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09/30/2016

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Wesbuc

Thank you for articulating these concerns. By way of historical analogy, the concerns that underlie the current crisis in psychology were well known but went unheard for at least a decade before people started to realize just how bad things had gotten and called for wide scale reforms. Hopefully at some point philosophy as a field will arrive at a similar realization and start taking methods more seriously.

Chris Stephens

Hi Marcus,

I'm sympathetic toward your broader points here. But. I worry that it's going to be a lot harder to reform philosophical practice, in part because of its diversity and because it deals (often by its nature) with "messy" problems that aren't well formulated, and much of the battle is just getting things clear enough so that they can be answered by more straightforward methodologies.

However, in a lot of cases - appeal to simplicity, inference to the best explanation, etc. philosophers notoriously disagree about what is good methodology.

Just to pick an example - and I've not read your whole book so maybe not much depends on it - you borrow from science/philosophy of science a bunch of criteria of theory choice. To pick just one example, you talk about the value of simplicity/parsimony. But it is (as I'm sure you know) very contested whether simplicity is an epistemic, as opposed to merely pragmatic virtue. There are plenty of people who think its merely pragmatic (at least in cases where you have two predictively equivalent theories). This is a "live" issue in philosophy of science (and in science itself). So is it OK to just help yourself to a view on this in order to do work in ethics or metaethics?

I worry (and again, maybe your actual cases don't depend on appeal to what is controversial about justifying Ockham's razor) that even your excellent attempt to be very careful and self conscious about methodology in philosophy will still run up against persistent problems like this.

(For what its worth, you might check out Sober's book "Ockham's Razors, for a sense of the controversies here. Or ch. 2 of his older book, Reconstructing the Past, for an argument that no "purely methodological" justification of parsimony will be forthcoming).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Chris: Thanks for chiming in!

As I will explain in future posts, I think there are probably some significant areas of philosophy--namely, certain questions that can only be addressed via a priori methods--that may recalcitrant to methodological improvement, for broadly the reasons you mention at the beginning of your comment. However, or so I will argue, there are many areas of philosophy--metaethics, normative & applied ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind--where significant methodological improvements might be made (and, in some cases, are already being made). But, because these are big issues--and will be the topic of future posts--I'm not sure I can adequately address them here in a single comment.

Let me instead discuss your concerns about simplicity. You are certainly right that it's a live issue whether simplicity/parsimony is an epistemic as opposed to merely pragmatic virtue (particularly for two predictively equivalent theories). Although I probably could have given a better discussion of these issues in the book manuscript, I was a bit hamstrung by the book's word limit. So, let me say a few things here.

First, it doesn't ultimately matter for my purposes in the book whether simplicity/parsimony is an epistemic or pragmatic virtue. For, one of the other principles of theory-selection I defend is fecundity, or (subject to certain constraints) prioritizing theories that solve outstanding theoretical and practical problems. One of my aims in the book is to argue that my theory--in virtue of its ontological and metaethtical simplicity--solves a lot of practical and theoretical problems, not only in metaethics, but also normative ethics and applies ethics. So, even if parsimony is merely a pragmatic virtue, so far as my purposes in the book are concerned simplicity it is an *important* virtue in that regard. And, of course, if it is also an epistemic virtue, so much the better!

Second, a central claim in the book is that the moral theory I defend is not predictively on a par with rival theories. I contend it makes better moral predictions than rival theories, but also (rather uniquely, I think) better empirical predictions than rival theories. The moral theory I defend, insofar as it is based on the emerging science of moral cognition and mental time-travel, has not only moral implications but also empirical ones--in terms of individual behavior, economic behavior, etc. (many of which I am attempting to tease out in work in progress). So, if the concerns about parsimony come down to a concern that it is not an epistemic virtue for predictively equivalent theories, that's not a problem for me--because again, I don't think I'm with case of predictively equivalent theories.

At the end of the day, I help myself (as it were) to the seven principles of theory-selection because--or so I contend--they have, as individual principles but also as a group, epistemic and pragmatic importance. In other words, while of course there may be serious questions about particular principles in the list, my suggestion is that--those controversies aside--the principles (as a group) are probably the best overall method to adopt, here and now, for evaluating arguments and theories. I am of course open to revision of and alternatives to the principles--and indeed, part of what I am hoping to do with the book is help draw attention to the importance putting these kinds of methodological questions at the very heart (rather than periphery) of philosophy.

As I say in the book's introduction, I don't claim that anything in the book is "the final word" on anything--but I do hope that it is a worthwhile new word, particularly when it comes how I understand the principles of theory-selection in question. As I will explain in my next post, I adopt a "Firm (Observational) Foundations" principle as a constraint on how all of the other principles are understood and applied.

Very roughly, what I'm on about here is the issue I start the present post with. On my account, we shouldn't judge a theory to have "explanatory power" or "external coherence"--at least not in any epistemically worthwhile sense--unless we have grounds for thinking that the *foundational facts* (or observations) being explained are actually true. For instance, I'm sure one could put together a coherent, explanatorily powerful theory of divine right of kings--but those aren't epistemic virtues because the entire premises upon which the theory is based (God exists, we can know his will, etc.) lack adequate evidentiary basis. I argue that this Firm Foundations principle requires a unique approach to metaethics and normative ethics, and to how the other principles of theory-selection are used to evaluate arguments and theories in meta-, normative, and applied ethics.

Marcus Arvan

Wesbuc: Thank you, and well said! :)

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