As readers may remember, this past Spring we went through a long series of posts (27, to be exact) that presented in serialized form my book, The Nature of Philosophy: How Philosophy Makes Progress and Why It Matters.
Over the past few months, Dan Kaufman and yours truly have taped a series of video conversations that present the main ideas of the book to a broader public, and the series is now completed and available for viewing or downloading at my YouTube channel (as well as on the Sofia channel at MeaningofLife.tv).
The first video provides a general introduction to the book, beginning with a discussion of two different ways to conceive “progress,” one which I think applies to science (and other endeavors), the other that applies to philosophy (and other things).
Since a crucial part of my argument depends on comparing (and differentiating) philosophy vs mathematics and logic, Dan and I move on to discuss the nature of those two (related) fields of inquiry.
We then tackle the dependence of physics from mathematics, and use Lee Smolin’s useful (in my mind) classification of real, fictional and constructed notions to find a middle way between mathematical Platonism and mathematical constructivism. We end by addressing the question of why mathematics describes so well the real world, even when one abandons a Platonic perspective. (And yes, in case you are wondering, this is all very pertinent to the question of the nature of philosophy…)
In the second installment, we resume our discussion of the book, tackling what I think is the distinctive way in which philosophy makes progress, i.e., by exploring a number of conceptual landscapes, discovering “peaks” within them (which I refer to as “philosophical accounts”) and then refining the peaks themselves through a continuous practice of reflective equilibrium.
Pushed by Dan’s friendly skepticism, we talk about the possibility that philosophy may be more like art than, say, like science or mathematics. I think that there are some similarities between philosophy and art, but overall lean toward a conceptualization of philosophy as a hybrid field with characteristics borrowed from both mathematics (in terms of the application of logical discourse) and science (because philosophers are, after all, concerned with the real world out there, and so need to come to terms with empirical evidence about such world).
Near the end we debate whether philosophy has gotten “better” over the past centuries or millennia, despite the fact that modern philosophers still debate, say, Plato or Aristotle. Dan is somewhat skeptical of the notion, while I defend it.
In the final episode, we begin with a lively discussion of whether a “theory of everything” is possible (nope, we don’t think so, pace the physicists who get billions of dollars pursuing it — of course much hinges on exactly what one means by that phrase!). We move on to recap the arguments so far, including a second take on whether philosophy has gotten better over time.
The central part of the conversation is organized around three of my examples of progress in philosophy: the realism-antirealism debate in philosophy of science, the evolution of utilitarianism in ethics, and the post-Gettier debates in epistemology, concerning the concept of knowledge. Along the way we also take a look at the question of why — in our minds — science has gotten more and more fragmented over time, rather than unified (again, pace some vocal physicists’ contention to the contrary).
The video, and the series, ends with a bit about why philosophy still is, and likely will always be, relevant to society and to intellectual discourse.