convergence in philosophy

Philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin, interviewed by Scientific American, defends philosophy against the charge that it has made no progress in its long history.  I am sympathetic to the claim and many of his points.  But…

Your colleague David Chalmers has fretted that “there has not been large collective convergence to the truth on the big questions of philosophy,” such as God, free will and consciousness. Does this lack of convergence bother you?

I disagree with Dave here. Overwhelmingly most philosophers are atheists or agnostics, which I take to be convergence to the truth. Most are compatibilist about free will and believe in it, which I also take to be convergence to the truth. Almost all believe in consciousness and most don’t have a clue how to explain it, which is wisdom. It is not that there isn’t convergence, it is that the outliers who do not converge get much more attention than the great mass of convergers, who don’t particularly stand out.

Granted that this convergence has happened, why don’t I find it particularly meaningful?  I think it’s because there is no clear, established narrative to explain how most philosophers came to be compatibilist atheists, which leaves unanswered the suspicion that the change is merely demographic, i.e. more atheist compatibilists are now going into philosophy for wider social reasons.

Contrast this with science, whose progress gains a great deal of credibility because it has a clear history.  Anyone who takes an introductory course in astronomy or modern physics will hear the story of celestial mechanics (Copernicus through Newton) or of special relativity and quantum theory.  Each of these has a before and after.  Before, people believed this-or-that, which is understandable as an intuitive extrapolation of common sense and experience.  Then there was some new experiment or observation, and only some new theory could explain it.  This was recognized at the time, and so scientists understandably modified their beliefs.  No doubt these stories are simplifications–ignoring secondary characters, uncertainties and ambiguities in the initial experiments, theoretical detours and dead-ends–but I would say they are basically correct.  The formation of the scientific consensus makes sense and doesn’t involve non-scientific influences, and this gives students confidence in it.

Compared to physics, philosophy does not have an intelligible history.  This is why philosophy students still consult primary sources–despite progress, the ancient Greeks are still in a meaningful sense our contemporaries.  How did philosophers get to be atheists?  No doubt they could point to philosophical reasons, e.g. “Hume proved that religion is silly.”  But Hume’s contemporaries weren’t satisfied that he had proved this.  When and how was it agreed that he had done so?  In fact, I think most atheist philosophers would agree that it was not philosophy that vanquished religion.  They would probably point to the advance of the natural sciences, encounters with non-Western cultures, advancing technology and social structures.  None of these at any particular time decisively tipped the balance against religion (the ancients also knew that many phenomena have natural explanations and that other cults existed), but at some point the balance got tipped.  Even if this is true, it is a very unsatisfactory story.

I agree that philosophy has progressed, but my idea of its progress is more humble.  Questions have not been answered, but they have been clarified.  Systems have not been proved or disproved, but their hidden assumptions have been brought to the surface.  One can’t get away with certain kinds of sloppiness and be taken seriously anymore.

10 Responses

  1. What finally cured me of any notion of progress in philosophy as a thought-tradition was reading a history of philosophy from a philosopher that I respect; and who has argued well in favour of the *potential* for philosophy to be the kind of subject that does exhibity progress. To me, in contrast, the book showed nothing but the zig-zags of academic fashion.

    The book is: Alasdair MacIntyre. God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    On the other hand, my own personal and self-validated philosophy has indeed progressed – from incoherent harmfulness to something much better. So, solid experience confirms that philosophy is objective and progress is possible for an individuals during his lifespand. But not at the group level and across generations.

  2. Funny post.

    Curious how any of this could be defended except as better stories for power as the post-modernists say.

    History is a story and the story of science may confer higher status for now but these things change around. Only a short time ago scientists were called natural philosophers. And lower status than now.

    How does one really – I mean, for real instead of for social status purposes – seriously argue for science with all its fakery, cowardice, and rubbish studies?

    Examples include global warming, no honest public statements on race, racial group differences, sex and brain differences, diet, harm from medications, replication crises that affect 50% + of studies that are supposedly ‘scientific’… and I could go on and on… and on.

  3. One of the things that is interesting is that the most famous philosophers have tended to be wild innovators. The problem is that, even if the person is brilliant and genuinely insightful, that kind of person tends to get a lot wrong and it takes some patient sifting to separate the wheat from the chaff. But people rarely go to the sifters, they go right to the brilliant crazies and are dazzled by the big names and intellectual pyrotechnics. (It’s interesting that those who are probably the best of philosophers, like Aristotle and Aquinas are as much sifters and synthesizers as they are innovators.)

    Something similar happens in science, with the most famous names getting a lot wrong, but the sifting process is more definitive. The bad ideas of Newton or Einstein have been just completely dropped.

    One of the things that this underscores is the absolute importance of reading secondary works in philosophy. In fact, for the common reader, I would strongly privilege such secondary works over original texts.

  4. Narrative clarity does have some evidential value. Take the standard history of quantum theory: blackbody radiation, photoelectric effect, spectral lines, stability of atoms. If most physicists at the time had found this all meaningless and early quantum theory as crazy, but then a couple of generations later all physicists believed it *with no change in the evidence or arguments*, then students would be justified in being confused. They should want to know why physicists didn’t find these arguments convincing (even if they seem so to the student) and what it was that convinced them (because we must know what it was to judge its validity). One might indeed suspect some outside sociological influence, whether then or now or both.

  5. > Something similar happens in science, with > the most famous names getting a lot
    > wrong, but the sifting process is more
    > definitive. The bad ideas of Newton or
    > Einstein have been just completely
    > dropped.

    Indeed. It’s a funny thing that Einstein is “more dead” than Aristotle. Even though most would say the former was “more right”, they think it more settled what he was right and wrong about, and few expect any but historical insights from returning to his original works.

  6. Bruce: I also have this impression from histories of philosophy of one thing following another for no particular reason. Such books are nice for giving an introduction to what the big thinkers thought, but I suspect you could scramble the order of thinkers quite a bit without it making any less sense.

  7. I think that you underestimate Thomism.

  8. In my experience, real philosophy is an elaboration of patterns of thought, particularly ones which characterize certain emotional states, hence the ‘weeping philosopher’ Heraclitus, the ‘laughing philosopher’ Diogenes, and more modern examples like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

  9. The rest of philosophy is just logic and mathematics.

  10. I guess I’ll forgive you for that “just”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: