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Anonymous GTA in Europe

One way of dealing with this potential epistemic uselessness of Philosophy (my way) is to spend most of my time researching the extent of this pointlessness. Hence I respond to these concerns in my students is by encouraging them (as equally as I can) in entertaining and refining whichever methodological stance they are drawn to. It seems, entirely subjectively, that they are more interested in continuing to study Philosophy if their metaphilosophical concerns are acknowledged rather than passed over shut down.

Richard Yetter Chappell

I blogged a response to Brennan's interesting "Skepticism" paper here:

Three key points:
(1) There's no better alternative to philosophical inquiry, if you want philosophical knowledge.

(2) We can come to know all sorts of conditional claims, even if we can't be sure which antecedents are true.

(3) Some sub-groups, starting from (near enough to) the *right* intuitions, may be objectively reliable (and hence, on various 'externalist' views, secure knowledge) even if there's no "neutral" way to establish who is in this privileged position.

Wesley Buckwalter

A large and growing amount of philosophy today takes as its starting point discoveries and evidence from natural, life, and cognitive sciences. This work conceptualizes those findings, theorizes about how they might be applied to new contexts or broader philosophical issues. Emphasizing these responsible starting points to philosophical inquiry, though not infallible of course, often helps me to defuse some of the worries you raise in my own mind and in the classroom. Another strategy, reflected more in current philosophical scholarship as well, connects broader philosophical issues to relevant social and personal questions that we care about and are important to us in our everyday lives. I've found that focusing on how philosophy could underlie or illuminate particular questions of this sort has also been an effective strategy for me.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous GTA in Europe: I think that's a great approach. I recall being frustrated as an undergrad and grad with how some of my professors (and fellow students) more or less set aside such concerns rather than taking them seriously!

Marcus Arvan

Hi Richard: Thanks for drawing attention to your blogpost! I have to confess that I find all three responses worrisome.

On (1), saying that there's "no better alternative" doesn't seem to me to grapple with the worry. The worry is that if philosophy bears *no* relation to truth-conduciveness, there is a better alternative: not doing philosophy. For, the worry is, if philosophy isn't truth-conducive, then doing it is at best a waste of time and at worst an intellectually (and perhaps even socially) dangerous endeavor (since philosophers may confuse that they do with something truth-conducive).

On (2), I'm more sympathetic--but what's the value of knowing merely conditional philosophical claims, such as *if* Kant is correct, then morality is categorical? What's the point of knowing the conditional if philosophy doesn't provide any truth-conducive results on the antecedent (so one can run the modus ponens) or the consequent (so one can run the modus tollens)?

Finally, (3) is the proposal I'm the least-sympathetic with. For the worry is, what grounds might we have for thinking that some sub-group is starting with near-enough to the "right" intuitions? Externalism makes sense in science, since one can provide independent checks of whether the scientific apparatus is reliable. But, when it comes to philosophical intuitions, all we have are the intuitions of the sub-groups. So, while in principle, yes, one group might have the "right" intuitions, it's hard to see how we might have any reliable grounds for knowing which group that is.

Marcus Arvan

Wesley: Great point, one I'm increasingly sympathetic with. Wittgenstein once said the problem with metaphysics (and, by implication, other areas of philosophical inquiry) is that there is "no data." Perhaps philosophy only has adequate data to go on when it is pursued in conjunction with empirical knowledge from the sciences.

Aaron Alvarez

It depends on what type of claim. Usually, I find explaining how certain developments from philosophical claims contribute to fields. A common one I discuss this way is Democritus atoms. The contribution is not the intuition of the claim but the reasoning process and the features of the theory. I try to separate the abstractness of the theory from its use and importance because historically the externalism of a theory does not guarantee its success and externalism can occur after the claim is made. When it comes to describing ethics and aesthetic claims I tend to focus on the contribution to their experience in life. So the ability to create communities and express themselves. I teach it and discuss it more as adding specificity to our language and making ourselves better at communicating what is otherwise harder to communicate and making relations more specific.


I tell my students that philosophy is less about getting consensus and more about living well within the limits of our ignorance and uncertainty while trying to incrementally expand the boundaries of our knowledge and certainty.

So, most of the time, our job is critical: to reject clearly unsupported or irrational views, to qualify uncertain ones, and to adjust our behavior to be proportionate to our rational degree of certainty. I point out that this is a major accomplishment, since arguably the greatest evils and errors of history are due to arrogance and overconfidence, not to ignorance or uncertainty.

On a related note, this thread on Daily Nous: http://dailynous.com/2015/07/16/humility-in-philosophy/

Having said all of that, I do make an effort to point out kinds of philosophical progress: narrowing the field of candidate views, creating more coherent theories from scientific data, clarifying to ourselves what we think and why, and understanding one another deeply in disagreement: understanding why others disagree, seeing them as rational, respect-worthy persons despite their seeming wrongness, rather than as evil, stupid, or irrational.


Well, I respond to these skeptical worries by recalling that even our so-called "hard" sciences must presuppose all sorts of things (e.g., reality of the past, reality of an external mind-independent world whose regularities can be uncovered through investigation, logical consistency of modern mathematics, validity of inductive inference, and so on) that can only be justified on the basis that these things *seem* true/reasonable to us (our sciences cannot possibly hope to justify these things without also arguing in a circle). And yet no one seriously doubts that these sciences are a source of real knowledge despite the fact that they tacitly presuppose all sorts of things that can only be justified on such seemingly shaky grounds (pardon the pun). It would seem that there is just no way to avoid these sorts of statements if we are to claim knowledge of anything.

What we need to let go of is this human desire for an incontrovertible foundation of thought, from which we can philosophize with certainty. That sort of thing just isn't in the cards for such epistemically challenged creatures as ourselves.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tim: Yes, but isn't there an immense difference between those kinds of assumptions and the ones philosophers make?

All of the assumptions you list are ones that basically *all* human observers (setting aside extreme forms of skepticism) recognize as true/safe to assume. The thing about science and mathematics are that, setting aside extreme skepticism, they are based on things that basically everyone recognizes as true. But philosophy is not like this: there is *dissensus* on which premises are true. When it comes to just about any philosophical subject--free will, consciousness, morality, whatever--there is fundamental, lasting *disagreement* over which basic propositions are true. And this seems to be why, in contrast to math and the sciences, which have reached pretty firm consensuses on a lot, philosophy *hasn't*: not on free will, not on morality, not on...just about anything. We disagree about premises, and consequently, different philosophers end up in incredibly different places--and, unlike the sciences, where we can point to data *everyone* sees to settle matters, we seem to lack any independent "check" in philosophy.



I am inclined to think that the sort of consensus you are talking about is more a sociological phenomenon than it is anything else. For centuries it was considered similarly obvious by most everyone that something like the medieval Scholastic principle of causality was true until Hume et al. started exercising their skeptical muscles in this direction (of course, it also helped that a non-Aristotelian approach to science was starting to develop that didn't require an appeal to such "causes").

But to use a more modern example, consider the axiomatic foundation of modern mathematics in set theory. Personally, I *believe* this foundation to be logically consistent (i.e. free of contradiction) on the basis that the relevant principles found in ZF/ZFC at least partially *inform* my intuitive concept of a collection. And since my intuitive concept of a collection *seems* (!) eminently coherent to me, I am inclined to believe that ZF/ZFC are similarly coherent. However, if it were not the case that so much of our knowledge were dependent on the logical consistency of ZF/ZFC, I could easily imagine all sorts of skeptical worries being applied to our intuitive concept of a collection by philosophers. (Needless to say, the fact that we have yet to find a contradiction in ZF/ZFC is no real evidence to me that there isn't one. It's not at all clear to me that we should be able to find such a contradiction in the event one exists. In any case, earlier mathematicians were quite confident in the essential validity of what they were doing prior to the fantastic success of modern mathematics.)

Apart from all this, it might be the case that we are unable to arrive at even a modest consensus about such weighty matters as "free will, consciousness, morality" because the personal stakes are so high. There is a sense in which the lack of consensus philosophers enjoy is the price they must pay for thinking about such interesting topics. (In contrast with modern mathematics where the personal stakes couldn't be lower since almost no one cares about the relevant abtracta in and of themselves).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Tim: I'm willing to countenance the idea that some areas of consensus (such as consensus about abstract logical-mathematical theorems such as those regarding ZF/ZFC) may be "more of a sociological phenomenon than anything else." I do not think this is plausible, however, for the sciences more broadly. It's not plausibly "more of a sociological phenomenon than anything else" that the (extraordinarily precise and wideranging) predictions of the Standard Model of Particle Physics have been confirmed extraordinarily well through tons of independent experiments. It would be a miracle to end all miracles for this to merely be a sociological phenomenon, rather than convergence on *facts.* The same goes for relativity, molecular biology, etc.

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