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08/02/2012

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Nick Smyth

Interesting question. I recall learning in logic class that there is no reasoning without axioms, and that seemed like a sound idea to me. Yet, if I've got you right, you seem to be requiring that inquiry have no axioms, that it start from nowhere, on pain of "rationalization".

I think that the "science vs. philosophy" theme that animates this discussion is certainly dubious. Dawkins' feel-good little story about science is nice, but not only does the history of science demonstrate that most scientists are prejudiced towards certain "favourite" theories or hypothesis, but also, all scientists operate under axioms, just as all research-programmes in philosophy do. This is not a weakness, it derives from a fundamental requirement on reasoning itself, namely, that in any kind of reasoning, one has to "start with a belief".

David Morrow

Like Nick, I'm not sure that the rationalizing/reasoning distinction gets at the relevant difference between philosophy and science. Scientists and philosophers alike often ask the question, "Why is X true?" where X is initially taken for granted. My thought was that philosophers--arguably more than scientists--tend to see themselves as engaged in defending the view that X is true because of Y (against the view that X is true because of Y*), rather than as engaged in discovering why X is true.

Maybe scientists fall into that trap more often than I think. I certainly won't insist that they're immune to it. But that's sort of beside the point. Imagine some ideal community of inquirers who see their primary duty as seeking truth about X, rather than defending their own academic turf. We're not that community.

As for the general concern about rationalization, I do think that's a concern regardless of the relationship between philosophy, science, and rationalization. Maybe more on that later.

Justin Snedegar

I agree with Nick and David that starting from the assumption that X is true doesn't mean that you're just trying to rationalize (in the pejorative sense) your belief in X.

But I also want to suggest that seeking the truth about X may be aided by, or even require, what David describes as defending one's own turf. To really learn whether a particular view (or a particular kind of view, at least) is true, you need to figure out which options are open to defenders of that view, to see what's the best way to develop it. And in order to do that, it helps to have people who are defending the view as their own academic turf, as well as people who are objecting to it, usually in the service of defending their own turf. So I guess I just want to resist the characterization of philosophers as inquirers who do not see their primary duty as seeking the truth about X.

Marcus Arvan

Really interesting questions. Here's my quick take, using ethics as an example. A lot of ethics seems to presuppose "commonsense". So, for example, some say, "That an action hurts someone is a reason not to do it." Or, to take the classic objection to act-utilitarianism, "it entails that it would be right to kill one person to give their organs to five others; but that can't be right; so the theory is false." This kind of stuff drives me batty. It drives me batty because we can't just assume commonsense. Imagine if a scientist did that. Actually, many scientists in history have done that, and they look totally silly. One example: Aristotelians rejected Kepler's elliptical theory of planetary motions out of hand because it was "just obvious" that planets must move in a circle. Another example: Einstein rejected quantum mechanics to his dying day because he was convinced it is obvious that a chancy universe makes no sense.

Of course, it's much easier to pick out the mistake in science than in philosophy. The Aristotelians' views about circular orbits didn't match observation. Neither did Einstein's insistence on classical mechanics. In philosophy, on the other hand, distinguishing what counts as an "observation" is the really tough part. Those who say things like, "that an action hurts someone is a reason not to do it" think that that is a legitimate observation to start with. I, on the contest, think it is an illegitimate supposition that they merely wish to rationalize. Is there any way to determine who's right? This is, of course, the age old question: philosophy has to begin somewhere, but where should it begin?

This is an incredibly difficult question, and I'm not sure I have a great answer to it. What I do feel pretty strongly about, though, is that we as a profession are often too lax in our standards. Whatever else one is entitled to assert as a premise in ethics, one shouldn't be able to simply assert that causing harm to someone is a reason not to act. The claim being asserted in this and other similar cases just isn't obvious (the person who wantonly harms others sees nothing plausible about the claim), and for this reason seems more like a rationalization than a good philosophical reason. Maybe at the end of the day there is little more we can do in philosophy than utilize the proverbial eyeball test: if something looks like a rationalization of preexisting beliefs more than an argument based on widely acceptable premises, it's probably a rationalization, not a good argument. In that case, perhaps we need better eyeglasses, or LASIK philosophical eye surgery? ;)

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Let me make a few clarifications.

1. Science vs. philosophy. I am not trying to describe the difference between philosophical and scientific inquiry. As David pointed out, I am raising a normative question about what ideal inquiry looks like. So Nick might be right that scientists, like philosophers, are guilty of rationalizing. If so, then perhaps scientific inquiry does not approximate ideal inquiry as some might think. So much the worse for science, then. From a normative point of view, however, rationalization seems like a problem.

2. Axioms. Even if inquiry has to start somewhere, starting with ‘God exists’, ‘we have free will’, or any of the other examples mentioned in the post, seems like the wrong place to start. These are not legitimate starting points, since they are very controversial (to say the least). Imagine telling an atheist, “Let’s take the existence of God as axiomatic.” Such beliefs require support before they can serve as support for other claims.

Finally, a follow-up question for Justin: Do you think that, once one has argued that p (in professional settings), one has a professional obligation to defend p, so that one’s peers can figure out if p is true?

Justin Snedegar

That's an interesting question. I am inclined to say that no, you don't have such an obligation. If you're convinced by an argument against p, or even just get sick of thinking about p, I don't think you have an obligation to continue defending it. But I do think it's important - though I wouldn't say obligatory, I guess - to not give up on p (or dismiss p, if you didn't defend it in the first place) without figuring out whether there's some way to defend it, and whether that way has unacceptable costs.

There aren't likely to be many knockdown arguments either for or against most interesting philosophical positions, of course. So it's good to at least make clear the options open to those positions, and the corresponding commitments - e.g. which assumptions they need to make, or which assumptions of opposing positions they need to reject - so we can evaluate them. Defending some position in the face of objections seems like the best way to do this. So defending one's own turf about issue X seems to me to be in the service of seeking the truth about X. But again, I don't think you have an obligation to do this - it seems fine to me if you'd rather start working on issue Y, instead.

Moti Mizrahi

Marcus: I am very sympathetic to your remarks. Would you say that they apply to appeals to intuition (i.e., p is intuitive; therefore, p) quite generally, or just to appeals to commonsense (i.e., p is commonsensical; therefore, p)?

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I guess I want to say that some appeals to intuition are fine and others aren't. I'm kind of an old-school philosophical foundationalist here. I don't think "p seems intuitive to a lot of us" is a good reason to believe p is true. This is the sort of move that occurs when someone asserts that hurting someone is a reason not to act. It may seem intuitive to *them*, but it doesn't seem at all intuitive to the immoralist. The key is to try to find premises, or intuitions, that we can *all* accept. Of course, this is very difficult, but I think it's what we should shoot for.

A good example: Plato and Aristotle, as I understand them, thought they could do this by appeal to happiness (viz. everyone wants to be happy) and instrumental rationality (viz. it's obvious that if you want X and Y is a means to it, there's an instrumental sense in which you *ought* to Y).

This seems to me a good way to go. Even the immoralist wants to be happy, and even the immoralist understands instrumental rationality. There is no *bare* appeal to intuition here. The argument aims to be based on premises all can accept.

Now, of course, the rub here is that a few thousands of years of philosophizing seem to show that you can't get morality out of instrumental reasoning -- and so philosophers have moved away from such "foundational" justifications to more "intuitive" ones. It's this move I want to resist. I want to say: "Sorry, if you can't get morality from premises all can accept -- even the immoralist -- you can't get morality. You can get a facsimile of it, perhaps, one that appeals to those of us who "get" morality. But you can't get the real thing."

In other words, I do want to say that a lot of what passes as good argument really isn't. If we want to make good arguments, we should aim for the kind of foundational approach I described above -- and we have to deal with the pretty-evident fact that we just can't *get* a lot of the conclusions we want to get out of them. I, personally, would rather begin with *true* premises and not be able to derive "commonsense" than *begin* with "commonsense" and then derive commonsense (if you get my drift). :)

[Note: I should add, perhaps, that I think a good case *can* be made for categorical/moral normativity on foundational grounds, and I'm working on a paper on that now...but I digress:P

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks, Marcus.

I think I get your drift. Appeals to intuitions are fine as long as the intuitions are shared by all.

Who should be included in the "all"? All professional philosophers? All thinking persons? Do you think that the experimental findings concerning how intuitions vary culturally have any bearing on this?

Nick Smyth

So, a rationalization is a conclusion derived from an axiom that does not have universal assent? Again, this seems to turn all inquiry into rationalization. Famously, there is no contentful axiom/intuition/methodology in philosophy that receives universal assent, either inside the profession or outside of it. That is to say, if you can derive anything at all from P, then P does not have universal assent.

For example, Marcus, is it really true that all people want to be happy? Would a buddhist monk, who merely aims at the elimination of worldly consciousness, find this "intuitive"? Furthermore, is it really a universally accepted truth that one ought to take the means to one's ends? After all, one can just drop the end, and we need an argument to the effect that this is not rational (I think Raz has a paper on this).

Marcus Arvan

Nick and Moti: good worries, which I share. This is an age-old problem for a reason. I guess I want to adopt a scalar or comparative position: namely, that insofar as philosophy has to begin somewhere, it should begin with *as* widely acceptable premises as possible. As for everyone wanting to be happy, I actually think this was a big mistake by Plato and Aristotle. That's why I, like many other philosophers, have searched for something still more universal.

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