Saturday, April 26, 2008

Philosophical Journeys and Destinations

Andrew raised some interesting questions in this week's PhilSoc discussion: why do we care about truth? Is there a risk of 'truthaholism', taking a good thing too far (to the detriment of other values)? Is it perhaps the process of inquiry, the journey rather than the destination, that we find most valuable in philosophy?

Of course, the truth will sometimes have great instrumental importance, as in medical science. But it's less clear what really hangs on the outcome of certain abstract philosophical debates. It may be that the truth here doesn't really matter for any other purpose at all. The question then is whether it matters for its own sake.

Jack suggests a helpful thought experiment. Suppose you had a magic 8-ball that would tell you the true answer to any philosophical question. Would this be a good thing? Bracket any instrumental benefits that the truth might yield. Just so far as the intrinsic value of philosophy is concerned, would it be a good thing for philosophy to come to an end in this way? Intuitively, there seems something deeply appalling about this scenario. This suggests that it's really the process of philosophical inquiry, rather than the end-point of truth, that we most value.

But I wonder. Perhaps the thought experiment has the wrong end in mind. There does seem something cheap and superficial about the "truths" delivered by a magic 8-ball. But this is not all that we usually have at the end of inquiry. Our best philosophy does not culminate in a mere 'yes' or 'no' answer. Rather, it gives rise to a deeper level of understanding; an appreciation of why the answer is what it is. (Or perhaps not even that -- just a deeper understanding of the question, and the various possible answers, may be plenty valuable in itself.)

So suppose you could get a brain implant that would provide you with a full understanding of a philosophical topic, without the investment of time and effort that is usually required to obtain such learning. Is that a good thing?

I don't think the answer is entirely obvious. But I lean towards thinking that it would be good. I think it really is the end-point of understanding which I most value, and not the struggle of getting there. What do you think?

16 comments:

  1. Surely the 8-ball example shows no such thing: at best, it shows that truth alone cannot be the sole goal of philosophy.

    Another reason, I think, why the 8-ball example repels is this: the knowledge so produced wouldn't be mine. The magical understanding-implant would be undesirable for the very same reason - although understanding would be produced, there's some clear sense in which it would not be mine.

    So, not just understanding, but understanding I have a right to, is a good first pass at what we're looking for in doing philosophy.

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  2. I think very few non-philosophers would find the 8 ball example an issue (philosophers are a bit like an 8-ball to them anyway). So one should be careful when generalizing the exact nature of what that says (although strictly speaking, philosophers have a right to define the 'purpose' of what they do individually and as a collective).

    It does, however, raise the issue Caledonian raised. You seem to have answered it in favor of my answer (self-actualization) as opposed to yours (truth etc).

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  3. Genius - I think you missed the last two paragraphs of my post.

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  4. I'm puzzled by the suggestion that the 8-ball is an appalling scenario; people seize on cheap truths all the time -- it's part of education.If there's a problem with the 8-ball it's not that it makes truth come easily; it would have to be something else.

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  5. Brandon - people cannot seize on all truths cheaply. The worry about the 8-ball is that, through repeated use, it would supplant reasoned inquiry entirely.

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  6. Of course, we might be slightly biased as philosophers since we love the process so much. Certainly part of why philosophy is so great as a career is that the process is so much fun. I think that, if you are a philosopher, you should greatly appreciate and value the process (I think even for its own sake).

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  7. [oops, I forgot to finish the above comment]

    And one might think that questions about why professional philosophers should value the process might be independent from whether or not satisfactory answers to philosophical debates are valuable in-themselves. I heard Tyler Burge once say that he doesn't really think most philosophical questions are that important but he does philosophy because it is fun. I tend to think that many questions are very important. But even if I changed my mind about that I think I would still pursue philosophy because it is the most interesting and fun activity I have ever encountered.

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  8. The magic 8-ball is only Theoria and Techne or Science and Theory - it doesn't get at Praxis or Truth. Sure we could do things we could never do before if we knew the Truth, but it would be completely out of the context of meaning.

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  9. Richard -- Consulting the 8-ball, if we knew it always gave the true answer, would be a form of rational inquiry. After all, rational inquiry is such inquiry as is best suited to get the right answer, for the most part and in general. If we could ratchet up that 'for the most part and in general' to 'always and without exception', we haven't supplanted rational inquiry. We've just made it much more efficient.

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  10. Brandon, call it what you will -- reasoning, thinking, philosophizing, whatever -- there's something important missing in the situation where one merely directly consults the magic 8-ball to receive the truth on any matter. The problem is not that the method is infallible. It's that it is thoughtless (or, as Daniel puts it, "the knowledge so produced wouldn't be mine.")

    Consulting a magic 8-ball, however conducive to truth, is not to do philosophy in the sense that we (at least, Errol and I, etc.) value. It seems more a matter of 'revelation' than 'inquiry' as I use the term.

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  11. Richard,

    I still don't think there's anything important missing in the 8-ball case, any more than there's anything important missing when I consult a calculator rather than work out a math problem myself, or consult an encyclopedia rather than doing an experiment in order to find the half-life of uranium. The method is not thoughtless: I've formulated a question and I've decided on the best way to answer it, namely, by consulting a source that's always right. The 8-ball becomes an instrument of thinking, philosophizing, reasoning, whatsoever you will, in just the way an encyclopedia or a calculator or table of logarithms or a computer becomes an instrument of thinking, philosophizing, reasoning, etc.; it's just a much, much more effective instrument than any of these things.

    Suppose, for a parallel like your understanding-implant case, that you were given the ability of omnivoliscience, i.e., you can know anything you want, at any time, just by willing it. You wouldn't philosophize/think/reason less; you would just be in the position to do these things flawlessly and instantaneously, insofar as truth was concerned.

    Now, I do, in fact, think that these show that truth is not the whole end of philosophy; but not because the journey is more valuable than the destination. Rather, it's because obviously the true is not the only end in view when we are doing philosophy -- there are others, like the good, the beautiful, the tasteful, the sublime, the useful, etc. But I can think of no way of creating a thought experiment that can control for all of these things. So the real thought experiment would have to be the reverse: what would the scenario be if we knew that the processes of reasoning in philosophy could never, ever find what was true, or beautiful, etc.? I think Hume is on the right track in Treatise 2.3.10 (a splendid and too-little-read section of Hume): we would lose interest, in exactly the same way we would quickly lose interest in hunting if we discovered that it was impossible for us to catch anything, or the way we would lose interest in gambling if we knew we could never possibly win.

    But Hume also notes something that might be something like what you are trying to get at. We enjoy exercise of our minds; fixing our attention and exerting our genius, as Hume calls it. And it certainly would be lacking the 8-ball situation. But we only enjoy the exercise if we think there's value in it already (discovering truth, etc.); what we really like is something that is identifiable as success in meeting challenges, not endless challenges, and we like it so much that we even enjoy challenges at which we fail, if despite failing we made real headway toward success. But the converse is that there's nothing particularly lost if success becomes easy, except something to fill my time. That's a problem if I have nothing else handy to fill my time with, but it's hard to see that it's a problem in and of itself.

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  12. Hmm I probably 'skipped over' your last two paragraphs (or at least the second to last sentence)

    and considering the comments I probably have very little need to argue my point.

    However to since I started writing already,
    1) we have rejected 8ball(truth)
    2) you are unsure if you support the implant (understanding) idea (although you lean towards supporting it), right?

    Maybe your different but that isn't the reaction I would get to being proposed my pure goal.

    I thus infer that you might want something that is somehow connected to understanding - but not understanding.

    -----

    In as far as having an 8ball of truth would make people not think about philosophy I think you'd be factually wrong - I'd expect the complete opposite.

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  13. Genius - just to clarify:

    * I think there's some intrinsic value to philosophical truth.

    * I think there's even more value in the journey (both in terms of sheer fun, and also the development of an excellence).

    * I think there's roughly similar, and perhaps yet more again, value to obtaining philosophical understanding.

    N.B. Even insofar as the second value is concerned, we achieve it by adopting truth and understanding as our (internal) goal. Compare: the "goal" in a game of chess is to checkmate the other player. But in this case, there is no intrinsic value in checkmating -- there's no reason to achieve it by breaking the rules, for example. Instead, our pursuit of the internal goal serves other values. In case of philosophy, I think there are similarly "other values" that arise out of the process. But that's compatible with thinking that the ends themselves are also intrinsically valuable (in contrast to the chess case).

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  14. There are a lot of people who spend lot of time thinking about human motivation. If such thoughts are a productive endevour one would expect the conclusion to tend towards the sort of conclusion those fields come to which is what I expected (and think I have observed) here.

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  15. Brandon,

    You say in discussing Hume: "What we really like is something that is identifiable as success in meeting challenges, not endless challenges, and we like it so much that we even enjoy challenges at which we fail, if despite failing we made real headway toward success. But the converse is that there's nothing particularly lost if success becomes easy, except something to fill my time. That's a problem if I have nothing else handy to fill my time with, but it's hard to see that it's a problem in and of itself."

    I'm with you for the first sentence, but not for the second. Why is nothing (aside from diversion) lost if success becomes easy? It seems to me that even if you value truth (or maybe beauty, etc.) as an end goal, you might think that the process of facing challenges and overcoming difficulty is essential--and in part constitutive of the value of the activity.

    Compare the case of playing a piece of music. It's very difficult to hit the right notes on a violin. So suppose you just press the right buttons on a synthesizer instead, a far easier task that just about anyone could do. (You could even think it's one of those keyboards where the keys light up to tell you when to play them.) Well you do end up with the beautiful sounds in the air. But you have lost an important part, and maybe the most important part, of what was valuable in the first place, manipulating your fingers in just the right way on the sounding board so as to end up with the beautiful music. That's hard work. And that's why striving to do it well is so valuable.


    Richard,

    1. Do you think that 'philosophical understanding' is necessarily bound up with truth? There's one sense of understanding on which it would seem to imply truth, and took this to be your sense of the term: If I understand X, then I *correctly* understand X. There's another sense that doesn't have this implication: Thales, or Leibniz, or Berkeley, had exotic, and likely false "understandings" of what the world was like. I'm not sure that the truth always trumps this latter sort of understanding. You might think that the proliferation of interesting and creative interpretations (understandings) of what the world is like is just as important (perhaps *more* important) than arriving at the true answer about what the world is like. That's my feeling at least, and that's one of the main reasons I'm drawn to the history of philosophy. The analogy would be one of seeing the world as a work of art that can bear many interesting, competing interpretations. (This is the Nehamas reading of Nietzsche). When it comes to my favorite novels, I don't feel the need to settle on one reading. I'm happy to come across many interesting ones.

    2. You say: "So suppose you could get a brain implant that would provide you with a full understanding of a philosophical topic, without the investment of time and effort that is usually required to obtain such learning. Is that a good thing?...I don't think the answer is entirely obvious. But I lean towards thinking that it would be good. I think it really is the end-point of understanding which I most value, and not the struggle of getting there."

    Well, I certainly wouldn't want that myself. I'm not sure, though, whether this is the sort of thought-experiment which has a right answer. In my talk, I mentioned desert island thought experiments, in which you ask, "What would you take to a desert island?" There just doesn't seem to be a right answer here--even if what you want to bring is gum drops or paper clips.

    Maybe I would bring the collected works of Nietzsche, and maybe you would bring the collected works of David Lewis. Such a choice surely reveals something about us, and about our contingent valuations, tastes and life projects. Perhaps the preference for the striving vs. reaching a goal is closer to such a difference, rather than to the true answer about what the end of philosophy is, or should be.

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  16. Andrew,

    I don't think I expressed the point very well in that particular statement. There is something lost, namely, the interest in the activity itself. On Hume's view, the challenge does contribute something essential the value of the activity: namely, if the activity already contributes to some valuable end, the challenge makes the activity stand out from less challenging activities. We may greatly value truth, but we don't greatly value activities where (say) you do nothing but simple arithmethic, day in and day out, to get true statements. To keep an interest in the activity itself you need a challenge; this is lost if success is easy. But if the activity loses its challenge, even that will be a loss that's relatively easily compensated for: I will simply start valuing more, and being more interested in, those activities that are (now) more challenging (assuming that they already contribute to worthwhile ends). And that was the point I was trying to make. It's very similar to identifying an activity like philosophy as valuable because it is 'fun'; if it becomes extraordinarily easy, it cease to be fun, but all this will mean is that you'll go on to find other fun things. If it required no special skill to play a violin, people would just turn their interests to other things; and that violin-playing was no longer given special attention would not be a tragedy, but very natural.

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