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"There has been (non-large) convergence on answers to a small number of big questions in philosophy: in questions about god there appears to have been major convergence toward atheism."

There is a rather jarring missing premise here: that philosophical debate has been responsible for this convergence. Obviously mere convergence amongst a group of persons is not evidence for progress.

The reality is almost certainly that sociological factors play a critical role in the predominance of atheism amongst professional philosophers. And I say this as a card-carrying atheist!


Isn’t Dietrich making a point against the thesis he defends? We could accept that there is not much “progress” in ethics (let’s take it for granted for now), but his Aristotle thought experiment suggests that there has been a huge progress in metaphysics, although a “negative” one. Aristotle’s scientific theory is entailed by his metaphysics. Let’s say (|M|=1) => (|S|=1), where M stands for metaphysics and S for science. Even if we admit that we can’t be certain that today’s scientific explanations are “true”, we can be certain that Aristotle’s is wrong. So basically we have |S|=0. It is then obvious that |M|=0, too. Thus we can know that some part of Aristotle’s metaphysics is wrong (namely, the part where he says that the Earth lies at the center of the universe *because it its metaphysical properties*).

In my view, this *is* a progress. Scientific explanation has shown that some metaphysical theses were wrong (that is: they cannot be sustained in light of the available scientific evidence), even though we can’t know whether any of the remaining metaphysical theses is true. That this is a negative progress (discarding a wrong thesis, and not vindicating a true one) does not mean that it is not a progress.

Matt DeStefano

Marcus: I'm not sure why you find Chalmers' claims to be strange. The claim that there is convergence on a philosophical issue is consistent with the claim that there are good philosophers who disagree with the majority.

Nick: It doesn't seem problematic to agree that sociological factors may play a role in the predominance of atheism amongst professional philosophers, as long as philosophical arguments are doing *some* of the work. I would think that the physical sciences aren't completely immune to sociological factors that influence belief.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: Thanks for your comment. Suppose I were to say to you, "There has been a great deal of convergence toward quantum mechanics and the theories of relativity. However, I'm not sure why you think it is strange that many top names in physics still believe in and defend Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics." I daresay you would call me nuts. It would be *bizarre* to say (A) there has been great progress in physics if (B) a sizable proportion of "top names" in physics did not believe modern theories, and (C) there was not any clear, uncontroversial evidence in favor of the modern theories over the ancient ones. (Which of course is the case in many areas of philosophy).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Pierre: Thanks for your comment. But that argument won't do. Your argument is essentially that we have made progress beyond Aristotelian metaphysics because *science* has proven its implications false.

But that is not *philosophical* progress, at least not in the sense that it was achieved by...you know, philosophers! No, it was scientific progress.

Michel X.

It strikes me that we're conflating consensus (Chalmers's 'convergence') with progress. Consensus/convergence is surely a desirable property of advancements in understanding, but I fail to see why it should be a necessary one.

Our understanding of philosophical issues in virtually every subfield is much more nuanced and refined than it was fifty years ago. Even if there's little consensus on any given issue, we nonetheless have a much better grasp of the problems, potential solutions, and their merits and demerits. That looks like progress to me, especially with respect to questions that simply can't be investigated empirically.

But why think that progress requires convergence?

Matt DeStefano

Marcus: OK, I see where you are coming from. I don't think that's a good analogy. The kind of evidence we have available for theories of physics is not the same (both in kind and in quality) as we have for the question of theism. We also don't have large, cultural institutions that are dedicated towards instilling and spreading the Good News of Aristotelian physics (let alone the emotional and cultural significance of accepting theism). We don't have universities that are "Aristotelian" universities, etc. The sociological reasons for accepting theism are much, much stronger than the sociological reasons for accepting Aristotelian physics.

Additionally, I don't think we are in the same relation towards Aristotelian physics now that we are in relation to theism now. I would wager that the convergence away from theism in philosophy happened much more recently compared to the convergence away from Aristotelian physics.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: Thanks for your reply. However, I think you are misinterpreting how I was using the analogy. Perhaps I was not clear enough -- so let me clarify.

I was *not* suggesting that the evidence we have for theories of physics and theories of philosophy (e.g. theism) are the same. What I was suggesting was that if the situation for scientific theories (counterfactually) *were* similar to the situation for actual philosophical theories -- if there *were* no clear evidence that quantum mechanics is better than Aristotelian physics, and if the latter were still taught in universities -- you would NOT think science had many any real progress. My claim then was that, by analogy, since that *is* the situation with philosophy, you should not think that philosophy has made (much) progress.

Marcus Arvan

Michel: Thanks for your comment.

Consider Dan Dennett's famous Chmess example (http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chmess.pdf ).

According to Dennett, a lot of philosophy is just a game played by rules philosophers have more or less arbitrarily made up. Now, if you were "in deep" in the game of philosophizing about the rules of Chmess, you might think you had made progress. And in one sense you have. You've learned more about the rules of Chmess. But Dennett's point is that this conception of progress is silly. It's not *real* progress -- for Chmess isn't *about* anything important.

Eric Dietrich, I take it, means to argue that philosophy is basically all Chmess. Yes, we understand the "rules" better. We understood "what is to be said in favor of and against", say, Aristotelian ethics, Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, etc. But, none of this is real progress. Why? Because, again, none of it *truly* gets us anywhere. We are still just as flummoxed by morality as we were 2,000 years ago. And indeed, Aristotelian virtue theorists think we are *more* misguided than we were before (they think that Kantianism, utilitarianism, etc., are positively wrong and thus, far from being progress, are anti-progress!).

Here's another way to put it. We have more theories -- and arguments -- than we did 2,000 years ago. But, what evidence (if any) do we have that any of them are getting us closer to the truth? Consider personal identity, for instance. Here, the same theories have been around for millenia (biological persistence, memory, psychological continuity, further-fact theory). We have more theories, but no convergence on any one of them. The same goes for ethics. Some people are Kantians, others utilitarians -- and others relativists and skeptics!

The philosophical game has gotten more complex, but has it made genuine progress in terms of answering the big questions?

Andrew Sepielli

I second Michel's admonishment against conflating convergence and progress.

And perhaps it's worth distinguishing between two models of progress. On one model, I make epistemic progress as more of my beliefs about important philosophical matters are more likely to be true. On another, I make epistemic progress as I get *closer* to the truth. A non-philosophy example to pull them apart -- halfway through his quest, Indiana Jones may be no more justifiably confident than he was at the beginning re: the true location of the holy grail. But he's closer to the truth, insofar as the only way for him to non-accidentally uncover the location is to take steps 1 through 200, and he's at 130 now instead of 1.

With zero expertise in the philosophy of science, I will venture the following: In (normal) science, the two types of progress co-occur. In philosophy, they typically don't. But I think the second kind of progress is important. And I also find it tough to believe that the second kind of progress has not happened in philosophy; think of how many arguments philosophers have shown to be bad -- those are steps on our quest.

Michel X.


Thanks, I see your concern more clearly now. The positive account of progress I suggested is definitely open to that worry. Still, I don't think that worry does anything to establish that consensus/convergence is a necessary feature of progress.

What's more, though, I would have thought that progress required some kind of activity directed to/guided by some sort of intentionally specified goal. If that's the case, then I don't see how we (or any other discipline, for that matter) can escape Dennett's worry entirely. It just seems like a bullet that we all ought to bite, and maybe water down with an appeal to the kinds of things valued in an evaluative community.

Even colloquially, convergence hardly seems necessary: the question of whether I've made any progress on my journey from A to B, after all, has nothing at all to do with convergence, and everything to do with where I stand relative to my prior position and my goal position. And while it's true that physical progress is in some ways different from scientific progress (maybe even susceptible to slightly different standards of evaluation, although I suspect that an action-theoretic skeleton is still appropriate), that doesn't mean that philosophical progress isn't also different.

Maybe I'm being unclear. I'm just not convinced that we're using the same units of measure in every case. While convergence might be a necessary feature of 'scientific progress' (e.g. if achieving convergence is part of the goal of scientific activity), it's just not obvious to me that it's part of the goal of philosophical inquiry, let alone of progress tout court. To be sure, it might be, but that doesn't seem like a trivial fact!


I third that is important to not conflate lack of convergence with lack of success! Philosophy is like literature, as opposed to science, in this regard. The fact that authors have not converged over what is the best novel to write is not evidence that the novel has been unsuccessful as a literary genre.

Marcus, you write that “the philosophical game has gotten more complex, but has it made genuine progress in terms of answering the big questions?” Your argument I believe is that from the lack of evidence of genuine progress, i.e. a lack of any reason to think we are closer to answering the big questions, we should infer that philosophy is not progressing. That inference is only decisive under the assumption that if we were closer to answering the big questions then we would have (found) a reason to think we were closer.
But, as Andrew points out nicely, there are two model of progress, under one of which, as we get closer to potentially answering the big questions we don't have evidence that we are closer, and I think this is the one that is relevant to philosophy. As Wittgenstein said: "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open."

Matt DeStefano

Marcus: I thought I understood the analogy, but this wouldn't be the first time I had misread an argument. My response was meant to be along these lines: while we would be justified in - counterfactually - saying that physics has not made progress if people were still teaching Aristotelianism in universities, there are relevant considerations that make us unjustified in a similar claim about philosophy on the basis that there are still philosophers who subscribe to theism. Mostly because they are very different propositions in very different disciplines.

This is because theism, unlike Aristotelian physics, has been largely institutionalized and has serious psychological and cultural ramifications if we give it up. More importantly, convergence doesn't happen all at once. If convergence towards atheism is happening in philosophy, it's likely too early to be asking for complete unanimity in the profession.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: Looks like it was I who misunderstood! Clearly, there are differences both in the kind of data philosophers and scientists deal with, and the sociology of the relevant disciplines. That being said, it's one thing to say that "convergence doesn't happen at once." It's another thing for it not to happen at all! And this sort of seems to be the case with philosophy. After thousands of years, what answers *have* we converged upon? You say, "it's likely too early" to ask for unanimity. Okay sure -- but is *some* real convergence too much to ask for? Is it really too soon for that?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mert: Thanks for your comment. However, I'm a bit confused by it. You write, "As Wittgenstein said: "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open." Okay, fair enough, but how many "doors have we opened"? Dietrich's answer is: NONE! We haven't achieved any notable progress in terms of answering the big questions. We seen, in other words, to be turning dial that *never* open doors. Why think, then, that the dial will open it sooner or later?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Michel: I'm entirely on board with some of the things you say. However, I think they raise problems!

You write: Even colloquially, convergence hardly seems necessary: the question of whether I've made any progress on my journey from A to B, after all, has nothing at all to do with convergence, and everything to do with where I stand relative to my prior position and my goal position."

Fair enough, but Dietrich's very point is that philosophy hasn't made *any* progress vis-a-vis its prior position or goal position. We are still debating the same darn issues -- and taking many of the same arguments seriously -- that people were debating thousands of years ago!

You also write: "It just seems like a bullet that we all ought to bite, and maybe water down with an appeal to the kinds of things valued in an evaluative community."

Again, fair enough -- but it seems like a huge bullet to bite. If we water down our notion of "progress" so far, haven't we watered it down to nothing?


I think we should be careful to distinguish western academic philosophy from the rest. I see no progress in the tradition of Chalmers (or in Chalmers come to that), and would agree with Whiteheads's remark about 'footnotes to Plato', but let's not criticize the whole field for a local failure.

It may not be a coincidence that a rejection of nondualism or 'eastern' philosophy is invariably accompanied by a lack of progress. The penny will no doubt drop one day.

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