On Philosophy

June 22, 2007

Philosophy Is Pointless

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Has anyone ever been convinced to change their mind by a rational argument? Surely lots of people say that they are open to having their mind changed by such arguments, but I think that they are lying. When people are presented with a rational argument against a position that they hold they don’t change their minds. First they nit-pick the argument itself. And when that doesn’t work they start challenging the premises of the argument (either explicit premises or premises about the way arguments can be constructed). Eventually you get tired of explaining and defending your premises to them, or they question premises that are so basic that there is really no defense of them. Thus they leave convinced that they have only come across failed arguments against the positions they don’t like, and that really they are open to have their mind being changed by rational argument.

No rational argument then can be constructed to ever change a person’s mind, because we can never get to premises that people must accept. And even if we could we would get bored long before that (the argument would become so long that its very length would make in unconvincing). This is not to say that somehow people are wrong for refusing to allow rational arguments to change their minds. Obviously people subject to such close scrutiny arguments that are for conclusions they object to. But doesn’t that make sense? After all if you subscribe to some claim you must think that you have independent reason to believe that it is indeed the truth in this case. And so you are thus motivated to attack arguments against that position. But, since no argument can succeed without some charity, as shown above, this means that everyone is rationally motivated to, and has the ability to, reject every argument against that which they already believe (I know, this is just re-stating what I have already said). So the only people we should expect a purely rational argument to have an impact on are those who haven’t already formed an opinion on the issue. And such people are rare. (Of course we can use non-rational means to encourage people to change their minds, by encouraging them to like some other claim more, and thus want it to be true instead. But I consider this cheating.)

And philosophy (at least most good philosophy), in its current form, proceeds almost entirely by argument, both to develop positions and to defend them against competing ones. Which means that philosophy can never be effective, it can never generate a consensus, it can never get us to the point where we just accept some of its claims as true and others as false without worrying about them any more (a point other disciplines have already gotten to). This makes philosophy basically pointless. We can’t use it to uncover the truth, because we are unlikely to change even our own minds with a rational argument (and thus what we are arguing for is simply what we want to be true, but not necessarily what is true, no matter how much we manage to convince ourselves that it is true). And we certainly can’t use it to convince other people that something is true, unless they were already motivated to accept it.* But if we aren’t making progress towards the truth then what use is philosophy, except possibly as a weird form of literature?

Well, I guess that’s it, let’s shut down the blog and go home. Not quite. You see I think it is perfectly possible to construct a system in which philosophical theories can be evaluated not by how well they are argued for, but by their content alone. Working within such a system would be more like doing math or science, in the sense that there would be an objective way to compare theories, which does not admit of endless and irresolvable dispute. But of course I cannot motivate anyone to like such a system or to think that it will lead to better theories than traditional philosophy. Of course I have lots of rational arguments for it; this very piece can be seen as one of them. But I don’t expect those arguments to convince people who aren’t already motivated to want to work within such a system. And similarly no one outside the system can rationally expect to convince me to give it up by argument. Which is not to say I don’t expect to hear a lot of disagreement, just that the disagreement won’t yield anything on either side. Those who disagree with me won’t change my mind, and I am unlikely to change their minds.

Now this is not to say that I am giving up discussing philosophy in a more traditional context (I certainly doubt doing that would fly at my dissertation defense). It’s just that within that context all such discussions can serve to do is explore ideas and the connections between them. Which may be of some inspirational value; but I do not think that such explorations have the potential to resolve anything.

(Expect a companion piece in a few days that tackles some of these ideas from the standpoint of my work on method.)

* This answers the age-old question: why are philosophical problems never resolved?

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