On Philosophy

December 16, 2007

The End Of Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

It is relatively obvious that science as we know it has a good chance of coming to an end at some point. It is possible that the complexity of the universe bottoms out at some point, and, once this complexity has been properly captured in a theory, there will be nothing left to do. Of course that doesn’t mean we would stop using science, naturally we would never do that. But an important component of science is theorizing and trying to come up with explanations for phenomena that refuse to fit into existing models. Science without this theoretical enterprise would be a wildly different sort of thing, so perhaps what I have called the end of science could be more accurately described as the end of scientific investigation, even though there will be many occasions to apply our scientific knowledge to new situations after that point. If science might come to an end in this way could philosophy conceivably meet the same fate in the distant future? Might we reach a point where there is no longer any room for philosophical investigation, and where all that is left for us to do is to apply philosophical knowledge to new situations?

Superficially the answer seems to be “no”. The reason that science could come to an end is because the complexity of the natural world is probably bounded, if we keep peeling back layers we might reach some end point, afterwards there is nothing left to investigate because there are no more layers. We could characterize this as a kind of downwards progress; we examine aspects of nature to find simpler components responsible for them which we theorize about, and investigations into them reveal even simper components, and so on, until eventually we reach the simplest components. Thus our investigations end because they have reached the bottom of the complexity hierarchy. Philosophy, however, deals with the other end of that hierarchy; philosophers are interested in the most complex things, which usually involve people and our relationships with each other. Although there may be a minimum level of complexity in the universe there is certainly nothing that imposes a maximum level of complexity. Thus we might imagine that these infinite possible higher levels of complexity will always give philosophy something more to discover facts about.

While that claim has some plausibility about it I suspect that it is overly optimistic. Not every complex system is the proper object of philosophical study. For example, when we invent a system, however complex, its study is never a philosophical task. Because we have invented it from scratch we have all the information that there is to know about it, and we are completely aware of the rules by which it operates. Thus it is better to turn to mathematics to extract further facts about it. For example, I find it plausible that the entirety of the internet might be more complicated than the psychology of a single individual, and thus it is probably more complicated than the object of philosophical inquiries that focus on individuals, such as the nature of knowledge or the best possible life. But, despite its complexity, the study of the internet is clearly not a task for philosophy. To know anything that there is to know about the internet as a whole (assuming questions about how people interact with the internet are not included) it suffices just to know how the computers that compose it work and how they are connected together, and from those facts anything we wanted to know about, for example, packet routing under particular conditions, could be deduced.

So, while the objects of philosophical study do sit high on the complexity hierarchy, it isn’t the case that philosophy monopolizes that end as science does its. Given the previous reservations it is probably best to characterize philosophy as studying things of high complexity which have emerged without conscious human intervention, and which we thus don’t know all the basic facts about. This is why philosophy is an investigation of those things, and not a pseudo-mathematical enterprise where we begin with a body of axioms and proceed to conclusions; rather philosophy is substantially similar to science in the way it tries out different approaches to tackling its problems in order to find the best solution. So whether philosophy will come to an end depends then on whether there are a finite number of these complex structures that emerge on their own, or whether there will always be more for philosophy to study. Unfortunately determining that is not a transparent problem, because it depends what exactly counts as a new subject of philosophical study. For example, as long as people exist our societies and cultures will continue to change. If we take each particular combination of society and culture as an object of philosophical study then obviously there will always be new things for philosophy to study, and hence philosophy won’t come to an end. But, on the other hand, the real object of philosophical study might be taken to be society and culture in general. Obviously once society and culture in general are understood then turning our attention to particular societies and cultures will simply be a case of applying our existing philosophical knowledge, and not a genuinely new philosophical investigation. Which is the case is not something I can settle a priori. It really depends on the nature of human societies and cultures, and if general principles can be devised which they all fall under then, at least with respect to them, philosophy will come to an end. But, on the other hand, if they all pose distinct philosophical problems for us then philosophy will never reach a conclusion. However, I strongly suspect that when it comes to societies and cultures, and the objects of philosophical study in general, that despite their variations they will always fall under some more abstract category which we can study directly, and thus that in principle it would be possible to bring philosophy to a conclusion by exhausting those subjects.

Obviously I haven’t really argued for the claim that once we have philosophically captured the broader category that specific sub-problems don’t count as genuinely new philosophy. And that may seem to go somewhat against the grain, because topics in applied ethics, and applied philosophy in general, have recently become more popular. This might seem to imply that there is genuinely new work to be done when it comes to moving to specific cases from larger philosophical theses. However, I maintain that this is an illusion, caused by the fact that we haven’t determined what the correct theories about the larger issues are, and by the fact that modern philosophy is somewhat hostile to sweeping claims, and thus it is “safer” to work with applications where an appropriate distance can be maintained with the really controversial topics. It might also be argued that philosophy will never come to an end because it is the job of philosophy to provide new viewpoints, and that we will never exhaust the space of possible perspectives. I do grant that we could always come up with new ways of looking at issues, but I would deny that it is philosophy’s task to provide such viewpoints. Obviously discussing why that isn’t the task of philosophy is too detailed a problem for the present inquiry, but allow me to gesture at the fact that not every viewpoint is equally good, some are more successful at producing an understanding of what we are looking at than others. And since it is philosophy’s job to provide us with understanding philosophy thus properly aims to provide us with the best viewpoint, not a never-ending sequence of different viewpoints. Essentially then I am flatly denying the claim that philosophy is like some art of ideas, and embracing the idea that philosophy as a discipline possesses goals. Obviously a discipline without goals need never end, the discipline of painting, for example, will never exhaust the space of possible paintings, and hence will never come to an end. But a discipline with goals means that there is a possibility of meeting those goals and thus concluding the tasks of the discipline with a successful finish. But, while such a successful finish is possible in both science and philosophy, I maintain, I doubt that they will be brought to a conclusion within our lifetimes, or even within the next several centuries, simply because there is so much work left to be done.

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