Where Do We Go Next? — I

The future[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” (Søren Kierkegaard)

Philosophy has been declared dead by a number of people who have likely never read a single philosophy paper or technical book, and philosophers themselves have at times been the worst critics of their own field (Chapter 1). The discipline is vast, with a very long history marked by traditions so different from each other that one can reasonably question whether they can meaningfully be grouped under the same broad umbrella (Chapter 2). The field has seen internal revolutions as late as the middle and late part of the 20th century, with some philosophers going so far as claiming that major branches of their discipline ought to be handed over to the natural or social sciences (Chapter 3).

Much of the criticism of philosophy, nowadays as in the time of Socrates, is that it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, it doesn’t make “progress.” Indeed, the reason the comparison with science arises so often is precisely because the latter is taken to be the standard of progressive fields of inquiry. And yet, even though it is certainly undeniable that science has made sometimes spectacular progress, we have also seen just how difficult it is to make precise sense of that observation, an eminently philosophical question if there ever was one (Chapter 4). Throughout the book I have advanced the thesis that philosophy does make progress, but that this ought to be understood in a manner significantly different from the way in which the concept applies to the sciences, and specifically in a fashion more akin — though again not exactly analogous — to the way in which mathematics and logic make progress (Chapter 5). I have suggested we think of philosophy as moving, and making progress, in a kind of (empirically informed) conceptual space, discovering and refining what Nicholas Rescher called aporetic clusters, which are themselves “evoked” — to use Lee Smolin’s terminology — by philosophers’ choices of assumptions and internally generated problems (Introduction). As a result, we should see philosophy as being in the business of proposing “accounts” (i.e., ways of understanding) and “frameworks” (i.e., ways of thinking) of whatever subject matter it applies itself to, as distinct from “theories” in the quasi-scientific sense of the term (Chapter 6).

In order to conclude our exploration of the nature and methods of philosophy, then, this chapter will look both at some new directions of which practicing philosophers ought to be aware (and even critical, when necessary), such as so-called experimental philosophy, as well as the heterogeneous movement known as “digital humanities.” We will also briefly re-examine with fresh eyes the classical toolbox that has made philosophical inquiry what it is, for good and for ill: thought experiments, intuitions, reflective equilibrium, and the like. Finally, we will discuss — quantitative data in hand! — what philosophers think about major issues within their own discipline, thus finding empirical support for the idea that philosophers are concerned with exploring multiple intellectual peaks in a vast conceptual space, where the very issue of finding “the” answer to a particular question will increasingly appear to be a misguided way of looking at things.

The Experimental Philosophy challenge

Most philosophers, and by now even members of the general public, are aware of a “movement” that has developed over the past several years and that is usually referred to as experimental philosophy, colloquially known as “XPhi.” I first encountered it at one of their early meetings many years ago, and as a (then) practicing scientist my initial reaction was very sympathetic. I thought: good, finally philosophers are getting their arse off the proverbial armchair and actually gather facts instead of just thinking about stuff. Now that I have been a practicing philosopher (firmly attached to my nice and comfortable armchair) for a while, I’ve become a bit more wary of some of the loudest claims made by XPhi supporters based on empirical investigations into what people think about a number of philosophical questions, as well as of the value of such findings for professional philosophers. I keep reminding myself that we already have a name for disciplines characterized by inquiry based on the collection of data about human opinions: they are called social sciences, and while they certainly ought to inform philosophers in what they do, they seem to me sufficiently distinct from philosophy that the two should not be confused.

Nonetheless, it would be unwise to reject XPhi without proper examination, especially at a time in which philosophy as a discipline is under attack for its assumed irrelevance and for not behaving like a science. I have had a number of conversations and email exchanges with Joshua Knobe, [1] arguably the most recognizable (and likable!) of the proponents of XPhi, and he tried his best to make me understand why he thinks his movement should be accorded full status as a sub-discipline of philosophy. [2] I cannot possibly do justice to the burgeoning literature (pro and con) XPhi, but a book on the nature and future of philosophy would simply be woefully lacking if it didn’t briefly engage with the issue. I begin, therefore, with a very clearly written survey of the methods and accomplishments of XPhi by Knobe et al. (2012; it is interesting to note that the paper was published in the Annual Review of Psychology).

Knobe and colleagues begin the paper by stating that “a guiding theme of the experimental philosophy movement is that it is not helpful to maintain a rigid separation between the disciplines of philosophy and psychology.” This, of course, is pure Quine (Chapter 3), and — as stated before — I doubt anyone can come up with a sensible objection to that general principle. The real questions concern: a) whether this move leaves sufficient autonomy to philosophy to maintain it as a distinct field of inquiry; and b) if so, what novelties or insights does the psychological approach provide into philosophical problems. Which is the very point of the review in question, a point articulated by its authors via a series of examples of philosophical issues to which they feel XPhi has contributed by means of experimental approaches. Let us therefore examine the four case studies proposed by Knobe et al. and see what we may reasonably make of them.

Case Study 1: Morality and concept application

XPhi researchers have explored how laypeople react to a number of standard hypothetical situations concerning moral judgment, such as the ones encapsulated by the following two standard scenarios:

(a) The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also help the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about helping the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was helped. Did the chairman intentionally help the environment?

(b) The vice president of a company went to the chairman of the board and said, “We are thinking of starting a new program. It will help us increase profits, and it will also harm the environment.” The chairman of the board answered, “I don’t care at all about harming the environment. I just want to make as much profit as I can. Let’s start the new program.” They started the new program. Sure enough, the environment was harmed. Did the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

The authors found that people respond asymmetrically to these hypothetical scenarios, saying that the chairman unintentionally helped the environment in the first case, but intentionally harmed it in the second one. While these results are interesting in terms of understanding how people’s moral judgments are deployed, one can still sensibly ask what bearing do they have on the philosophical question of the moral status of the chairmen in the two examples. Presumably (I am speculating from my armchair here!), a trained moral philosopher will see that said chairman did, in fact, unintentionally help the environment in the first scenario (and thus gets no moral credit for his decision) while also understanding that the harm caused to the environment in the second case was intentional, but secondary (the primary motive wasn’t harming the environment, it was making a profit, but the chairman was warned of the environmental consequences of his actions). Of course we don’t know what most moral philosophers would say because the XPhi researchers didn’t carry out the proper experiment — which should have been done on philosophers, not members of the general public, assuming that the goal was to advance our understanding of ethics, not to run a survey of laypeople’s uninformed opinions. (Also notice that I gave reasons for my “intuitions” concerning the two cases. These reasons could in turn be subject to further scrutiny, and so on.)

Case study 2: Moral objectivism vs moral relativism

Here again, the empirical data gathered by the XPhi program is interesting, as it shows, for instance, that young and elderly people tend toward moral objectivism (the proposition that moral statements are objectively true or false), while people of intermediate age reason in more relativistic terms (the idea that moral statements are a reflection of local customs and habits). Again, however, this sort of evidence seems to be pretty much orthogonal to whether and how objectivism or relativism are philosophically defensible at the meta-ethical level.

XPhi researchers have also shown that “framing,” that is, how exactly a question is presented to respondents, makes a difference when people are asked to exercise a given moral judgment. For example, if a hypothetical scenario is presented in which two agents arrive at different moral judgments on a specific issue while belonging to the same culture, most respondents say that one of them must be wrong. However, if the two agents are postulated to belong to very different cultures, and yet also arrive at distinct judgments on the same issue, then most respondents say that both views may be correct. I would hope, however, that no serious (professional) ethicist would engage in that sort of shifting judgment, certainly not without a detailed analysis of what exactly the agents were disagreeing about and whether the disagreement is or is not amenable to reasonably different cultural stands.

Case Study 3: Free will

The experimental results concerning this old chestnut of metaphysics indicate that people tend to attribute moral responsibility to agents when a strong emotional response is elicited, even though they are told that such agents operate in an entirely deterministic universe. Again, however, how many moral philosophers, or metaphysicians, I wonder, would make that sort of naive mistake?

Knobe et al. claim that “the results shed light on why philosophical reflection and debate alone have not led to more universal agreement about the free will problem.” I don’t see how this follows from the results at all. The disagreement about free will among professional philosophers can be much better understood as deriving from the fact that the three major positions on the subject — deterministic incompatibilism, libertarian incompatibilism and compatibilism (see Griffith 2013 for a brief accessible survey; for a more in-depth survey see: O’Connor 2010) — occupy three peaks in conceptual space that are all defensible in the absence of crucial empirical evidence, though I would say that they are not all equally defensible, for instance because determinism increasingly seems the correct metaphysical view, thus excluding libertarian incompatibilism. This state of affairs is altogether different from the (confused) reasons why laypeople disagree and even contradict themselves on free will, a topic to which they do not typically devote a lot of time for reflection (well, actually that truly is an empirical question, I’m just guessing here).

Case Study 4: Phenomenal consciousness

Here XPhi researchers have explored what happens when people make the judgment that an object or potential agent does or does not possess the capacity for phenomenal consciousness as distinct from cognition. For instance, respondents tended to rate babies high on a scale of consciousness but low on cognition, while they rated gods inversely (i.e., high on cognition, low on consciousness). However, since we know nothing at all about gods, while we can actually do empirical research on children, it is hard to see why this counts as a genuine philosophic conundrum, as distinct from an interesting insight into human psychology.

Related research shows that people use different cues to arrive at an attribution of consciousness, especially behavior and embodiment. For instance, corporations and robots — both of which lack a biological body — tend to be regarded by most people as the kind of thing that does not have phenomenal consciousness. Again, though, I’m reasonably confident that a professional philosopher would never attribute consciousness to a corporation, while the issue for biological vs artificial bodies is very much one alive in both philosophy of mind and neuroscience. The crucial question, as far as we are concerned here, is whether the latter problem is actually informed by the (interesting, for sure) fact that people who know nothing about philosophy of mind or neuroscience tend to have this or that opinion about it.

As I mentioned above, the debate about the relevance of XPhi to philosophy is still raging, and it is easy to find a number of position papers on the positive side, and a number of negative commentaries on the other. Here I will briefly sample two recent commentaries, a negative one by Timothy Williamson (2013) and a more positive one by Alan Love (2013). The reason these two contributions are interesting is because, while they both refer to the same book (Alexander 2012, though Love also reviews another volume by Cappelen (2012), which is itself critical of XPhi), together they manage to capture my own range of reactions to the very idea and practice of XPhi, which could be summarized as follows: it’s an interesting idea, and I’d like to keep an open mind about it; but the proof is in the pudding, and so far much of the literature on XPhi seems to be interesting for social scientists but a bit of a side issue for philosophers.

Let us begin with Williamson, then. For him, philosophers have always accepted the idea that empirical findings are relevant to their interests. For instance, quite obviously, scientific experiments testing the theory of Special Relativity bear on philosophical discussions of time. Or consider how split-brain experiments in neuroscience inform philosophical discussions about personal identity. The list is a very long one indeed, but of course the idea of XPhi is to train the microscope onto philosophy itself, so to speak. Yet, Williamson points out that in a sense the XPhi project is not new, citing the example of Arne Næss sending out questionnaires about the concept of truth in the 1930s, or discussions about the relevance of philosophy of language to the way language is actually used back in the 1950s. In fact, I would say that we can push all the way back to Hume for a clear forerunner of XPhi. After all, he wished to turn philosophy upside down and remodel it after the very successful natural philosophy practiced by the like of Newton. The fact that Hume himself didn’t do any experiments did not stop him from proposing his famous “fork,” according to which only books containing mathematics or empirical evidence are worth not being burned (has it has been observed time and again, Hume’s own treatises would not survive the fork, which would be a shame for the world’s literature).

Williamson then takes on a perennial workhorse of XPhi criticism of philosophical practice: the use (and abuse) of intuitions. I will return to this crucial subject in more detail below, but for now suffice it to say that Williamson suggests that philosophical “intuitions” are a kind of judgment, their nature being not very different from that of judgments made in everyday life or in the natural sciences, i.e. a type of non-explicit inference (which can, however, be made explicit upon request). This being the case, a good deal of XPhi’s criticism of the practice of contemporary philosophy loses at the least some of its bite. Alexander, the target of Williamson’s criticism, argues that further empirical evidence needs to be brought forth any time a philosopher deploys an intuition as a starting point for a discussion, in case someone is not convinced by, or does not share, that intuition. But, replies Williamson, this is true for any premise at all, regardless of whether it plays a role in philosophical, scientific, or everyday discourse — and quite independently of whether we label that premise with the word “intuition” or not.

As we have seen above, a standard response to XPhi criticisms of philosophical practice is that the judgments of experts (i.e., philosophers) about philosophical questions is a different matter from, and more reliable than, the judgment of laypeople, which tend to be the overwhelming (though, lately, not exclusive) target of XPhi studies. When XPhi exponents like Alexander counter that this leads one into a regress because there is no guarantee that expert judgment is reliable, Williamson and others can reply that that criticism risks sliding into a generic skeptical argument, since no discipline can offer that sort of guarantee of what its properly trained experts say.

My friend Alan Love’s take on XPhi in general, and on Alexander’s book in particular, is more charitable than Williamson’s, and may in fact point toward a constructive way for XPhi supporters and critics to move forward. Alan begins by suggesting that it is instructive to ask ourselves what “image” of science XPhi actually uses, and whether such image does a good job of translating into the sort of activity that is embodied by philosophical inquiry.

Much hinges, again, on the issue of deployment of intuitions in philosophy. For Alexander (2012) philosophers use intuition all the time, especially as “data” to “test” their notions, but for authors such as Cappelen (2012) philosophers hardly use intuitions at all. Cappelen thinks that the appearance of the word “intuition” in talks, papers and books by philosophers is epiphenomenal, as Love puts it: i.e., much of what philosophers say could be rephrased without calling on intuitions at all, and stand just the same. In some cases philosophers say things like “it is intuitive that” as a shorthand for something they won’t argue for on that occasion, but instead use as a starting point for whatever follows. The implicit statement being that one can always go back and argue for that premise, or even check the matter out empirically, if need be.

Given this discrepancy, according to Love, XPhi adopts a particular “image” of science in order to compare it to what philosophers do (and find the latter wanting), namely that of an activity based on hypothesis testing and theory confirmation. Interestingly, this image is widely emulated in the social sciences (from which XPhi takes its inspiration), but Love correctly points out that philosophers of science have uncovered more than one image for science (e.g., Godfrey-Smith 2006; Wimsatt 2007), an alternative being that of an activity that aims at exploratory inquiries in order to characterize natural phenomena. Alan then suggests that philosophy is better seen as a conceptual equivalent of this exploratory activity, rather than one engaging in hypothesis testing.

This observation, I believe, is a potential breakthrough in the debate, as it naturally leads to a pluralistic view of how philosophical inquiry proceeds: it deploys a number of tools (including XPhi) to explore whatever territory is of interest. It also means that it is fruitless to look for methods or questions that are “eminently philosophical in nature,” as philosophy is not a natural kind (any more than science is, really), and it is best thought of as contiguous to (but not subsumed into) science, with an emphasis on conceptual rather than empirical space — essentially what I’ve been arguing throughout this book.

Love also points out that old canards such as “philosophy always deals with the same questions” are really red herrings. For instance, biology has been dealing with the problem of how embryos develop from the time of Aristotle (the same old question: Lennox 2011), but of course a number of very different ways of framing and tackling that question have seen the light between the History of Animals and modern research in evolutionary developmental biology (Müller & Newman 2005; Love 2009). Analogously, says Love, “We might characterize philosophical problems as stable with respect to certain themes but changing with respect to their shape and structure.” He explicitly arches back to James’ conception of philosophy (Bordogna 2008) as captured in the following quote: “philosophers should live at the boundaries of disciplines, being perpetually nomadic and constantly inserting themselves into the methodological business of other disciplines through appropriation and criticism.”

In the end, I too favor an “image” of philosophy that is distinct from yet contiguous with that of science, and where philosophers are not so much into the business of producing testable theories but rather to articulate useful “accounts” or frameworks to move debate forward on this or that particular issue. XPhi certainly does have the potential to contribute to that conversation, and should most definitely not be dismissed out of hand. But talk of “movement” and publication of position papers should probably be superseded by run of the mill positive contributions to the philosophical literature, to be evaluated on their own merits by philosophers who are engaged with the specific questions, from free will to the nature of consciousness and so forth.

Notes

[1] Joshua has also graciously agreed to be on my Rationally Speaking podcast, where he made several of his points very cogently.

[2] As an aside, I’m not sure why XPhi — and, as we shall see, the Digital Humanities — label themselves as “movements” rather than methods or approaches. I feel that talk of “movements” unnecessarily fuels an adversarial stance on both sides of these debates.

References

Alexander, J. (2012) Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. Polity Press.

Bordogna, F. (2008) William James at the Boundaries: Philosophy, Science, and the
Geography of Knowledge. University of Chicago Press.

Cappelen, H. (2012) Philosophy Without Intuitions. Oxford University Press.

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2006) The strategy of model-based science. Biology & Philosophy 21:725–40.

Griffith, M. (2013) Free Will: The Basics. Routledge.

Lennox, J. (2011) Aristotle’s biology. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 27 August 2014).

Love, A. (2009) Marine invertebrates, model organisms, and the modern synthesis: epistemic values, evo-devo, and exclusion. Theory in Bioscience 128:19–42.

Love, A. (2013) Experiments, Intuitions and Images of Philosophy and Science. Analysis Reviews 73:785-797.

Müller, G.B. and Newman, S.A. (2005) The innovation triad an EvoDevo agenda. Journal of Experimental Zoology 304B:487–503.

O’Connor, T. (2010) Free will. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed on 25 August 2015).

Williamson, T. (2013) Review of Experimental Philosophy: An Introduction. By Joshua Alexander. Philosophy 88:467-474.

Wimsatt, W.C. (2007) Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings: Piecewise
Approximations to Reality. Harvard University Press.

45 thoughts on “Where Do We Go Next? — I

  1. Robin Herbert

    This state of affairs is altogether different from the (confused) reasons why laypeople disagree and even contradict themselves on free will, a topic to which they do not typically devote a lot of time for reflection

    That may be how it seems from the ivory tower. Down on main street we can only gather that philosophers and some scientists are claiming that we “average Joes” and “everyday folk” are making some sort of mistake about our volitional processes, but they don’t seem to have the faintest idea what the average Joe believes on the subject and argue furiously and endlessly with each other about what we ought to be believing instead.

    And from this they conclude that it is some how us and not they who are “preposterous”.

    Like

  2. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    On XPhi, whether to poll laymen or experts surely depends on the question and the topic:

    While these results are interesting in terms of understanding how people’s moral judgments are deployed, one can still sensibly ask what bearing do they have on the philosophical question of the moral status of the chairmen in the two examples.

    But there is nothing to morality except human opinions, so of course the moral judgments that people in general make are relevant to the “moral status” of an act! Unless one is a moral realist, what else is there?

    Of course we don’t know what most moral philosophers would say because the XPhi researchers didn’t carry out the proper experiment — which should have been done on philosophers, not members of the general public, assuming that the goal was to advance our understanding of ethics, not to run a survey of laypeople’s uninformed opinions.

    Surely an “understanding of ethics” is an understanding of how people in general think about moral issues. If philosophers schemed up some abstract scheme of ethics in conceptual space that had nothing to do with how people think about ethics then that would be pointless chmess.

    … that criticism risks sliding into a generic skeptical argument, since no discipline can offer that sort of guarantee of what its properly trained experts say.

    Surely many disciplines can! What properly trained experts in aircraft engineering say is validated by the fact that aircraft fly. What properly trained medical experts say is validated by improved survival rates. Et cetera.

    … for authors such as Cappelen (2012) philosophers hardly use intuitions at all.

    Many arguments in philosophy are simply appeals to intuitions. Discussions of p-zombies and Chinese Rooms are good examples. The majority of philosophers are moral realists, and yet there is no argument for moral realism that isn’t just an appeal to intuition.

    I tend to agree that: “empirical evidence needs to be brought forth any time a philosopher deploys an intuition as a starting point for a discussion”.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Massimo Post author

    Coel,

    surely you use too many “surely” in your comments, one of the signs of sophistry that Dennett warns about. No, none of the things you seem so sure of are quite that settled, I think (but I’m not sure).

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Robin Herbert

    The Chinese Room argument does not depend at all on intuition.. I don’t claim it is a sound argument but it doesn’t depend upon intuition.

    I find that a lot of people who misunderstand the argument, or who have only heard a misrepresentation of the argument make the claim that it depends upon intuition. A number of people spend a good deal of time refuting things that Searle never said.

    In fact I think the ‘intuition’ claim is a rather overused tactic in a number of areas.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    No, none of the things you seem so sure of are quite that settled, I think (but I’m not sure).

    So this might be the long-sought distinction between philosophy and science! You’re sticking to your approach of: “the very issue of finding “the” answer to a particular question will increasingly appear to be a misguided way of looking at things”.

    Whereas the scientific approach is to find the answer, settle an issue, and then move on.

    Surely. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Massimo Post author

    Robin,

    # In fact I think the ‘intuition’ claim is a rather overused tactic in a number of areas. #

    Yup, apparently some people haven’t read the section on intuition in the previous chapter…

    Like

  7. michaelfugate

    Whereas the scientific approach is to find the answer, settle an issue, and then move on.

    Until we need to revisit it, when scientist develop new methods and generate new data or philosophers uncover hidden assumptions….

    Liked by 2 people

  8. 천천히 (@luciposterae)

    Hi Massimo,

    Thank you for your balanced introduction to XPhi.

    It would be nice if you could share your thoughts on Schwitzgebel and Cushman’s work that supposedly showed that professional philosophers do not show more reliable performance than non-philosophers do on moral reasoning.

    http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~eschwitz/SchwitzAbs/EthOrder.htm

    Is this the reason why you mentioned that “I would hope, however, that no serious (professional) ethicist would engage in that sort of shifting judgment”, perhaps?

    Like

  9. brodix

    What is philosophy trying to do, what does progress necessarily entail and does one follow from the other?

    Most people are concerned with results, while philosophy is much more about asking questions, irrespective of any solutions or uses. It is the process, not the result.

    To put it somewhat crudely, I’m reminded of the old saying; “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It is a waste of your time and will only irritate the pig.”

    To most people, philosophy is just so much word salad precisely because there are no hard and fast results. Science can tell you what year the universe was born, while Philosophy will ask, “What is time?”

    To most people, once the conclusion is reached, the process by which it is arrived at is waste paper. They want that bottom line/solution/object/answer, whether it is an iPhone to hold in the hand, or an equation to hold in the mind. The rest is fine print.

    Much of philosophy is meanderings and musings, aka trial and error and if any conclusions are reached, they dissipate into further speculation.

    Which is not popular for those who want answers. Hence hemlock for the philosophers and religion for everyone else.

    If people still want “progress in philosophy,” point to all of civilization and say; There you are, but we are not finished yet.

    Like

  10. wtc48

    Having entered this discussion late, and realizing that I’ll never catch up to the current post, I would like to jump in with an observation that many philosophical issues (and other human issues) revolve around the matter of scale. If human society consisted of five individuals dwelling on a small habitable island, it is conceivable that they would, in the course of a lifetime of discussion, arrive at a consensus on such philosophical questions as free will, etc., derived from empirical evidence obtained through their own experience. Though their original opinions might have been quite divergent, they would (one supposes) ultimately be satisfied that their understanding of this matter was as profound as was humanly possible, and they would have progressed through discourse to this understanding, eventually arriving at some sort of philosophical goal.

    To attempt to achieve this degree of satisfaction on a world inhabited by 7+ billion people, speaking many different languages, and having only the most limited contact with their fellow humans, would seem to be a hopeless project, even given the most advanced techniques of digital communication and polling. But this is the task of philosophy in arriving at an understanding of the world.

    Such an understanding is also the goal of science, but there is no expectation that it will ever be achieved in the sense of perfecting an overall concept of the world. The progress itself is the goal, and the more participants the better in this effort: seven billion scientists would make wonderful progress; seven billion philosophers, maybe not!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. jbonnicerenoreg

    ” Our knowledge of the external world as a field for scientific method in philosophy” (1914) by Bertrand Russell would seem to be relevant but not mentioned.

    Like

  12. Coel

    Hi michaelfugate,

    Until we need to revisit it, when scientist develop new methods and generate new data or philosophers uncover hidden assumptions …

    Yes, science does indeed revisit theories and improve them further. But science is genuinely progressive, in the sense that its ideas are a better a better model of empirical reality as time goes on (and demonstrably so).

    Newton’s gravity is “correct” in the sense that it correctly models weak-field situations and is good enough to land probes on comets, but Einstein’s gravity does even better in a wider range of situations. Similarly, classical mechanics works, but quantum mechanics works better in a wider range of situations. In biology, Darwinian evolution was a genuine improvement on previous ideas, and is unlikely to be over-turned, though it will likely be improved upon by the addition of extra complications.

    Thus, science is genuinely progressive and does indeed settle issues and then move on. Plenty of scientific facts will never be overturned.

    By the way, I’m interested, can you give examples of philosophers uncovering hidden assumptions in scientific theories that have then led to revisions of the science?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Imad Zaheer

    Very interesting walk through the issues of experimental philosophy. I completely agree that it is largely just social science and initially was very poor social science.

    I also think it’s a horrible blunder to think that polling people, philosophers or lay person, on things like moral truths is somehow a substitute for philosophical inquiry (i.e, normative moral inquiry).

    But than again, many people seem to have a very hard time understanding the difference between descriptive and normative ethics and others in outright denial since science isn’t the method used to address those questions.

    With that said, I have warmed up to the idea of experimental philosophy, not because I think it can bridge the gap and directly address philosophical questions but more because I don’t see many people in psychology and other social sciences pursuing the same questions (and judging by my colleagues, many people in psychology are not even aware of the relevant philosophical questions). In this regard, it helps to have philosophers who can set up interesting experiments, especially now that they are getting better at them.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. synred

    “we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us”

    We will never know the ‘intrinsic nature’ of ‘ding am sic’ (DES) from physics. If there is ‘stuff’ out there and it behaves itself, we can hope that science will get closer and closer to describing how it behaves. If it’s QM like we will likely never come up with a comprehensible picture or story.

    I’ve pretty much lost the thread on Massimo’s book.

    I got distracted into solving the Dirac equation with two-times. Some stuff Socratic posted inspired this effort. The results are curious.

    In two-times picture QM behavior can emerge from a classical theory by averaging over the extra time. It may be able to give a picture that is marginally more comprehensible than QM. Two-times does have problems — like time-travel. It may be possible to suppress these to an unobservable level.

    I’ve incorporated two-times into my ‘consistent time travel’ version of Oedipus Rex. Helps give the story that profound gloss that SciFi needs 🙂

    I won’t give the link to the rather technical two-time paper unless somebody wants it. It is by serious, non-nut, guys (incl. Berndt Mueller at Duke and BNL)

    Like

  15. michaelfugate

    By the way, I’m interested, can you give examples of philosophers uncovering hidden assumptions in scientific theories that have then led to revisions of the science?

    Yes.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    A question, which pertains to to whole concept of how philosophy makes progress:

    … the very issue of finding “the” answer to a particular question will increasingly appear to be a misguided way of looking at things

    Meta-ethics is firmly reckoned to be within the province of philosophy. Would you say that philosophers will one day decide which of moral realism and moral anti-realism is correct, or would you say that philosophy is not about deciding the facts of the matter, but about exploring the conceptual spaces of moral realism and moral anti-realism?

    Afterall, there must be a fact of the matter as to which of those morality is, so can philosophy decide factual matters such as that, or is that the task of some other enterprise, perhaps the cognitive sciences?

    Another example question is the matter of whether an AI device can be conscious. Again, there must be a fact of the matter (regardless of whether we can attain the answer or not), but would you say that philosophy could in principle yield that answer, or not? Similarly, there must be a fact of the matter as to whether p-zombies are in-principle possible. Can philosophy answer such questions, or does it just examine the conceptual space of such questions, and then hand them over to science to answer?

    Hi synred,

    So I’m interested. Does exploring the “conceptual space” of quantum mechanics with an extra dimension of time (something not empirically motivated) count as physics or metaphysics (aka philosophy)?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, even before I got more than a paragraph into your analysis of XPhil, I was thinking that it risks too much overlap with behavioral psychology. Given the successes of Ariely, Kahnemann, etc., I think XPhil in this area doesn’t need to reinvent the experimental wheel and does need to do philosophical, not psychological, analysis of reported results.

    And well put on movements vs. methods.

    ==

    Free will? You forgot what I’m trying to make a “fourth peak” — MU to the whole “free will vs. determinism!” 🙂

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  18. SocraticGadfly

    Coel: No, an “understanding of ethics” would, I believe, look more at WHY people think as they do about matters ethical, plus why they claim to think as they do, etc. as well as general theories of ethics and more.

    XPhil might have something to offer here, but again, need to do it in a way that isn’t just repeating most of behavioral psychology.

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  19. SocraticGadfly

    Coel said:

    By the way, I’m interested, can you give examples of philosophers uncovering hidden assumptions in scientific theories that have then led to revisions of the science?

    Erm, yes. I believe that at least some of the advancement in both Einstein’s relatively theory, and certainly in quantum mechanics, were made precisely because philosophical assumptions underlining 19th-century physics ideas were questioned.

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  20. Coel

    Hi Socratic,

    Erm, yes. I believe that at least some of the advancement in both Einstein’s relatively theory, and certainly in quantum mechanics, were made precisely because philosophical assumptions underlining 19th-century physics ideas were questioned.

    When Maxwell was the first to understand that light was an electromagnetic wave, he then did assume that it was a wave in an “ether” (by analogy with sound being a wave in a material), and then he was the first to think about whether that could be tested by measuring Earth’s motion with respect to the ether. Later Michelson and Morely looked for it and got a null result. Others who considered the same issues included Poincare and Lorentz. Note that nothing about the assumption of an ether was “hidden”.

    But physicists examining physical theories wasn’t really what I was asking about. The question was about examples of non-physicist philosophers revealing hidden assumptions (ones the physicists were not aware of), that then fed back into better physics.

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  21. synred

    Coel: So I’m interested. Does exploring the “conceptual space” of quantum mechanics with an extra dimension of time (something not empirically motivated) count as physics or metaphysics (aka philosophy)?

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.2485

    Click to access Columbia_100412.pdf

    paper and talk?

    Proto-science? Like string theory… I wouldn’t call it ‘metaphysics’ which is presumably about ‘what is physics about’. Like ‘meta-logic’ accept the term has been hijacked by the gods and goblins crowd.

    I’m currently drying to solve two-time Dirac with interaction with a potential (perhaps absorptive) to see if I can get ‘wave function collapse to bot out.’

    I don’t know if I can do it, but I was pleasantly surprised I got plane-wave solution, so my math skills have not completely atrophied. Of course, I’m prone to errors and have nobody to check my work.

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  22. brodix

    Was Socrates asked to drink the hemlock because they didn’t like his answers, or because he asked too many questions?

    Progress is about providing answers, but philosophy is about asking questions in the first place.

    When people come up with answers, then they become priests, or politicians, or scientists, but as long as there are questions to be asked, there will be philosophers.

    Every so often some scientist, or political theorist will pronounce that we are at the end of history, or all that’s left is measurement (priests already know it all) and then you know it is time for the philosophers to make an appearance.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. synred

    ‘Reductionism’ is a poor, and pejorative, term for scientific explanation. Statistical mechanics does not reduce thermodynamics to atoms, it explains how thermodynamics emerges from atoms + statistics. A new concept is added to atomic theory. It’s not a reduction, it’s a construction.

    -From my comment on Stuart Kaufman piece in Aeon.

    https://aeon.co/conversations/how-can-science-become-more-spiritual-without-sacrificing-its-rigour#response_10529

    Liked by 2 people

  24. SocraticGadfly

    I had just recently read that. That said, I do think there is such a thing as “greedy” reductionism, and I think Massimo would agree. Reductionism in general is not bad, though. And, I had just read that piece last week and Stuart Kaufman is a very interesting, or “interesting,” person.

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  25. garthdaisy

    I tend to agree with Massimo that laypeople don’t have the time or the inclination to think about deep philosophical issues and so there is not much to be learned about philosophical issues by polling laypeople. I do think it would be a far more interesting and fruitful exercise to perform XPhi on professional philosophers. Could be an avenue to improve Bayesian progress in the field, if one thinks Bayesian progress in the field would be a good thing.

    On matters of morality and free will I think science has settled the physical arguments and eliminated both Libertarian FW and Moral Realism. From here it’s all a matter how how we chose as a society to view these issues. The Compatibilist/Incompatibilist debate is no longer a debate about the reality of the situation but rather a semantics preference on what is the most useful and practical way of talking about human behaviour in light of a seemingly deterministic universe.

    So of course philosophy can never find “the” answer on these issues because it’s a issue of preference, and so as Massimo says, it should not be in the business of finding “the” answer. What it CAN do IMO is work towards frameworks for thinking about and understanding these issues with the ultimate goal of presenting such coherent and eloquent arguments that public understanding of these issues is maximized which will hopefully lead to larger and larger areas of consensus on matters of preference. For such extremely volatile preferences, consensus is the key to a happy society. I believe a common sense exists that will allow Bayesian consensus to be achieved, there is just still so much more eloquenting to be done.

    So I think that Xphi applied to professional philosophers could be useful. And I tend to agree that Xphi applied to laypeople is really just sociology and probably not much help to philosophy other than to show how much more eloquenting they have to do. Yes, I verbified eloquence. That was fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. SocraticGadfly

    Socrates was “asked to drink the hemlock” because he had supported not one but two oligarchy-driven revolutions against democratic Athens, and was basically unrepentant. And, while exile wouldn’t have been pleasant at his age, he did have that as an option, too.

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  27. garthdaisy

    Another thing I would add to what I said above is that I think one way in which progress in philosophy could (and perhaps should) be measured is in the amount of public understanding and consensus there is on philosophical issues. Although I agree laypeople don’t have time or inclination to DO philosophy, I think the onus or task should be on professional philosophers to make issues like morality and free will properly understandable in a way in which the laypeople do have time to grasp, and may have better chance of reaching wider consensus. So progress in philosophy = better eloquenting to the public.

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