In a forthcoming book for Chicago Press I suggest that it is actually significantly more difficult than one would think to make precise sense of the idea of progress even in science (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course!). But for now I have explored a specific aspect of the charge that philosophy doesn’t make progress, in two essays that appeared recently at The Philosophers’ Magazine online.
The suggestion put forth by critics of philosophical inquiry is that philosophers — unlike scientists — cannot agree on the answer to certain questions within their own field of expertise, which must mean that there is no answer to those questions, or at the very least that philosophers are incapable of settling on the best one.
But the model of progress in philosophy I put forth in the forthcoming Chicago volume is that philosophy (and math, and logic) work differently from science (and from each other) when it comes to the whole idea of “making progress.” Specifically, I suggest that philosophy is in the business of exploring a conceptual (as opposed to an empirical, as in the case of science) landscape whose parameters are determined by the specific question at hand. Within that landscape, “progress” can mean two things: either the discovery (or invention) of a new “peak,” corresponding to a good framework to think about the question under examination, or the refinement over time of an already discovered/invented peak.
This sounds pretty abstract, so let me give you a specific example. Suppose the question under examination is: what is the best way to think about ethics, or to resolve ethical issues? Progress here has been made by philosophers in both of the above senses: on the one hand, they have identified a number of possible coherent answers (“peaks” in the conceptual landscape defined by the question), including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, ethics of care, communitarianism, and a number of others. On the other hand, they have then refined their understanding of each of these peaks: in virtue ethics, we can be Aristotelian or Stoic, for instance; utilitarians can follow the early version proposed by Bentham, the more refined one put forth by Mill, or some of the more recent ones, such as Peter Singer’s. All of this, I submit, should count as progress.
But, and here is the rub as well as the point of the two TPM articles mentioned above, conceptual spaces can — and generally do — yield more than one viable peak, and sometimes (indeed, often) it just isn’t the case that one peak is “higher” (more fit, to use an evolutionary metaphor) than another one. And this is different from the case in science, where — presumably — there is just one world out there and therefore just one correct answer to how it works (regardless of whether our theories about and empirical access to that world are in fact good enough to find such an answer).
For instance, if the question is whether or not there are subatomic particles that make up atoms’ nuclei, then there is a definite and correct answer (yes, we call them quarks). But if the question is what is the best way to think about ethics, one can argue that virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism are all acceptable answers, each with its pros and cons. (And the same goes for sub-types within each peak: e.g., Aristotelian vs Stoic virtue ethics.)
Therefore, it is not surprising that philosophers hold a number of contrasting opinions on crucial issues regarding their field of expertise. But they don’t hold a large variety of opinions, nor are these opinions all weighed equally within the community — as one would expect if my model of progress in philosophy is correct.
The first TPM essay sets up the background just summarized above and then uses an interesting paper by David Bourget and David Chalmers that actually quantifies the agreement or lack thereof among professional philosophers on a number of philosophical questions. Here are some examples:
- 71% of respondents thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so (the remainder falls under the usual heterogeneous category of “other”). There is a clear majority here, despite ongoing discussions on the subject.
- One of the most lopsided outcomes of the survey concerns what epistemic attitude is more reasonable to hold about the existence and characteristics of the external world: 82% of respondents qualified themselves as realists, followed by only 5% skeptics and 4% idealists.
- Physicalism is dominant in philosophy of mind (57%), while cognitivism seems to be the preferred way to go concerning moral judgment (66%).
The second essay uses the same Bourget-Chalmers paper to look at the correlation structure within the data, for instance:
- If a philosopher is a moral realist, she is also likely to be an objectivist about aesthetic value. Interestingly, moral realists also tend to be realists in philosophy of science, and Platonists about abstract objects. It is perfectly sensible to reject moral realism in meta-ethics (44% of philosophers do), but — if one is a moral realist — then one probably should also consistently embrace realism in other areas of philosophy as well, which is exactly what happens according to the data.
- In philosophy of science, realism (i.e., the idea that scientific theories describe ontologically “thick” unobservables out there, like electrons) beats anti-realism (i.e., the view that scientific theories are empirically adequate, but that they do not commit us to any strong ontology), by a large margin, 75% to 12%, which is consistent with my own view (I’m a philosopher of science!) that, although anti-realists do have good arguments, the preponderance of considerations clearly favors realism.
- If a philosopher finds kinship with Aristotle, she is also probably a virtue ethicist, according to the data.
- In political philosophy, if John Rawls is your guy, you are more likely to be a communitarian.
And so forth. So at the very least one can confidently conclude (empirical data in hand!) that the popular view that when philosophers disagree on something, there will be n+1 opinions being put forth about whatever subject matter, where n is the number of philosophers opining about it, is simply false. And that’s because philosophers do make progress in rejecting bad ideas, keeping good ones, and then refining them as far as it is possible.