is descriptively correct: we do not know for certain that complex beings with intention and purpose can only evolve; any premise we do not know for certain is by definition at least logically controvertible. But all scientific arguments are like this: all scientific hypotheses are by definition controvertible. The odds are very slim indeed that everything we think we know scientifically is the result of a massive coincidence, but slim is not none, and we cannot be certain scientifically that the world is not just completely random. (Indeed every coincidence, however large and finitely improbable, will occur not just once but infinitely many times in a completely random universe infinite in even one dimension.)

Gutting thus implies that scientific inquiry is not just outside the bounds of philosophical inquiry (which he asserts cannot come to any conclusions whatsoever), but — at least by the standards of philosophical inquiry — is faulty, i.e. bad.

I'm sorry, but a field of endeavor that not just excludes but condemns another field out of one side of its mouth cannot in good conscience take credit for it out of the other side. And when philosophy condemns science precisely for succeeding where philosophy fails, the cognitive dissonance is too much to bear.

Rather than acting as a "nest", it is more plausible to see philosophy as shackles; the other endeavors, especially science, have achieved success not by being "nurtured" by philosophy, but by escaping its smothering embrace.

If you want to understand logic, study mathematics. If you want knowledge about the (physical) world, study science. If you want to understand ethics, study history, politics and economics. If you want to understand the human condition, study literature. If you want to understand aesthetics, learn to paint, or sing, or sculpt, or act. If you want to study metaphysics, masturbate to internet porn. And if you want to hang out with arrogant fools who not only don't know anything but are proud they don't know anything and are resentfully envious of those who do know something, study theology. Philosophy is a dead loss.


  1. My impression is that when you criticize philosophy, you are really criticizing metaphysics and epistemology, which I agree are almost completely a load of useless mental masturbation. But I once read the assertion--I cannot remember where--that philosophy as properly and usefully constituted is the discipline of figuring out what people mean when they say certain things.

  2. In Word and Object, W. V. O. Quine proves that we cannot ever prove (in a philosophical sense) what people mean when they say certain things. The best we can do on this front is scientific linguistics.


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