Friday, February 26, 2016

7 Things Everyone Should Know about Philosophy

Inspired by the ignorance of Bill Nye the science guy...

Some things I wish everyone know about philosophy:

(1) Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" does not imply that your existence depends upon your thinking.  It is merely intended to show that a thinker cannot coherently doubt their own existence.

(2) People are often quite bad at reasoning.  Logic, a component of philosophy, can help with this. (Supplementing this with an understanding of statistical and probabilistic reasoning is still important, though!)

(3) When philosophers raise outlandish-seeming questions ("What is your basis for expecting the sun to rise tomorrow?  Or for expecting the future to resemble the past?") it is generally not because we think them unanswerable, or that we think the outlandish possibilities being hinted at are credible, but rather that consideration of the question can give rise to important insights, e.g. into the nature of our everyday knowledge. So to mock philosophers for their thought experiments is as silly as mocking Einstein for (supposedly) thinking that you could ride on a ray of light.  It merely reveals that you have missed the point.

(4) Many important intellectual questions (including, e.g., fundamental moral and epistemological issues) do not concern empirical happenstance, and so cannot be answered by the methods of science. Different methods are needed if we are to make any progress in thinking about them.  This sort of thinking is what philosophy is all about.  If you dismiss it, you are effectively giving up on rational thought about non-empirical matters.

(5) Philosophy is inescapable, in the sense that wholesale dismissals of it tend to be self-defeating. If you dismiss it as worthless, you’re making a claim in ethics or value theory, which are sub-fields of philosophy. If you think it’s an unreliable source of knowledge, that’s epistemology.  Either way, you must engage in philosophical reasoning and argument in order to (non-dogmatically) assess the value of philosophy.

(6) While philosophy is difficult, and often controversial, it does not follow that it is "all just a matter of opinion".  Some opinions are more reasonable, or better grounded, than others.  Even if it turns out that there are multiple internally-coherent ways to think about the world, given the evidence available to us, our initial thoughts on a topic tend to be so riddled by implicit inconsistencies that philosophical thinking can allow us, individually, to make a great deal of progress in improving the coherence of our world views.

(7) Philosophy, as a collective enterprise and academic discipline, makes progress by identifying and resolving common inconsistencies, clarifying what the implications of various positions really are, or which claims do (or don't) rationally support each other.


  1. Hi, this is a great list, but I have reservations concerning the first point: Descartes' dictum is a metaphysical assertion, concluding from a logical process to an assertion about existence - which is the way Locke, Hume and Kant understood it. See the first part of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, or Kant's work on rational psychology in the Critic of Pure Reason.

  2. I think (3) often tends to be the fault of philosophers, who occasionally let thought experiments into the wild without taking the trouble to explain or even sometimes investigate the underlying motivation or structure; it's a lazy and dangerous habit, and makes philosophy indistinguishable from sophistry for someone who doesn't already know what's going on. But it's certainly true that we would all be better off if everyone recognized that these things are not just said in order to play games, but to isolate questions, possible answers, potential lines of argument and inquiry, etc.

    One thing that I wish everyone knew about philosophy is that evidence does matter a great deal to philosophical argument -- it's just that sometimes the very question is how it does so, or the evidence might be very general or very abstract. (I tend to be sensitive to this because the kind of philosophy I do, history of philosophy, is extremely evidence-oriented -- if you study arguments themselves and how they work in context, you can't go around assuming you already know or understand an argument or position, but have to assess it by evidence and analysis and one is always being surprised at what falls out when you start considering whether an argument given by so-and-so really requires such-and-such assumption, or whether an objection to an argument is actually going astray because of a verbal confusion about modalities, etc. It's very far from being just evidence-gathering, but the evidence is relevant at every single stage. And there are certainly other fields of philosophy that are equally evidence-oriented, like philosophy of science, but I think a close examination shows that it's true of all philosophical fields to a greater or lesser degree.)

  3. What is the evidence for 2?

    (I'm serious. I used to think philosophical training — and training in logic in particular — improved reasoning more than other forms of education/training, but every time I have looked at the empirical literature on this, I find that the results are inconclusive. Further, the few promising results -- including my own findings -- do not rule out selection effects (e.g., the people who study logic were already better at reasoning). So I am beginning to wonder if 2 is just one of philosophers' fantasies. Further discussion of this at DailyNous: )

    1. I guess my worry about (2) is not based on experimental results, but my experience of philosophical training and my observations of other who have and are receiving similar training. There is a difference between knowing how to reason, and actually applying such reasoning skills in other situations. My experience was that learning logic and critical reasoning was one thing, but behaving in accordance with such knowledge was something quite different.

    2. That logic can be helpful is a very weak claim. It may be verified by any instance in which one takes care to distinguish modus tollens from affirming the consequent, for example.

    3. Weak, indeed. In fact your example is almost tautological. It sounds like using logic can help one use logic. Or maybe, using logic can help one not not use logic. Thanks for clarifying.

      Aside: someone on Twitter points out: "it says people are bad at reasoning and logic can help with that. Tis true: logic makes you better at bad reasoning." :)

    4. I'm a little confused by the skepticism about 2. Is the claim that people who study philosophy are already aware of the fallacies of reasoning that philosophy could teach them, and so philosophy does not teach them anything? That's almost surely false. Or is the claim that knowing what forms of reasoning are fallacious does not make people even slightly less prone to reason fallaciously or to be able to identify fallacious reasoning? Finally, maybe the claim is that avoiding fallacies and identifying instances of fallacious reasoning more reliably than one did before studying philosophy does not imply that one is a better reasoner. I don't see how this is a plausible claim. I'm guessing you mean the second thing, but I'd like to hear more about the empirical evidence.

    5. It is (closest to) the second: "knowing what forms of reasoning are fallacious does not make people even slightly less prone to reason fallaciously or to be able to identify fallacious reasoning."

      To be clear, a student might be better at applying avoiding and identifying fallacious reasoning soon after learning to do so or in the same context in which they learned to do so (e.g., in class), but the evidence that learning to avoid and identify fallacious reasoning has a lasting or domain-general effect (if you can even call that an effect) is lacking.

      When we compare those who take a philosophy course v. those who take a philosophy + logic course v. those who take a critical thinking course (without logic or philosophy), we find that there are not significant differences in reasoning capacity. There is *some* evidence that taking a philosophy + argument mapping course (without logic) confers better reasoning capacity than other course offerings, but even this is based on samples that are insufficient for a conclusive verdict. You might want to know more about what we mean by "reasoning capacity." For details about this and other things, see Huber and Kuncel's "Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A meta-analysis"

      Finally, until we randomly assign students to courses and control for (a) each logic/philosophy courses' content and (b) students' other courses' content, we are not in a good position to know whether philosophy and/or logic curriculum (as opposed to other factors) improve reasoning in some unique, long-lasting, or otherwise interesting way.


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