Book Club: The Edge of Reason, ch. 4, lives of the mind

IMG_8349Time to resume our discussion of Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason. After having looked at chapters 1, 2, and 3, we move on to 4, on the lives of the mind. Here Baggini takes up another myth about philosophy, this one imposed by professional philosophers themselves: that philosophizing is a matter of pure, objective reason, and doesn’t depend on the personal preferences, inclinations, and character of the individual philosopher. Remember, in what follows, that Baggini’s project is that of rescuing philosophy in particular, and reason more generally, from the extremes of epistemic relativism and epistemic objectivism, so to speak, and to recover an image of philosophy, science and reason at large as that of very powerful, yet fallible, human enterprises.

Indeed, Julian immediately admits that the very same observation about the importance of personality holds for science as well, not just for philosophy. And the issue is that both these disciplines have much invested in a self-image of objective rationality. So much so that when historians or sociologists highlight the contingent and human elements, both philosophers and scientists immediately switch to a defensive posture.

Julian, however, claims that the problem is somehow more pronounced for philosophy than for science, something I take issue with, and I will be pushing against in my commentary. But let’s get to the meat of the chapter, which begins with an invitation to examine a series of case studies of autobiographies of prominent philosophers.

[I do find this methodology questionable, not just because the resulting sample is far from systematic or quantitative, but most importantly because I think autobiographies are exceedingly unreliable documents to seriously assess a person’s character and foibles.]

Baggini recounts that Mill writes about how his personal experiences had an impact on the way his thinking developed, and so did Rousseau, Quine, and Feyerabend. This is surely the case, but I don’t see why an examination of the biographies of Einstein, Newton and so forth wouldn’t also reveal something very similar. When Julian writes: “[in science] character may cause people to discover what they do, but evidence and reason alone determine whether what they find is indeed a true discovery or a mistake” he is, of course, right. But why on earth wouldn’t the same hold for philosophy, sans the evidence part, since philosophy is not an empirically-based discipline? If you are thinking that that’s why science makes progress and philosophy doesn’t, I will respond that you may have a misconception about the nature of philosophy, and I invite you to read my book on that very topic.

“It would take a great deal of faith in the objectivity of philosophy and philosophers to think that Feyerabend and Quine arrived at their respective philosophical positions simply by following the arguments where they led, when their inclinations so obviously seem to be in tune with their settled conclusions.”

Absolutely. But it would take a gargantuan amount of distrust of reason to believe that the many philosophers that accepted and attempted to improve on Quine and Feyerabend did it only or even chiefly because they liked those people or shared similar life experiences.

Baggini quotes Peter van Inwagen as saying that “There is almost no thesis in philosophy about which philosophers agree,” and goes on to discuss the famous survey of philosophers’ opinions published a few years ago by David Bourget and David Chalmers. I also used that survey in my book on the nature of philosophy, and I agree that the data gives us a fascinating glimpse inside the profession. But Baggini, Bourget and Chalmers are seriously mistaken in their interpretation of what the survey’s results say about the nature of that profession.

Briefly, and without rehearsing the whole book: philosophy makes progress by exploration of conceptual, not empirical, landscapes. Conceptual landscapes are much broader than empirical ones, which underdetermine them (because there are many possible realities, and only one real reality). Consequently, philosophers are not actually expected to arrive at a consensus on a single way of looking at things, but rather to arrive at the identification, and subsequent refinement, of a small number of competing accounts. Example: it makes no sense to ask whether Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, or virtue ethics are “true,” that’s a category mistake. Instead, they are solid, sophisticated frameworks, or accounts, to think about ethics, each defensible and criticizable in its own way. Which is why philosophers are close to evenly split about which framework they prefer. (By comparison, I think realism is significantly more defensible than constructivism in philosophy of science, and sure enough, while a good number of philosophers may be found on each side, there is a clear majority favoring the first account over the second one in the Bourget-Chalmers survey.)

The other thing that I find weird about the survey is that both Bourget and Chalmers, as well as Baggini, dwell on the correlations found between preferences for certain philosophical positions and variables such as gender, nationality, age, etc.. But if one looks at the actual tables of results, those correlations — even though statistically significant — actually account for a tiny fraction of the variance in the stated preferences. It’s like one of those studies that finds that, say, 5% of the variance in sexual preference in a given population is accounted for by genetics and goes on to boldly, and misleadingly, conclude that it found “the” gene for homosexuality, thus ignoring that 95% of the variance is non-genetic.

It is also de rigueur to cite Wittgenstein, of course: “[these findings] endorse Wittgenstein’s belief that ‘Work in philosophy […] is really more work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On how one sees things.'” Maybe, then again that sort of “philosophy as therapy” account is perfectly compatible with the idea that the results of such work are going to be accepted, or not, by the broader community of scholars independently of the personality and degree of self understanding of the individuals that produced the work in the first place.

In the last section of this chapter, Baggini veers toward an apparently somewhat disconnected discussion of causality which, however, does have its raison d’etre. He explains that when we analyze phenomena in causal terms — including the influences of personal circumstances on a given philosopher’s ideas — we preferentially highlight certain causes over others. After all, there is a large number of phenomena hinging on any particular happening, and we foreground a small subset of those potential causes because of the particular kind of interests we have in specific cases.

For instance, consider the classical example of a police investigation of a house fire, where the inquiry determines that “the” cause of the fire was a short in the electrical system of the house. Obviously, that was part of the relevant causal web, another one being the very existence of an electrical system to begin with, or the presence of oxygen. But both the oxygen and the electrical systems are backgrounded for the purposes of this specific investigation, so that it is perfectly fine to talk about the short as “the” (relevant, difference making) cause.

Why does Baggini bring this up? “Causal accounts do not merely describe the facts but reflect our attitudes to them. … The selection of some data and the setting aside of other data is both necessary and desirable. No account can include everything.” And this selection cannot be done mechanically, by an algorithm based on pure logic. It requires, you guessed it, the real protagonist of Baggini’s book: human judgment. And I think he is absolutely right about that.

Which brings us to his conclusion about the subjective development of ideas in philosophy: “[The preceding discussion] does not mean that our philosophizing adds up to no more than a reflection of prejudices or received opinions. As I have been arguing, philosophy requires judgement. What we need to add to this is the adjective ‘personal,’ thus accepting that philosophy requires personal judgement.” Yes, but that does not account for the difference between science and philosophy, nor does it have much to do with the (usually very small) plurality of positions endorsed by philosophers concerning any major philosophical problem.

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Categories: Book Club

46 replies

  1. Coel: Thank you for admitting that all you do is hand-wave at major philosophical questions, raised by the likes of Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson.

    That you don’t think they are well posed is not particularly interesting or relevant.

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  2. Dan,

    Thank you for admitting that all you do is hand-wave at major philosophical questions, raised by the likes of Wittgenstein, Quine, and Davidson.

    I just don’t find the arguments you point to at all convincing. And on several occasions I’ve given reasons for not finding them so. Further, the three positions you (correctly) attributed to me are all majority ones among philosophers of science, so my position is hardly unreasonable.

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  3. I want to attempt to redirect the commentary away from the all too frequent turf squabbles between the credentialed scientists and philosophers here. And I would further call attention to Baggini’s subtitle of the subject book: “A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World.” And I would further call attention to Massimo’s observation in the first paragraph of his OP: “Remember, in what follows, that Baggini’s project is that of rescuing philosophy in particular, and reason more generally, from the extremes of epistemic relativism and epistemic objectivism, so to speak, and to recover an image of philosophy, science and reason at large as that of very powerful, yet fallible, human enterprises.”

    It is perhaps hardly worth noting that Massimo’s OP demonstrates one of Baggini’s central points in this chapter: That selection is unavoidable in terms of rendering judgement. This is not a criticism of Massimo’s brief recap. I thought his review was generally accurate regarding a piece that spent an inordinate amount of time in pre-staging points that the reader assumes will be developed in chapters to follow.

    What I wonder, though, as a member of the “general audience” for whom this book was written, is whether others among the readers share my feeling that much of the case made in the first two-thirds of the chapter seem banal. My interest only increased as he began to discuss the “frame problem” along with his brief thoughts regarding “truth” and “truthful.” (Read his footnote on this point.) Otherwise, I’m intrigued by what seems the corner he’s painted himself into by appending “private” to “judgement.” I want to see how he works through what to me is problematic. And, should this point simply turn on the customary demarcation between subjective and objective viewpoints, I will feel disappointed.

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  4. I might slightly expand on an idea I presented in an earlier comment, which I guess is in epistemological ethics. It was that where there is uncertainty about the best theory, a scientist (or philosopher) can pick one particular favourite hypothesis to spend their intellectual effort. This doesn’t necessarily mean one thinks the hypothesis more likely to be true than (the combination of) the other alternatives. In fact, I think it is not uncommon to take up an unpopular idea so that it has some representation in the current smorgasbord eg the Devitt paper resurrecting “deeply wrong” biological essentialism, or perhaps Penrose and objective reduction. In this specific case, judgement is the ordinary judgement of a Bayesian reasoner assigning credences to hypotheses in a usual heuristic-drive ad hoc way these things are done in real life. Unless the hypothesis is truly cranky, so our standing as someone our peers will listen to falls, there is little cost to us if it is refuted by further work. The Feist paper linked above mentions that later-born individuals are more likely to support riskier-in-this-sense hypotheses.

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  5. David,

    I suppose that would contrast to the opposite, band wagon effect. Where not only do new entrants to a field feel inclined to go with the crowd, but the drop off between being in the group and out of the group is large.

    I would refer back to my first point, as to why this is so much greater in science(string theory, multiverses), than philosophy. As there is the presumption of objective truth, first to ideas that withstood examination, but eventually to ideas that only re-enforce the prevailing paradigm.

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  6. Some impressions from a lay point of view:

    The relationship between science and philosophy is not necessarily incompatible, but it seems generally uncomfortable.

    Perhaps it’s easier to make a philosopher out of a scientist (a la Massimo) than the other way around.

    There is a philosophy of science, but if there is a science of philosophy, I’m not aware of it (not that that means anything!).

    Peer review is vital in science, but seems much less essential in philosophy.

    Scientific theories, once firmly refuted, are consigned to the waste basket, but bygone philosophical theories may still have something to offer, if seen in a different light.

    In this respect, philosophy has much in common with the arts, where great works never lose their validity. Daniel Kaufman’s remark is apropos: “As much as the pursuit of philosophical questions is part of an effort to paint a certain kind of picture of human life, therefore, it is also very much an expression of it, and this is where philosophy and the arts reveal their great affinity.”

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  7. wtc,

    Sometimes it seems philosophy is 95% peer review.

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