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?



  1. I used to believe strongly in the idea of free will as quantum randomness, but after considering the issue more and hearing more arguments, I reversed my position and became a compatiblist. Then I heard Kant’s explanation of free will and admitted that there could be such a thing as free will in the sense he explained, even if the usual folk senses of free will are bunk.

    I go back and forth on the existence of the Forms a lot.

    Reading what you’ve written about ethics and seeing the criticisms of it is actually making me back away from the idea of ethics as community norms, which I was leaning towards before.

    There are more positions I shift around on as I hear new arguments, but those came to mind first.

    Also, it’s kind of ironic that someone as anti-Spinozan as you seem to be is basically saying, “Well, philosophy is boned. Let’s just make some systemic assumptions then try to derive things from them instead.”

    Comment by Carl — June 22, 2007 @ 12:59 am

  2. Not dervie things from them; I think that we need to create an objective way to evaluate claims independantly of the arguments for them.

    Note also: I’m not claiming that people never change their minds, I’m claiming that the reasons that they do so aren’t completely rational since no rational argument can ever provide iron-clad reason to adopt a position.

    Comment by Peter — June 22, 2007 @ 1:06 am

  3. I’ve responded here.

    By the way: “lots of people say that they are open to having their mind changed by such arguments, but I think that they are lying.”

    That’s a pretty outrageous accusation. I hope you merely meant that you think we’re mistaken.

    Comment by Richard — June 22, 2007 @ 6:31 am

  4. If we disagreed with you on this, would you take it as further confirmation that you are right? What if we managed to convince YOU otherwise?

    Comment by Philip L. Welch — June 22, 2007 @ 9:46 am

  5. Yes I would take that as confirmation, because here was have an argument from the, what I take as pretty obvious, premise that we can’t produce rational arguments from premises that must be accepted, thus if anyone is convinced by rational arengument it is not actually because of their rationality, but because they are moved to accept the argument for reasons that aren’t completely rational. So of course you can contest this claim, but that is my point; despite its rationality the argument isn’t convincing, unless you like the conclusions enough to stop questioning the premises at some point.

    Comment by Peter — June 22, 2007 @ 10:58 am

  6. If positions are like pictures (if they are based upon analogies and the like, and are rooted in our direct but non-verbal experiances) then if philosophical discussions help us to explore the connections between our ideas (our pictures), then what better way (what more objective way) for us to revise our positions (to clarify their obscure strengths and weaknesses), aside from simply chancing upon relevent new experiances (which is great but unreliable) and our clarifying our own ideas (which is often less efficient and reliable)?

    Comment by Enigman — June 23, 2007 @ 2:04 am

  7. “despite its rationality the argument isn’t convincing, unless you like the conclusions enough to stop questioning the premises at some point.”

    Eh? My linked response showed that your argument is (quite blatantly) logically invalid. It’s not a matter of “questioning the premises”; the problem is that the reasoning is no good.

    Comment by Richard — June 23, 2007 @ 2:44 am

  8. But I think that your response is flawed. See: no progress.

    Comment by Peter — June 23, 2007 @ 11:58 am

  9. this is certainly a bizarre thesis. i’m not sure we should look to philosophy for evidence here. we need look no further than everyday life to see that people reason effectively with one another all the time; considering the question at hand with regard to arcane philosophical problems may just muddy the waters.

    that said, if the author really thinks that people are never convinced, i’m not sure any strict argument will suffice to convert him. whether people are or are not susceptible to reason is a simply a matter of experience (you couldn’t ask someone to produce an “argument” to the effect that people fall in love, either; but certainly they do). it’s not peter’s philosophical acuity i would question here, but simply his understanding of ordinary human interaction.

    Comment by connors — June 23, 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  10. “But I think that your response is flawed. See: no progress.”

    Well, you can *say* that, but in the absence of adequate counterargument it should be pretty clear to any observers that you’re simply being stubborn and unreasonable. So, it does indeed appear that your thesis is at least true of yourself — you are truly unresponsive to reason. Thankfully, not everyone is so irrational and close-minded. It makes further conversation with you utterly pointless. So I’ll waste no further time here.

    Comment by Richard — June 23, 2007 @ 6:08 pm

  11. My response was that your counterargument assumed that coherence by itself could track truth, which is a premise I don’t agree with.

    Comment by Peter — June 23, 2007 @ 6:44 pm

  12. Then you misunderstood my counterargument — for, as I explained in turn, it relies on no such assumption.

    Comment by Richard — June 23, 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  13. But it does if it is to have weight against the considerations that motivate me to reject argument. For me: point of philosophy = true philosophical theories. Thus rationality = progress iff rationality leads to truth. You have not demostrated that it does. You said: “you hold a false belief Q, and upon encountering a sound argument to the effect of ~Q, truth maximization requires that you change your mind”. But this can’t work. 1) Truth maximization equally presses you to reject one of the (probably implicit) premises of the argument because 2) You can’t know when you have a sound argument (one that proceeds from true premises) because you can only know the premises are true if they are somehow justified. Which is either a) by argument, which leads to an endless regress, and which thus can’t be the case all the way down. or b) by evidence. However I have never seen a sucessful defense of all the philsophical premises in an argument on the basis of evidence (and I have seen many notable failures). I thought that was all implied by what I said in the post following this one.

    Comment by Peter — June 23, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

  14. “You said…”

    No I didn’t, that was another commenter.

    Here’s your 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.”

    Here’s why it’s invalid: “At most, [Peter’s argument] shows that arguments won’t necessarily rationally convince everyone. It remains an open possibility that some people will indeed be rationally convinced, since they may well be more committed to the truth of the premises than to the conclusion’s falsity.”

    Further, as imperfectly rational beings, our beliefs are full of hidden incoherence. We may fail to notice implications or alternative possibilities. Pointing these out will thus cause us to rationally revise our beliefs, to remove the incoherence. Since I’ve just described a case of rational belief-revision, this is a plain counterexample to your claim that no such revisions are possible.

    “if it is to have weight against the considerations that motivate me to reject argument…”

    You’re changing the subject again. I don’t care whether you “reject argument” — do what you like. What I’ve refuted is your claim that rational belief-revision is impossible.

    Comment by Richard — June 23, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

  15. Sorry about that ,forgot who said what.

    My response to you then would be: All you are doing here is talking about something different than I am. When I am talking about here when I talk about rational argument, I mean argument that it is more likely to bring us closer to the truth, not just arguement that is logically coherent.

    So what you are doing here is rejecting a premise (in this case a defintion) in order to reject the argument. And in this case I reject your rejection of that defintion, because it has nothing to do with my claims regarding wether philosophy can achieve its goal of arriving at true pilosopical theories by argument.

    Comment by Peter — June 23, 2007 @ 11:36 pm

  16. Wow, talk about shifting the goalposts! You started off talking about psychological receptiveness (“lots of people say that they are open to having their mind changed… 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.”), so it’s that which I responded to. Terminological confusions aside, I am glad that we are now in agreement that people can change their minds in response to logical consideration of a coherent argument.

    On to your new question, then: is rational coherence any sort of guide to truth? Is philosophical argumentation truth-conducive? Thus, when we change our mind in response to a coherent argument, is it likely to be an improvement? These are the clear ways of asking the question. (This helps clarify, for instance, that the issue is not really anything to do with human psychology or “open-mindedness”.)

    These skeptical issues are also discussed later in the comments thread to my post. So I won’t bother you further here ;-)

    Comment by Richard — June 24, 2007 @ 2:25 am

  17. That talk about psychological receptiveness: just a retorical device to motivate thinking about the value of the argument in philosophy.

    And I’ll say in brief that nothing will convince me that coherence alone will ever work because I have come accross several internally consistent philosophical systems that contradict each other. Clearly they can’t all be right, but coherence is not guide: it only would guide people to whichever one they currently agree with most, and thus it won’t even guide all people to the same one. Certainly then this is not how we get to true philosophical theories.

    Comment by Peter — June 24, 2007 @ 2:39 am

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