Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Structural Incentives in Academic Work

Truepath argues that "Academic philosophy creates a structural incentive to be insufficiently critical and arrive at the wrong answers." I thought I should make a new thread to continue the discussion. His latest comment follows:
Well no, I don't expect us to do without meta-discussions or the like. However, what I'm trying to get at isn't a distinction between substance and non-substance here (though that is where I think lots of philosophy is substantively wrong) but rather a bias towards theories with a certain flavor and complexity.

For instance I think Carnap does a truly excellent job of dealing with many meta-philosophical questions and while he certainly isn't entirely correct about everything (logical probability was a big mistake and he had some problems accepting some of the points Quine got right) I think many of his approaches are a much better choice than the more modern approach of throwing in lots of ambiguous concepts and building complex structures to talk about meta-philosophy.

Now I personally tend to think Carnap's approach of always taking philosophy to be postulating a certain model and then dividing up issues into internal quesitons and external ones is the right approach to take. I'm certainly not saying that others have to agree. However, I'm pointing out that it's odd that the answers a Carnapian approach would give to these problems have such an extremely small mindshare in philosophy today.

Now if I thought that this approach had died out because it had been out argued that would be fine. However, my impression is that it has lost mindshare for exactly the opposite problem: it answers questions to well. The Carnapian answer to the problem doesn't leave you any more interesting philosophy to do. You simply say, "well that's an external question, just pick whatever best suits your purpose," and that's the end of the conversation apart from debating the fundamental validity of the approach.

I probably made an explanatory error in bringing up another example to make my argument. I don't want the focus to be on any particular position because I'm not suggesting one couldn't reasonably disagree with these conclusions. What I am suggesting is that some philosophical analysis provides excellent fodder for others to cite and build upon while other types of analysis leave the problem sterile and dry, and even when the better arguments lie with the latter type of explanation sheer weight of publications will drive consensus opinion toward the earlier one.

Of course you can disagree but the problem is that continuing to have things to say (in general or about the disagreement) isn't evidence of correctness. In fact I think in general it is (weak) evidence against a view (more complex, more places for potential confusion to enter). However, a view which doesn't have anything more to say about an issue will be pushed out of the academic community because you can't keep publishing the same paper over and over again.

My hope with the examples is not that you would say, "hey yah that side is certainly correct" (though I wouldn't mind) but that you would say, "yah that position is not represented in the philosophical world proportionally to it's plausibility."

... Note that once you admit that the [surprise examination] paradox can't be stated formally you can only generate the paradox if I accept some other notion as meaingful/well-defined (rationality etc.). Thus it will always be a perfectly good solution to the paradox to simply be really really stingy and refuse to accept these non-formal notions. But can you see the stingy approach continuing to hold the interest of the philosophical community?

Even if the stingy approach has the better of the argument the approach which offers the opportunity for other philosophers to help build up a logic of announcements for true but unbelievable propositions will be the subject of greater attention by the community. It's this bias towards things which give rise to philosophy papers that troubles me.

Three quick thoughts: (1) Neo-Carnapians are not so rare, in my experience. (2) I doubt conceptual stinginess is ever a good response to anything. And (3) it's not entirely clear why the argument is targeted specifically at philosophy rather than academic publishing in general.

But, on the main point, I just don't think it's true that academic structures are biased against knock-down work that conclusively settles (or dissolves) an issue, leaving no further work to do in its wake. If Jones can successfully close an old and troubling issue X in one paragraph, he could get this published in Analysis and the next time anyone opened their mouth about X their colleagues would all say, "Go read Jones, then find a real issue to work on." Or so I imagine.

The reason this doesn't tend to happen is not because of any structural bias, but because it's not that easy to conclusively settle philosophical problems. Anyway, my core response is as follows: we have plenty of unsolved issues to provide us with "fodder", so there's no incentive to keep plugging away at solved ones.


  1. it's not entirely clear why the argument is targeted specifically at philosophy rather than academic publishing in general.

    Though I'm largely in agreement with the main thrust of Truepath's criticism of academic philosophy, I disagree strongly with the answer that he gives to the question Richard asks in the quote above. Truepath seems to believe that the answers to philosophical problems are quite obvious and easy, and that it is only because of the incentives against truth-seeking that wrong answers are defended instead. My own view is that these disincentives exist and do have the pernicious effects that Truepath rightly complains about, but that something else entirely explains the varying degrees to which they affect different fields of inquiry.

    To put it briefly, I think the cognitive capacities that were selected in the ancestral environment allow us to apprehend scientific truths much more easily than philosophical ones. For this reason, the incentives against truth-seeking have a much stronger effect in philosophy than they do in science. Contrary to what Truetemp claims, it is seldom clear what the true answer to a philosophical problem is; as a consequence, other truth-irrelevant features ranging from elegance and simplicity to cleverness and originality end up having a much stronger impact on the direction of research. Perhaps the most notorious example is that of David Lewis, whose views are widely regarded by the philosophical community as being both extremely implausible and as embodying most of those truth-insensitive attributes to an extraordinary degree.

  2. [Sorry, I had to correct an ugly typo.]

    Interestingly, as I just remembered, Lewis himself argued that academics (not only philosophers) do not rely on considerations of plausibility or truth in assessing the work of their peers. Since different people have different opinions about which views are true and which views are false, conflict would inevitably ensue if each person made her decisions about academic appointments on considerations of plausibility. So a spontaneous order emerges in which everyone accepts to set aside these considerations so that everyone else does the same. (This is argued, as I recall, in his paper "Academic Appointments: Why Ignore the Advantage of Being Right".)

    I believe this is a plausible mechanism; but it must be refined a bit. Lewis himself admitted that his claims did not apply to a few fields of enquiry, like mathematics, because in these domains truth is much easier to discern. Yet if we combine this point with what I said earlier about our differential cognitive abilities to do philosophy and science, the picture that emerges is a more nuanced and continuous one, where truth is given less weight in decisions on a particular discipline the more difficult it is to reach truth in that discipline. And that's in fact what we observe. A proponent of Aristotelian physics or biology would be laughed out of court in a physics or biology department, whereas nothing of the sort would happen to a proponent of Aristotelian ethics or metaphysics in a philosophy department. The reason is that we can be pretty confident that Aristotle was wrong about physics and biology, but we can be less confident that we was wrong about ethics and metaphysics.

    (But couldn’t we then run a kind of "meta-inductive" argument and claim that, since Aristotle's views about some fields were demonstrably false, his views about other fields where demonstrative knowledge is unattainable are likely to be false as well? In fact, this kind of argument was used by Bertrand Russell against Hegel, whose few pronouncements on mathematics Russell found so silly as to disqualify him as a philosopher as well.)

    The case of David Lewis, then, is particularly interesting. On the one hand, he exemplifies, perhaps more than any other philosopher in recent times, the premium that practitioners in this field put on elegance, cleverness and originality at the expense of truth or plausibility. On the other hand, he himself has provided us with the tools to understand why philosophers care very little about truth and why, as a consequence, his work is held in such high esteem by his professional colleagues.

  3. Eh, I thought Lewis was widely regarded to have been right about everything except the "mad dog" concrete modal realism. But I guess there's not really a consensus on Lewis (as on most philosophical views).

    On the broader issues you raise, see also my old post on Advancing the Discipline.

  4. I thought Lewis was widely regarded to have been right about everything except the "mad dog" concrete modal realism.

    Has the acknowledged implausibility of modal realism made any significant dent to David Lewis's reputation as a philosopher? Are his other philosophical views held in higher esteem as a consequence of their being regarded as correct? I think the answer to both questions is quite clearly No.

    But, come on, would you say that the reason you admire David Lewis so much is because you think his views are more likely to be true than those of philosophers of whom you have a lower opinion? Let me report on my own experience. I find Lewis's writings--all of them--shockingly brilliant. It gives me enormous pleasure to read what he writes. I am always impressed by his cleverness and his inventiveness. And I really, really want his views to be true, since I derive great cognitive comfort from believing in elegant theories. But do I think his views are more likely to be true than those of other philosophers? Well, let me answer with a little thought experiment. Suppose that somehow a superintelligence was created that could tell us the true answer to every philosophical question. And suppose that, before the answers were disclosed to the philosophical community, a “philosophy prediction market” was created—Philtrade—allowing traders to bet for different candidates. Would I buy Lewis stock? No. Nor do I think that there would be any discernible correlation between the “price” of a particular answer and the professional success of its proponent.

  5. Which philosophical answers would I bet on? I would bet on answers given by people like Nick Bostrom, Toby Ord, John Broome, C. D. Broad, the earlier Derek Parfit, and--perhaps above all--Henry Sidgwick. These are among the minority of philosophers whose primary goal in philosophizing is to get at the truth.

  6. No, really, I think many of his other views (on identity, etc.) are correct. I'd bet (a little bit) on those over the competition (Kripke, etc.).

    In other cases, I think there can be good arguments for false conclusions. But what makes it a good argument is precisely that it raises my credence in the conclusion, at least a little. (In what sense do you think elegance, etc., is "good", if not that it has epistemic import?)

    I don't think honest truth-seeking is nearly so rare as you do. (Though attaining it is another matter.)

  7. In what sense do you think elegance, etc., is "good", if not that it has epistemic import?

    I'm not saying elegance, cleverness and the other attributes I listed are in my opinion good; indeed, I believe they aren't precisely because there is no systematic link between good arguments and arguments having those attributes. My point is that these features are taken into considerations by professional philosophers when reviewing papers and making appointments. Why do philosophers pay attention to these attributes? It depends on the attribute in question. I guess the appeal of elegance has to do with deep features of our cognitive architecture, while the appeal of cleverness has to do with reassurance that the proponent of the argument is not a fraud. In any case, I don't think I need to come up with an answer to this question to credibly claim that these factors do have a significant influence.

  8. Gosh no I don't think they are obvious and easy.

    I think they have the property that many problems in mathematics have. The correct solution looks easy in retrospect. Initially figuring it all out is crazy hard but once you've got it your going to go "what, it can't be just that."

    As far as neo-carnapians this was just one example in a longer discussion. However, most of the stuff I've seen called neo-carnapian was the parts where positives theories could be expounded, not the parts where you just say, "Nah, that's not really a question," and that shut down debate without offering the chance to build some new system.

    As far as why philosophy, my impression is that this affects philosophy more than the sciences or math but I tend not to think the goal of any academic enterprise that is even more affected like this is to genuinely arrive at truth while I do take philosophy to have that goal.

  9. Philosophy and mathematics are similar in many dimensions. In the one dimension that matters for this debate, however, they are poles apart. Mathematics is perhaps the most progressive discipline there is; we have made more progress in maths since we started thinking about mathematical problems than we have made in just about any other field of inquiry. In philosophy, by contrast, the question is not even how much progress we have made, but whether we have made any progress at all. Even an optimist like Richard will, I hope, readily admit that, when assessed against the benchmark set by mathematics, philosophy’s track record is remarkably poor.

    I hypothesized that this discrepancy is ultimately traceable to our different innate capacities for getting at the truth in the respective disciplines. (Some people, like Colin McGinn, would go even further and say that philosophy is the discipline that deals with problems which we are cognitively unequipped to solve.) If this is so, then the answer to why incentives against finding the truth have a comparably stronger effect in philosophy is given by the fact that truth cannot, as it were, assert its presence in philosophical debate to the degree that it can in other, more progressive disciplines. The incentives against finding the truth thus remain unchecked, and have a much stronger impact on the field.

    One obvious way in which this effect manifests itself is in the pursuit of novelty. As Hare said, “for advancing one’s career it is more important that what one publishes should be new, than that it should be true.” Although this incentive exists in all disciplines, given the way academia is structured, it is philosophy where its effects become particularly deleterious, since the truth, once found, will not be so obvious as to remain unscathed when the next alternative hypothesis is proposed. This phenomenon is particularly manifest in the history of philosophy, where the writings of every historical figure from Plato to Nietzsche are interpreted in new ways with each passing generation. It is obvious that, since we do often succeed in using language to communicate our thoughts to others, at least what some of these philosophers have written must by now be adequately understood by the community of philosophers. Yet the incentive to keep producing new interpretations insures that the truth will be forgotten soon after it is found.

  10. Well the matter of the interpratation of dead philosophers is another matter entierly. Frankly, most of the time philosophy doesn't even bother pretending it's actually trying to understand what 'historical' philosophers meant. I mean these great philosophers may have been smart but consider what it's like to talk with very smart philosophers today (who have many more tools and greater rigor). Even the best modern philosophers are frequently just confused or mistaken and when we go back to examine historical figures we should expect that tendency to increase. Yet, while occasionally this is the answer for the most part the real game is offering an interpretation that seems to say something true/interesting that's doesn't fail the straight face test.

    I mean it we really wanted to understand Nietzsche we would spend a lot more time digging through records and assessing psychological traits. However, why it's even appealing to understand what dead philosophers said is beyond me. This whole obsession with decoding the impenetrable dense works of our philosophical forebearers always reminds me of the Borges story about the infinite library.

    Anyway as pessimistic as I am about the current progress of philosophy I think it unquestionable that philosophy has progressed on the very long term. I mean just think, it wasn't that long ago that all philsophy was continental philosophy. Go read the Leibneiz-Clarke correspondence (one of the better examples of philosophy in it's day) and come tell me we haven't made at least some progress.

    However, I worry that progress was the result of a single once time leap forward (shift to analytic type philosophy) so I don't know how much progress we are making now.


    Anyway the analogy between philosophy and math I was making between philosophy and math/science was merely the limited observation that the best solutions to the hardest problems often seem extremely obvious in retrospect. Once you have the right conceptual framework the problem should seem almost silly.

    Frankly I think it's very hopefull that philosophy does introduce the frameworks necessery to explain away many hard problems. Really what is needed is a cultural tweak and a movement to a more discussion oriented/less article oriented format.

    The cultural tweak is that philosophy needs to encourage even more attacks on other people's work as fundamentally flawed. It may make it less pleasent to be a philosophy but if it was considered more appropriate to stand up and say, "this is total bunk, this problem was solved 30 years ago by noting that such and such," rather than listening politely it would go a good way towards rectifying the bias against old solutions.

    Secondly, I would suggest that journals try to solicit articles in pairs, offering some other philosopher the chance to argue against the ideas in the first paper. The interplay in this format would avoid much of the disincentive to bring back up old but compelling objections.

  11. "My point is that these features are taken into considerations by professional philosophers when reviewing papers and making appointments. Why do philosophers pay attention to these attributes?"

    Because we think they have epistemic import. (At least, I do. I guess I can't speak for anyone else.)

    I also think that theory proliferation is desirable on epistemic grounds (which was the point of the link I offered in my first comment, on 'advancing the discipline'). We don't yet have adequate answers to many philosophical problems -- sometimes it's not even clear what the question should be -- so let a thousand flowers bloom, I say. Most will die off soon enough, and the best insights are retained and incorporated into the larger tradition.

    Truepath writes: 'if it was considered more appropriate to stand up and say, "this is total bunk, this problem was solved 30 years ago by noting that such and such," rather than listening politely...'

    But I suggested in the main post that this is in fact already considered entirely appropriate. What philosopher have you met who would ever "listen politely" to pointless bunkum on an already solved problem, without pointing this out? We're far too disagreeable for that!

  12. P.S. Truepath, I'm personally no fan of history (of philosophy) for history's sake. But it seems as intellectually legitimate as any other kind of history, for those who are so interested. See Andrew's comment here for a more sympathetic perspective.

    (Also, I think we've made loads of progress on all sorts of philosophical problems since the early 20th century. I offer a dozen personal favourites here - though I guess one or two of them may predate this. And perhaps most philosophical progress so far is more a matter of clarifying the terrain than conclusively settling which of the apparently coherent remaining options is true. It's a big project.)

  13. What philosopher have you met who would ever "listen politely" to pointless bunkum on an already solved problem, without pointing this out? We're far too disagreeable for that!

    Every single one of them actually. I've had plenty of conversations with philosophers in private where they will admit they thought talk X was utter bullshit and that so and so gave the correct answer years ago.

    Yes philosophers are argumentative and sometimes combative but there is a particular range of socially accepted ways to be so and making sufficiently fundamental objections to someone's presentation doesn't cut it.

    Consider the example of Kantian morality. Now there are still tons of talks about Kantian ethics or what not. Do you think any philosopher you know would stand up after such a talk and ask, "But what about the universalizeable rule that says 'If you aren't Joe Schmoe you must X'."? I don't. It would be considered rude and pointless to raise this kind of freshman objection to the basic premise when their talk was on some narrower issue of how Kant applies to marital promises or something.

    The problem here is that this freshman objection is correct. Kant doesn't genuinely offer us a theory at all when he tells us rules must be universalizeable, merely the illusion of a theory. If you simply take the notion at face value you end up with an inconsistent system which, as anything can be proved, is unilluminating. On the other hand since the entire theory derives from what you take 'universalizeable' different preciscifications could make the resulting theory totally different (I could make mandate utilitarianism or facism depending on how I do it) you can't just put aside the question of how to precisify the notion aside for someone else to deal with because it totally controls the nature of the theory.

    Ultimately I don't have a problem with alternative theories being advanced. That's fine. The issue is that they shouldn't get radically more air time than the boring old solutions to the same question.

    For instance anyone who wants to give a talk about Kantian morality or ethics should be expected to deal convincingly with this 'freshman objection.' It shouldn't be waived away at talks or in papers because everyone has seen that debate before.

    I mean in a math talk if someone points out a flaw in one of your basic assumptions (say you assume something exists that may not) that's it. Anything more you say is taken as at best speculative thoughts that might amount to something if you can fix that fundamental problem. Philosophy should learn from this and treat people whose theories have foundational problems similarly instead of granting respect and approval for doing further work in an inconsistant/ill-defined system.

  14. The reason I think historical philosophy is not intellectually legitimate is that it insists on deceiving the audience about it's true aims and conclusions.

    Look, if people wanted to stand up and say, "This is almost certainly not what Nietzsche had in mind, and it's probably false as well but it's an interesting way to read Nietzsche," I wouldn't have a problem. This would make it quite clear that ultimately it was an asthetic standard against which these evaluations were made and eliminate many stupid arguments that are really nothing more than differing asthetic preferences.

    I think the reason historical philosophers don't announce that they are making no effort to be either philosophically correct or historically accurate but only pursuing some purely subjective combination of sounding plausible and matching up with the sources is that they would quickly find themselves without much of an audience. Maybe other philosophers are sophisticated enough to understand the game historical philosophers are playing but undergraduates are not.

    I expect enrollment in say courses on Kantian ethics would be decimated if the catalog description made it clear that the course would neither attempt to illuminate what Kant thought nor to work out what is moral. Historical philosophy maintains interest only by continuing a confusion.

  15. "For instance anyone who wants to give a talk about Kantian morality or ethics should be expected to deal convincingly with this 'freshman objection.' It shouldn't be waived away at talks or in papers because everyone has seen that debate before."

    Ah, that's a very interesting point. (I didn't realize that was the kind of thing you had in mind.) I'm no Kantian myself, but I certainly don't consider it to have been decisively refuted. I don't think it's that easy to decisively refute whole philosophical systems. (Or if it is, then perhaps it's too easy, because there probably won't be any systems left if you count any "foundational" objection that hasn't yet been adequately solved as sufficient reason to give up on the whole approach.)

    Anyway, there's plenty of interest in these foundational problems (action individuation, the problem of relevant descriptions for maxims, etc.). And I agree that's a debate that needs to be had. But I disagree that it needs to be settled before doing further work within a philosophical system. As I note in my post on Kripkean vs. Lewisian systems, sometimes the foundational questions are just too difficult, and the best way to proceed is incrementally, and see which research program ultimately bears fruit. (If it's illuminating in other respects, that suggests there's probably some solution to the foundational problem that we just haven't figured out yet. You usually can't learn so much from a contradiction, after all.)

    I guess I'm just generally optimistic about the marketplace of ideas. Researchers (incl. new grad students) will be drawn towards the systems that strike them as most promising (even bearing in mind any outstanding 'foundational problems'). As long as the next generation of researchers has good philosophical taste, the misguided approaches will continue to decline in influence relative to more promising alternatives. So the academic structure as a whole can be expected to turn out fairly well.


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