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Dec 02 2013

Is Philosophy Stupid?

Photo of me behind the podium, hands raised in gesture, speaking. Red-silver tie on white shirt under a dark grey suit jacket. Hair shaggy. Glasses hipster.My Skepticon 6 Talk is now available for viewing. Check it out on YouTube: Is Philosophy Stupid? (Thankyou Hambone Productions!). Ad revenue goes to charity. Also for convenience here is the link to my ancillary materials for that talk, a page that includes a link to a non-animated PDF of the slideshow, a rough text for the talk (not exactly the same as what I spoke, but close enough in most salient points, and the text has a few gems I didn’t have time for in the speech), and two bibliographies for further reading, one on how to become a good lay philosopher, and another on popular recent critiques of philosophy.

35 comments

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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    I can think of some pretty stupid philosophers. Alvin Plantinga comes immediately to mind.

  2. 2
    garrex

    I’ll definitely check out “The Philosopher’s Toolkit.” Anyone can plug their own work, but what I really appreciate about what you do is you promote other people’s work as well. Watching your speeches has caused me to explore many different authors and I have learned a lot from doing that.

  3. 3
    stevenjohnson

    It can be very hard to judge these things from personal experience. But nobody will pay for scientific surveys wil they? Absent that, I must say ithe orthodox position is that Plato is the de facto founder of philosophy (“footnotes to Plato” someone said…Russell?) Aristotle is a dead dog and, reading between the lines, rather more disdained because he wasted time (on what I would call science) and because Chrysippus was the true logician. (But Eudoxus doesn’t get the credit for Aristotle’s astronomy, which seems inconsistent to me.) . Massimo Piglucci and Stephen Law and such fallacy mongers are pretty much the outer limits of accessibility in popularization. And Mario Bunge is some eccentric who was given refuge from the Dirty War but whom no real philosopher pays any attention to.).

    These aren’t palatable conclusions. I have Mario Bunge on my Kindle. I’m even so retrograde as to think that the syllogistic approach can be superior for highlighting the importance of sound arguments, not just valid arguments. If I recall correctly, Descartes in the opening of his Method defined philosophy essentially as what gentlemen should believe. (My copy is hidden in my “library” which includes boxes and boxes in the attic.) Which makes me think that philosophy is a species of rhetoric, devoted to the appeal to reason, as opposed to the appeal to the emotions (rhetoric proper,) the appeal to authority (law,) and the appeal to revelation (theology.) I would prefer that philosophy would be the reflection on human activities (including the sciences and the arts,) scouting the frontiers and reporting the findings in natural language as best possible.

    The thing is, what I would like to think, just doesn’t seem to be the way it is, and what I don’t like, does. I must admit that your definition of philosophy is awfully close to a broad definition of science. In particular, it does seem odd to think that string theories similarity to metaphysics like Platonic forms or maya or the Tao or whatever is more important than its difference. Somehow I can’t picture a neoThomist facing string theory’s challenge to his metaphysics or a Leibnizian identifying a Calabi-Yau manifold with the monad. It really does seem that in addition to a very broad definition of philosophy you’ve assumed a very narrow definition of science as composed almost solely of measurements and facts, with concepts almost excluded. I’m not sure by your standard, for instance, “entropy” wouldn’t by a concept in physics, but a philosophical construct.
    That doesn’t seem right but I can’t see how I’m misunderstanding you.

    The ancillary materials have inspired me to order Fischer on interlibrary loan.

    1. 3.1
      Richard Carrier

      You have a strangely emotional and nonlogical take on things.

      Plato can no more be called the founder of philosophy than Thales centuries earlier, or Socrates immediately before Plato. But they did not turn philosophy into a systematic study. Aristotle was the first to do that. So calling Plato the founder of philosophy is like calling early healers the founders of medicine, when really the first to systematize medicine as a field of study was Hippocrates, which means really he should be called the founder of medicine as a systematic field of study.

      Chrysippus advanced on Aristotle (via the Stoic school), just as Theophrastus and Strato did (within Aristotle’s school); and Galen eventually improved on Chrysippus. And there were others who improved on Aristotle as well. Countless. Just as there were subsequent physicians, like Herophilus, who improved on the science founded by Hippocrates. That does not change the fact that Hippocrates started the whole project. Neither does the fact that later philosophers used the systematic methods developed or coordinated by Aristotle to improve on him change the fact that Aristotle started that whole project. So he’s still the founder of the program.

      Meanwhile, your veiled dismissal of Bunge for being a foreigner are just this side of ad hominem bigotry.

      As to the rest, I can’t fathom your point. I demonstrated that science is a branch of philosophy. Given that fact, your remarks make no sense, as anything other than just agreeing with me.

  4. 4
    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    One of the reasons why Artificial Intelligence has few credited successes is that once a field is sufficiently understood it no longer calls itself an AI problem. So even though Expedia and Kayack use AI techniques to find your airfare and route it is not thought of as AI, it is considered to be just analysis.

    Philosophy suffers from the same problem. Russell and Whitehead considered themselves to be philosophers rather than mathematicians. Principia Mathematica set the logical framework on which all modern computer languages are based. But is it categorized as pure math rather than philosophy.

    Epistemology was one of the foundations of the Web. Steve Jobs built Apple on an aesthetic criteria.

    What people are really arguing about when they are talking about ‘philosophy’ like this is really just metaphysics and they assume that because metaphysics cannot provide any analytic answers, it is useless. But metaphysics can certainly rule out answers or at least establish that they are vanishingly unlikely. We don’t believe in Baal or the Inca Gods any more and nothing bad has happened as a result of refusing to worship them.

    Dismissing bogus metaphysical theories is a worthwhile exercise even if we cannot arrive at metaphysical certainty.

  5. 5
    Gary

    Thanks Richard. Right on the Monet.

    1. 5.1
      Gary

      Correction: right on the “money” – the blog was on philosophy with aesthetics getting only a bit part. There is beauty in knowledge, of course. Cheers

  6. 6
    Schlumbumbi

    You got to love youtube’s “watch later” button. Had a short look, looks promising.

  7. 7
    aggressivePerfector

    I liked this talk a lot.

    It brings up a question I’ve had for a while, though, about your prominent use of the term ‘metaphysics,’ a word I’ve never been able to understand. If I go to wikipedia, for example, I’m told that metaphysics is

    concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it…

    So my question is: how is this different from physics? The wikipedia article goes on to list 9 central questions, all of which I can immediately identify as matters of physics, so I have always been left scratching my head, wondering what the purpose of this word, ‘metaphysics’ is.

    Pending your explanation, I’d like to tentatively propose that all metaphysics is actually physics, which brings me naturally to an observation, concerning your diagram of Aristotle’s 6 point systematization of philosophy. We have both concluded that questions of ethics are empirical questions, thus ethics is a branch of physics. Aesthetics answers the question, ‘what is good?’ and so is the starting point of ethics, and is thus also physics. Politics is trivially a branch of ethics – physics again. Epistemology? Since answering any question about ontology necessitates at least an implicit answer to the question of what constitutes a valid procedure for answering such questions, we can say that epistemology is also a branch of physics. More directly, perhaps, we can consider epistemology as the study of machines for making valid inferences (inferences with measurably good correspondence with reality), and thus a study of natural phenomena.

    So, with the tentative inclusion of metaphysics, I’m inclined to think that all parts of Aristotle’s program fit inside physics, and that, therefore, all philosophy is science, and all science is philosophy. Of course, I’m making the same important distinction as you, between philosophy (1), the educated attempt to understand reality (my intended usage) and philosophy (2), a label applied to the activity of people traditionally termed philosophers. (A similar distinction should also be made for science, as emphasized by the famous motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in verba.)

    Could it be that failure to recognize this identity between science and philosophy is one of the greatest contributors to two things that we apparently both would like to see less of: (1) lousy philosophers and (2) scientists who dismiss philosophy as useless?

    I’m interested in your thoughts. And well done again on your great talk.

    1. 7.1
      Richard Carrier

      So my question is: how is this different from physics?

      Metaphysics is the whole program. Physics is just the tiny part of it that we have enough data to resolve with scientific certainty.

      But overall you are reductively correct: it can all be reduced to physics conceptually, just not in practice (or at least not yet). Even epistemology reduces to the physics of computation (a fact Christians find disturbing), and of course I’ve argued that ethics reduces to the physics of complex systems (in The End of Christianity) and aesthetics to neurophysics, and so on.

      But you would benefit from reading my discussion of the difference between methodological reduction (which cannot be performed here in practical terms) and ontological reduction (which is what you are actually talking about) in Sense and Goodness without God III.5.5 (pp. 130-34). This explains why in fact physics remains a subset of metaphysics and not the other way around. Although in any completed system of knowledge (which may never exist) they would merge into a single subject, along with everything else.

    2. 7.2
      aggressivePerfector

      Thanks for the reply. I’ve read that passage in SAG before, but even going over it again, I’m afraid I’m no wiser as to the function of the word ‘metaphysics.’ I get the point, of course, about methodological reductionism, and naturally, I wouldn’t advocate measuring and modeling individual atoms in order to predict matters of e.g. economics. But I think you agree that economics is nonetheless a physical phenomenon. Certainly not metaphysical (?).

      Anyway, one physicist will use data gathering and processing techniques that are as totally useless to another physicist as they are to a psychologist. What makes these techniques valid, however, across all fields of learning, is always the same basic set of methodological principles. All methodology sprouts from the same root. I’m afraid the relevance here of your point about methodological reductionism is somewhat lost on me. Are you suggesting that metaphysics uses a different methodology? Given what I currently know, and assuming that its methodology is valid, I’d have to reject that.

      You say

      Metaphysics is the whole program. Physics is just the tiny part of it that we have enough data to resolve with scientific certainty.

      I’m not a fan of this classification scheme. You seem to want to define science as a set of facts, but to me (and I’m not alone) science is defined by its goals and its methodology. Any procedure that permits the plausibility of propositions to be ranked reliably is science (to a degree dependent on that reliability), even if the outcome is that all propositions in some hypothesis space are equally probable – there is no requirement for ‘scientific certainty.’

      I suspect that for the most part we agree on all of this. I’m just puzzled about that funny word ‘metaphysics.’ What do we gain from using it? Is it conceivable that a lot of potential for confusion would be eliminated if we just didn’t use it, without anything being lost from our ability to process and communicate philosophical ideas?

      **********

      On the subject of methodology, and closer to the topic of your talk, are you aware of any studies into problem solving contexts outside nominal philosophy (my definition (2) from the above comment) where education in philosophy gives an advantage over a typical scientific training? Do we have concrete data about the benefits of a philosophical education? I suspect such benefits exist. Certainly, I often wish some scientists would think more philosophically.

    3. Richard Carrier

      I think you agree that economics is nonetheless a physical phenomenon. Certainly not metaphysical (?).

      But that magic spells don’t interfere in currency exchange rates is a metaphysical conclusion, since there has never been a scientific experiment disproving it. So it happens not to be a conclusion of science (i.e. physics). So where does the conclusion come from? Metascience (= metaphysics): we infer from what we do know from science, that magic spells are unlikely enough not to factor into our commercial and actuarial plans.

      Thus even economics is beholden to metaphysics.

      This is more obviously the case in Libertarianism, which holds the distinctly metaphysical belief in an invisible superpower called the “invisible hand” that magically solves all problems and perfects the free market without intelligent involvement from humans. There has never been any scientific paper proving the existence or efficacy of any such power. So they aren’t getting that notion from current physics (= current science). It’s metaphysics: something they are inferring from what they think science has proved. Most notably, they are wrong, because history and journalism and simple practical in-the-field experimentation affords nothing but evidence against their metaphysical theory. But that’s a discussion for another day. The point is, correct or not, Libertarianism is a metaphysical theory.

      Are you suggesting that metaphysics uses a different methodology?

      To the contrary, as I explain in the talk, good metaphysics uses the same methods. What it lacks is the same quality and quantity of data. Metaphysics is what you do when you don’t have enough data to publish a demonstration of your conclusion in a peer reviewed science journal. But just because you have less data doesn’t mean you have no data, nor does it mean you must use a different method–except insofar as you can’t use certain methods that can only function on large bodies of highly accurate data, e.g. large-scale double-blind statistical studies.

      Metaphysics is as I explain in the talk meta-physics, “after-physics,” physics meaning science, so meta-science, “after-science”: metaphysics is what you are left having to do when you’ve done all the science you were able to do. So, for example, atheism is a conclusion of metaphysics, a conclusion we reach after doing all the science we could do that’s pertinent to the question, none of which was able to answer the question itself (there is no science paper proving God doesn’t exist), but all of which allows us to infer in the meantime what the answer most likely is (there is probably no God).

      To be fair, of course, science could disprove all kinds of Gods, especially the most popular ones. There is more than enough data to prove, with scientific certainty, that a God who actively parts seas to protect the Jews from harm does not exist. But atheism is disbelief in all gods, including shy gods and sneaky gods and fickle gods and so on. And those are a lot harder to disprove with scientific certainty. But they can be disproved with meta-scientific certainty.

      Are you aware of any studies into problem solving contexts outside nominal philosophy (my definition (2) from the above comment) where education in philosophy gives an advantage over a typical scientific training?

      I’m not sure which studies you are referring to. See Dan Fincke’s analysis of the GRE study. (There have been similar results for LSAT and GMAT.) I concur with Fincke’s (including his caveats). In fact, I think philosophy would perform far better than even this, if it actually emphasized the skills involved more, which it now doesn’t (philosophy majors spend far more time on history of philosophy than actual philosophy, and do not take many courses in applied or practical logics or cognitive skills development, and even the straight up logic courses they take are often woefully few compared to, for example, computer science and math majors). But I think academic philosophy does emphasize them more (or stumble across practicing them more) than other departments tend to do.

    4. 7.3
      aggressivePerfector

      But that magic spells don’t interfere in currency exchange rates is a metaphysical conclusion, since there has never been a scientific experiment disproving it.

      On the contrary, there is overwhelming empirical evidence for the non-action of magic spells in the fixing of exchange rates. This evidence consists of (1) a complete lack of any positive evidence for magic, and (2) overwhelming lack of coherence between the magic hypothesis and any of our current best theories (in the same way that homeopathy, irrespective of any clinical evidence, loses credibility enormously due to its thorough lack of concordance with all known chemistry and physics). Both these forms of evidence exert their power via the agency of the Ockham principle, which has a perfectly solid foundation in probability theory. You cannot dismiss this conclusion as non-scientific.

      Ditto for conclusions about the non-existence of specific gods and about atheism generally. These are scientific conclusions.

      Again, I’m perceiving an overly restrictive definition of science, with a strong suggestion it’s only science if something is being falsified with ‘scientific certainty.’ Falsifiability, though, is a criterion for the usefulness of investigating a proposition, and not a requirement for the outcome of a scientific investigation. Falsification is not even the only direction science can go (something Popper most definitely got wrong).

      metaphysics is what you are left having to do when you’ve done all the science you were able to do.

      Seems to me there is nothing left at this point, assuming you limit yourself to valid (or approximately valid) methodologies.

      …libertarianism, which holds the distinctly metaphysical belief in an invisible superpower called the “invisible hand”…

      Is this philosophical blunder a valid metaphysical belief? If so, then I think I understand the distinction between physics and metaphysics. The only puzzle that remains is why you think metaphysics is part of philosophy. (Its not the incorrectness of the belief I’m concerned about, but the magnitude of the methodological failure that leads to it.)

      Sorry for being so disagreeable on your own blog (I feel like a rude guest), but of course, its the points of disagreement that are the most interesting.

      I’m not sure which studies you are referring to.

      Wasn’t referring to anything, just picking your brain for info. I’ve been aware for a while that this is an interesting question, but haven’t got round to investigating yet. Thanks for pointing out Fincke’s data.

    5. Richard Carrier

      On the contrary, there is overwhelming empirical evidence for the non-action of magic spells in the fixing of exchange rates.

      That’s a philosophical claim. Until you can identify the peer reviewed scientific study you are referring to.

      I’m perceiving an overly restrictive definition of science

      I’m using the definition scientists insist upon–the one they use to claim science is better than philosophy, but more importantly, the one they use to define what gets taught (and not taught) in science classrooms, and what gets published (and not published) in peer reviewed science journals, and science textbooks, and so on.

      The only puzzle that remains is why you think metaphysics is part of philosophy.

      For the same reason I think biology is a part of science.

      Hence I can’t fathom what’s puzzling about it. Unless you ignore the entire history of philosophy.

    6. 7.4
      eric

      So my question is: how is this different from physics?

      IMO the distinction between various academic disciplines owes as much to pragmatism as it does any conceptual difference. When a body of knowledge about a specific subject gets big and distinct enough, you spin it off into its own discipline. Natural philosophy becomes the sciences when it evolves so many specialized tools and techniques that a student can no longer be reasonably expected to master both (natural philosophy and other philosophy…and then natural philosophys splinters further…). Computer Science spins off from the applied mathematical research of Lovelace and Turing (and many other trailblazers) when there is too much of it to teach as a sub-discipline of mathematics. But physics is no more a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math. If you’re a grouper instead of a splitter, you could also reverse that and say physics is no less a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math. :)

      What I find interesting about this question is who it matters to and why it matters to them. I don’t generally find chemists arguing that environmental science is ‘really’ a sub-discipline of chemistry, or mathematicians discussing why computer science ought to be recognized as part of their discipline. I guess this is more a question for Richard than for you, but I do wonder why philosophers want to make this argument in the first place. What’s the point? Philosophy is the parent discipline that has spawned many successful daughters,and may continue to spawn many successful daughters in the future. Its a great accomplishment. It’s the Tracy Ullman Show to science’s Simpsons, or perhaps (more positively) many of the great philosophers may be thought of to science what Jules Verne is to science fiction – originater(s) of the entire genre of empirical, naturalistic studies which has since grown so much bigger than the original seed material. But why the need to insist that philosophy’s academic daughters are itself?

    7. Richard Carrier

      IMO the distinction between various academic disciplines owes as much to pragmatism as it does any conceptual difference.

      That’s one of the very points I make in SaG. Differing focus and methodological requirements create divisions of study.

      But physics is no more a branch of philosophy than computer science is a branch of math.

      Except physics was wholly invented by philosophy and was wholly a part of philosophy for two thousand years. It’s only recently (literally within barely the last century) that any attempt was made to “split it off” from philosophy. And that attempt has no conceptual or logical basis. For all the reasons I explain in my talk.

      Thus, your analogy (even if it held up on the other end, which is questionable, too) does not hold here.

      I don’t generally find chemists arguing that environmental science is ‘really’ a sub-discipline of chemistry, or mathematicians discussing why computer science ought to be recognized as part of their discipline.

      It’s the other way around. We don’t see them trying to deny this (and then use that denial as an excuse to dismiss the entire legitimacy of the thus-disowned field).

      What you do see is chemists admitting their field really reduces to physics, and that biology really reduces to their field, chemistry. While simultaneously acknowledging the validity of all three as well as the different methodological requirements for each.

      Thus, the analogy impugns scientists’ attempt to pretend they aren’t doing philosophy. What they are doing was philosophy for two thousand years. And remains so, entirely. The only difference is access to data (and consequently the methodologies this allows or excludes).

      They are the ones fooling themselves by trying to insist otherwise.

      But why the need to insist that philosophy’s academic daughters are itself?

      Why the need to insist human beings are mammals?

  8. 8
    moarscienceplz

    This is a great lecture. It really addresses most of the problems I’ve had with modern philosophy. Now If we can only get all the ivory tower philosophers to watch it.

  9. 9
    urbster1

    Thank you for taking this on, Richard! It’s clear that philosophy of science itself is very important and not stupid in the least. I’m happy you are also addressing the laments of scientists who complain about philosophy as being boring, useless, or an otherwise unworthy venture. Your insight and clarity is greatly appreciated!

  10. 10
    stevenjohnson

    Re the founder of philosophy, I asked if it was Russell who said philosophy was a footnote to Plato? Perhaps it was Whitehead?

    As to Bunge, I own two of his books (the Mahner edited anthology and the one you also recommend.) This is not dismissal. I have never seen any work on philosphy even cite his work. Given his critique of Popper and his other work in philosophy of science, I concluded that he is indeed dismissed. I’d seen Philippa Foote get more attention. But yes, I speculated that being an Argentine had a lot to do with it. I’m glad to hear that Bunge is in fact widely regarded as a major philosopher. For what it’s worth, I think that’s the way it should be.

  11. 11
    robotczar

    Philosophy is not stupid, it just isn’t very useful. It is sort of like art that uses ideas and words, which makes it seem like poetry. Poetry with logic but no rhymes.

    Philosophy apologists, are like Christian apologists, defend Philosophy with arguments that you have to already believe intuitively to buy. Philosophers are fine if they stick to being a sort of debate club (that never resolves anything) but where they have gone very wrong is in assuming they have some sort of means to determine truth–specifically, when they think they get to criticize science and say what science is and what it isn’t, and what it can do or can’t do. They are not qualified to do that. That’s pretentious, and also wrong because philosophers have never resolved anything.

    Your personal situation is difficult because you clearly want to be scientific. But, you are a historian and while you can look at evidence, you can’t run experiments (much). History is not a science. It is traditionally included in the humanities department (along with English Lit., etc.). The humanities have no arbiter of “truth” like science does (empirical evidence). Basically, he who makes the best or most interesting or most creative argument tends to be accepted in the humanities. Ideology often determines truth (like “critical theory”). So, you must feel a bit confused at times. Philosophers are often held in esteem in the humanities, but clearly that is no longer the case in the sciences. This is so because philosophy does not follow scientific method and can not. It matters very little that some scientists criticize philosophy and then do it for fun or to sell books,. By what logic does scientists doing philosophy validate philosophy? The scientists are clear that what they are doing is not science and is not all that useful. Philosophers need to stick to defining love, beauty, virtue, freedom, and possible alternate universes and all those other things we make up- like poets do.

    1. 11.1
      Richard Carrier

      Clearly you didn’t watch or read the presentation. It pretty well refutes everything you just said.

  12. 12
    robotczar

    Half your presentation was about how science really is a type of philosophy. You support this assertion by saying that philosophy claims science (or at least Aristotle does) and that scientists were once called philosophers (or called themselves natural philosophers) and published in philosophy journals (of course, there were no science journals). These assertions in no way refute the idea that science is separate from philosophy and philosophy, as currently practiced, is not science. They are distinct, what people call themselves or claim to be part of does not matter. You admit that the word science was not invented yet, so Galileo could not call himself a scientist. What I say, that you did not refute, is that science has a arbiter of truth (empiricism) that philosophy DOES NOT. This is what distinguishes the disciplines. Science is not a philosophy with better data, it is a different process with different standards for establishing truth (or at least usefulness). The point is that philosophy has no method of establishing anything beyond deductive logic”, that is why it has never resolved anything. Logic does limit options, but it does not establish either empirical truth or useful principles. because it can’t establish the truth of premises. “Exposing assumptions” is not progress of knowledge unless we can determine if the assumptions are valid or not.

    Let me point out that Aristotle was wrong about most of his assertions about the natural world. Nobody was able to find out how he was wrong for 2K years because they did not employ scientific method (despite your claim that ancients used such method.) Your ideas about how to improve philosophy have no relevance to whether philosophy is distinct from science. Note your “progress” in philosophy has no useful value in the universe outside the context of “concepts” (i.e., mental structures). This “progress” has really not helped humanity except in the realm of mathematics. Mathematics, if considered a form of philosophy, has had some useful advances. The rest of your “progress” is an example of poetry and is likely largely culturally dependent. Please explain how humanity has benefitted from all this word play.

    1. 12.1
      Richard Carrier

      These assertions in no way refute the idea that science is separate from philosophy and philosophy, as currently practiced, is not science.

      I even say so myself in the talk. But what I point out is that the actual, and in fact only, difference is access to data. Period. Take that away from science, and it becomes philosophy. Add that to philosophy, and it becomes science. QED.

      The point is that philosophy has no method of establishing anything beyond deductive logic.

      This is easily demonstrated to be false. Philosophy relies extensively on empirical facts, including scientific facts, and routinely employs inductive and other logics. Even academic philosophy does all this. Even now. So I don’t know what you are on about. And the rest of your comment, depending as it does on this false assertion, is therefore nullified.

      “Exposing assumptions” is not progress of knowledge unless we can determine if the assumptions are valid or not.

      If you know anything more about x today than you did yesterday, you have made progress in knowledge.

      So, what you just said is literally false. If you did not know yesterday that you were relying on assumption x in reaching conclusion y, but today you now know that, and thus know you have to either justify, abandon, or allow the possible falsity of that assumption, you have made progress in knowledge (indeed, very significant progress). You do not have to resolve whether the assumption is defensible or not to achieve that advance in knowledge. Merely knowing you’ve been making an assumption you haven’t actually tested is a major advance in knowledge in and of itself.

      Let me point out that Aristotle was wrong about most of his assertions about the natural world.

      I’m not sure that’s true. Most of his assertions about the natural world were about biology, and most of those appear to have been correct. It is often overlooked that Aristotle was actually a biologist. His forays into other sciences were a part of his philosophical interest, but in terms of his actual knowledge specialty, biology was the only actual science he conducted (as in ran empirical experiments on and collected precise observations in). So accusing him of getting physics wrong is like accusing Darwin of getting physics wrong. Darwin wasn’t a physicist. So it’s a category mistake. What we would want to know are the conclusions in physics of Aristotle’s second successor, Strato. Because he extensively conducted experiments in basic physics and mechanics. But Christians saw fit to preserve none of his books, and we have barely a handful of even quotations from him–despite the fact that in antiquity, he was regarded as the most famous physicist everyone could name, for many centuries.

  13. 13
    alqpr

    The main problem with Philosophy as a distinct academic discipline is not that it is stupid, but that its advocates *are* often “stupid” in that they badly misidentify its value.

    It does not “answer questions like …”, and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration. (Religion makes the same claim but is is less irritating in doing so because in that case it’s clearly out of some kind of desperation for an answer rather than with the smug assumption of some kind of academic rigor.)

    What academic Philosophy does do very well is provide one (but not the only) source of experience and tools which help us to analyse reasoning about those and any other questions. It does not provide answers, but a trained philosopher may well be useful in helping people at an impasse to look more deeply at the assumptions and mental processes of their interlocutors in a way that may help to resolve differences or at least to increase mutual understanding and empathy.

    1. 13.1
      Richard Carrier

      It does not “answer questions like …”, and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration.

      If by “answer” we mean “determines what the most likely answer is on present information,” then not only does philosophy answer those questions, since everyone operates (makes decisions in life) as if they know what the answers are, it follows that everyone has already done philosophy and is relying on it throughout their lives–hence the only question is whether they have done it well or poorly. Exactly as I explain in the talk.

    2. 13.2
      alqpr

      If you read my second paragraph above, then you will see that I am not dismissive of the value of academic Philosophy as an aid in the doing of our daily philosophy where we constantly have to make decisions which would be facilitated by having answers to those questions (if only we knew what they meant , let alone what the answers were). But to claim that it (or we) will ever actually answer them (even in the sense of determining a currently “most likely” answer) is probably presumptuous. And offense at that presumed presumption is, I think, what drives the expressions of contempt for Philosophy that you are so concerned about. If you are offended by that presumption of presumption then it would be best to avoid characterizing Philosophy in a way that encourages it.

      With regard to some of the other comment threads it strikes me that whenever philosophy makes progress, that progress is identified by name as a new discipline, so whatever is left as academic Philosophy is indeed quite likely to be what Yudkowsky characterizes as “cognitive reductions that I regard as relatively simple” and not very likely “to build complex correct structures of conclusions”. The examples you give of “general advances made by modern philosophy” strike me more as expressions of your own preference and current fashion rather than genuinely and rigorously determined conclusions.

      To me, a better selling point for academic Philosophy would be “Philosophy is the study of those questions which we feel are important but which we do not yet really understand the meaning of (let alone having any real answers to). It addresses, but does not answer questions like (the ones in your list) and provides tools for interpreting and comparing the efforts made to date in dealing with them.”

    3. Richard Carrier

      But to claim that it (or we) will ever actually answer them (even in the sense of determining a currently “most likely” answer) is probably presumptuous.

      So it’s presumptuous to say that it is most likely true that murder is wrong, women should have the same rights as men, the state should not suppress free speech, beauty is only in the eye of the beholder, knowledge can only ever be probabilistic, minds do not survive the death of the brain, gods do not exist, the known universe had a natural non-intelligent cause, everything we know exists reduces to physics in one fashion or another, your lovelife has not been engineered by supernatural forces, personal autonomy and responsibility are compatible with causal determinism, causation can be defined and empirically detected in the manner Judea Pearl’s treatise on causality lays out, and Game Theory governs all social systems?

      I don’t think you’ve really thought this through. Or done much philosophy.

  14. 14
    alqpr

    What is presumptuous is to suggest that one has a version of any of those propositions which is both non-tautological and known to be true. Considering only the first for example, to say that “murder is wrong” presumes a definition of “murder” that goes beyond “wrongful killing” and the only real content of such a proposition is provided by addressing questions such is is abortion murder? or is killing in self defense (and if not, then what level of perceived threat qualifies a killing as defensive)? etc. etc. etc.

    And with regard to your last line perhaps the only appropriate response is to ignore it.

    1. 14.1
      Richard Carrier

      And to say that “that is a hill and not a mountain” presumes a definition of “mountain” that goes beyond “large bump.” As one would say, “So?”

      I fail to see your point. Maybe you just haven’t read my work on moral theory and the meaning of moral propositions?

      I do not claim to know anything more than what’s most likely given the information presently available to me. And I don’t need any more than that, just as that’s all we have in every empirical field, such as every scientific field, history, journalism, daily life, and so on.

  15. 15
    alqpr

    But Richard, identifying a particular object as hill or mountain actually has some content. To match the vacuity of “murder is wrong” one would have to claim that “mountains are large” is, by itself, the *answer* to a deep philosophical question.

    You are right that I haven’t read your work on moral theory and the meaning of moral propositions. Perhaps it does finally answer some of the questions that Philosophers have been addressing for thousands of years. If and when it becomes universally recognized as doing so, then I will have to withdraw my claim that Philosophy does not actually *answer* any of the many interesting questions that it does (often quite usefully) address.

    Please remember that, even though by “answering” questions you may just mean helping people to address them and to “determine what the most likely answer is on present information”, your claim to be answering will almost certainly be misunderstood by the untrained audience to whom you are using that claim as a way of promoting your discipline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have called that oversight “stupid”, but I think it’s a blunder that diminishes the effectiveness of your argument.

    1. 15.1
      Richard Carrier

      But Richard, identifying a particular object as hill or mountain actually has some content.

      So does “moral fact.” See my chapter on exactly that in The End of Christianity.

      (If you are unfamiliar with the argument of that chapter, you need to catch up.)

    2. 15.2
      alqpr

      I didn’t deny that the expression “moral fact” has some content (in the sense, I presume, of being a label with a meaningful referent), but the *proposition* “murder is wrong” only makes sense to one who has knowledge of the intended definitions of “murder” and “wrong”. Perhaps your chapter includes definitions which make that proposition more than a tautology, and perhaps those definitions will one day be so broadly accepted that to challenge the unqualified statement “murder is wrong” as without content will be unreasonable.
      But that day is not yet here.

    3. Richard Carrier

      only makes sense to one who has knowledge of the intended definitions

      That’s true of all language, defining all science, and all empirical facts whatever. It’s therefore not a relevant point here. That’s like saying “patient survival” only makes sense to a surgeon who has knowledge of the intended definitions of “patient” and “survival.” Of course. So?

      But that day is not yet here.

      Then you haven’t read my chapter in TEC.

    4. 15.3
      alqpr

      My point was that most people have not yet read your book and so do not know in what sense you are telling them something non-tautological when you offer the proposition “murder is wrong” as an example of the kind of wisdom they will acquire by studying philosophy. If you told them that by studying philosophy they will learn about what it *means* rather than the (already known) “fact” that it is “true”, then I think they would be more impressed.

      I appreciate the compliment implied by your suggestion that just having little old me read your book will bring about “that day” when all the world understands and accepts appropriate definitions of “murder” and “wrong” (and much else I am sure) – but I assure you I have no such influence.

    5. Richard Carrier

      My point was that most people have not yet read your book and so do not know in what sense you are telling them something non-tautological when you offer the proposition “murder is wrong” as an example of the kind of wisdom they will acquire by studying philosophy. If you told them that by studying philosophy they will learn about what it *means* rather than the (already known) “fact” that it is “true”, then I think they would be more impressed.

      You do realize you just made no sense, right?

      I said if you study philosophy (= read a book on it) you will learn why (for example) murder is wrong, and you reply that someone who doesn’t read a book on it (= doesn’t study philosophy) won’t learn that, so I should say they will learn something else from philosophy instead, by not reading anything on it.

      Huh?

      You have to frackin read something to learn something, sillyhorse. “But people who don’t read won’t learn” is a truism (otherwise known as “duh!”).

      If you want to know why murder is wrong, you have to read up on the philosophy of why it is wrong. And as I explained in my talk, the hard part is figuring out what you should read, because so much philosophy is garbage that it hides the essential gems, and the academic field is doing nothing to help people find the gems. That is indeed a problem. But it’s already a problem I call out. Extensively.

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