On Philosophy

August 22, 2007

The Insecurity Of Philosophers

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

There are some who have characterized the argument as a form of violence. Winning the argument thus meant that the winner was more powerful. And, following this model, truth is then identified with power. Unfortunately for proponents of these ideas they don’t win many arguments, which must make them wrong. But inside this foolish business of identifying truth with power is a kernel of an idea that has some merit. It is true that an argument is not a method of investigation but a method of manipulation. You do not argue with people to find out the truth, you argue with them to attempt to change their minds.

The defenders of the argument naturally will wish to deny that it is just manipulation. While they might admit that argument is partly a form of manipulation they will also want to maintain that it somehow brings us closer to the truth as well. I will grant that it is possible for an argument to reveal internal contradictions within a position. But beyond that the argument seems powerless to track the truth. An argument between two different parties essentially reduces to one party asserting that a claim made by the other party contradicts certain premises. That party responds by either disputing the premises, disputing that the premises contradict their claim, or, least frequently, admitting that they are wrong. And this continues usually until both parties reach premises that they are unwilling to concede, but are unable to offer reasons for. How does this bring either of them closer to the truth? When agreement is reached it is only because the two parties have reached shared premises, but unless these premises are evidence backed claims (which I have never seen a philosophical argument reduce to) then there is no reason to believe that these premises are true. Often commonly shared premises have turned out to be false. For example, the premises that the Earth stands still, or is flat, or that the ruler is a descendant of the gods were once common, but have turned out to be poor foundations. And at one time we could have won many arguments by leveraging these premises to our advantage, but by using these premises we would have been manipulating people into having false beliefs not true ones. So whether an advocate of a position wins or loses an argument against an advocate of another position doesn’t tell us anything about the truth of those positions, rather it tell us which position better fit the most strongly held beliefs of those advocates.

Of course I would not deny that argument is necessary at times for practical reasons. One engineer may engage another in argument because they think the airplane being designed won’t fly, and wants to manipulate the other engineer into fixing the problems. I may argue with my friends about which foods are healthiest, because I want to manipulate them into being healthier. And scientists may argue with creationists because they don’t want children being taught bad science. All these cases have two things in common. First they are situations in which the beliefs of people have immediate practical consequences. And secondly they are situations in which at least one party is working under the assumption they are correct and thus, motivated by their knowledge, are trying to affect other people to achieve a better outcome. In none of these cases are we after the truth, we assume that we already have the truth; what we are after is a change in the behavior of other people.

Which makes argument in the context of philosophy perplexing. The vast majority of philosophical positions have no practical consequences. Adopting a position on rigid designators or whether change is an illusion has no significant practical consequences. More importantly if we philosophers are interested in uncovering the truth clearly we shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that we are correct (since naturally that blocks our ability to discover that we are wrong). Which means that we have no good reason to argue about philosophical claims, as argument is just as likely to move us, or other philosophers, towards false beliefs as it is towards true beliefs, and there are no pressing practical reasons to get people to change their minds. This leads me to believe that philosophers primarily argue for bad reasons (which are rarely explicitly conscious). I think philosophers argue primarily because they are insecure. Most philosophers want to know which philosophical theories are true. They have some opinions about which theories are most likely to be true, but unlike scientists have no way to firmly ground those beliefs. A scientist can have a pile of data supporting their positions, and thus a scientist can be fairly confident that they are right. But philosophers do not have this luxury and are thus naturally insecure, and, irrationally, feel more secure (feel more confident that the positions they endorse are true) if more people share those positions (even though the majority has never been the best tracker of truth). Thus philosophers argue for their positions for the worst reasons, because they want to encourage people to share them in order to bolster their own confidence in them, and not because the argument actually serves a valid philosophical purpose.

Obviously I am not trying to say that philosophers can never interact on an intellectually honest foundation. It is perfectly possible for philosophers to just listen to each other, and thus become better philosophers by having a wider selection of philosophical theories to consider and develop new theories on the basis of. It is also possible for philosophers to work together to develop new theories in areas where neither of them has an existing opinion, thus achieving a genuine pooling of talent rather than a struggle. If philosophers were builders such interactions would be construction workers lending a hand with each other’s building projects, or jointly erecting a structure on some new plot of land. But an argument is like two construction workers trying to build different structures on the same plot of land by tearing down the work of the other. What you end up with is not a building but a mess.

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