Saturday, February 16, 2008

Examples of Solved Philosophy

Given my complaints about the perennial accusation that philosophy never settles anything, I figure it'd be worth offering some examples of philosophical knowledge. (Nothing is for certain, of course, but I think that the following claims are at least as well-established as most scientific results.) Feel free to add you own examples in comments.

1. Knowledge does not require certainty. But nor does justified true belief suffice.

2. Psychological egoism is false: it is possible to act from non-selfish desires, i.e. for some good other than your own welfare.

3. Rational egoism is false: we are not rationally required to always and only act in our own self-interest.

4. (E.g. Moral) Principles may take situational variables into account without thereby sacrificing their claim to objectivity.

5. The question whether God actually exists is independent of the question whether there is genuine normativity ("ought"-ness).

6. Valuing tolerance needn't lead one to moral relativism. (Quite the opposite.)

7. Red herrings may (and black ravens may not) constitute evidence that all ravens are black.

8. It's not analytic (true by definition) that cats are animals. But it is metaphysically necessary: there is no possible world containing a cat that is not an animal.

Slightly more controversial (but still extremely well-supported, IMO):

9. "Common-sense" morality, with its agent-relative ends, is self-defeating.

10. Capitalism is not intrinsically just. (Libertarianism must be defended on consequentialist grounds, if any. Those who think otherwise are confused about the nature of property and coercion.)

11. It is possible for desires (or ultimate ends) to be irrational. So there is more to rationality than just instrumental rationality.

12. One may be harmed by events that took place prior to their coming into existence.

And those are just the examples I found from a cursory glance through my archives. What else would you suggest?


  1. 1. One can find in logic a host of philosophically interesting theses that have been conclusively demonstrated. I have in mind the decidability, computability, soundness, and completeness theorems of various systems.
    2. The logical (but perhaps not the evidential) argument from evil is a philosophical failure.

    Some (more) controversial examples:

    3. Moral responsibility doesn't require alternate possibilities.

    4. Knowledge doesn't require access to the grounds of justification or warrant; it has yet to be settled whether these grounds must be internal to the knower.

    And's an even more controversial example (but one that I think has still been conclusively demonstrated):

    5. Free will is incompatible with determinism.

  2. To complement Andrew's #5 I would add that the kind of ultimate responsibility desired by free-will libertarians is incoherent anyhow. But let's try to keep the focus on less controversial theses :-)

  3. Counter arguments would be

    sounds like it is a matter of word definitions.

    2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10
    sound like philosophers filling in a hole that they dug in the first place.

    also questions of ethics imply that there is indeed a meaningful true answer to an ethical question. i.e. is X the right thing to do. Many would say that is more or less disproven.

    not clear how much use this is.

    not clear how much use and related to word definitions

    can't think of anything

    11, 12
    common sense?

  4. Yeah, I agree that most of my examples are simply corrections to philosophical errors that the untutored might easily fall into. But I don't see that as any sort of objection. Given that laypeople commonly do espouse these false philosophical beliefs, it's noteworthy that philosophers are able to conclusively refute them. It shows that philosophical questions can be settled.

    P.S. I don't think any of my examples presupposed moral realism, or any other contentious meta-ethical theses. They're mostly logical points, about what certain [perhaps mistaken] moral views do or do not entail.

  5. Perhaps at the risk of exposing my philosophical ignorance, I can think of a couple (I had a third flash through my mind, but now I've lost it!).

    (1) That rationalism is false.

    (Taking rationalism be the position that we can gain knowledge of matters of fact through intuition and reason alone, independently of information we receive through our senses. So defined, rationalism seems false, with the exception of perhaps the laws of logic and arithmetic which seem to describe general features of the world?)

    Hume's Fork establishes this. Conceptual analysis on relations of ideas can only tell us how we think, not what what the world outside our minds is like.

    (2) That meaning rationalism is false.

    A corollary of (1), but not clearly seen until Ruth Millikan. With respect to empirical concepts, we cannot tell whether such concepts are empty, equivocal, or redundant.

    But Richard, I must confess that, though I agree with many of the positions listed here (including mine), I'm just not sure whether that's because the positions have actually been solved, or because most philosophers now just agree on those positions, and disagreement with the majority will simply mean ostracization.

  6. Erratum:

    With respect to empirical concepts (like your thought about jade), you cannot tell whether such concepts are empty, equivocal, or redundant, whether they latch onto anything in the world, simply by thinking them.

  7. OK, just recalled the third:

    (3) It's false that all necessary truths have to be known a priori.

    Logical positivists tended to assume that analytic truths, necessary truths, and truths known a priori were a package deal. Then Kripke came along, and showed that there can be necessary truths known a posteriori. (Though there have been critics... I recall Sidelle, for one.)

  8. Boram, your #1 is still hotly disputed, by Bonjour and other believers in the a priori. Indeed, if anything, I would think it is extreme empiricism (anti-rationalism) that is demonstrably false. But this is too controversial to pursue in this thread.

    Your #3 seems fine (cf. my #8): I think even conventionalists like Sidelle grant the basic claim; they simply dispute the philosophical significance that essentialists would read into it (cf. this discussion).

  9. Nothing is for certain, of course, but I think that the following claims are at least as well-established as most scientific results.

    This claim is highly problematic. Scientific results are generally taken to be lawlike universal generalizations. To take just your first example, there are lots of people for whom the central gettier intuition (luck destroys knowledge) does not hold. Say what you want about these people, but you are faced with either:

    1) Accepting that they constitute genuine "counterexamples" and therefore that the universal generalization "JTB is not knowledge" is not universal at all, or

    2) Providing some criterion of what WOULD constitute a counterexample to the generalization.

    To save your position, you'd have to go with (2), but I simply cannot see how such a criterion can be provided outside of the core intuitions about knowledge that actual human beings have.

    If not such criterion is forthcoming, the generalization is not falsifiable and is therefore simply not analogous to scientific results.

  10. Epictetus,

    (1) Philosophy isn't science. (Neither is mathematics.) It may yield knowledge nonetheless.

    (2) re: conflicting intuitions: I take the view that those who deny the Gettier intuition either (i) haven't understood the case; or - more likely - (ii) have a subtly different concept ('knowledge2') from the rest of us. (Again, I discuss this sort of thing more here.) This follows from certain views I have in the philosophy of language. Admittedly, it makes the claim in #1 less interesting. I think that #8 is also less remarkable than sometimes thought. The remaining 10 examples are all more substantive, however.

  11. Hi Richard,

    If "philosophy isn't science", then by virtue of what can you claim that its results are as "well-established" as scientific laws?

    To be clear, I absolutely agree that philosophical "results" should not be subjected to the same standards that empirical science does, for the simple reason that scientific practice necessarily operates under far more numerous unquestioned axioms than philosophy does. That just makes it easier to "establish" things.

    But if you'd modify your claim to something like "these philosophical results, while still contested, are about as good as we're going to get in such an open-ended mode of enquiry" it would seem far more plausible.

  12. But the majority of my examples (e.g. that psychological egoism is false) are not any more contested than scientific theories. There's the odd quack who affirms egoism, and plenty of laypeople who simply haven't considered the issue in any depth, and that's also the situation regarding (e.g.) creationism. I meant to claim that I am every bit as confident in these philosophical claims as I am in our best scientific theories (and rationally so). So it would be misleadingly weak for me to water down my claims as you suggest.

  13. Fair enough, I wouldn't want you to misrepresent yourself, but surely the issue here is the basis of that confidence. If the confidence is not well-supported, then it cannot be used to support the claim that these results are as well-established as scientific laws which do not admit of exceptions!

    Take the idea that agent-relative morality is self-defeating. As a generalization, this may be true. As a universal, however, it is patently false. Several egomaniacal African dictators who both lived solely for their own purposes and died rich, happy and surrounded by luxury are simple counterexamples, but there will be countless more.

    Now, if you just mean that "under certain carefully controlled game-theoretic conditions, instrumental rationality is self-defeating", this is obviously true. But I took your claim to be something more, something general about moral life. In virtue of what can you be as confident about this moral claim as you are about, say, the laws of thermodynamics?

  14. I think a lot of philosophical knowledge takes a more negative form by setting limits on what we can believe. My favorite example of this is Hume's critique of previous theories of causation. Once he is done it is pretty clear that any new theory of causation worth considering must not make those same mistakes.

  15. Richard, you should keep collecting these. They would make a good paper (with short explanations after each one, explaining the reasoning and major citations). You could start with a static web page (which lots of us would love to refer to) and publish it when you get enough good examples. Richard Sharvy's paper contains a few more:

  16. "The question whether God actually exists is independent of the question whether there is genuine normativity ("ought"-ness)."

    This is wildly controversial. To say that it's as well-settled as most scientific propositions is ludicrous. I admit that it's pretty easy to demolish the crudest forms of this position (namely, that God arbitrarily sets the rules, and whatever those rules say is what's right and wrong), but it's not being sufficiently charitable to conclude that God can't possibly have anything to do with right and wrong.

  17. John, the claim is not that "God can't possibly have anything to do with [what particular actions happen to be] right and wrong" (a claim of first-order ethical theory), but that the question whether God exists is independent of whether there is such a thing as right and wrong (a meta-ethical issue). Many people claim, in their confusion, that there can be no morality without God -- that his existence is a precondition for normativity. This is a common view, and one that is demonstrably false -- just follow my link.

    This metaethical claim is "wildly controversial" only in the sense that evolution is, i.e. it is disputed by people who don't know what they're talking about. I am quite content to have examples that are as well established as the theory of evolution.

  18. Here's one for your list: Vitalism is false. This was proved by scientists who determined the chemical nature of living cells, rather than philosophers.
    Another one: memory has a physical basis. Also solved by scientists.

  19. Though those seem to be empirical rather than distinctively philosophical problems, so not really the sort of thing I'm looking for.

  20. And's an even more controversial example (but one that I think has still been conclusively demonstrated):

    5. Free will is incompatible with determinism.

    I don't see how anyone could reach this conclusion. Quite the opposite. If free will is a property of people, and we can demonstrate that people are governed by some deterministic subset of natural laws, then free will must be compatible with determinism.

    You could argue then that free will is something people therefore don't have, but there are two counter points:

    1. Free will as so defined is useless to us. It corresponds to some hypothetical free entity that may or may not even be possible (impossible if natural laws are deterministic, for instance).
    2. Free will as so defined is either self-defeating or irrelevant: this sort of free will reduces to some deterministic algorithm + some random variable accounting for free choice. But if the random variable influenced a decision, then a person is not responsible for their choice since their choice was necessarily random, and will not make the same choice even given the exact same circumstances. Thus, the person is responsible for their choice only to the extent that it was deterministic! In other words, determinism is the only way to account for blame, in which case a definition of free will requiring non-determinism either yields contradiction because blame cannot be assigned, or is a red herring in questions of responsibility, in which case free will is completely irrelevant, ie. an academic definition of a property that has no meaningful application.

    I'm afraid some form of compatibilism is the only consistent, meaningful view on free will.


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