Philosophy as the evocation of conceptual landscapes – part II

1 (1)In the first installment of this two-part series we have explored different concepts of what “making progress” may mean for disciplines such as science, math, logic, and philosophy. I have then suggested that philosophy makes progress because it explores what Nicholas Rescher has called “aporetic clusters,” i.e., families of alternative solutions to a given particular philosophical problem. I have advanced a similar idea in the past, suggesting that philosophy is in the business of discovering, refining or discarding such solutions as they are “evoked” (i.e., brought into objective existence by the human mind) within the context of a problem. This all sounds very theoretical, however, so let’s take a look at some empirical examples of these aporetic clusters found within specific philosophical conceptual landscapes.

Is there any evidence that philosophy progresses in the way described so far? I think so, and it comes at least in part from a landmark paper by Bourget and Chalmers, published in 2013. In it, they explore quantitatively what professional philosophers think of a number of prominent issues and positions within their own discipline. Even though Bourget and Chalmers did not carry out their study while informed by the ideas of aporetic clusters and progress, their data is suitable for the current discussion. It also represents a rare opportunity to systematically assess the views of an entire profession, the sort of thing that would probably be useful also in other disciplines, from the humanities to the natural sciences, but is all too seldom actually done.

I focus here on a subset of interesting findings that bear directly or indirectly on my overall project concerning progress in philosophy, even though the Bourget-Chalmers paper contains a number of additional stimulating bits of information for anyone interested in the current state of philosophical inquiry.

To begin with, apparently the common adage that if there are X philosophers in a room, they are bound to have X+1 opinions does not appear to be the case at all. Consider some of the main findings of the survey:

A total of 71% of respondents thought that a priori knowledge is possible, while only 18% didn’t think so. There is a clear majority here, and only two major aporetic clusters.

Things are more equally divided when it comes to views on the nature of abstract objects: Platonism gets 39% while nominalism is barely behind, at 38%. Superficially, this may seem an instance of precisely what’s wrong with philosophy, but is in fact perfectly congruent with my model of multiple peaks in conceptual space. Philosophers seem to have settled on two of Rescher’s aporetic clusters here, having eliminated a number of unacceptable alternatives. There may very well not be an ascertainable fact of the matter about whether Platonism or nominalism are “true.” They are both reasonable ways of thinking about the ontology of abstract objects, with each position subject to further criticism and refinement.

Every practicing philosopher knows that W.V.O. Quine thought he had demolished once and for all the distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, but the bad news for him is that about 65% of philosophers disagree, and only 27% agree that such demise has in fact taken place. The latter may be an example of an aporetic cluster that gained more prominence immediately post-evocation by Quine, but may have eroded somewhat since, to use a geological analogy.

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. This may be as close as it gets for philosophers to actually settle a dispute.

In terms of ethical frameworks, things are pretty evenly split, with deontology barely leading at 26%, followed by consequentialism at 24% and virtue ethics at 18%. Here too, as in the case of Platonism vs nominalism, the result makes sense to me, as it is hard to imagine what it would mean to say that deontology, for instance, is the “true” approach to ethics. These three are reasonable, alternative ways of approaching ethics – and there are a number of unreasonable ones that have been considered and discarded over time (e.g., Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism,” based on a gross distortion, and likely lack of understanding, of Aristotle).

Even more fascinating – and congruent with my general thesis – are the pairwise correlations that the authors uncovered between philosophical views, hinting at the conclusion that philosophers tend to develop fairly internally coherent positions across fields. For instance:

If one thinks that the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths is solid, then one also tends to accept the idea of a priori knowledge – naturally enough.

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.

If one thinks that Star Trek’s Kirk survives teleportation (rather than being killed and replaced by a copy), one also – coherently – often adopts a psychological view of personal identity.

Perhaps the most interesting and nuanced approach that Bourget and Chalmers take to their data unfolds when they move from univariate and bivariate to multivariate statistics, in this case principal components analysis. This allows them to examine the many-to-many relationships among variables in their data.

The first principal component they identify, that is, the one that explains most of the variance in the sample, they label “Anti-naturalism,” as it groups a number of responses that coherently fall under that position: libertarianism concerning free will, non-physicalism about the mind, theism, non-naturalism as a metaphilosophy, and the so-called “further fact” view of personal identity. If one were to plot individual responses along this dimension (which Bourget and Chalmers don’t do, unfortunately), one would see anti-naturalist philosophers clustering at the positive and of it, and naturalist philosophers clustering at the negative end.

The second-ranked principal component is labelled “Objectivism/Platonism” by the authors, and features positive loadings (i.e., multivariate correlations) of cognitivism in moral judgment, realism in metaethics, objectivism about aesthetic value, and of course Platonism about abstract objects.

The third component is about Rationalism, with positive loadings for the possibility of a priori knowledge, the analytic-synthetic distinction, and rationalism about knowledge.

(Should you be curious about where I fall in the above multi-variable landscape, see the post-scriptum to this essay.)

The overall picture that emerges, then, is very much that of a conceptual landscape with a number of alternative peaks, or aporetic clusters, which are internally coherent and well refined by centuries of philosophical inquiry. I suspect that historically many more “peaks” have been explored and eventually discarded, and that the height of the current peaks (as reflected by the consensus gathered within the relevant epistemic communities) is itself heterogeneous and dynamic, with some in the process of becoming more prominent in the landscape and others on their way to secondary status or destined to disappear altogether.

If I am right and philosophy makes progress by evoking and refining aporetic clusters that are constrained by empirical evidence about the world, it makes sense to ask one last question: where is philosophy going, considering its continuous tension with the sciences, themselves making progress in what may be more of a teleonomic fashion? (See part I on teleonomy.)

Philosophers have often advanced a model of their discipline as a “placeholder” for the development of eventually independent fields of inquiry, presenting philosophy as the business of conducting the initial conceptual exploration (and, hopefully, clarification) of a given set of problems, handing it then to a special science as soon as those problems become empirically tractable. There are quite a few historical examples to back up this view, from the emergence of the natural sciences to that of psychology and linguistics. Philosophy of mind is arguably in the midst of this very process, interfacing with the nascent cognitive sciences.

Predictably, this model is often twisted by detractors of philosophy to show that the field has been in a slow process of disintegrating itself, with a hard core (metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic, aesthetics) that is the last holdout, and which has shown increasing signs of itself yielding to the triumphal march of Science (with a capital “S”).

If that is the case, of course, so be it. But I seriously doubt it. What we have seen over the last few centuries, and especially the last century or so, is simply a transformation of what it means to do philosophy. Although we use the general word “science” to indicate everything from Aristotle’s forays into biology to what modern physicists are doing with the Large Hadron Collider, the very nature of science has evolved throughout the centuries, and keeps evolving still. What counts as good scientific methodology, sound scientific theorizing, or interesting scientific problems has changed dramatically from Aristotle to Bacon to Darwin to Stephen Hawking. Why should it be any different for philosophy?

One of the most obvious indications that philosophy has been reinventing itself over the past century or so is the stark onset of a panoply of “philosophies of.” “Philosophies of” are the way the field has been responding to the progressive emancipation of some of its former branches: science is no longer natural philosophy, but that simply means that now philosophers are free to philosophize about science (and, more specifically, about biology, quantum mechanics, etc.) without doing science. The same idea applies to linguistics (and philosophy of language), psychology (and philosophy of the social sciences), economics (and philosophy of economics), and so on.

Is this sort of transformation also about to affect philosophy’s core areas of metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, logic, and aesthetics? It depends on how one looks at things. On the one hand, to a larger or lesser extent it certainly has become increasingly difficult to engage in any of the above without also taking on board results from the natural and social sciences. While logic is perhaps the most shielded of all core philosophical areas in this respect (indeed, arguably it has contributed to the sciences broadly construed much more than it has received), it is certainly a good idea to do metaphysics while knowing something about physics (and biology); ethics while interfacing with political and social sciences, and even biology and neuroscience; epistemology while being aware of the findings of the cognitive sciences; and aesthetics with an eye toward biology and the cognitive and social sciences.

Nonetheless, all the core areas of philosophy emain still very much recognizable as philosophy. Should they finally spawn their own independent disciplines, there will immediately arise in turn a need for more “philosophies of,” and the process will keep going, the field adapting and regenerating.

Ultimately, philosophy is here to stay for the same reason that other humanities (and the arts) will stay, regardless of how much science improves and expands, or how much narrow-minded politicians and administrators keep cutting humanities’ funding in universities. Human beings need more than facts and formulas, more than experiment and observation. They need to experience in the first person, and they need to reflect critically on all aspects of their existence. They need to understand, in the broadest possible terms, which means they need to philosophize.


Post-Scriptum: where do I fall in the multi-variable conceptual landscape of philosophical positions? Here:

Epistemology: a priori knowledge (e.g., mathematics, logic) is possible.

Knowledge: neither a rationalist nor an empiricist, we need a judicious combination of the two, as Kant first surmised.

Abstract objects: something like nominalism, definitely not Platonism. I prefer Smolin’s “evocation” alternative, briefly discussed in part I.

Analytic / Synthetic distinction: it’s there, despite Quine making some good points about borderline or fuzzy cases.

External world: realism. (Though I do have strong sympathies for instrumentalism in philosophy of science, but the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Aesthetic values: anti-realist (though our aesthetic judgments, at a very basic level, have likely been shaped by evolution, which would make me a quasi-realist of sorts).

Transporter problem: Kirk dies every time. I do not think there is a unique metaphysical answer to personal identity, as it is a human construct constrained by human biology.

Ethics: virtue ethics, obviously.

Naturalism vs anti-naturalism: I’m definitely a naturalist, compatibilist about free will, non-theist, and think that the mind is the result of the activity of the physical (and embodied) brain.

Objectivism vs Platonism: quasi-realist in ethics (as explained here), ethical judgments are constrained by our understanding of human nature and what makes us flourish. More than one reasonable ethical judgment is compatible with any given empirical situation.