On Philosophy

November 24, 2007

Sources Of Philosophical Error

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

In philosophy disagreement is common and agreement is rare. And since these disagreements are substantive ones we must conclude that at least some of the parties disagreeing with each other must be in error, if they aren’t all in error. That is an awful lot of error, and it may make us wonder whether we have any hope of arriving at philosophical truths or if we are doomed to essentially make random guesses at what they might be without any hope of confirmation. Since such a high level of error is undesirable it seems reasonable seek out the origins of these errors in order to repair the defects that give rise to them, and so by eliminating them reduce the number of substantive disagreements. Of course it is easy to tell a psychological story about the sources of these errors. Philosophers, we might observe, don’t begin with certain facts and proceed from them to other certain facts. Rather they begin with certain ideas about the way they think things should be and then reason backwards to find simpler premises that justify those claims. Such a process allows every position to be put forward as serious philosophy, since no matter what claim we are considering there are always some simple principles to be found which will support it, although whether these simpler principles are any good is a different question. But these psychological sources of error are not our targets; psychological errors can never be eliminated, investigators in every subject often proceed in ways we wouldn’t rationally endorse. However, we expect there to exist certain sanity checks, that the way the claims are presented and pursued formally forces them to be satisfactorily supported, making the matter of how we actually got to them irrelevant.

Thus what we are really looking for is some defect in the formal practice of philosophy that allows mistakes rooted in psychology to look the same as philosophically justified positions to an unbiased observer. Because in disciplines that don’t suffer from such widespread error it is usually the case that given any two claims it is pretty easy to establish in an objective way which one is better warranted than the other, and thus, while someone could put forward a claim justified only by a vague sense of what was right, it probably wouldn’t be taken seriously. Given the way philosophy is usually pursued we can say that this problem must either result from an ambiguity in the way conclusions are drawn from premises or in which premises are acceptable. Obviously debates do arise about which conclusions really follow from a set of premises, however I get the feeling that this is not really the root of the problem. Such arguments arise in the first place because someone is attempting to refute some position by constructing a reductio for it, and defenders of that claim come forward and try to show that the reductio doesn’t really follow. But the reason that such endeavors are even attempted is because of the very problem that we are trying to address here, that we lack any kind of objective way of separate the correct from the incorrect philosophically. This means that the only remaining option if we wish to show that a certain position is incorrect is to try to defeat it from within, to show that it simply can’t be true. Naturally if we fix the underlying problems it will still be possible to make deductive mistakes, but I simply don’t see such mistakes as really being a significant problem, and outside of the context of refutation by reductio there is usually a consensus, or close to it, concerning which consequences follow from which assumptions. Therefore the real problem seems to be in determining which assumptions are acceptable and which aren’t.

But philosophers consider themselves rational and so clearly they don’t just begin with an arbitrary set of assumptions, they think that their assumptions are reasonable, such that anyone who disagreed with their assumptions would be wrong. (And obviously every philosopher thinks that, despite the fact that they all begin with different assumptions.) Now sometimes these assumptions are simply put forward as “obvious”, but I think it is obvious that “obviousness” is insufficient. People disagree about what is obvious, and there is a history of things that appear obvious at first later turning out to be wrong. Perhaps because of this “obviousness” is often cloaked, sometime with words such as “conceptual analysis”. But not every philosopher feels comfortable leaving their assumptions unexamined. Clearly the assumptions can’t be supported by deduction, since that would leave us with more assumptions, so they must be justified by contradiction, by showing that it is impossible in some way to reject them. Sometimes this is simple logical impossibility, showing that the assumptions are in some way tautologies, but more often it is the case that their contradiction is shown to make some obvious or well known fact impossible. For example, sometimes assumptions are supported because it is claimed that without them it would be impossible to have knowledge, that if things weren’t as claimed that we would be unable to know any facts. Or possibly that it would be impossible for us to communicate, to be conscious, or for the world to exist. Again the claim that certain facts are “obvious” has slipped in, but this time I think it is slightly more acceptable, because these seem more the of the kinds of facts that we can be certain of if we can be certain of anything at all.

Unfortunately proceeding in this way brings with it its own problems. Foremost among them is that often the supposed contradiction between the negation of an assumption and some obvious fact rests on a lack of imagination. It is claimed that the obvious fact simply couldn’t be the case were the assumption not to hold, but this presumes that we have surveyed all the other reasons the obvious fact might be the case and determined none of them to have been sufficient. For example, some would have once claimed that knowledge is impossible without completely certain foundations from which the deduction of facts might proceed from, and thus that they are warranted in assuming such foundations exist. But we now know that there are plenty of other possibilities, and that knowledge may not come about deductively at all, completely eliminating the need for such foundations. This goes hand in hand with the other mistake inherent in such arguments from contradictions, namely that too much gets read into what is obvious. I will grant that it is obvious that we have knowledge, but it is not obvious what knowledge is exactly. And often to show that the assumption must be true given some obvious fact a particular understanding of terms such as “knowledge” or “experience” or “existence” is leaned upon. All this does, effectively, is sneak in a new assumption, about what knowledge or its equivalent is, but which is not acknowledged as an assumption.

But if we aren’t to defend our assumptions using reasoning from contradiction, or something similar, it isn’t clear how we are to justify them at all. And I do think it is a bit hasty to throw contradiction our completely. It might be possible to use contradiction profitably if we pay attention to exactly what is obvious, resisting over-interpreting those facts, and if we considered the strict logical negation of our assumption, which obviously encompasses or is part of any alternative proposal, we might be able to avoid those pitfalls. On the other hand, it may not be unambiguous when exactly we have proceeded within those limitations, and when we aren’t being blinded by our lack of imagination. Moreover, such failures of imagination can be dangerous in other ways, they can lead us to erroneously lean on certain hidden assumptions, because we simply can’t imagine them being false, or to make mistakes about what follows from a fully acknowledged premise, for similar reasons.

The fundamental source of philosophical error thus seems to be the deductive method itself, the idea that we proceed to philosophical conclusions on the basis of an argument from premises. This observation complements another I made on a previous occasion, that deduction can’t arrive at any genuinely new knowledge, that anything new must come from additional premises. Thus we might be motivated to simply reject deduction as a way of establishing anything philosophically substantive. But, unfortunately, it is not clear what we should replace deduction with, all we can really say is that, whatever the replacement is, it must not proceed on the basis of some foundation, otherwise the problems with the deductive method will simply crop up again. Of course there may be no suitable replacement, but in that case significant philosophical progress might simply be impossible, because there would be no objectively sound way of determining which previous philosophies are worth building something more off of and which can be safely ignored, and thus every philosopher would find themselves starting from scratch again.

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