Hello new friends, philosophers, and likeminded internet creatures. This month TPM is hosting the Philosopher’s Carnival.
Something feels wrong with the state of philosophy today. From whence hast this sense of ill-boding come?
For this month’s Carnival, we shall survey a selection of recent posts that are loosely arranged around the theme of existential threats to contemporary philosophy. I focus on four. Pre-theoretic intuitions seem a little less credible as sources of evidence. Talk about possible worlds seems just a bit less scientific. The very idea of rationality looks as though it is being taken over by cognate disciplines, like cognitive science and psychology. And some of the most talented philosophers of the last generation have taken up arms against a scientific theory that enjoys a strong consensus. Some of these threats are disturbing, while others are eminently solvable. All of them deserve wider attention.
1. Philosophical intuitions
Over at Psychology Today, Paul Thagard argued that armchair philosophy is dogmatic. He lists eleven unwritten rules that he believes are a part of the culture of analytic philosophy. Accompanying each of these dogmas he proposes a remedy, ostensibly from the point of view of the sciences. [Full disclosure: Paul and I know each other well, and often work together.]
Paul’s list is successful in capturing some of the worries that are sometimes expressed about contemporary analytic philosophy. It acts as a bellwether, a succinct statement of defiance. Unfortunately, I do not believe that most of the items on the list hit their target. But I do think that two points in particular cut close to the bone:
3. [Analytic philosophers believe that] People’s intuitions are evidence for philosophical conclusions. Natural alternative: evaluate intuitions critically to determine their psychological causes, which are often more tied to prejudices and errors than truth. Don’t trust your intuitions.
4. [Analytic philosophers believe that] Thought experiments are a good way of generating intuitive evidence. Natural alternative: use thought experiments only as a way of generating hypotheses, and evaluate hypotheses objectively by considering evidence derived from systematic observations and controlled experiments.
From what I understand, Paul is not arguing against the classics in analytic philosophy. (e.g., Carnap was not an intuition-monger.) He’s also obviously not arguing against the influential strain of analytic philosophers that are descendants of Quine — indeed, he is one of those philosophers. Rather, I think Paul is worried that contemporary analytic philosophers have gotten a bit too comfortable in trusting their pre-theoretic intuitions when they are prompted to respond to cases for the purpose of delineating concepts.
As Catarina Dutilh Novaes points out, some recent commentators have argued that no prominent philosophers have ever treated pre-theoretic intuitions as a source of evidence. If that’s true, then it would turn out that Paul is entirely off base about the role of intuition in philosophy.
Unfortunately, there is persuasive evidence that some influential philosophers have treated some pre-theoretic intuitions as being a source of evidence about the structure of concepts. For example, Saul Kripke (in Naming & Necessity, 1972:p.42) explained that intuitiveness is the reason why there is a distinction between necessity and contingency in the first place: “Some philosophers think that something’s having intuitive content is very inconclusive evidence in favor of it. I think it is very heavy evidence in favor of it, myself. I really don’t know, in a way, what more conclusive evidence one can have about anything, ultimately speaking”.
2. Philosophical necessity
Let’s consider another item from Paul’s list of dogmas:
8. There are necessary truths that apply to all possible worlds. Natural alternative: recognize that it is hard enough to figure out what is true in this world, and there is no reliable way of establishing what is true in all possible worlds, so abandon the concept of necessity.
In this passage Paul makes a radical claim. He argues that we should do away with the very idea of necessity. What might he be worried about?
To make a claim about the necessity of something is to make a claim about its truth across all possible worlds. Granted, our talk about possible worlds sounds kind of spooky, but [arguably] it is really just a pragmatic intellectual device, a harmless way of speaking. If you like, you could replace the idea of a ‘possible world’ with a ‘state-space’. When computer scientists at Waterloo learn modal logic, they replace one idiom with another — seemingly without incident.
If possible worlds semantics is just a way of speaking, then it would not be objectionable. Indeed, the language of possible worlds seems to be cooked into the way we reason about things. Consider counterfactual claims, like “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve.” These claims are easy to make and come naturally to us. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to talk about how things could have been, you just need some knowledge of a language and an active imagination.
But when you slow down and take a closer look at what has been said there, you will see that the counterfactual claim involves discussion of a possible (imaginary) world where Kennedy had not been shot. We seem to be talking about what that possible world looks like. Does that mean that this other possible world is real — that we’re making reference to this other universe, in roughly the same way we might refer to the sun or the sky? Well, if so, then that sounds like it would be a turn toward spooky metaphysics.
Hence, some philosophers seem to have gone a bit too far in their enthusiasm for the metaphysics of possible worlds. As Ross Cameron reminds us, David K. Lewis argued that possible worlds are real:
For Lewis, a world at which there are blue swans is a world with blue swans as parts, and so a world with round squares is a world with round squares as parts. And so, to believe in the latter world is to believe in round squares. And this is to raise a metaphysical problem, for now one must admit into one’s ontology objects which could not exist. In brief, impossible worlds for Lewis are problematic because of how he thinks worlds represent: they represent something being the case by being that way, whereas his opponents think worlds represent in some indirect manner, by describing things to be that way, or picturing them to be that way, or etc.
And to make matters worse, some people even argue that impossible worlds are real, ostensibly for similar reasons. Some people…
…like Lewis’s account of possibilia but are impressed by the arguments for the need for impossibilia, so want to extend Lewis’s ontology to include impossible worlds.
Much like the Red Queen, proponents of this view want to do impossible things before breakfast. The only difference is that they evidently want to keep at it all day long.
Cameron argues that there is a difference between different kinds of impossibility, and that at least one form of impossibility cannot be part of our ontology. If you’re feeling dangerous, you can posit impossible concrete things, e.g., round squares. But you cannot say that there are worlds where “2+2=5” and still call yourself a friend of Lewis:
For Lewis, ‘2+2=4’ is necessary not because there’s a number system that is a part of each world and which behaves the same way at each world; rather it’s necessary that 2+2=4 because the numbers are not part of any world – they stand beyond the realm of the concreta, and so varying what happens from one portion of concrete reality to another cannot result in variation as to whether 2+2 is 4.
While Cameron presents us with a cogent rebuttal to the impossibilist, his objection still leaves open the possibility that there are impossible worlds — at least, so long as the impossible worlds involve exotic concrete entities like the square circle and not incoherent abstracta.
So what we need is a scientifically credible account of necessity and possibility. In a whirlwind of a post over at LessWrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that when we reason using counterfactuals, we are making a mixed reference which involves reference to both logical laws and the actual world.
[I]n one sense, “If Oswald hadn’t shot Kennedy, nobody else would’ve” is a fact; it’s a mixed reference that starts with the causal model of the actual universe where [Oswald was a lone agent], and proceeds from there to the logical operation of counterfactual surgery to yield an answer which, like ‘six’ for the product of apples on the table, is not actually present anywhere in the universe.
Yudkowsky argues that this is part of what he calls the ‘great reductionist project’ in scientific explanation. For Yudkowsky, counterfactual reasoning is quite important to the project and prospects of a certain form of science. Moreover, claims about counterfactuals can even be true. But unlike Lewis, Yudkowsky doesn’t need to argue that counterfactuals (or counterpossibles) are really real. This puts Yudkowsky on some pretty strong footing. If he is right, then it is hardly any problem for science (cognitive or otherwise) if we make use of a semantics of possible worlds.
Notice, for Yudkowski’s project to work, there has to be such a thing as a distinction between abstracta and concreta in the first place, such that both are the sorts of things we’re able to refer to. But what, exactly, does the distinction between abstract and concrete mean? Is it perhaps just another way of upsetting Quine by talking about the analytic and the synthetic?
In a two-part analysis of reference [here, then here], Tristan Haze at Sprachlogik suggests that we can understand referring activity as contact between nodes belonging to distinct language-systems. In his vernacular, reference to abstract propositions involves the direct comparison of two language-systems, while reference to concrete propositions involves the coordination of systems in terms of a particular object. But I worry that unless we learn more about the causal and representational underpinnings of a ‘language-system‘, there is no principled reason that stops us from inferring that his theory of reference is actually just a comparison of languages. And if so, then it would be well-trod territory.
3. Philosophical rationality
But let’s get back to Paul’s list. Paul seems to think that philosophy has drifted too far away from contemporary cognitive science. He worries that philosophical expertise is potentially cramped by cognitive biases.
Similarly, at LessWrong, Lukeprog worries that philosophers are not taking psychology very seriously.
Because it tackles so many questions that can’t be answered by masses of evidence or definitive experiments, philosophy needs to trust your rationality even though it shouldn’t: we generally are as “stupid and self-deceiving” as science assumes we are. We’re “predictably irrational” and all that.
But hey! Maybe philosophers are prepared for this. Since philosophy is so much more demanding of one’s rationality, perhaps the field has built top-notch rationality training into the standard philosophy curriculum?
Alas, it doesn’t seem so. I don’t see much Kahneman & Tversky in philosophy syllabi — just light-weight “critical thinking” classes and lists of informal fallacies. But even classes in human bias might not improve things much due to the sophistication effect: someone with a sophisticated knowledge of fallacies and biases might just have more ammunition with which to attack views they don’t like. So what’s really needed is regular habits training for genuine curiosity, motivated cognition mitigation, and so on.
In some sense or other, Luke is surely correct. Philosophers really should be paying close attention to the antecedents of (ir)rationality, and really should be training their students to do exactly that. Awareness of cognitive illusions must be a part of the philosopher’s toolkit.
But does that mean that cognitive science should be a part of the epistemologist’s domain of research? The answers looks controversial. Prompted by a post by Leah Lebresco, Eli Horowitz at Rust Belt Philosophy argues that we also need to take care that we don’t just conflate cognitive biases with fallacies. Instead, Horowitz argues that we ought to make a careful distinction between cognitive psychology and epistemology. In a discussion of a cognitive bias that Lebresco calls the ‘ugh field’, Horowitz writes:
On its face, this sort of thing looks as though it’s relevant to epistemology or reasoning: it identifies a flaw in human cognition, supports the proposed flaw with (allusions to) fairly solid cognitive psychology, and then proceeds to offer solutions. In reality, however, the problem is not one of reasoning as such and the solutions aren’t at all epistemological in nature… it’s something that’s relevant to producing a good reasoning environment, reviewing a reasoning process, or some such thing, not something that’s relevant to reasoning itself.
In principle, Eli’s point is sound. There is, after all, at least a superficial difference between dispositions to (in)correctness, and actual facts about (in)correctness. But even if you think he is making an important distinction, Leah seems to be making a useful practical point about how philosophers can benefit from a change in pedagogy. Knowledge of cognitive biases really should be a part of the introductory curriculum. Development of the proper reasoning environment is, for all practical purposes, of major methodological interest to those who teach how to reason effectively. So it seems that in order to do better philosophy, philosophers must be prepared to do some psychology.
4. Philosophical anti-Darwinism
The eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel recently published a critique of Darwinian accounts of evolution through natural selection. In this effort, Nagel joins Jerry Fodor and Alvin Plantiga, who have also published philosophical worries about Darwinism. The works in this subgenre have by and large been thought to be lacking in empirical and scholarly rigor. This trend has caused a great disturbance in the profession, as philosophical epistemologists and philosophers of science are especially sensitive to ridicule they face from scientists who write in the popular press.
Enter Mohan Matthen. Writing at NewAPPS, Mohan worries that some of the leading lights of the profession are not living up to expectations.
Why exactly are Alvin Plantinga and Tom Nagel reviewing each other? And could we have expected a more dismal intellectual result than Plantinga on Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in the New Republic? When two self-perceived victims get together, you get a chorus of hurt: For recommending an Intelligent Design manifesto as Book of the Year, Plantinga moans, “Nagel paid the predictable price; he was said to be arrogant, dangerous to children, a disgrace, hypocritical, ignorant, mind-polluting, reprehensible, stupid, unscientific, and in general a less than wholly upstanding citizen of the republic of letters.”
My heart goes out to anybody who utters such a wail, knowing that he is himself held in precisely the same low esteem. My mind, however, remains steely and cold.
Plantinga writes, “Nagel supports the commonsense view that the probability of [life evolving by natural selection] in the time available is extremely low.” And this, he says, is “right on target.” This is an extremely substantive scientific claim—and given Plantinga’s mention of “genetic mutation”, “time available,” etc., it would seem that he recognizes this. So you might hope that he and Nagel had examined the scientific evidence in some detail, for nothing else would justify their assertions on this point. Sadly, neither produces anything resembling an argument for their venturesome conclusion, nor even any substantial citation of the scientific evidence. They seem to think that the estimation of such probabilities is well within the domain of a priori philosophical thought. (Just to be clear: it isn’t.)
Pre-theoretic intuitions are here to stay, so we have to moderate how we think about their evidential role. The metaphysics of modality cannot be dismissed out of hand — we need necessity. But we also need for the idea of necessity to be tempered by our best scientific practices.
The year is at its nadir. November was purgatory, as all Novembers are. But now December has arrived, and the nights have crowded out the days. And an accompanying darkness has descended upon philosophy. Though the wind howls and the winter continues unabated, we can find comfort in patience. Spring cannot be far off.
Issue No.147 of the Philosopher’s Carnival will be hosted by Philosophy & Polity. See you next year.