On Philosophy

September 27, 2008

What Is Philosophy, And What Can It Do For You?

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 9:32 pm

If there is one thing philosophers agree about it is that philosophers don’t agree about what philosophy is. You might think that philosophers would limit themselves to disagreeing with each other’s theories. But no, they go farther than that, and claim that other philosophers have not only reached the wrong conclusions, but that they have been going about philosophy itself in the wrong way. The best way describe what philosophy is, then, is not to present a single definition, but rather to treat the issue itself as a philosophical problem. In other words we will begin by thinking about intuitive or common sense answers to the question, and, on the basis of problems arising for those answers, motivate some of the more theoretical solutions that have been proposed.

Perhaps the simplest, and least helpful, answer to the question “what is philosophy?” is to point at famous philosophers – to say that it is whatever Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and so on did. And what did they do? Well they did ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, to name the big three categories. And maybe that could serve to answer our question: philosophy is anything that deals with ethics, epistemology, or metaphysics. But things are never so simple. The big three don’t exhaust the topics philosophers deal with. Logic, language, truth, mind, consciousness, aesthetics, the good life, ontology, politics, and culture are also topics that one philosopher or another has turned their attention to. And surely even that list isn’t complete; even if it covers everything philosophers have written about so far there it is likely that new philosophical topics will appear in the future.

But, for the sake of being charitable to this definition, let’s simply assume that we could list all the topics philosophy covers. Even so, it still wouldn’t be satisfactory. Consider the following: what makes religion distinct from philosophy? Religion covers many of the same topics as philosophy. The big three, for example, all find some reflection in religion. Ethics is clearly central to many religions, and inasmuch as they endorse faith and the existence of god they contain claims about epistemology and metaphysics, respectively. But clearly (or at least this is clear to philosophers, if not to the man on the street) philosophy is not religion and religion is not philosophy. The difference, to put it succinctly, is that religion is built on faith and dogma while philosophy is not. Philosophy embraces the idea that claims are to be argued for, or at least motivated in some way, and that every theory is subject to criticism and revision. Any satisfactory definition of philosophy will at least rule out faith and authority as a source of philosophical theories.

This motivates us to look for an understanding of philosophy that describes what it does rather than simply lists the topics it studies. This brings us the one of the oldest answers the question: philosophy studies the essence of things. Essence, in this context, is a fancy word to describe “what something is”, and explaining the essence of something often looks a lot like a definition. For example, a philosopher might describe the essence of a chair as “a thing that is for sitting on”. Essences have also been called forms, and occasionally concepts. But, whatever they are called, the idea is that they are abstract objects – they aren’t part of the physical world that science studies. Instead of having physical access to them we have intellectual access to them, it is claimed; we come to know the essence of a thing by reflection, by considering different examples, and by argument. This all sounds good in theory, but in practice problems arise. The theory implies that there is some one essence that all philosophers investigating a particular topic, such as justice, should be describing. However, there is widespread disagreement, not agreement, about what justice is among philosophers. This implies that, at the very least, our intellectual access to these essences is unreliable, and sometimes leads us astray. And, worse, since we have no other way of getting access to an essence, there is no way to tell which philosophers are successfully describing it and which are mistaken. And so the unfortunate consequence of this theory about philosophy is that, while we now know what philosophy is, we also realize that we don’t have any reliable way to pursue a philosophical inquiry or settle a philosophical dispute.

Obviously that’s not a happy situation for philosophy to be in, and wresting with such problems has motivated other understandings of philosophy. Some have seen the problems with the previous approach as stemming primarily from the way essences are disconnected from the physical world. Realizing that philosophy aimed at describing essences produces results that look a good deal like definitions, they suggest that philosophy is really about studying language and clearly defining terms of philosophical interest. This alleviates worries about the unreliability of our intellectual access to the subject matter, because it is clear that we can observe how words are used in a very mundane and ordinary ways. It also solves problems arising from disagreement among philosophers. That disagreement, they might say, is simply a sign that how words are used varies from person to person. But, ideally, the philosopher aims to give a definition that reflects the common understanding of the term; and there is only one right way to do that. Of course this approach is easily mocked by pointing out that under it Webster is the best philosopher, or at least the most comprehensive. Now that is not really a fair attack, there is room for those who subscribe to this approach to argue that the philosophically interesting terms are complex and that Webster’s simple and intuitive definitions miss how the words are actually used. However, when I entertain the idea that the goal of philosophy as being to write a better dictionary with respect to certain terms, it is not clear to me why we should care. People get along just fine without these precise definitions; and it is not clear to me how giving them a precise definition would affect their lives in any way besides changing how they use a term.* The end result of this theory then is that, while it is clear what the task of philosophy is and how it can be accomplished, it is no longer clear why we should bother.

Fortunately that’s not the only way to improve on the idea that philosophy studies essences or concepts. Another way to revise the theory is to move essences or concepts into the mind. Under the modified theory, then, philosophy studies essences (or concepts) that are revealed to us in experience. Again, this resolves both of the major problems facing the previous approach. It should be uncontroversial now how we have intellectual access to essences, since it is uncontroversial that we have access to our own experience. And it also explains why philosophers disagree: how we experience the world varies from person to person. As with the view that philosophy is all about language, the idea that some philosophy is better than others can be preserved under the assumption that the philosopher’s target should be a common form of experience, and not merely a reflection of their own idiosyncrasies. However, we also run into some of the same problems facing the view that philosophy is primarily about language, namely that it is not clear how it matters. It is true that how we experience the world does matter in some contexts: in understanding consciousness, in trying to communicate, and in producing art. However, it seems far too narrow for philosophy. And it also seems like a retreat from several important philosophical questions. For example, explaining why consulting a magic 8 ball is an objectively bad method for forming beliefs seems like the kind of question that philosophy should answer. However, if we confine ourselves to studying only our own experiences (or common forms of experience) the best we can say is that the magic 8 ball is not experienced as or conceived of as having the right qualities to serve as evidence. But this says nothing about why it really, objectively, is a bad idea.

I consider the three previous approaches to be failures in one way or another, as I have described, although this is far from a universally held judgment, and there are many philosophers who are willing to defend them and work under that conception of philosophy. What I see as the fundamental problem with those approaches, behind the specific problems with them, is their fixation on the idea that there is a right answer in philosophy, or at the very least that some philosophy is objectively better than others. If that is true then there must be something that philosophy aims to reflect or describe, such that it can capture it in a better or worse way. Essences, language, and experience are three possible such subjects. The problem with this, however, is that, if there is something worth studying that can be studied in a relatively objective** manner then science has probably gotten there first. Because that is what science does, it studies things in an objective manner as possible. This leaves philosophy either with subjects that no one cares to do a scientific study of (how words are used, the exact structure of experience) or with subjects that can’t be studied in an objective way (essences). Neither is any good.

But if we give up on right/wrong or better/worse in a universal sense then what is left? Wouldn’t moving away from these ideas leave us with an anything-goes approach to philosophy, where every theory, no matter how absurd or new-age, would have to be treated as equally worthy? Consider two hammers. Is there a sense in which one hammer is right and the other wrong, or a sense in which one is universally better than another? No. It is possible, for example, for one hammer to be better at hammering nails while the other is better at being a decorative item. One hammer may be more durable, the other may be a better prop for a movie. But, even so, it is not the case that simply everything is a worthy hammer. My shoe, for example, is not a suitable hammer in any way – of the things we expect of hammers the shoe is always the worse choice. My suggestion then is that we look at philosophy like a tool. Not a physical tool, like a hammer, but an intellectual tool.

But what is an intellectual too, exactly? This brings me to the second question: what can philosophy do for you? In the broadest sense philosophy is a tool for thinking – for thinking clearly and precisely, for drawing helpful distinctions, and for connecting different ideas via chains of argument. Of course while that is generally useful is also very broad, so broad that such skills could probably be learned by other means as well. To be more specific we would have to get into each of the specific topics that philosophers think about, and this isn’t the right place for that. Instead allow me to give just one example. A question that everyone thinks about, or at least should think about is: “what is a good life?”, where good ranges from ethical, to meaningful, to simply pleasurable. Only philosophy really addresses itself to such questions, and this is one way that philosophy can be useful. Many philosophical theories provide a perspective on what the good life is. And we can see that a particular perspective may be better or worse for someone, depending on the values they have, the situation they are in, and culture they are part of. Now you could read philosophy book after philosophy book to find the perspective on what makes a good life that is best for you. That’s probably better than not thinking about the issue at all. However, situations change, as do what people value. And so, just as one perspective on the good life won’t suit everyone, a single perspective on the good life won’t suit someone forever. And so what’s really important to take away from this class is not, for example, Plato’s opinion on how to live, but rather an understanding of how Plato addressed such questions, so that you have the ability to tackle such issues for yourself, as many times as you need to.

* Even when it comes to ethics. If you tell some authoritatively “this is what other people mean by the term ‘right’” and they accept that, and modify their usage of the term to comply, that doesn’t meant that they will also alter their internal measure of right and wrong that guides them, nor does presenting them with this definition give them any reason to do so. In other words, changing how people use terms does not necessarily change how they think about thing, nor is their reason to believe that correcting small deviations from the norm in the way a term is used is beneficial.

** By objective here I mean only that it is possible to come to an agreement, at least in the long run, about which theories are better and worse (i.e. as Peirce would have it).

Adapted from a presentation on 9/26

September 25, 2008

Properties In Context

Filed under: Metaphilosophy,Metaphysics — Peter @ 11:19 pm

I claim that any theory of properties should aim primarily to be a useful intellectual tool; to be an abstraction that covers up the messy details of the world. That there is no one best theory about properties for all people and in all situations is one consequence of that claim. However, it remains to be shown exactly how a theory about properties can be a useful intellectual tool, and the burden of proof rests on me to demonstrate that it can serve as such a tool. Below are some of my notes about how a theory about properties may find applications outside of philosophy, and where one theory may be more useful than another.

1. Properties themselves can be attributed to our need to abstract details from specific situations in order to reason about things in general, and to communicate without each other. Perhaps in the experience of infants, before the conceptual apparatus of language is developed (which brings properties with it in the form of adjectives), objects and events are experienced as unified wholes – without parts and thus without properties. But, as mentioned, without breaking the experience of an object or event up into properties you can’t talk about it (except, perhaps, by pointing), or reason about it, because each experience is wholly unique. Thus the idea of properties itself is a useful abstraction that permeates almost our entire intellectual life. I’d say that’s a pretty useful piece of philosophy.

2. One of the rare cases where we may explicitly invoke the idea of properties outside philosophy is when trying to define something. In attempting to come up with a good definition we self-consciously think about the properties a thing has that makes it unique. Consider a general definition, one that picks out a class of things rather than a particular object. Specifically consider a definition/description of a regular monopoly board, in general. It is reasonable to include “has a space labeled ‘Boardwalk’” as part of our description of what a monopoly board is. But what about a damaged monopoly board, one that is missing Boardwalk? Does it cease to be a monopoly board? The fact that we refer to it still as a monopoly board, albeit a damaged one, strongly implies that it should still count. But yet it is still valid to describe a monopoly board in general as having Boardwalk. When we run into a case such as this having a theory about properties and what they are properties of may come in handy. If the theory you are working with asserts that properties must apply to objects you may be faced with a dilemma. Either you accept that there is some abstract “monopoly board in general” object that has these properties, which is unpalatable, or the properties of monopoly boards in general are properties of each monopoly board, which creates problems in the case of the damaged board. Now these “problems” can be resolved. You could say, for example, that the properties of a monopoly board in general are only properties that most, but not all, monopoly boards have. But then to a question such as “do monopoly boards include Boardwalk?” you must answer “the majority have Boardwalk but a minority may not” when what you want to be able to say is “yes”. Again, the theory is defective here not because we can’t make it do what we want, but because instead of being a useful tool it makes us adopt unusual and unhelpful ways of thinking to make it work. Alternately, if we still want to hold on to the idea that all properties are properties of objects, we could treat “monopoly boards” as a list of properties that individual game boards can fall under – in other words a complicated property that we define in terms of other properties. Again though this leads to the need to jump though hoops to make this approach work in certain situations. Instead of being able to say that monopoly boards are game boards (fall under a more general category), we would have to say that all the individual boards that fall under the category “monopoly board” fall under the category “game board”. There is nothing wrong with this, but it’s not a convenient or particularly useful way of thinking about the situation. Finally, we come to the theory best suited to this situation: properties simply clump together; there are no objects, just property clumps. Under this theory we can take the idea of a monopoly board in general to be its own clump of properties, which is not an object in any normal sense because it lacks properties such as a location in time and space, individual existence, and so on. The relation of particular, possibly defective, boards, to this clump of properties representing the abstraction of a monopoly board in general can de described in one word: “approximates”. Obviously in this case the last approach is far superior to the rest – it provides a consistent framework that allows us to talk about monopoly boards in general, the category’s relation to particular boards, and its relation to larger categories in exactly the way we want, all without committing us to any metaphysical extravagance. Of course that’s just what’s right in this extended example; it may not always be the best approach.

3. The properties-as-clumps versus properties-as-attached-to-objects distinction may also come up when how the properties are related to each other is at issue. The properties-as-clumps picture promotes a view where the properties in the clump are connected to each other, and possibly depend on each other. In contrast the properties-as-attached-to-objects picture promotes a view where the properties are like tags that are stuck to the object, and which can be added or removed without substantially affecting each other. I can think of situations where both perspectives are appropriate. When thinking about a case where the properties in question are closely connected to each other, such as the properties that define someone’s personality, thinking of them as linked together is helpful. It is not the case that you can simply switch off one aspect of someone’s personality or add something new in isolation. The manifestations of an individual personality are interconnected at a deep level, and any change in one aspect is going to have an effect elsewhere as well. And the properties-as-attached-to-objects theory may lead us to think, contrary to this, that we could simply swap out greed for altruism without other changes resulting from the switch. On the other hand, there are cases where properties are like tags stuck to an object – easily added and removed without affecting each other – perhaps literally. In a case like that it would be foolish dwelling on the interconnectedness of properties when they simply aren’t.

4. Another difference between theories about properties is whether different objects can have the same properties. Most theories do provide some way in which the properties of different objects can be described as literally the same. However, there are also approaches in which the properties that are found in individual objects are not the same, at least not in a normal sense; the best that can be said is that they are similar. In most cases the former sort of theories are preferable to the latter. After all the whole point of the abstraction of properties is to abstract and communicate, which would seem to necessitate thinking of properties found in different objects as the same. However, there are cases where we want to emphasize that there are subtle differences, even when the objects in question are described as having the “same” properties, in which case the latter sort of theory is superior. For example, we may be classifying people by personality but at the same time want to keep in mind that Bob’s pacifism is not exactly the same as Charlie’s pacifism.

5. Cases where we need to demonstrate that two objects do in fact have the same property (or where questions of how we know that two properties are the same come up) need a specific kind of approach to properties as well. Any theory that takes the sameness of properties in different objects to be a bare fact will not be helpful. In such cases theories that take the properties found in each object to be essentially distinct and attempt to explain how properties in different objects are similar or fall under the same category are more useful. Because, in doing so, those theories usually outline tests or methods by which the properties of different objects can be compared to see whether they are similar or whether they fall under the same category. And that is exactly what is needed.

6. But what’s wrong with flying by the seat of our pants? Obviously there is an intuitive conception of properties that most people, not having extensive training in philosophy, get by with just fine. Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong about it. I often compare philosophical theories to tools. Using an intuitive conception of properties is like using a rough and unrefined tool – it may get the job done but it isn’t optimal. Generally the rough and ready tool is unsystematic. If we were to analyze it as a philosophical theory it would look like a combination of approaches, each of which is deployed in specific situations. The problem with this is that it may lead to internal contradictions. If you hammer with your tool in one place and it leaves a certain kind of mark and you hammer in another and it leaves a different kind of mark then if you try to put the two together they may not fit. Again, this isn’t an fatal defect, we are always free to fiddle with the results of our unrefined tool to make them fit together, but it is an example of how the unrefined tool can occasionally get in the way. Another, larger, problem with sticking with an intuitive conception of properties is that it simply may not be the right tool for the job. As illustrated above, which approach is best varies from situation to situation. If we are masters of a number of different theories then we are free to pick the one that best suits the task at hand, which will yield the best results more often than always trusting whatever approach we intuitively find ourselves using.

June 11, 2008

A Philosophical Perspective

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:09 am

The world is a complicated place, and we are not psychologically equipped to handle its complexity. It is possible to give a complete description of the human body in terms of the particles that compose it, their states, and velocities. But, while such a description doesn’t leave anything out, it isn’t medically useful, for example. Sure, by knowing the positions of all those particles you could eventually work out how the body in question would change over time, and what effect making alterations to it would have. But by the time that you did that your patient would be long dead of old age. What is medically useful is a higher level of description, one that describes the body in terms of it major systems and their current state, as well as a list of chemicals and the effects they have on those major systems. With such a description it is easy to detect abnormalities and to determine the correct course of treatment. Now obviously this higher level of description isn’t independent from the facts about all of the body’s particles; indeed the higher level description could have been derived by abstraction from those facts. But when it comes to actually getting something done it is often the higher level of description that is desired, even though it leaves information out.

And this is true of life in general. What we need to get around and to accomplish are goals are appropriate high level descriptions; ones that contain only the facts pertinent to our goals and which omit unnecessary detail. For example, when you think about your bank account you conceive of it as a collection of money that you can pull sums out of. But of course physically your bank account is a complicated affair involving a number of databases, and the process of “pulling sums out of it” is a complicated electronic transaction involving all sorts of security measures. But having to think about all those facts whenever you considered whether to withdraw money from the ATM to pay for lunch would be a hindrance, and so you are better served by the abstraction of your bank account as a collection of money. The abstraction is a tool for getting things done, even if it isn’t a perfect representation of reality, and a perfect representation would be an inferior tool.

Something else to note about these higher levels of description is that what makes for a good one is determined by two things. One is the underlying facts about the matter at hand; a description that sufficiently mischaracterizes what is actually occurring will be misleading, and hence a hindrance. The other is the goals of the person employing the description. Someone working with the banking system, for example, would want to work with a description of bank accounts that captures more details about them than “a collection of money” does. That difference is one of an amount of detail. But it is also possible that different goals may be served with descriptions that describe the situation in mutually incompatible ways. Consider the way that capitalism is understood both by capitalists and socialists. Capitalists tend to describe the system in terms that capture its ability to efficiently allocate resources and generate wealth as a whole. Socialists, on the other hand, focus on the ways in which there are disparities between roles within the system (for example, the fact that the owner of capital receives more rewards than labor). Both these descriptions are accurate (or can be made accurate, modulo propaganda); they differ because they capture different facts about the system. Capitalists tend to be interested in maximizing the welfare of society as a whole, and so their description captures the way the system is efficient and wealth generating, i.e. system wide properties. Socialists on the other hand are interested in reducing inequality, and so their description of the system captures the way in which different kinds of people are affected by it. If one of these two groups is wrong it is not that they are inaccurately describing the system (at least necessarily), rather it must be the case that their description is emphasizing the wrong facts about the system, those that aren’t the most important when it comes to evaluating it. (Taking a neutral perspective we could instead say that each group’s description emphasizes the facts that they make judgments about value based on.)

I propose that these higher level descriptions, designed to serve some particular goals, are what philosophy should aim to produce. Although in philosophy we wouldn’t call them descriptions, but rather theories or perspectives. Of course not every high level description counts as philosophy; a medical perspective on the human body or a practical perspective on the banking system do not count as philosophy, for example. The distinction between the two lies, I think, in the degree to which the goals that the description is meant to serve vary. Everyone, or almost everyone, has a vested interest in keeping the human body working and in being able to comfortably deal with their ATM. Thus there is, in a sense, an objectively correct way of describing those systems with respect to these nearly universal goals. Or, perhaps in the case of medicine, it would be best to say that everyone with an interest that requires a description at that particular level of detail about the topic shares the same goals. In contrast philosophical perspectives/theories constitute descriptions that serve goals that not everyone has, and more importantly, some people have orthogonal or conflicting goals that are best served by different descriptions. The descriptions of capitalism and socialism described above are examples of such a philosophical perspective. People disagree about what is important in an economic system and so different descriptions at roughly the same level of detail are needed to serve these different ends.

In a way then philosophy, construed as such, might be considered a kind of opinion. After all when goals differ often we are in no position to say that some of those goals are in error. And thus it is a matter of opinion as to which philosophical perspective is best since it is a matter of opinion which goals we should have (setting aside any theories about which goals we should have relative to our other goals). But, on the other hand, there is an objective matter of fact about the correctness of any particular philosophical perspective, namely how well it serves the goals it was designed to. It is possible to compare two philosophical perspectives about the same topic designed with the same goals in mind and see how well they help fulfill those goals in comparison to each other, empirically if need be. Thus philosophical perspectives live on the border between fact and opinion, and contain a mixture of both.

Allow me to give an example of this principle in action by describing three philosophical perspectives on the nature of color. There are three common theories about what color is. One is that color is part of the phenomenal world (1), that an object being a particular color is to be identified with it causing a certain kind of experience. Thus, under this theory, when it is dark all objects are black, shining a red light on a normally white wall makes the wall red, and in cases of color illusions (such as the apparent changes of color in response to changes in background color) the actual color is being changed. Another perspective is one that identifies color with the light reflected by an object (2). In this case the object’s color is determined by wavelength and number of the photons bouncing off of it. This perspective makes the same judgments as the previous one, except that in the case of color illusions it claims that we are misperceiving the color that is really there. The third perspective is a biological/teleological one (3). Under this perspective a color is identified with a class of surfaces. This can be justified by noting that the way the visual system works to give us color experience (including “illusions” stemming from changes in background) are ways, in normal situations, of matching color to types of surfaces. This is because what matters for survival is not what light is reflected off an object but what object is reflecting the light, and information about the surface itself is most useful in making that judgment. Under this perspective a white wall is still white even when it is illuminated with red light, or when it is completely dark, and color illusions are cases where we are misperceiving color.

None of these theories is an objectively correct or incorrect theory about color. Each of them rests on certain facts about color dealing with the nature of reflected light, the visual system, and correlations with experienced qualia. These facts constrain the perspectives we can propose, but all three perspectives cohere with those facts. Choosing a perspective thus depends on something more, namely what we need a theory of color for. If we are engineers or physicists theory (2) will probably be the most useful. In such situations talk of color often is involved in situations where the discussion is about the spectrum of a star (to determine its age and composition) or where light of certain wavelengths will trigger or be the sign of some reaction. In such situations color terms are most useful as a shorthand for referring to ranges of wavelengths. On the other hand, if we are artists then we are probably best served by theory (1). It doesn’t matter what is really on the canvas, all that matters is what people perceive when they look at it; whether that perception is an “illusion” in some sense is irrelevant. Finally theory (3) probably best serves our everyday interests when it comes to color as a way of differentiating between objects based on their surfaces. If you want someone to hand you the teal book, for example, you don’t want their judgment to be affected by the fact that it is darker than usual or the fact that the teal book is next to very dark books of the shelf. You want them to hand you the book with that particular cover, and you want to be able to refer to that cover in a way that is essentially invariant with respect to conditions external to the cover of the book.

Philosophical elaboration and refinement of all of these perspectives is thus justified since there are groups to whom each is the superior intellectual tool. We can’t criticize such a perspective by claiming that it is factually in error, since it is not making factual claims; if we criticize it we must do so on the grounds that it systematically hinders the interests of its intended group, that some other perspective better serves those same interests, or that it doesn’t have an intended group. This is the same way that we might criticize an ordinary tool, such as a hammer. We could argue that it is a bad tool if it is systematically deficient, if there is some other tool that does the same job better, or if no one needs that particular tool. But it doesn’t make sense to say that the hammer is “wrong” or that the screwdriver is objectively superior to it. (Although you could argue that the engineering facts, which the effectiveness of the hammer rests on in theory, assuming the hammer has never been tested, are wrong. This would be equivalent to arguing that the facts about the visual system or light that the philosophical perspectives discussed previously rest on are wrong.)

Obviously there are many intricacies of this metaphilosophical perspective left to discuss. However one pressing concern that I will finish with, namely whether this theory undermines itself. This metaphilosophical perspective is itself not something that can be objectively “right”, only useful to a group of people. Thus, it might be argued, the door is left open for other perspectives that contradict this one, which claim that a philosophical theory can be objectively right or wrong, and that seems like it might be a contradiction (since to accept such a perspective would logically necessitate rejecting this one). However, just because the possibility exists doesn’t mean that the theory actually contradicts itself. The problem only arises if for some philosopher it would be useful to reject this metaphilosophical perspective and embrace another. However, I claim that the intended group for this metaphilosophical perspective is philosophers as a whole (under the assumption that they desire philosophy to be useful, anyone who doesn’t care about philosophy being useful, and thus valuable, is someone I think can be justifiably ignored, as I would ignore someone who said they were making tools but didn’t care whether the tools could be used). There is an argument, which I won’t discuss here, that this metaphilosophical perspective is the one that renders philosophy most useful, in comparison to the relevant alternatives. Thus this metaphilosophical perspective is in trouble only if we discover some competing perspective on philosophy that is superior (i.e. that by using it the results of our philosophizing become even more useful/valuable), which is not something that we seem to have at hand (the mere possibility that we might make revisions in the future is not enough). And this is exactly how things should be: the theory does not set itself in stone (it does not try to demonstrate its own necessity); rather it is open to the possibility that improvements may be made. Every theory is provisional (scientific and philosophical alike), and I would be suspicious of any theory that claimed to be otherwise.

March 28, 2008

The Purpose of Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Every activity worth doing must serve some purpose. A purpose writ not in the fabric of the universe but in the desires of particular individuals, such that the activity is worth doing for them. The reasoning behind this assertion is simple to explain: if we suppose there are purposes independent of human desires that don’t serve them in some way then it is clear that, objectively speaking, we would be better off ignoring them. (If there were two groups of people, one that ignored such purposes and one that paid attention to them, the first would have an advantage over the second.) Clearly then such purposes are an absurd idea, probably invented, if I may digress, to manipulate people into ignoring what was best for themselves. Of course this account of human activity doesn’t really rule out much; it is broad enough to account for activities that are done because of the belief that they worth doing alone, that is essentially what a fad is. But any activity that persists, I maintain, must serve a certain persistent class of interests. And as philosophy is an activity that persists we can thus ask what the purpose of philosophy is, and what interests it serves, and expect an answer more substantial than “people like doing philosophy”.

Of course that is a highly theoretical question and it may seem a pointless one to ask. After all philosophy does get done, and people continue to be paid for it; for many philosophers that may be enough. And as I have just pointed out philosophy probably serves some purpose, so what is the point in losing sleep over what that purpose is exactly? Well it should be obvious that an activity can be done better or worse. And to determine how well an activity is being done it is necessary to examine how well it is accomplishing its purpose. So if you don’t know what the purpose of what you are doing is then you are essentially lost in the dark, stumbling first in one direction and then another, but never knowing whether you are actually getting somewhere. Similarly, knowing the purpose of an activity can allow us to determine principles about how it should be done. For example, consider a band of proto-astronomers. These proto-astronomers have begun to make discoveries that question certain established religious principles, which some of them may think is a bad thing. This may lead them to question what the purpose of proto-astronomy is. Is it to tell people a comforting story about the heavens? Is it to make accurate measurements about the time of year? Or is it to discover facts about the heavens? Obviously the proto-astronomers are free to pick any of these as the purpose of their discipline, but they can only really pick one because of the possibility of developments that lead to a conflict between them. And which one they pick will determine how they go about their proto-astronomy, because more powerful telescopes are really only necessary if you are interested in astronomical truths. Similarly, the same can be said about philosophy: knowing what the purpose of philosophy is will better allow us to separate good philosophy from bad and it will inform us about how to do philosophy.

One might be inclined at this point to try to discover the purpose of philosophy by looking at how philosophy is actually used. But, unfortunately, most modern philosophy stays confined to the academic world, and thus appears quite useless. This does not imply that philosophy is useless, but rather that the purpose of philosophy is unclear. Our proto-astronomers were in a similar position: they couldn’t extract the purpose of proto-astronomy from what they had already done, rather they were required to give proto-astronomy a single purpose. So, if we have to give philosophy a purpose rather than simply discover one (because, like proto-astronomy, philosophy may already serve some purposes, but things are in such a confused state that extracting one is impossible), then we might start by looking at the purpose of other disciplines to see whether philosophy fits into some established mold.

We can divide human activities by their purpose into three major groups: the practical, the scientific, and the artistic. The practical activities revolve around being able to get something done, such as fix a car or program a computer. Obviously then philosophy is not a practical activity, because nothing gets done through philosophy except philosophy itself. The scientific activities revolve around discovering truths about some subject matter, truths that it is possible to use to better accomplish our goals relating to that subject matter (by giving us the ability to make better predictions or tools). Now obviously philosophy does contain various truths. At the very least “there are some true philosophical claims” is a true philosophical claim, since its negation is a contradiction. And it seems likely that there are other philosophical truths as well relating to what the mind physically is, and so on (or at least they certainly don’t seem like matters of opinion). But, while philosophy does contain such truths, it is implausible to maintain that discovering them is the purpose of philosophy. These truths are almost universally practically worthless; knowing them does not give us any more control over our environment, nor do they help us produce useful tools. Indeed people seem to be able to get along quite well without knowing philosophical truths, since it seems likely that most people don’t know them, nor would knowing them help them out. When philosophers disagree about philosophical truths it is not the case that one of them can be put at a practical disadvantage by their error, as they would be if they were wrong about a scientific truth.

This might seem to imply that the purpose of philosophy must have to do with the third kind of activities identified, the artistic kind. The artistic activities revolve around producing things that immediately give pleasure to people or which entertain them. And it might be argued by some that philosophy is purely a kind of intellectual entertainment. I would disagree, however. I admit that philosophy might entertain or be enjoyable, but the same thing can be said about any written material, such as a book about science aimed at the general populace. But to conclude on the basis of this that the purpose of science is to entertain is to confuse the presentation with the content. And the content of philosophy is incompatible with the idea that philosophy is a kind of art, because the content of philosophy revolves around proposals, objections, and counter-proposals. One cannot, however, object to a piece of art, one can only criticize it or try to make a better piece of art. Similarly, the measure of great philosophy under this view would be its public reception, which would make Ayn Rand a better philosopher than Kant. And that’s a reductio ad absurdum if I have ever seen one. Of course I wouldn’t deny that we couldn’t simply decide that the purpose of philosophy is to be a kind of intellectual art form and proceed to do philosophy on that basis, but the activity that would result would be so alien that it wouldn’t resemble what had previously been called philosophy.

Now just because philosophy doesn’t fit neatly into one of those three categories doesn’t mean that it has no purpose; the categories are not exhaustive. Mathematics, for example, doesn’t fit into them because, properly speaking, mathematics doesn’t contain truths. Admittedly it is natural to speak of mathematical truths, and such language rarely causes confusion, but properly speaking there can only be truths where our statements aim to reflect some external subject matter. But the subject of mathematics is not external to it; rather it is created by it. As Hilbert pointed out there is nothing more to the number one than the properties we define it as having; that is why deduction is the basis of mathematic reasoning rather than induction, the basis of scientific reasoning. The point of mathematics is not its truths then, rather it serves as an instrument to describe scientific truths. And in this way it serves a purpose, indirectly, because correctly capturing scientific truths serves a purpose. But philosophy is not mathematics, a fact easily demonstrated by pointing out that there is more to the subject matter of philosophy, i.e. things such as knowledge and ignorance, than how we formally define them.

What then is left for philosophy to do? If we have all our scientific truths, are entertained, and know how to do the things we want, what more is there? Well, what about what we should do? Not in an ethical sense, although that is probably a part of it, but in the sense of knowing how to put that know-how and those scientific facts to work serving our interests. Suppose you know how to build a bridge and you now what effects building a bridge in various different places will have. Even so, you still don’t know where to build the bridge; to know where to build a bridge requires additional knowledge concerning what interests you want that bridge to serve and how your choice about where to build the bridge will affect those interests. Of course in many cases such knowledge is trivial; it may be your goal to reduce congestion, and thus no special knowledge is needed for your task beyond what you already have. However, when it comes to our larger goals in life, such as happiness, or making the world a better place, often it isn’t obvious how to put our knowledge to work. This, I claim, is the purpose of philosophy, to provide perspectives using which we can better pursue certain of our interests.

Naturally to make that a plausible description of philosophy will require some more words concerning exactly how philosophy can do just that. But let me bracket that problem for the moment and return to an issue I raised when considering whether we could take philosophy to be a kind of intellectual art form. I pointed out that making such a claim about philosophy would be a drastic break with the history of philosophy, so much that it would be misleading to call the discipline that resulted by the same name. What about the idea that philosophy provides pragmatically useful perspectives? Is it too a radical break? I don’t think that it is, although obviously being a particular idea about the purpose of philosophy in a time when the purpose of philosophy is unclear will result in the judgment that some of what has been called philosophy so far isn’t really, or is rather bad philosophy. In general, though, it doesn’t seem absurd to say that historically philosophy has provided perspectives on issues that at least aimed to be compatible with the relevant facts (although they often fell short, to be expected given that we are learning more about the relevant facts). The only remaining question to ask then is whether philosophy survived because these perspectives were found to be useful. I think historically the answer is yes. Obviously philosophers have always fancied themselves to be after special truths that only they could properly address, but that is simply the philosopher’s conceit. Other people, however, have used the works of philosophers as guides for science, politics, and everyday living, among other things. It was because they were found useful, I claim, that philosophy was perpetuated. And while this may not be true of modern philosophy, at least not so much, this is, I claim, because modern philosophy has strayed from its roots and the real purpose of philosophy. Thus I see my claim that the purpose of philosophy is to provide useful perspectives as being a continuation of the historical practice of philosophy, and thus not a radical break with what we have called philosophy up to now, although it is a break with some of modern philosophy.

Still, much remains to be said. It remains to be said how exactly philosophy can go about serving its purpose. It remains to be said how philosophy can be right or wrong, and thus how we can make sense of philosophical objections and responses. And it remains to be said how, exactly, the various philosophical subfields, such as mind, language, epistemology, and so on might be useful. But it is something that won’t be said today.

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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