Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ten things everyone should know about philosophy

If you could impart to the general public a handful of insights, in or about philosophy, what would they be?

A few ideas that spring to mind:

1) Philosophy (and that includes ethics!) isn't just a matter of opinion. Some opinions are better justified, or more reasonable, than others. We should aim to hold those judgments that are best supported by reasons.

2) Philosophy is a form of inquiry, not rhetoric or apologetics. One should be open to the possibility of changing one's mind, and - ideally - view opposing arguments as opportunities for learning, rather than threats to be dismissed at all costs.

Corollary: The aim of argument is not to convince others to your point of view regardless of its true merits, but rather to adduce rational evidence that the view is most likely correct, i.e. true.

3) The idea of objective truth is nothing to be scared of, and shouldn't lead to dogmatism so long as we recognize our own fallibility. Just because the truth is out there, doesn't mean we have a perfect grasp of it! If anything, it's relativism that leads to dogmatism, since the relativist holds that merely believing something suffices to make it "true for you". That would mean that you cannot possibly be wrong, so self-doubt or rational reflection is rendered superfluous.

Corollary: those who take seriously the dictum 'live and let live' should understand tolerance to be an objective value. Otherwise, intolerant authoritarians aren't really doing anything wrong. They're merely going against your arbitrary liberal preferences. "No big deal."

4) Moral facts are not reducible to the dictates of any authority. If God, society, and the individual, all approved of torturing animals for fun, that wouldn't suffice to make it right. This immediately refutes all those idiotic theories (e.g. Divine Command theory, cultural relativism, egoistic subjectivism) which reduce morality to an arbitrary subset of preferences. (What really matters is minimizing harm and promoting flourishing.)

Corollary 1: the widespread belief in a connection between religion and morality is rank stupidity. (And the idea that God could assign your life a "meaning" is no less silly.)

Corollary 2: Just because you find something "icky" doesn't mean it's immoral.

5) We can provide non-spooky natural foundations for morality. Presumably facts about welfare, i.e. what harms or benefits an individual, are naturalistic. And, just as plausibly, the moral facts are entailed by the facts about everyone's welfare (including sentient non-humans). It's axiomatic that it's good to benefit people, bad to harm them, etc. Nothing especially mysterious or supernatural is going on here.

6) God probably doesn't exist. The God Hypothesis doesn't fit well with observed reality. (The only argument I've ever come across that warrants much respect is the cosmological fine-tuning argument. The others are just shockingly bad.) No, we can't prove the boogeyman's non-existence with absolute certainty, but nor do we need to. And no, religious hallucinations aren't good evidence.

Incidentally, sending honest non-believers to hell is evil. It's scary how many people exhibit moral blindness with respect to this belief. Worshipping an evil deity reflects poorly on one's own moral compass, I should think.

7) Time doesn't move.

8) Either this sentence is false or self-referential paradoxes are great fun.

9) Taxation is not (necessarily) theft. The common right-wing slogan rests on superficial and sloppy thinking.

10) Any form of freedom worth having requires more than mere non-interference. Recognizing the political goal of Enabling Humanity is independent of any particular suggestions for how to achieve it, but on the latter point I think there's a great deal to be said in favour of an unconditional basic income.

19 comments:

  1. "The aim of argument is not to convince others to your point of view regardless of its true merits, but rather to adduce rational evidence that the view is most likely correct, i.e. true."

    Aren't you trying to convince me that this statement is true?

    Also I'd like to know how an objective standard of morality can exist apart from the existance of God.

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  2. Bob, didn't point #5 fulfill your desire? (Of course, since morality couldn't possibly be objective due to the existence of God, your question is really just how there could be an objective standard of morality at all. Either the objectivity stems from reason, or there is no objectivity at all. God doesn't even get a look in.)

    "Aren't you trying to convince me that this statement is true?"

    Not regardless of its merits. I want others to have true beliefs, and believe that my arguments have true conclusions, and for this reason (derivatively) want others to believe my conclusions. But I don't have any intrinsic (non-derivative) desire that others believe my conclusions. In particular, if it turns out they're false, then I don't want others (or myself!) to believe them.

    BTW, I should add another point:

    11) Religion is wrongly credited with answering the big ("Why") questions. Religion just makes stuff up. Anyone and their magic 8-ball can do that. If you mean to inquire seriously into such questions then you're doing philosophy, not religion. Give credit where it's due.

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  3. in general I agree with the less presumptuous versions.
    But I think you have a bit of difficulty separating your self justifying bias and what you can justify with logic. On the whole this just leaves you overshooting the mark a bit.

    > "but rather to adduce rational evidence that the view is most likely correct, i.e. true."

    This might need more investigation as to how it actually works.
    Is it an adverserial system until the end where you evaluate a winner?
    Or do you shed your bias (or try to compensate for it) upon entering the debate?
    or something else?

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  4. Richard, I must admit I am disappointed with this list. I was hoping for an apologetic for philosophy, not merely a list of ten mostly philosophical things that you happen to hold. I think the title of thepost is perhaps misleading. Rather than "10 Things Everyone Should Know About Philosophy" it might be better presented as "10 Things I Have Come to Accept By Way of Philosophy"

    With the exception of point one and two, which are properly 'about' philosophy, the other eight are philosophical claims. You know there is a difference between some set of words being 'about' some thing and some set of words being an instantiation of some thing.

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  5. That's why the introduction clarified it as "in or about philosophy". (Besides which, a list of "facts about history" could be expected to include historical facts, not merely meta-historical ones about the study of the subject matter. So I don't think first-order philosophical facts are necessarily excluded from the denotation of "facts about philosophy".)

    In any case, I invite more suggestions for both meta-philosophical and first-order philosophical theses. Pick whichever takes your fancy; I happen to be interested in both.

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  6. Shouldn't #5 have some sort of caveat like "some mostly reputable philosophers think", or "it has not yet been conclusively determined this it is false that", or "it's worth arguing about whether" or something? I mean, it's hardly a definite or well established (or even mostly uncontroversial) sort of claim like the others are.

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  7. Dr P - depends on how you read any of them (almost all of them). "irrefutable" is that you CAN have a logical non spooky explination for morality - it might seem a bit arbitrary but it can be done. Nor proven is "there IS NO other moral foundation".

    Having said that, I find the concept of free will a little "spooky"...

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  8. Richard-
    It seems to me that your making a lot of arbitrary dogmatic statements ex:

    "Of course, since morality couldn't possibly be objective due to the existence of God, your question is really just how there could be an objective standard of morality at all. Either the objectivity stems from reason, or there is no objectivity at all. God doesn't even get a look in"

    "Couldn't possibly"? That's a pretty sweeping rejection of God as the arbiter of justice but you have based it on nothing. I assume you refer to the common "Euthyphro problem"? You also said:

    "Religion is wrongly credited with answering the big ("Why") questions. Religion just makes stuff up. Anyone and their magic 8-ball can do that. If you mean to inquire seriously into such questions then you're doing philosophy, not religion. Give credit where it's due."

    I have to be blunt that is flat out arrogant. Frankly I think by making such an unsupported dogmatic statement you are doing the very thing you accuse religion of, namely just "making stuff up". Religion (particularly Judeao-Christianity) is based upon God revealing Himself to man throughout history and the Bible is a recording of God's inspired word, it claims to be nothing short unlike Greek Mythology which tried to explain natural phenomena with god of the gaps arguments.

    To be short I think you have a decent grasp of philosophical concepts but you need to give a lot more support to your arguments rather than just making sweeping dogmatic statements.

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  9. Nice post (at least point 1 through 4). I did find this portion somewhat humorous though: "Moral facts are not reducible to the dictates of any authority. . . . What really matters [dictates Richard, authoritatively] is minimizing harm and promoting flourishing."

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  10. Objective knowledge? Perhaps an example of same would validate your contention? As hard as I try, I can't think of a singular instance.

    Ethics has a "natural foundation?" If "natural" is used here in juxtaposition to "supernatural," I agree. Any other context requires explanation.

    James Q. Wilson in "The Moral Sense" captures my own ethical conception quite well. Starting with Adam Smith's theory of moral sentiments, and adding insights from evolutionary psychology, Wilson categorizes a "naturalistic ethic" as comprizing: (1) fairness, (2) empathy, (3) self-control, and (4) duty. These four a posteriori constructs are simply our idealization of what we value morally. His diagnosis of the modern predicament is that we get (1) and (2) pretty well, but (3) and (4) have been largely lost. Duty, of course, is not a deontological category (as it is with Kant), but a filial, familial, and social construct for ideal relationships. Self-control has largely been abrogated in favor of the notion "to express one's self honestly and without inhibition," a Sixties' notion that seems to persist. Wilson's claim is that a healthy and robust ethic demands all four ideals operate synergistically, not just fairness and empathy. If this line of reasoning is what you mean by "natural foundation," perhaps a better way of expressing it is by a "naturalistic ethic," the nature of which is based on "human nature," and human nature being what scientific materialism establishes, rather than some metaphysical construct by armchair philosophers.

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  11. Don, of course I do not think that the moral facts are reducible to whatever I might say. (I hope to accurately report what is true quite independently of me and my opinions. This is like my response to Bob's first comment.) But yeah, such an interpretation would be humourously ironic.

    Bob, I offered links which spell out the reasons behind my positions. (At least for the first ten. I lack the patience to argue with anyone so gullible as to place absolute certainty in some book that their minister tells them is "revelation".)

    TGS, I merely mean "not supernatural". (I have a post on human nature which concludes that "appealing to human nature as the foundation of morality is either fallacious or redundant.")

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  12. Timothy J Scriven7:37 am, April 07, 2006

    Make another list which is built only of statements virtually all (analytic) philosophers would accept. it would be more interesting. curiously the list roughly becomes more controversial as it goes on.

    BTW it is possible to believe that god assigns your life a meaning without accepting divine command theory or a link of any sort at all between the will of God and morality. Just as someone might say that discovering mathematics has given their life a meaning even if it hasn't changed their values. One might believe that God gives happiness to those who believe in him, happiness is good and meaningful, therefore you will try to make others believe in god.

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  13. Richard,

    On the whole, I think the effort was in a positive direction--though, I think you trivialize the positions you think not worth any serious philosophical consideration or just irrational.

    My sense is that people are (or at least, very often are patently irrational [i.e. buying bottled water, infomercials, advertisements]), and just to imply that because these statements make sense and the ones you refute and reject don't is somewhat pompous (particularly if there is a good counter-argument, which I will not attempt to provide).

    Even if it is true that you're right, I certainly imagine, or at least hope, that there is a more tactful way of voicing those sentiments (this is not about PC).

    On your first corrollary to #4, I am not sure that this statement has the kind of force, or truth, that you want it to have. History has proven all too often that people will believe in religion (or some religious ideology) and in God (or some variant thereof) as a source of their religion. To just trying and throw it out, even by logical argument, seems too quick and somewhat dogmatic, and reveal a kind of insensitivity and close analysis (consider: what is the cause of the Islamic/West conflict? Is it because fundamentalists Muslims are ideologically blind and savage) that is to be expected of a serious argument.

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  14. 1) Philosophy isn't just a matter of opinion. Some opinions are better justified, or more reasonable, than others. We should aim to hold those judgments that are best supported by reasons.

    2) Therefore, one should change one's mind if the evidence is against you. (But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t argue your point until it is refuted).

    3) The idea of objective truth is nothing to be scared of.
    Rationally applied objective truth doesn’t result in the arbitrary rules that people usually fear. In most cases arbitrary rules reflect a lack of understanding of all the side effects.

    E.g. utilitarianism properly applied includes allowances for long term effects and psychological effects so you would not run around killing people for some obscure gain.

    4) Moral facts are a matter of opinion.
    a) When someone like Richard talks about morals he may well mean a different thing to you
    b) They will probably try to push his view on you by the very nature of the meme.
    c) However, it is not hopless, in any community you can get a general consensus on what they are, or what definitions will optimize the system. At very least we can eliminate some ideas.

    5) We CAN provide non-spooky natural foundations for morality.

    6) Most God Hypothesis doesn’t fit well with observed reality (rather like most non-god hypothesis).

    6a) To a concequentialist - following someone or worshiping them doesn’t mean you share their moral position unless you provide concequential assistance towards their aims - in which case you share their moral position to the extent to which you achieve them. Or where in their plan has a moral value relitive to an alternative plan.

    7) Time doesn't move.

    8) Either this sentence is false or self-referential paradoxes are great fun.

    9) Taxation is not (necessarily) theft - or theft becomes a fairly meaningless term.

    10) Optimal freedom requires more than mere non-interference.

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  15. not merely a list of ten mostly philosophical things that you happen to hold.

    otherwise, philosophy has refuted the pragmatics of AA?

    An interesting thesis, that observable facts don't count and that logic has disproved reality.

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  16. "An interesting thesis, that observable facts don't count and that logic has disproved reality."

    please explain.

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  17. I'm curious. Is it your impression that these ten items are widely accepted in philosophy? That they're majority positions?

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  18. I'd say the first four are uncontroversial, #7 is controversial, and the rest should be accepted by most (though I guess non-cognitivists would reject #5).

    My goals here are perhaps better explained in the follow-up post: Commonplace Confusions.

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