About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Philosophers don’t just make it up as they go

Yesterday I was facilitating a philosophy discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture when I found myself all of a sudden defending philosophy from the accusation that it’s all made up stuff. Two of the participants raised the objection from different perspectives, both representing persistent misconceptions concerning how philosophers go about doing their business.

The first criticism is that philosophy can never settle anything because, unlike science, it does not rely on experimental evidence. Granted, philosophers don’t do experiments (other than the very inexpensive thought variety), but then again philosophy isn’t science, so it seems odd to accuse philosophers of not doing what scientists do. (Then again, check out the experimental philosophy web site!)

Philosophers have other ways of settling disputes and advancing their discipline, and these ways make use of the rules of rational discourse and logic. For instance, just like no self-respecting scientist would be caught dead conducting an experiment with a statistically flawed design (say, the lack of a control), so no professional philosopher wants to be found engaging in a logical fallacy. And logical fallacies are even more clearly defined and understood than most experimental protocols.

Moreover, philosophers are not in the business of studying the natural world, so “experiments” in the standard scientific sense would simply be inappropriate. The domain of philosophy ranges over issues concerning the nature of reality (metaphysics), of values (ethics), of knowledge (epistemology), and of art (aesthetics), to name a few. Now, what sort of experiment could possibly be illuminating questions of metaphysics? How would you settle, on scientific grounds, the question of whether there is a real physical world out there, as opposed to all of us being part of the thoughts of a cosmic being, or perhaps simply the holograms of a simulation that someone is playing as a video game? This is not to say that philosophers should ignore scientific findings (e.g., on how human brains make moral decisions), and in fact they do not. But philosophical inquiry has a different enough nature from scientific inquiry that there is no common methodological standard of progress, one cannot be said to be “better” than the other any more than soccer can be said to be better than baseball. They are just different sorts of games.

Now to the second criticism: philosophers cannot be objective or detached from the issues they debate, and besides they have to build their arguments on the basis of one assumption or another, so the exercise amounts to just telling whatever story one prefers. Again, the analysis, I think, misses the mark. There is no question that philosophers are human beings, and as such they tend to seek the same golden trio that most other people (including scientists, by the way) go after: glory, money, and sex, not necessarily in that order.

But philosophical discourse is founded on the same attitude that scientists have of valuing reciprocal criticism and opening one’s arguments to rebuttal and possible refutation. Unlike the case of religion, for instance, philosophers can’t say “I’m right because God told me so,” or “I’m right because it’s written in a book,” regardless of who the author of that book happens to be (that, incidentally, would be a logical fallacy, known as an argument from authority). No, philosophers have to say “I think I am right because...” and carefully fill the blanks with cogent logic, a logic that is mercilessly put under the microscope by their colleagues, because that’s how one gets to publish and obtain tenure (some glory, though usually little money and perfectly ordinary amounts of sex).

As for making assumptions, those can, again, be explored and justified by reason. Besides, scientists have to make a lot of assumptions before proceeding with their work as well, and ironically some of those assumptions are inherently philosophical in nature (like the empirically unverifiable idea that the world is real).

The fact that philosophers continually have to explain and justify themselves, while scientists usually don’t, is a peculiar result of the all-American anti-intellectualism that is so prominent on this side of the pond (in Europe philosophers pack bookstores for readings and discussions, and they regularly appear on or host talk shows -- can you imagine a philosopher on The View? or Regis and Kelly?). Of course, science itself sometimes does not escape anti-intellectual reactions (think of the never ending “controversy” about evolution), but at least science is generally granted the attribute of useful and therefore tolerated as a (rather expensive) academic exercise.

But a society that does not value critical thinking, the laying out of rational arguments, and the use of logic in debating its issues, is a society in decline and risking a return to obscurantism. The irony here is that the most important documents regulating American life, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, were in fact a direct product of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, and were drafted by people like Thomas Jefferson, with a very keen interest in philosophy and rational discourse. Of course, the Constitution has been under constant assault over the past few decades, in synch with the rising tide of religious fundamentalism and irrationalism. Appreciating what philosophy is about and how it works may make a significant contribution toward reversing that tide.


  1. Massimo, the use of rational arguments and logic can not be the defining characteristic of philosophy. Scientists also use rational arguments and logic all the time. They use it to make sense of their experimental results, while philosophers use it to ponder questions, that are impossible to settle using only rational arguments and logic. That's why science has advanced so enormously during the last centuries while philosophers still discuss the same old questions.

    An obvious example is the mind-body problem. If you try to look that up, you find descriptions of a lot of different positions - from substance dualism to pure physicalism - but you don't find any definitive anwer as to which position is the right one although philosophers has discussed the question for millenia. Let's face it: the mind-body problem is not going to be solved by philosophy - neuroscience will take care of that.

    Don't misunderstand me! I find philosophical questions fascinating and I'm absolutely not anti-intellectual - I'm just a bit disappointed with the track record of philosophy.

  2. I agree with morten, I enjoy philosophy but logic can only get you so far. Reality is not a concept and philosophers only deal with concepts.

  3. Morten said: Scientists also use rational arguments and logic all the time. They use it to make sense of their experimental results, while philosophers use it to ponder questions, that are impossible to settle using only rational arguments and logic.

    As I understand it, philosophy is mainly about the definition and clarification of concepts. How would we know what "science" consists of without using philosophy to define it? For instance, we need, at a minimum, something like Popper's demarcation to tell real science from pseudo-science.

    Example for the sports crowd: Scientists are like stock car drivers, and philosophers are like NASCAR. How can the scientists win the race if they don't know what is or isn't considered a stock car, or what a race track is like, or even what winning means.

    You said that there are questions that are impossible to settle using only rational arguments and logic. I assume you're talking about subjects like ethics? Even in that case, the arguments in question ought to contain premises that are derived from some kind of evidence (perhaps even scientific evidence?), not solely arguments about the logic of the concepts at hand. "What's the best type of life?" may be unanswerable (or just have a lot of different answers), but the arguer has to offer some type of concrete evidence for their position. Unless we're talking about religious philosophy ;)

    You mentioned the mind/body problem. I think the best modern philosophy takes scientific knowledge into account. I believe Daniel Dennett, for one, carefully considers the latest neuroscience when he's contemplating consciousness. Yes, I know he wrote a book about it that didn't quite deliver on what its title proclaimed. :)

    And don't forget all the other types of philosophy out there, such as law, economics, math, and politics. It would be difficult to run a society without philosophy in general, and I don't think this fact is being communicated well (or at all) to the average U.S. citizen.

  4. One of the things that I have learned through Google University is that philosophy without science is useless, but likewise science without philosophy. Without philosophy to to guide analysis, science is mere data-gathering.

    Philosophers are the ones who define such important ideas as species concepts. They provide a structure for science. And when scientists analyze their data, they may be using mathematics, but need the philosophy which honed experimental design in order to disprove or prove the null hypothesis.

    Scientists' use of rational arguments would be impossible if not for philosophy.

    I'm buyng what Massimo is selling, here morten.

  5. @Steelman: I think science was doing just fine before Popper and I'm not really aware that his ideas have caused any significant changes in the way science is done. And isn't the main demarcation criterion between real science and pseudo-science simply that real science works, pseudo-science doesn't? Otherwise I agree that philosophical analysis should be based on evidence-based premises.

    @Mike Haubrich: I have been a practising scientist for 10 years and I have not once had to look up concepts or experimental design principles in the philosophical litterature. Hence, if we define philosophy as that which philosophers write about in the philosophical litterature, science does not really depend on philosophy to any significant degree. Scientists can actually think for themselves you know!

  6. morten,

    There are plenty of issues in science that likely cannot be decided by evidenced. For example, I was discussing with a friend tonight about how to distinguish between evolutionary models that make identical predictions (we were talking about genetic drift versus genetic draft, if anyone cares). Both models are based on well known biological phenomena (sampling error in finite populations and linked selection, respectively), so there is no obvious scientific reason to believe one over the other. While it is possible a new test or theory will come along to distinguish them, deciding which one is correct will most likely come down to a philosophical argument. I have given just one example, but there are many such problems that arise in evolutionary biology, and probably most other sciences as well.

    -- Chris

  7. You may think that I am pulling this out of my butt, but even going back as far as Bacon, philosophy has set the framework for practicing and analyzing science. If reading Massimo's blog hasn't shown you that philosophy and science are irrevocably intertwined, then perhaps a jaunt over to Evolving Thoughts may explain what I mean.

  8. Morten,

    but there are two points that seems to be missing from your view of science and philosophy:

    1) Philosophy is NOT in the business of solving scientific problems, not any more than science is in the business of resolving philosophical issues. How, then, can one say that philosophy *failed* to be useful to science?

    2) Scientists *have* to make philosophical assumptions to work. The fact that they do not care to discuss them, or often are not even aware of them, doesn't mean that they don't need philosophy. It just means that the philosophers are doing useful work that the scientists tend not to read about because they are (justifiably) busy doing science.

  9. @Chris: It would be much more convincing if you could give an example of a scientific problem that has already been solved by a purely philosophical (not evidence-based) argument in stead of one that you think might be in the future.

    @Mike: It is my impression that the philosophers are usually lagging behind trying to explain what the scientist have been doing. I certainly cannot imagine any scientist sitting around waiting for the philosophers to set up a framework before he can get to work. However, I'm certainly no expert on the history of science, so I am as a matter of fact pulling this out of my butt.

    @Massimo: 1) Well Chris thinks philosophy can solve problems in evolutionary biology! My problem is that the border separating science and non-science is moving all the time making it difficult (impossible?) to determine whether a given problem is scientific or philosophical. The mind-body problem is of course a good example. Another one could be the existence of god. Richard Dawkins thinks that is a scientific question and I tend to agree with him, while others think it is a purely philosophical or religious question.

    2) I think there is a flaw in your logic here Massimo. The fact that many working scientists are doing just fine while unaware of the work of philosophers shows exactly that they don't need philosophy. You are of course right that scientists have to make certain assumptions but in most cases those are just rather common-sense assumptions that everybody makes anyway (the external world exists and follows certain natural rules that we can make sense of and so on). In any case I think scientists mostly choose their assumptions because they work and not because they are the result of a theorethical, philosophical analysis.

  10. I think there is a flaw in your logic here Massimo. The fact that many working scientists are doing just fine while unaware of the work of philosophers shows exactly that they don't need philosophy.

    Morten, there is possibly something you ignore there, which in turn puts the flaw in your logic instead. The fact that you or I did not get our assumptions and modus operandi directly from philosophers does NOT mean it did not come from them. I'm not stating it all did either, but just wanted to point out what I see as a hole in your reasoning there. So, maybe we just got our "philosophy" indirectly, from our advisors and professors and etc., and they from theirs, etc. Common sense, does it exist as an independent, "obvious" body of knowledge or did it have to be worked out sometime in the past by someone doing "philosophy"? I don't know, but am inclined to see the second possibility as more plausible.

    I myself have my moments of ignoring philosophy as irrelevant, and other moments when I see it as really important stuff. I just can't believe so many highly smart people are just purely wasting their time philosophizing... :-)

  11. Hm... looking at that last sentence of mine... I think me English butchered the meaning there. In case it did sound like I said smart people are wasting their time philosophizing, it was not it. I meant that I couldn't believe it was a waste, exactly because such smart people are doing it. There you go.


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